Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Abstract (594 words)
In Modern Social Imaginaries, Taylor provides a theoretical and philosophical perspective on the evolution of Western modernity that interweaves issues related to economics, politics, religion, science, and societal life. Taylor argues that Western modernity cannot be rationalized as a singular phenomenon. Instead, it needs to acknowledge modernization of non-Western cultures and be understood in the context of “multiple modernities”. Taylor hypothesizes that understanding societal practices, its “social imaginary” as he frames it, represents a more insightful means for examining modernity. The social imaginary is inseparable from its respective modernity. Understanding how imaginaries evolve and diverge leads to greater understanding of the issues facing modernity itself.
Taylor’s illustration of a Western social imaginary connects three points: a new moral order, the rise of individual self-awareness, and the emergence of a public sphere. Social imaginaries are influenced by how Taylor views a shifting moral order. As societal practices moved away from command and hierarchy, people formed a new level of self-awareness that previously was inconceivable. Identity formation outside historical social structures (i.e., family, tribe) enabled people to see themselves as free individuals. The disassociation of oneself from one social structure to embrace other possibilities transformed an individual’s “imaginary” regarding what was now possible within their social existence. According to Taylor, the interplay between the social imaginary, moral order and self-awareness gave rise to a new type of social space where people could exchange ideas. This “public sphere” became a locus for interaction that enabled society to form a common mind – a collective opinion that subsequently emerged as a new political force.
Taylor defines the social imaginary as the way people envision their relations to others, their shared norms and ideas of existence, and how that collective sense provides legitimacy to their surroundings. However, for a social imaginary to affect societal change, there are pre-requisites: individuals need to have practices they can employ, and people collectively have to recognize those practices. These co-dependencies of self and community practices within a social imaginary are also intertwined with what Taylor refers to as the “moral order”.
The transition in moral order from command and hierarchy to one based on mutual exchange and benefit established a new type of quasi-equality in society. A more sociable moral order also provided greater legitimacy to a social imaginary. Indeed, a more “civil Western society” shifted focus from political and religious spheres to the economic, with its own market laws and commerce dynamics – dynamics that in turn provided more opportunities for individual identify formation independent of command and hierarchy.
As individuals were able to imagine themselves as being independent of a particular group, that perception also extended to how that individual imagined himself in any type of greater societal order as well. As self-awareness and self-governance became rooted in everyday social life, its impact on Western modernity was long lasting. Taylor often illustrates these dynamics and their influence on in economics, politics, and the public sphere in terms of an emerging collective agency.
In Taylor’s view, the public sphere represents a metatopical space independent of other existing spheres (economic, politic, religious). What makes the public sphere unique, according to Taylor, is that its existence is enabled by the social imaginary. Media (e.g., print, electronic) provides a means for those participating in the public sphere to intercommunicate and make those collective views more widely known. As these exchanges take shape, they can be thought of in terms of “public opinion”. For Taylor, changes in the social imaginary helped bring about the notion of public opinion which itself represented a unique political force in Western modernity.
modernity, social_imaginary, moral_order, identity, networked_publics, charles_taylor