Modern Social Imaginaries – Charles Taylor

Modern Social Imaginaries

Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke Univ. Press, 2004.

 This book is full of very provocative questions and arguments about the historical construction of ideal and material orders in the modern Western societies. From ancient philosophical works to modern and pre-modern political economic masterpieces, the author refers to various texts and resources to examine his proposition on modern social imaginaries. What he wants to prove through this book is that there has been great transformation of (images of) moral order from pre-modern to modern society. As he puts in his introduction of the book, his modest aim is “to sketch an account of the forms of social imaginary that have underpinned the rise of Western modernity”(2). Nonetheless, his method is not just focusing on the ideas which were foundations of modern society, and he does not simply advocate the idealistic determinism, in which our modern material lives (institutions, political systems, economy, etc.) are the result of the transformation of the moral order or the social imaginary. Rather, he asserts that the social imaginary is “what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society”(2).

 In order for his theory and method to be plausible, he should confront and go through aporia of idea(form, theory)/matter(institutions, practice) or group (society, community)/individual(subject, agent). What constitutes first and what is constituted as a result? While he tries to evade one-directional solution, and thus to affirm that no one category is dominant or determinant than the other, what he is really doing seems to provide the complex process of embodiment of modern social imaginary. On the one hand, it is “social” because people cannot even imagine their identity outside the society. In other words, modern subjectivity could not just constituted as a free individual agent without imagining themselves in a certain society: “our first self-understanding was deeply embedded in society” and “only later did we come to conceive of ourselves as free individuals first”(64-5). On the other, it is “imaginary” because it is, rather than theoretical or institutional account, about “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings” which might be expressed in “images, stories, and legends.” Most of all, it is “imaginary” since “it is shared by large group of people” as “common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy”(23). In sum, what is important in understanding modernity is to understand complex context of transformation from pre-modern to modern by focusing on the way how ordinary people understood and imagined themselves in their society.

Thus, although all three great mutations of (Western) modern social imaginaries (moral orders) – economy, the public sphere, and popular sovereignty – are significant, the last element might be crucial in understanding the conception of modernity.  In the sense that the modern subjectivity was “invented” as “a new collective agency”(143),  he seems to share the fundamental supposition with Habermas. However, though they do not clearly assert it, I am just suspicious of them in this point: Is the formation of fictitious “interiority” – by recognizing themselves as subjects – the basis for the formation of the public sphere and, furthermore, the emergence of modern society?

For example, he excludes the historical materialist view of Marx’s political economy as “teleological” from his standpoint. 



Reviews that I found thorough Google.



One comment

  1. About the relationship between the “moral order” and the “social imaginaries.” I thought the “images” or “senses” of moral order are the social imaginaries. While the moral order is the idea or law of the society, which is abstract and ideal and exists in the form of theory, the social imaginaries exist materially through people’s practice or self-understanding of the moral order.

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