MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES BY CHARLES TAYLOR
Charles Taylor, the Canadian, is one of the most famous and influential philosophers from the English speaking world. He has a great name for the strides made by him in the realms of political and moral theory, especially in debates about identity formation, secularism, multiculturalism and modernity.
It is widely believed that this book is not an end in itself; on the other hand it is just the beginning. In this book he tries to delve deep and deep in order to reach at the roots of certain ideas that we take as unquestionable truths. Here he examines very minutely the concepts of modernity, religion, the market economy, the public sphere, democracy and the moral order. In this work he adopts his typical “history of ideas” approach in order to discuss the modern way of looking at the world ,he also make us believe that the West and its policies are strongly affected by this particular way of seeing things.
Charles Taylor’s passion for modernity is well known and in a chain of books he has tried to trace the origin of modernity, its character and the dilemmas it presents. He is not only a critic but an interrogator as well and he lays bare before us the instability, the spiritual flatness and dissatisfaction at the heart of the present secular age and he asks for bringing back the ways of understanding the world and the role and status of individual in it, something which the western culture has lost. Taylor, however, is not a diehard lover of the past, his quarrel with modernity has some meaning. He considers modernity something bright and hopeful as well as corrupting. His work is an effort to make us have a thorough understanding of the human possibilities within the moral order of the modern social imaginary-a concept which can be roughly defined as a larger group’s common understanding of what justifies its social arrangements.
Taylor’s “social imaginary” is not a new concept out of the blue sky .Foucault has presented somewhat similar view is his notion of “episteme”. The novelty in Taylor’s idea is the way he amalgamates the scattered thoughts in his different well-known works, Multiculturalism, Sources of Self, The Ethics of Authenticity and The Politics of Recognition. He tells us, by following his “history of ideas” approach how our understanding of the meanings have changed and the moral order of modernity has come into being. In order to understand the moral order of our social imaginary it is very much important to understand what Taylor calls “the long march” to modernity.
From here on Taylor explains to us the emergence of the particular moral order that gives legitimacy to these norms and institutions that make us believe that our way of living, though strongly affected by a distinctive malaise, is the only possible-or at least the cultured way of living.
Taylor believes that four related principles began to emerge in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. First, a belief that while thinking about a social sphere the interest of individual should hold the primary importance and the society must work for the betterment of the individual. This view clashes with the premodern (and Aristotelian) notion, which is also expressed in much Catholic social teachings, that an individual “can be a proper moral agent only when embedded in a larger social whole.” and it give rise to the thinking that, “one can be a fully competent human subject outside of society”. Second, the goal of the political should be the utmost satisfaction of the demands of the ordinary life and the political society should stop caring for strengthening our bonds with some transcendent order. Politics must care to create, for individuals, the “conditions of existence as free agents.” Third, the politics must be organized to defend individual rights. It was beginning to be believed that individuals must be free to chalk out ways for shaping their own lives and the social order .Fourth, freedom of thought and expression, rights and mutual benefit must be distributed to all individuals equally, without any difference.
Taylor believes that the journey to this state of moral order begin with a very long process of disenchantment –the “Great Disembedding”. In conventional societies people were not identified as individuals rather they were identified in relation to others, in a very long chain of being, an organized hierarchical structure that link everybody together
and in the end with God. The humans, the spirit and the physical world were all linked together in a “hierarchical complementary”.
Taylor narrates the multifaceted story of the emergence of the modern moral order through the different stages of Enlightenment, the Reformation and the breakup of the traditional milieu. With the passage of time the “hierarchical complementary” become shattered and there emerged three discreet planets that revolve around the individual: the economy, the first of the social imaginaries in which the liberal moral order comes in to being. Taylor shows that in the seventeenth century the very idea of economy changes. It was no longer seen as the management of the existing resources but rather as a set of interlinked activities and background practices, which serve a mutual benefit and strengthens social harmony .This view help society in understanding that it constitutes itself through its own actions outside the official polity ; the public sphere ,what constitutes the public is nothing but the common action of discussing itself, the institutions ,newspapers , associations and media of various kinds made individuals develop and express their opinions about how economic and political power should be realized in to maturity.; and the people ,the proud owners of sovereignity,who were conscious that from now on they will have the power of bestowing legitimacy to morality ,politics and authority. The moderns were no longer ready to accept God as the fountain-head of all political intelligence. They started believing that the society is no longer heading towards the end of time i.e. the idea of salvation lost its importance for them. Taylor states that the moderns started considering Time as a horizontal entity i.e. the time was no longer accepted as something running towards a particular ending.
A penetrating critical approach make us understand that while multiple modernities is the book’s ostensible problem ,Taylor did not say anything about non-Western societies, or their progress towards modernity. Here, in this work, he offers us a method for a more precise investigation of its development in the West. It seems that he might discuss these and such other problems in some other work.
Tailor’s contrasting views about the modern moral order are well known, and in this work he describes its historical development. The book, however, seems strangely abridged because he does not explain in detail precisely how the new order produced the characteristic maladies of modernity .How aloofness ,meaninglessness and social alienation are triggered by, or associated with , the massive cultural shift toward individual liberty?. In this book it seems that he is more interested in explaining how western culture got to this stage rather than minutely observing the present wretchedness .After reading the Modern Social Imaginaries the reader feels a strong need to know more about what Taylor have in store as an alternative to modernity.
Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Duke University Press, 2004.