Chapter 4: Modern Social Imaginaries

This is Taylor’s most detailed and complex chapter yet and my summery will necessarily leave a lot out. I suppose this goes for all of the Chapters I have summarized so far, reading Taylor is like drinking from a firehose. In this chapter Taylor is interested in describing the modern social imaginaries, he gives an extended definition of what he means by social imaginaries on page 171:

 “What I’m trying to get at with this term is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underly these expectations.”

In other words, Taylor isn’t thinking of an intellectual theory of reality, as much as he is thinking of the naive background assumptions which are shared by the whole of society. The social imaginary is factual and normative, that is, it gives us an account of how things go and how they should go. In this chapter, Taylor wants to show how the political theories of Locke and Grotius, and the moral order they prescribe, came to be embedded in the modern social imaginary. Taylor’s account in this chapter, as with the rest of A Secular Age, is concerned to give an account of the historical developments that made those shifts possible, as well as a more existential account of how these shifts transformed our experience. He calls this transformation into the modern social imaginary, the “long march:” 

“…[the] process where by new practices, or modification of old ones, either developed through improvisation among certain groups and strata of the population. (e.g., the public sphere among educated elites in the eighteenth century, trade unions among workers in the nineteenth); or else were launched by elites in such a way as to recruit a larger and larger base (e.g. the Jacobin organization of the “sections” in Paris.) Or alternatively, a set of practices in the course of their slow development and ramification gradually changed their meaning for people and hence helped constitute a new social imaginary (the “economy”). The result in all these cases was a profound transformation of the social imaginary in Western societies, and thus of the world in which we live.” 

Taylor begins his account of this development by considering the modern moral order and the historical conditions in which it arose. In the seventh century, because of the religious wars and the revolutionary foment, political theorists (Taylor singles out Grotius and Locke) found it necessary to develop political theories grounding society in Natural Law, rather than religion. Grotious drew his political theory from the nature of human beings as “rational, sociable agents who are meant to collaborate in peace for their mutual benefit.” Taylor summarizes the broad outlines of the new moral order: 

“The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity, against a certain pre-existing moral background with certain ends in view. The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations towards each other. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important.  

This moral order is prior to the political order, it is what undergirds it and gives it its legitimacy. Its important to note that this theory of the moral order, as theorized by Grotius and Locke, is pre-political, it is both a theory of what a political order is and how it should be. For this reason, this moral order can be used either to legitimate the established political order—as Grotius did—or to promote revolution—as Locke did. This moral order exists at the level of theory, and is not perfectly instantiated in reality, it remains a goal to which we must strive to align our societies to. 

Taylor contrasts the modern moral order with the premodern moral orders, he finds four points of departure. First, the premodern society conceived of itself as a complimentary hierarchy in which everyone had its place. The peasants below the Lord, the Lord below the king, this was “the order of things” and a certain order must prevail or chaos and cosmic backlash will ensue. By contrast, the modern moral order begins with individuals and conceives of society as existing to promote mutual benefit. Second, because the premodern moral order was seen as the natural order of things, it exists to maintain and uphold this order. The highest virtue was for each place on the hierarchy to fulfill his or her station to the best of their ability. As Taylor writes the “service” which society “renders to all its members” is the right standing towards the order of things, “bringing them the condition of their highest virtue.” The modern moral order, by contrast, is judged instrumentally: “Political society enables those individuals to serve each other for mutual benefit; both in providing security, and in fostering exchange and prosperity.” Virtuous living is what makes this order of mutual benefit possible. Third, freedom is central to the modern moral order. Political legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the individual and the political order exists to secure rights and freedoms. Finally, equality rather than hierarchy. These rights and freedoms are (hypothetically, ideally or in the future) for all individuals. These four features of the moral order—individualism, promotion of “life and the means to life”, freedoms/rights and equality—are, “the crucial features, the constants that recur in the modern idea of moral order.” 

For the rest of the chapter, Taylor zooms in on “three important forms of self-understanding” that are “crucial to modernity” and represent the “transformation of the social imaginary by the Grotian-Lockean theory of moral order.” The three features Taylor deals with are the economy, the public square and the sovereign people. The reader should keep in mind, even if it’s not always made explicitly clear in what follows, that Taylor is talking about the ‘Modern Social Imaginary,’ and not necessarily political reality. There is eventually more convergence between social imaginary and political reality, but the gap remains in place. An obvious example of this is that while in slave owning America, individualism and egalitarianism was part of the social imaginary; this was not reflected in the political reality. Similar things could be said about our contemporary political realities. It is part of Taylor’s point to say that political shifts are often (though not always) made possible by shifts in the social imaginary. By attending to the social imaginaries of the modern age, we can gain an appreciation of the contingency and constructed nature of our own naive experience of the world. 

Taylor begins his discussion of “economy” by exploring what he calls “hidden hand factors”: “I mean by this actions and attitudes which we are “programmed” for, which have systematically beneficent results for the general happiness, even though these are not part of what is intended in the action or affirmed in the attitude.” The classic example of this kind of “hidden hand factor”, Taylor notes, is Adam Smith’s theory that our individual pursuit of wealth leads to general prosperity. We each peruse our own ends and thereby ensure the prosperity of the whole: “the crucial thing in the new conception is that our purposes mesh, however they divergent they may be in the conscious awareness of each of us.” Taylor notes that a re-imagining of God’s providence undergrads this new conception of moral order:  God has created the world such that we can discern a “design” for human society that produces mutual benefits. We come to see “economic collaboration and exchange” as the most important purpose of our society: “from that point on, organized society is no longer equivalent to the polity…” Society comes to be seen in economic terms.

There is an objectifying trend in these new ways of conceiving of society. In this new model, society is conceived of as individuals perusing their own ends, which constitutes a new whole governed by rational laws. Society is like any other force in nature in that it is governed by rational laws. We can thus quantify events and features of society and manipulate them towards our desired ends. There is a “bifocal vision” here, on one hand, the rational laws which limit our technocratic designs. On the other, the social models which we use to plan out our ends. Taylor uses the analogy of the engineer: “The engineer needs to know the laws of the domain he is going to work on, just as much as he needs a plan of what he is trying to achieve. Indeed, the second can’t be drawn up unless the first is known.” 

Next, Taylor turns to the “Public Square,” which he defines as: 

“a common space in which members of society are deemed to meet through a variety of media: print, electronic, and also face-to-face encounters; to discuss matters of a common interest; and thus be able to form a common mind about these. I say a “common space”, because although the media are multiple, as well as the exchange which takes place in them, these are deemed to be in principle intercommunicating. The discussion we’re having on television now takes account of what was said in the newspaper this morning, which in turn reports on the radio debate yesterday, and so on. Thats why we usually speak of the public sphere, in the singular.” 

To draw out the significance of the public square as a modern phenomenon, Taylor contrasts two types of common space, topical and meta-topical. A topical common space is where people physically come together to peruse a common end, for example, to see a movie, attend a party, or watch a football game. By contrast, a meta-topical space transcends physical space and is the bringing together of diverse media and locations into one large conversation. Taylor summarizes: “we might say that it knits together a plurality of such [topical] spaces into one larger space of non-assembly.” The Public Square is not the only such meta-topical space, Taylor gives the example of the Church and the State, but there are other features that do make it unique. We will discuss those later. Taylor sees the public square as emerging from the new political theories in two ways. First, because, like the new Grotian-Lockean moral order, it stands outside of, and apart from the polity, Second, the emphasis on freedom and thus consent of the governed, in the new political theories, places a new emphasis on public opinion. Public opinion becomes increasingly important for governments because it is seen as enlightened and sovereign. The rulers would be wise to listen to public opinion and are both morally bound to listen. Taylor moves to describe the role that the public square plays in the new political order. Because it stands outside of, and is separate from political power, those in power should head the public opinion and allow themselves to be kept in check by it. This was unique: “What was new, of course, was not that there was an outside check, but rather the nature of this instance. It was not defined as the will of God, or the Law of Nature (although it could be thought to articulate these), but as a kind of discourse, emanating from reason and not from power or traditional authority.” The public square is what enables society to “come to a common mind,” it is a “discourse of reason outside of power which is nonetheless normative for power.”

Taylor then moves on to describe what the Public Square has to be, in what way it has to function in order to play the unique role it does. Taylor notes two key features which make the public square so unprecedented. First, it is an association of people not brought together by a political structure, it is extra political. It exists beyond a single state, and indeed, can be international. Second, the public square is in an interesting sense, secular. What Taylor means by this is that it is not grounded in or constituted by anything transcendent or prior, be it some primordial Law or great chain of being. The public square just is the exchange of ideas; the structures, or media by which it takes place are irreverent, they can be modified and we would still have a public square. Things are different for a premodern society, this needs to be spelled out. The premodern tribal society (Taylor’s example) does of course have something like a public square. People do communicate through a variety of media, and these can change, to some degree. Taylor’s example fleshes this out: 

“…there are certain newspapers, television networks, publishing houses, and the rest. We act within the channels that these provide. Is this not rather analogous to any member of a tribe, who also has to act within established structures, of chieftainships, councils, annual meetings, and the rest? Of course, the institutions of the public sphere change…But not tribe remains absolutely fixed in tis forms; these too evolve over time.” 

But the difference between the public square and these premodern societies is that the structures within which they communicate are essential to the tribe, and if they ceased to exist, the tribe would die with it: “The abolition of the law would mean the abolition of the subject of common action, because the law defines the tribe as an entity. Whereas a public square could start up again, even where all media had been abolished, simply by founding new ones.” The tribe is constituted by a transcendent Law, given at at a time immemorial. What constitutes a premodern society is something which transcends common action—be it a tribal Law, the great Chain of Being etc.—that, if abolished, would spell the end of the existence of the society. By contrast, the Public Square merely is the common action of rational discourse. The significance of the Public Square is that it is the emergence of a new, unprecedented, entirely secular “meta-topical common agency,” in other words “an agency grounded purely on its own common actions.” Taylor ends this section by summarizing what the Public Square is: “It was a new meta-topical space, in which members of society could exchange ideas and come to a common mind. As such it constituted a meta-topical agency, but one which was understood to exist independent of political constitution of society and completely in profane time.” 

Taylor turns to the final feature of the modern social imaginary, the democratic society. Taylor notes how the emergence of homogeneous secular time makes it possible to conceive of an equal “direct access society.” Of course, this needs to be spelled out. In the pre-modern experience, there was secular (of the age) time, and higher time. Secular time was punctuated by “higher time,” for example, a feast day was a sacred time which connected us more intimately with eternity. Time was then, not a succession of simultaneous events as we experience time, but punctuated with eternity: “As long as secular time is interwoven with various kinds of higher time, there is no guarantee that all events can be placed in unambiguous relations.” There were also persons, those higher on the hierarchy, who were closer to eternity and higher time. Thus in the premodern experience, time was punctuated by eternity, places and people in power more intimately related to higher time. The homogeneous secular time of modernity, puts us all on an equal plane of time, we are all connected through our simultaneity in secular time. The radical levelling of modernity, where there is only homogeneous secular time and individuals, leads to a horizontal, egalitarian direct access society. I as a citizen belong directly to the whole of the nation, and am related directly and equally to any one of my fellow citizens. (We are thinking here not of fame, wealth, and power, but of individual rights.) By contrast, in the hierarchical medieval society, there is not the same kind of “direct access,” the peasant belongs to his Lord, the Lord to the King. In modernity: “my fundamental way of belonging to the state, is not dependent on or mediated by another of these other belongings. I stand, alongside all my fellow citizens, in direct relationship to the state which is the object of our common allegiance.“ Taylor sees this modern social imaginary of the direct access society as emerging from the two other social forms he described:

 “This has come through the rise of the social forms which I have been describing: the economy and the public square: “the public sphere, in which people conceive of themselves as participating directly in a nation wide (sometimes even international) discussion; market economics in which all economic agents are seen as entering into contractual relations with others on an equal footing, and of course the modern citizenship state.” 

This direct access society is a feature of the modern individualism and egalitarianism. I see myself as participating in nation wide (and beyond) experiences, conversations, actions and so on. Taylor writes:

 “We can think of other ways as well in which immediacy of access takes hold of our imaginations. We see ourselves in spaces of fashion… taking up and handing on styles. We see ourselves as part of a worldwide audience of media stars…something of the same kind, along with more substantial mode of participation, is available in various movements, social, political, religious, which are a crucial feature of modern life, and which link people trans-locally and internationally into a single collective agency.” 

This produces a much more homogeneous society than the hierarchical premodern society. Our social imaginaries shared much more broadly along different classes of society. 

4 thoughts on “Chapter 4: Modern Social Imaginaries

  1. tried to read this since I’m familiar with taylor. It’s too dense for me. Or learning curve or something.

    Seems like a nice blog but I can’t follow the 9 or so new concepts laid out here, even if I am familiar with them



    1. Sorry to hear that, Taylor’s book is like that, every chapter builds on the one before and he keeps introducing new vocabulary. It helps if you have a sense of the whole. All I can advise you is to start at the first summery.

      After this series is through, I might do a summery of the whole book in one post, that might be easier to get into.


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