Chapter 5: The Spectre of Idealism

In this brief chapter, Taylor wants to defend himself against a possible charge of “idealism;” that his history of the transformation of the social imaginary gives undue causal power to ideas. This is contrasted with materialist explanations, which claim that material motivations (money, power, means to life) are more dominant in history than ideal motivations. Taylor points out that the dichotomy between the material and the ideal is a difficult one to maintain. The practices or institutions we are involved in, only make sense because of a shared social imaginary. Institutions require laws and regulations (ideas) as well as shared conceptions of what it is we are up to.  Bringing new practices or instituations into existence requires a transformation of the social imaginary as well as material conditions. For example, the emergence of Capitalism requires new technologies, eg. “trade, money, banks, book keeping methods, and so on,” but also requires certain shifts in the realm of ideas: “people have to share certain understandings of how they can function with others.” Taylor also gives the example of democratic self rule: 

“When it comes to inaugurating a new political practice, like democratic self-rule, we see many contexts where what is missing is not certain “material” conditions, like mutual proximity of the population concerned, or good communications or what might be thought of as “material” motivations, like anger at royal oppression or exploitation by aristocrats, but rather the issue is a lack of a commonly understood repertory of self rule, as in the cases discussed in the previous chapter.” 

Taylor argues that “there is no empirically-based reason to think that” either material or ideal explanations are always the dominant factor in any given cultural shift: “the weighting between the two can’t be determined a priori, but will be different from case to case.” The ideal and the material causes, on Taylor’s view, are always entangled and in a mutually reciprocal relationship. This is analogous to the approach Taylor takes throughout the book. One one hand he describes the social imaginary and how reality is experienced, on the other, he gives an account of the historical and material conditions in which those existential realities emerged. His story of the emergence of our secular age is precisely such an account: he tells us what it feels like to be living within a secular age, while also showing the historical contingencies that brought about our secular age.  

For the remainder of the chapter, Taylor gives a causal account of how the “moral order” (discussed in chapter 4) could come to “acquire the strength which eventually allowed it to shape the social imaginary of modernity.” Taylor begins by pointing out that the new theories of moral order emerged as a response to the instability of the wars of religion and the emergence of the modern state. Even more specifically, they emerged from the process of what Taylor calls the “taming” of the aristocracy. The aristocrats went from being “semi-independent warlords” to being courtiers, “servants to the Crown/nation.” This, Taylor contends, led to an “altered…self understanding” of the noble class: “it brought with it new models of sociability, new ideals, and new notions of the training required to fulfill their role.” We start to see the emergence of “polite society”, and the old warrior honour code ethic of the aristocratic class was overturned in favour of values more suited to the king’s court. These were the “Courtiers” who strove towards the ideal of “courtesy:” 

“The new gentleman required… a humanistic education which would enable him to become a “civil” governor. The function was now advising, persuading, first colleagues, and ultimately ruling power. It was necessary to cultivate the capacities of self-presentation, rhetoric, persuasion, winning friendships, looking formidable, accommodating, pleasing.” 

So while the aristocrats were trying to remake themselves according to the ideals of courtesy, similar reforms were taking place to remake society according to the ideals of civility.  This movement towards “Reform” was motivated by economic and military interests, desire for social order, as well as by religious reform. Taylor sees a myriad of swirling, interconnected motivations, driving these changes and making the modern social imaginary conceivable:

“At every stage we have an inextricable interweaving of plural motivations: royal governments striving to keep order, those same governments struggling to find the sinews of war, and realizing more and more that they needed economic improvements to get them; new non-noble strata which could rise by serving these royal governments, or by trade; and then of course, there is the powerful impulse given by the drive to Reform itself, which engaged a great many people and frequently commanded changes which were difficult to resist. All these helped advance the changes which gave expression to the ideals.”  

All of this helps to “create a new mental world” in which “the modern ideal of order was at home.” In this soup of motivations and transformations, Taylor sees the emergence of the modern moral order. For him: “The connections and affinities are not hard to trace.” He points to the “quasi-equality” of the aristocratic class, their ideals of civility and society of polite conversation as a way of negotiating power. This “society as conversation” could be pointing towards a “society as mutual exchange” or even “republican self rule.” Even more obviously, the attempts to make over society according to the ideals of civility is already a repudiation of the older moral order of “an ideal Form underlying the real.” There was a developing a “historical” self consciousness, a sense that we are on a path of progress, evolving out of the dark ages, and into the light of civilization: “the eighteenth century generated, new, stadial theories of history, which saw human society developing through a series of stages, defined by the form of their economy: e.g. hunter gatherer, agricultural, etc., culminating in the contemporary commercial order.” 

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