Modern Social Imaginaries

By Mark Heffernan

A review of Modern Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor

Published on April 1, 2004

Modern Social Imaginaries
Charles Taylor

Public Planet Books
$18.95
paper
184pp
0-8223-3293-0

Charles Taylor’s new book continues his project of erudite investigations into the origins of the modern sense of self. The social imaginary in which this self partakes is described as the “common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” With his schematizing style, in which he organizes a vast array of historical, literary, philosophical, and sociological information (as in his Sources of the Self), Taylor demarcates a number of the idealogical influences (Grotius, Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau) and historical changes (the early Christian idea of individual salvation, the development of civility in the warrior/noble class, and the liberation of commercial forces), which have led to the toppling of authoritarian political structures and the emergence of the non-ideological influence of popular sovereignty. Since the Second World War, a new “notion of rights as prior to and untouchable by political structures becomes widespread,” a process which concludes an important chapter in the “long [historical] march” that wins through to modern individualism.

Taylor’s trust in this development expresses hope in humanity, a hope that is dependent on his historical perspective and is deductive rather than existential in character. The novel constellation is described as “a moral order underlying the political, which the political has to respect.” Taylor personally identifies with the liberating force of this nascent self, as it demands its rights and liberties in Tiananmen Square or behind a picket line. By extension, he understands and approves of the Western status quo of well being, and skips lightly over the reactions to it that have troubled so many philosophers, from Schopenhauer to Sloterdijk. When Theodore Adorno, in a 1969 radio broadcast about his experiences in the US, referred to the “peaceableness, good-naturedness, and generosity” of its people, he was quick to add that any modern society has a tendency to veer towards totalitarian domination. Taylor does warn against “our sense of civilizational superiority,” but this is a mild rebuke when measured against the hypocrisy that Chomsky has spent more than three decades documenting.

Taylor’s prediliction for a deductive or logical optimism leads him to envelop the Zeitgeist (or lack of it) in a benign cloud of acceptance. He describes the public space (of fashion) in which “it matters to each of us as we act that others are there as…codeterminers of the meaning of our action.” Where does this metaphor of space, with its connotations of emptiness, come from? Doesn’t it emerge when the spirit of a culture has vanished? “If my hat,” he says, “can express my particular kind of cocky yet understated self-display, this is because of how the common language of style has evolved among us up to this point.” The structural description is accurate; what’s missing is the visceral or aesthetic reaction. One is reminded of Melville’s Ishmael, who goes to sea whenever he finds himself gripped by the urge to knock people’s hats off, or of the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment who, at the antipodes of optimism, claimed that “pseudo-individuality reigns…the self is a socially conditioned monopoly commodity…reduced to the moustache, the French accent…”

The author’s breadth of learning and humanistic disposition constitute a rare fusion of qualities in the current climate of intellectural warfare, where philosophers, like superpowers, are armed to the teeth with complex conceptual equipment. But it would surprise this reviewer if no one had noticed a paradox in his method: that in treating this nascent self – one of the defining characteristics of which is its “sensibility” – Taylor uses the “objective” methods of history and sociology. I believe Kierkegaard and Nietzcshe, who started the revolt against historicism, would protest. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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