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Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries.

TAYLOR, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 215 pp. Cloth, $64.95; paper, $18.95--Taylor begins his discussion of modern social imaginaries by contrasting the modern moral order with the premodern. Whereas the premodern moral order was based on a law of people and a cosmic hierarchy mirrored in society, the modern moral order stems from beliefs found in the tradition of natural law from Grotius to Locke that society is (1) an order of mutual benefit between individuals, (2) for the concerns of common life, (3) to secure freedom expressed in rights (4) secured to all participants equally.

That moral orders infiltrate social imaginaries is the focus of Taylor's study. A social imaginary is "the [way] people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (p. 23). Taylor carefully notes that imaginaries are constituted by practices and norms that are both ideal and material; changes occur on both levels.

Taylor finds it helpful to think about the individualism of our modern social imaginary by comparing ancient to axial religions. Ancient religions (1) relate to the divine as a whole, (2) tie religious life inseparably to social life, and (3) focus on human flourishing, while axial religions put human flourishing in its place behind higher values. From his analysis, Taylor distinguishes a formal and material meaning of "social": formally, all human beings are social beings in that they receive their identities from their society, but materially, persons can be taught to be either social or individualistic. Moderns, according to Taylor, mistake the material for the formal.

Three fields are central to modern social imaginaries: the economy, the public sphere, and popular sovereignty. In the chapter on popular sovereignty, Taylor presents his major case for the claim that multiple social imaginaries exist by discussing the differences in trajectories of modern social imaginaries between France and the United States. In each of these discussions, Taylor highlights how modernity is secular, horizontal, and immediate. Modernity is secular in that it defines a new space for God and rejects the notion that political society has some foundation in a transcendent order. It is horizontal in that it rejects the notion that hierarchies in society mirror some cosmic hierarchy. Finally, it is immediate because the individual need not relate to society through the mediation of others. This immediacy, though not always actualized, is normative.

Seeing ourselves as occupying a horizontal, secular, immediate world entails that moderns, at one and the same time, view themselves as engaged in society and yet see social processes as disengaged from human agency. At this point, Taylor importantly describes a fourth characteristic of modernity, namely human rights, viewed as prior to and untouchable by political structures. Further, the horizontal, secular, immediate world of modernity brought with it new conceptions of space and history. Grounded in secular time, changes in polity must be explained through progress, revolution, and nation-building. In this understanding of space and time, the notion of civilization as civility and peace becomes normative. The dark side to this ideal is the exclusion of others and the belief that human beings have lost something important by abandoning the heroic age, which dark side is played out in the Rousseauian search for equal self rule and the Nietzschean rejection of equality for the dominance of the will. Even so, such ideologies as are found in modernity are not only destructive but constitutive of society. Summarizing his point, Taylor holds that, however philosophy eventually answers the question of what binds people to their societies, people must at least imagine that they belong to society for society to survive.

Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries is rich in ideas and histories; yet, it could be more careful in its argument. Taylor fmds it important to reject strictly idealist and materialist explanations of historical change by engaging in a case study of the historical changes in the notion of civility and civilization (chapter 3), but he does not clearly note when the material and the ideal are at work. The notion of practice, on which his discussion hinges, could be more fruitfully discussed and utilized. Further, the discussion of French and American history composes the longest chapter of the book, and yet, the differences between French and American practices of popular sovereignty are often left unexamined. Yet, the work overall is important for its attempt to continue a project which has engaged Taylor for some years now: to investigate the foundations of modernity and to uncover the good and the bad. This book is worth reading for those concerned with ethics, politics, and modernity and rises to the top of Taylor's more recent work.--Jeffery L. Nicholas, Villanova University.
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Author:Nicholas, Jeffery L.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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