Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries – Things you do without thinking about why you do them; or, things you do and why you think the way you do about why you do them

Written by: on January 27, 2014

What “makes” you think the way that you do?  What orientations do you typically adhere to without even considering that you do so?  What subconsciously drives your thinking and your actions?  Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries explores facets of these very questions.

Taylor, suggests that ideas drive actions which lead to the creation of forms (the amalgamation of the combination of multiple and related ideas and actions combined over time) which produce further related (read “constrained” as well here) ideas and actions until the beginning notion that one’s way of life originated from a particular perspective is all but lost and it becomes “just the way it is” and/or “that’s just how we’ve always done it.”

In the beginning of Taylor’s text it’s interesting to me that he chooses to focus on Hugo Grotius while leaving out reflection on a rather less affirming figure of human soiciability – namely, Thomas Hobbes.  Like Taylor, I lean toward a Grotian perspective overall.  However, in a text taking its departing point for theory and dialogue based on affirmative socio-political communal interaction arising from Grotius (and Locke), I think that it would have been beneficial to at least affirm an understanding of one of the major competing theorists of the same era to give the content more robust undergirding.  Taylor does later briefly allude to Rousseau and Marx and the ongoing possibility of revolution in relation to the ideal when the ideal proves to be less than its ideal.  However, I see a bit more emphasis on the utopian nature of the dreams of the modern over the costs incurred to establish a “modern social imaginary.”

So, a modern social imaginary, among other aspects, for Taylor becomes a form of ought,  a “moral order” or moral ordering which becomes “hermeneutic” and “prescriptive.”  That is, once that which is initially dreamed becomes broadly commonplace with enough people for long enough, it loses some of its ephemerality and takes on the corporality of lived experience.  The shadows of dreams take on the substance of people acting out their particular interpretation of the imaginary to the point that it eventually becomes difficult to remember that the society one is participating in enacting is the historical emanation of what was once but an idea birthed within the psyche of another human being somewhere.  People tend to allow to pass from active consciousness the fact that what is once was not.

In many ways the most powerful aspect of Taylor’s defining of our social/personal imaginaries is its pervasive foreground and background, all-encompassing aspect that exists beyond the specific characteristic of any set of facts.  One cannot ever exactly, fully, comprehensively define a social imaginary.  This is an aspect of its power.  There is always room for a shifting of its enactment, room for a reinterpretation or revisioning of its ideal constructs.  Major revisions of course take significant, even seismic or cataclysmic events and subsequent need for existential recalibration on major portions of the population.  Yet, microshifts, microrecalibrations occur on ongoing bases.  However, the point is that it is the existential, non-empiric, fluid, nature of the imaginar(y/ies) that empowers it and gives it its longevity.  As well, people lives, their safety, their own sense of self, their ease, etc. becomes tied-up in maintaining this imaginary that they often don’t even know they are part of.

Of course, not everyone does well in all social imaginaries.  However, even those who are more marginalized sometimes begin to take certain pride in their marginalization through the establishment of cultures critical to the entrenched wealthy/elite/powerful status quo.  These critical cultures become part of the larger social imaginary and play their own particular role in the overarching drama.  Or, those who are marginalized, participate through dreaming the same dreams and living for the hoped for same results.  They also seek to “climb the ladder” that has been popularly imagined.

Overarchingly, Taylor discusses the themes of the imaginaries of modernity in the text through breaking them down into essentially socio-economic, the socio-political (the public) and the socio-personal/private (self-governance) spheres.  And he not fully, but strongly sets up the distinction between modernity functioning on profane/secular orientations as opposed to the pre-modern sacred/religious time.  Ironically enough, he suggests that Protestantism led us to such secularization.

Overall, it’s a good, helpful read.  There’s some pieces missing at points, but it’s a short text (unlike some of his other work which runs much closer to a 1000 pages).  Yet, for me, as much appreciation as I have for the text and enjoyment of having walked through a good bit of history currently applied, I feel as if I just read some version of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or some other such text that talks about epochs, paradigms, eras, worldviews and all the complexities that accompany their interactions.  So, was it good? Yes.  Did I find it theoretically groundbreaking? No.  Did I gain a bit of further insight, was reminded of some important principles, and garnered some new, descriptive terminology? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes.

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Clint Baldwin

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