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on December 31, 2005
Charles Taylor is one of the Western world's foremost intellectuals and theorists of what is broadly called "modernity" which begins somewhere around the 16th century and continues today, even as it is challenged by so-called "post-modernists". The current work puts the concept of modernity into a theoretical framework which Taylor terms the "social imaginary" (hence the title of the book).

The "social imaginary", broadly speaking, consists of images, stories and legends, is shared by large groups of people, and serves to make possible "common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy" (23). The particularities of the *modern* social imaginary is that "Modernity is secular ... in the fact that religion occupies a different place, compatible with the sense that all action takes place in profane time" (194). The modern social imaginary consists of the objectivity of the economic sphere, the public sphere (which is beyond the control of any particular political or religion interest group) vs. the private sphere (which is the sphere of the family and of religion), and the sovereignty of "the people".

What emerges, then, is a series of fairly thick discussions of political philosophy, economic theory and, yes, theology. Taylor ties modernity to Protestantism for in setting itself against the medieval/catholic worldview of sacred time (feast and fast days with their attendant saints, liturgical seasons) and the broadly accepted idea that the world was enchanted - miracles, angels, demons and saints were all a part of the medieval worldview - time itself became a profane realm such that it would eventually become eclipsed by nationalism with its own local feast days and national saints (patriots, so to speak). The disenchantment of the world, then, is the foundation of the modern social imaginary and all modernities are rooted in this disenchantment.

This disenchantment, however, is by no means the exorcising of the idea of a moral order. What the aforementioned disenchantment serves to do is to root the belief in a moral order in something other than a transcendent realm: nature. Nature, reason and science all serve to metaphysically ground a particular understanding of people - that they are fundamentally reasonable/rational - and, from this, that society must necessarily progress along natural, reasonable lines. This understanding of people makes people sovereign, so to speak, and eventually serves to ground what Taylor sees as the ultimate myth of modernity: the American myth of "We the people..." founding their own political *order*.

This is a brilliant work and, despite its highly theoretical orientation, should be picked up by all who are interested in discussions of moderity, religion, the public sphere, democracy, and the moral order. As an extended discussion of a central section of his Gifford Lectures of 1999, "Living in a Secular Age", it also serves as a tantalizing prelude to Taylor's next book.
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on May 15, 2006
This book is Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (not to be confused with the Liberian ex-dictator of the same name!) at his most concise and accessible. Here he uses his typical "history of ideas" approach to explaining the content of the modern way of seeing the world, one that so profoundly affects the West and its policies yet is so hard to describe.

Taylor's general philosophical project is to attack the idea of Western liberalism as being a "neutral" or "non-ideological" view of the world, and to downplay its role in the formation of modern man. Instead, he proposes a more communitarian view of liberalism, where liberalism is one comprehensive moral doctrine between others, but happens (for historical reasons) to be one that has been very succesful in shaping the mindset of Western man, rather more so than it has been succesful politically.

Taylor also rejects many of the ideas of liberalism itself, in particular the "rights-based" thinking and its concept of the individual's relation to his culture. The former is most clearly seen in his book "Sources of the Self", whereas the latter is most clearly expressed in this work. The modern social imaginary, i.e. the ways in which modern man is capable of seeing the world (which is not the same as the way he sees the world!) is explored from every possible cultural and philosophical angle.

On the whole, his communitarian philosophy tends to be conservative, but rather of the traditionalist conservative kind than of the religiously inspired reactionary kind one sees in the US so much (though Taylor is very catholic). His interests are clearly in defining what makes modernist culture a culture of its own and why it is a historically developed integral whole, not a content-neutral political system as many liberals seem to think it is. Because of this appeal to historicism, Taylor's work is also very useful and interesting for more radical progressives seeking to criticize the liberal's claims to neutrality and autonomy.

On the whole, this booklet (less than 200 pages of content) is an exciting and relatively legible summary of Taylor's views on Western society and where it came from. Recommended to everyone except those who have read Taylor's larger works (especially "Sources of the Self" and "Multiculturalism"), for whom it will perhaps not be as new as it was for me.
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on June 9, 2004
This book seems an extension of Charles Taylor's Tanner Lecture delivered a decade ago on public sphere as a moral value imbedded in Western modernity. Now, he develops an interpretation on three modern imaginary (but real) spheres of market economy, public sphere, and self-governing people, regarding them as different instances in the construction of primary modern morality, 'mutual benefits.' I think this is an important step that seamlessly connects two different philosophy giants-Habermas and Foucault- as well as an original explication of Western modernity. Highly recommended those who interested in themes such as modernity in general, modern construction of market, and public sphere and public opinion.
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on January 29, 2008
I'm glad Taylor wrote this short, concise book. His book Sources of the Self, a long tour through modern Western ideas of the human individual and their implications for moral philosophy, is wonderful and illuminating; but you don't always want to read 800 pages. So this book has the virtue of relative brevity. It also extends Taylor's ideas about Western thought from models of modern selfhood to modern institutions: the market and political self-governance.

But I have to agree with "Squirrel's" comment that this book is not always clear. The sentences are always lucid and graceful. The examples are germane. But Taylor too rarely pauses to explain the implications of this analysis (as he does very beautifully in Sources of the Self). Unless you already know the larger framework of Taylor's philosophy, it can be hard to puzzle out exactly why he has been going on about a given topic. I tried to use this book in a graduate course, but most of the students had difficulty detecting what was at stake in Taylor's arguments.

This is a case where one might wish a short book were just a bit longer. If Taylor had added even a couple of pages to each chapter, unpacking the larger implications for the way he had just mapped out a given sector of the modern social imaginary, it would have made this a better book. Even so, the map itself is learned and valuable.
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on March 28, 2005
In Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor does what he does best - trace the trajectories of certain ideas that we take as unquestionable truths. In this particular piece, he examines the "imaginaries" of the market economy, the public sphere, and the notion of self-governing people. He then provides a facinating examination of the French Revolution in contrast to the American Revolution to demonstrate how new imaginaries are built upon past imaginaries -- with stunningly different results.

I must say -- one thing that troubles me about Taylor is his writing style. He is often hard to follow. He has a habit of saying there are three points to x, but then not clearly stating what they are. Also, he often goes off on an example that is fascinating -- but it is difficult to know what his point is because he doesn't tie it back to his main argument clearly.

This said - I still think this is an amazing book. I would reccommend keeping his argument in mind as you read his examples because he is so interesting that it is tempting to get lost in them, and lose the argument in the process.
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on April 7, 2013
Inspiring and thought-provoking book about evolution of human thought in the context of rapidly changing political and social environments of the past, present and the future.
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on October 16, 2012
Taylor begins the work of Modern Social Imaginaries by introducing the concept of "`multiple modernities,' the plural reflecting the fact that other non-Western cultures have modernized in their own way and cannot properly be understood if we try to grasp them in a general theory that was designed originally with the Western case in mind[.]" To be fair, Taylor rather politely asks a question, rather than demanding an answer.

Taylor sees teleological progress in what he calls "the long march[.]" This progress has involved a gradual interplay between theory and practice, and he argues forcefully against any "false dichotomy . . . between ideas and material factors as rival causal agencies." From this interplay between elite ideas and ordinary social practice, arises a "modern understanding of moral order[,]" which consists of four main points: 1) an order of "mutual benefit" between individuals; 2) these benefits "include life and the means to life," but are secured through virtue; and 3) the centrality of rights and "freedom" as an expression of this order; and 4) "these rights . . . freedom [and] mutual benefit" are owed "to all participants equally." If the reader is confused by the ambiguity of these four main points comprising this "modern . . . moral order" specific to the Western imaginary, the situation is hardly helped by Taylor's description of the "social imaginary" in general:

"By social imaginary, I mean 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 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."

Taylor claims to be discussing what he calls "broader and deeper" notions of human consciousness. Taylor admits that "[o]ur social imaginary at any given time is complex." To muddy the waters even further, he distinguishes "imaginary" from "theory" by further confessing that "[t]his wider grasp . . . can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines because of its unlimited and indefinite nature." Ultimately, practice and understanding merge in Taylor's imaginary: "If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding."

Taylor admits that our modern understanding does not come without a price; "the number one problem of modern social science has been modernity itself"--our progress in terms of "science, technology, industrial production . . . individualism, secularization, [and] instrumental rationality" are paid for with "alienation, meaninglessness, [and] a sense of impending social dissolution[.]" Yet Taylor's concept of modern order, which begins with the "Natural Law" theories of the seventeenth century, ultimately manages to overcome the "devastating critique" of Nietzsche. Furthermore, Taylor seems convinced that there is some insurance policy against a return of totalitarianism: "Attempts to build a polity around a rival notion of order in the very heart of modern civilization, most notably the various forms of fascism and related authoritarianism, have failed."

Taylor does not seem to group communism or other forms of the "Rousseau redaction" together with the fascist "critique" of the modern moral order, Pol Pot's taste in philosophy notwithstanding. A cheap shot perhaps, but at times Taylor's optimism comes across as overwhelmingly naive; while content to paste Nietzsche on the same page as `fascism and related authoritarianism,' and though admitting "the Jacobin Terror[,] . . . Soviet communism and its offshoots" as part of the "totalitarian temptation," Taylor is reluctant to slander his precious Rousseau--"Does this mean that we are blaming the `excesses' of 1792-94, in particular the Terror, on the ideology espoused by revolutionaries? That would be rather too simple."

Ultimately, whether one can blame ideology for excesses or not, the "Grotian-Lockean theory of moral order" takes the fall for the "three important forms of social self-understanding which are crucial to modernity . . . the economy, the public sphere, and the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule[.]" Here, perhaps, Taylor has identified something concrete and accessible to a popular audience. Most Western moderns can find comfort in Taylor's trinity here, which speaks to the accuracy of its place within Taylor's modern social imaginary. On the other hand, the critics of modernity--and not just Nietzsche--might have something else to say.

Despite giving modernity's critics superficial recognition in their most extreme--and thus most easily dismissed--forms, Taylor for the most part downplays as insignificant the shadow side of his analysis; from the earlier sacred or premodern perspective, or from the perspective of modernity's critics (not all of them Nazis), Taylor's `secular trinity' ("the economy, the public sphere, and the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule") might be thought of (at least metaphorically) as `sex, pornography, and masturbation.' I am reminded of a seminar recently attended, at which Professor John McGinnis remarked that "[i]f politics ever does rise to the level of entertainment, it's better called `show business for ugly people.'" The next step towards an analogy between politics and pornography is not so far, and hardly unheard of as a "critique" of modernity; witness the film Taxi Driver, wherein a casualty of the modern age, a figure as familiar as he is perverse--the mundanely psychotic, anti-heroic and tragicomic Travis Bickle--conflates `politician' with `pimp,' and vice versa.

This relates perhaps to what Taylor calls "the Great Disembedding" of modernity, wherein concepts of individual identity triumph over social belonging, the primacy of ordinary life is asserted over a previous hierarchy of sacred norms, and a new sense of "ordinary" or "secular" time is elevated to a status formerly reserved for the "premodern . . . `time of origins[.]'" Variations on Taylor's secular trinity are reflected in all of these developments, and they are obviously not without their negative counterparts. Taylor paints a vivid picture of modernity's rise in the social consciousness, but what is most intriguing is that Taylor finds himself addressing the primacy of humans rights as central to the Western modern social imaginary.

Though Taylor speaks in terms of "mutual understanding" as a global imaginary, in discussing the Western social imaginary, the direction of his aim is obvious, and indirectly alludes to the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the Western apotheosis in terms of 'human rights': "This whole development reaches its culmination in our time, in the period after the Second World War, in which the notion of rights as prior to and untouchable by political structures becomes widespread--although they are now called "human" rather than 'natural' rights . . . . These declarations of rights are in a sense the clearest expression of our modern idea of a moral order underlying the political, which the political has to respect."

Furthermore, this Western social imaginary has been crucial in defining "a supranational order [that] has itself been gradually transformed over the centuries, until one of its principal defining characteristics has come to be democratic rule and respect for human rights." Interestingly, Taylor seems compelled to lump together "democratic rule" with "respect for human rights." Could it be that secretly he finds "mutual understanding" to be intimately connected with "democratic rule" or "human rights?" Despite the fact that Taylor asks us to conceive of the West as merely one "province" among many in the Modern world, on a theoretical level it seems only a small distance between the Western concept of human rights and "the real positive work . . . of building mutual understanding[.]" On a practical level, however, the distance between human rights and mutual understanding may be fatal, especially on a global scale.

On this global scale, Taylor relegates the West to the status of a province, to the end of promoting "mutual understanding," yet he does not explain how this "provincializing" of Europe will further the cause of human rights. Perhaps Taylor does not, in fact, equate "mutual understanding" with "human rights." Or perhaps mutual understanding may lead to the realization that the two concepts, at least so far as Westerners imagine them, are incompatible. How would one, after all, have come to a "mutual understanding" with the Nazis? How does a feminist come to "mutual understanding" with patriarchal systems? And how can Taylor pretend that "mutual understanding" is possible while the very definition of "human rights" is contested? Taylor admits at least the difficulty of his program when he says that "we lack even the adequate language to describe these differences . . . ."
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on March 23, 2006
Charles Taylor, along with Will Kymlicka, represents Canada's claim to be taken seriously as an intellectual superpower. In this small work, he has brought his immense intellect to bear on the question of how we imagine who we are as members of societies. For students of political theory this is a useful work.
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