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a superficial and weightless philosophy
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 . . . ."