The worlds inside our heads

Somebody once wrote that the most embarrassing of all studies was intellectual history, because it shows how the ideas that you take as simple common sense were once new and implausible, and the agendas of the people who argued for them.

This was my feeling after reading Charles Taylor’s  2004 book, MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES, as part of an informal study group organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.

It is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that they were embedded in a divine hierarchy resting on the animal world and lowest human beings, and reaching up to Heaven in a great chain of being.

It also is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that society is something pre-existing, which people are born into and have to serve as best they can.

Taylor traced the steps by which we came to the present predominant believe, that society consists of separate and independent individuals and exists for their benefit rather than the other way around.

He calls these beliefs “imaginaries” because they form the background of how we perceive our world–a perception that only partly matches up to objective reality, but which we take for granted.

I found his book illuminating and disturbing because it showed me how many of the things I believe in are based on assumptions I can’t prove.

Taylor.Imaginaries978-0We modern Americans take for granted, for example, that religion has to do with individual morality and that each person has the right to choose their own religion.

But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the worship of the gods was something they had to do to avoid the gods’ wrath and seek the gods’ blessings.  The gods didn’t care what individuals thought about them, only that they perform the rituals correctly.  That is why the pagan Romans couldn’t understand the Christians’ refusal to burn incense for the Emperor.

The Hebrew Bible has some teachings about individual morality, but nothing about individual salvation or an afterlife.  Israel as a whole either worshipped God or strayed after false gods, and the nation was rewarded or punished accordingly.

Christianity changed this.   Christians believed they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their individual faith and works, and that lip service to religion wasn’t enough.  Protestantism took this tendency further.  Then freethinkers and rationalists, rather than assuming morality came from religion, questioned religious dogmas and practices in the name of morality.

Many individual Americans and Europeans believe that the ultimate basis of morality is a transcendent religious belief, but American and European societies are not organized around this belief.  Taylor for this reason calls our society “secular”—not because it is hostile to religion, but because it is neutral to religion.

Government was once regarded as part of a divine order.  The patriarchal authority of the father over wife and children was part of the same order as the authority of the king or emperor over his subjects and of God ruling over all.

In feudal Europe, this came to be replaced by the idea of a contractual relationship.  The subjects had certain obligations to the king, the king had certain obligations to the subjects, as defined by ancient customs and laws such as Magna Carta, and then the king was subject to God and sometimes although not always the curch.

And then this came to be replaced by the idea that, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, God-given individual rights were paramount over everything else, and that government was instituted to secure these rights.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor

In medieval Europe, people related to governmental authority through a specific relationship as a vassal to an individual.  In modern Europe, and the USA they consider themselves citizens on an equal footing, with no intermediaries between themselves and national or international authority.

People in ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Europe had no idea of economics in the contemporary sense.  Philosophers taught that there was a “just price”, which was usually the customary price.

Now most Europeans and Americans accept the idea that prices should be set by the law of supply and demand rather than a moral law.

In each of these cases, and in our assumptions about democracy, national sovereignty and public opinion, something that was taken for granted without thought or even awareness was questioned by a small minority of intellectuals, then became a subject for debate and finally became a new social imaginary, partly because it fit in with how things were going technologically, economically and politically.

The overall story, as Taylor told it, is that people in Western civilization have moved from vertical social imaginaries, defined in terms of a social and cosmic hierarchy, to horizontal imaginaries, in which people relate to each other as peers.

We have moved from an imaginary where almost everything in life is a given to where almost everything in life is a choice.  Nowadays even the distinction between male and female is not something determined by biology, but an individual decision.

He is a Catholic, but he did not argue that our “secular” society can or should be changed.  Rather religious people should advocate for their moral beliefs on a the same level as everyone else.   His book however is a subtle defense of religion, in that he shows that the “imaginaries” of atheists, and also of people who give no thought to religion, are just as arbitrary and unprovable as religious dogmas.

Taylor is a Canadian, and Canadians are fond of saying that “peace, order and good government” come before “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  I think that is right, in the sense that you can’t have much liberty or happiness without order or good government.

I myself prefer to live in the secular society as described by Taylor than its alternatives.  At the same time I recognize that the kind of society I live in is a more radical experiment than most people who live in it realize.  I hope it has as much resiliency in hard times as the older social imaginary of a more tightly-knit society.


Sentimentality or Honesty?  On Charles Taylor by Mark Oppenheimer for The Nation.

Charles Taylor by Ben Rogers for Prospect magazine.

Review – Modern Social Imaginaries by George Williamson for metapsychology online reviews.

Book Review: Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries by Stephen Crocker for the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

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