Charles Taylor Thursday #4: Define your terms! (Plus, voting.)

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and social theorist. His most book A Secular Age is an examination of modern secularism and the cultural conditions that gave rise to it.

There’s a phrase that Charles Taylor uses (though I don’t think he coined it) that I’d like to be able to use freely when discussing his work, so I’m going to devote this week’s entry to what Charles Taylor means when he talks about “social imaginaries.” By way of example, I’m going to try to carry forward some of what Ned was saying about voting and rationality. So I apologize to all of you who were eagerly awaiting a direct follow-up to last week’s post about Calvinism.

What I’m trying to get at with this term [i.e., “social imaginary”] is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about reality in a disengagted mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations…

Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of each other; the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices which make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. This understanding is both factual and “normative”; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what mis-steps would invalidate the practice…

What I’m calling the social imaginary extends beyond the immediate background understanding which makes sense of our particular practices. This is not an arbitrary extension of th econcept, because just as the practice without the understanding wouldn’t make sense for us, and thus wouldn’t be possible, so this understanding supposes, if it is to make sense, a wider grasp of our whole predicament, how we stand to each other, how we got to where we are, how we relate to other groups, etc.

-Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (171-3)

So the first question to ask is: don’t we already have a phrase for this? Well, it’s not social theory, because, as Taylor says, the ordinary people of a society don’t typically theorize explicitly what they imagine their social world to be; that’s typically the job of an intellectual minority. So the social imaginary has to be widely shared. For this reason, it’s not a “worldview,” since a worldview is typically regarded as the possession of an individual. It makes sense to say that an individual has a twisted worldview, but a defective social imaginary would have to belong to a society as a whole. I speculate that the social imaginary defines the limits of the worldviews that are possible for most people; at one place Taylor says that the social imaginary provides the horizon for our aspirations and fears.

The social imaginary is largely implicit in social practices. “The understanding implicit in practice stands to social theory the way that my ability to get around a familiar environment stands to a (literal) map of the area,” says Taylor (173). But of course a good map can transform our understanding of familiar environments; new social theories influence social practices. And so Taylor’s story of modernity is a story of how theories and circumstance transformed European culture over several centuries.

To get specific about one feature of the modern social imaginary, and to tie this post in to a discussion we’re already having at the League, we should look at the practices of democracy.

Take our practice of choosing governments through general elections. Part of the background understanding which makes sense of our act of voting for each one of us is our awareness of the whole action, involving all citizens, choosing each individually, but from among the same alternatives, and the compoinding of these micro-choices into one binding, collective decision. Essential to our understanding what is involved in this kind of macro-decision is our ability to identify what would constitute a foul: certain kinds of influence, buying votes, threats, and the like. This kind of macro-decision has, in other words, to meet certain norms, if it is to be what it is meant to be.

-Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (172)

Earlier today, Ned pointed out that since any given individual’s ballot is statistically negligible, spending a lot of time researching candidates isn’t a good use of time. If you’re going to vote, you might as well just go with your instincts. Now, plenty of people don’t bother to vote. But even so, upwards of 75 million people in the United States find voting worthwhile even in midterm years. And I think that’s because, as Jason wrote in the comments, the practice of voting is very much the grounding of legitimacy in our society. The practice of voting in national elections is ritualized and glorified beyond the statistical significance of the ballot because our social landscape requires it to be. It’s part of the social imaginary of a modern democratic nation.

And of course there’s a good deal of room for a double standard here: even though roughly half the voting-age population doesn’t vote in major elections, we think of non-voters as apathetic or cynical (or we guess that they’re overeducated economists). And, of course, there’s much more to voting than the effect of the ballot. When I vote next Tuesday, I will have enacted a democratic ritual, shored up my standing as a good citizen in a small way, and participated in large-scale collective action. Though I know my ballot won’t be effective, all these things matter to me, in ways that I have trouble articulating. Which indicates that I’m struggling to theorize something pre-theoretical.

(By the way, am I the only one that worries that in the shift from old lever machines to electronic voting, we’re losing the aesthetes’ vote? When I was a kid, voting machines were fascinating.)

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9 thoughts on “Charles Taylor Thursday #4: Define your terms! (Plus, voting.)

  1. I’m not sure how relevant these paragraphs from R.R. Reno’s “Culture Matters More Than Politics” over at First Things actually are to Taylor’s phrase, but I came across them right after reading this:

    “This is why the most potent force in political life is the human imagination, not control over the levers of state power. Utopian fantasies and exaggerated dreams of national greatness agitated millions in the twentieth century, providing legitimacy to communist and fascist regimes.
    “At the end of the day, elections don’t shape or influence our cultural imaginations. On the contrary, our imaginations influence our elections, as the naive nation builders who thought that bringing elections to Iraq would transform the country discovered, much to their dismay.” (

    I don’t have much more of a comment on it (yet) — but thought it was maybe worth noting.

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    • @J.L. Wall, over the summer I read James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, which takes the same general perspective as Reno in that quote. I never wrote much about the Hunter book, so I’ll see if I can tie it in some time. But basically Hunter argues that the religious right’s goals of changing culture through electoral politics are unachievable.

      Culture matters more than politics, but elections are just so amenable to quantitative analysis…

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  2. “Which indicates that I’m struggling to theorize something pre-theoretical.”
    Perhaps Wittgenstein’s discussions with himself in On Certainty are germane here. Because we have an untrammeled ability to form sentences that have the form of a proposition, that is, have the form of something that can be true or false, we suppose that everything we can say about ourselves and our place in the world is either true or false (and thus the Cartesian program is set in motion). But in this we are mislead by the surface structure of our language. There are certain things that we can say about ourselves and our place in the world that are beyond truth and falsity, for it is these, I’ll call them, “primordial beliefs” that are the foundation of all the beliefs we have that inform the lives we lead as human beings. To doubt them at all is to remove ourselves from the sphere of the human: “At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded.” [OC, para. 233]

    Our social imaginary is based on these (shared) primordial beliefs, and these beliefs are neither rational nor irrational, for all that is rational or irrational is based upon them. They range from “The world exists apart from me” to , I’d argue for Americans, “I am a citizen in a democracy.” So, in enacting the democratic ritual of voting, I am acting in accordance with that primordial belief that undergirds and structures my beliefs about myself and my place in this society. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of my vote is irrelevant in this wise. It is the action that counts.

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