I’m a little embarrassed to say that despite having studied philosophy in college and still being a self-proclaimed philosophy geek, I had never heard of Charles Taylor before yesterday’s Charles Taylor Thursday. But clearly A Secular Age belongs on the pile of philosophy books I need to get to very soon (along with, as were recommended to me by commenters on this blog, Philip Pettit’s Republicanism and something by Gerald Cohen).
But in the meantime I want to associate myself with what William had to say about Taylor’s “social imaginaries” in yesterday’s post. The concept makes me think of what I’m used to describing as a sort of secular national religion — you could think of that concept as a sort of coherent network or set of social imaginaries. Respect, even veneration, for the ritual and responsibility of voting may not make a whole lot of sense when you think purely in terms of rational self-interest and opportunity cost, but as a commandment in the secular religion, or a social imaginary, it’s damn near indispensable for a functional democratic or republican system.
You can also think about this notion in the Greco-Roman sense of public virtue. But however you think about it, I think how institutions and public figures shape these norms, and how they could be shaping these norms, is important to consider. Good policy can only do so much in creating a stable, prosperous society; and I think it goes without saying that the optimal state is which maximizes self-governance through public virtue and minimizes governance through state regulation. I’ve come to think that much of the real work of politics is figuring out a self-reinforcing balance between the two.