More On Social Imaginaries

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.

More On Social Imaginaries
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5 thoughts on “More On Social Imaginaries

  1. “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.”

    Which begs the Platonic question, should the state take an active role in propagating/regulating these social imaginaries/societal myths?

    Also, education writer E.D. Hirsch has been arguing something similar, calling for, “reverence for the laws…[to] become the political religion of the nation,” noting that the place for this to start is in public schools.

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  2. I’ll also re-post this excerpt from Taylor’s post:

    “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.”

    The clear significance and importance of “social imaginaries” brings us to the problem of, “Who does/should create them?”

    I think, but maybe others would disagree, that a lot of the anti-intellectualism/anti-elitism out there is specifically in response to this gut instinct: Social/Academic elites create the our “social imaginaries” and as a result wield power greater than any specific political or financial advantage.

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    • @E.C. Gach, it’s more that elites propound theories that end up affecting the way we see our social life together. The shift that should be most apparent to all of us is the perception of gay marriage. In the social imaginary of the 1970s (if I understand things correctly; I wasn’t around) aside from a few dreamers nobody would seriously consider a man and a man or a woman and a woman as candidates for marriage to each other. Now, theories have slowly convinced huge numbers of people — perhaps most people — but what bloggers refer to as the “ick factor” remains. But the thing that really drives the shift in the social imaginary is not the theory on paper; it’s the theory put into practice: the reality of relationships between gay people that actually enacted the common understanding of what a marriage is. (I would argue that the common American understanding of marriage differed from, though didn’t necessarily clash with, what orthodox Christian theology teaches about marriage well before gay marriage was an issue.)

      So there are intermediate steps between elites creating a theory and shifts in the social imaginary, but what makes intellectual elites elite is their ability to garner attention for their theories and thereby affect social practices.

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