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.)