Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries: Getting Western Thought Wrong

By Alexander Robak | United States

In Charles Taylor’s 2003 magnum opus work, Modern Social Imaginaries, he retells the story of the basis of political and philosophical thought in the western world. Charles Taylor uses dozens of examples from across the globe to support his theses and further the description of what he refers to as a “Social Imaginary.” However, in this masterful piece of political literature, there exists one flaw with his theses. The author uses specific examples to come to the conclusion that the basic points of the western social imaginary are based on mutual aid, cooperation, and the exchange of both services and goods to secure a prosperous living situation for all within the society. However, I disagree with him on this point.

It is evident that the basis of western society is, and always has been, individualism and the goal of attaining success, whatever that may be, for the individual. There exists sufficient evidence to prove that altruism is not a founding principle of our social imaginary; rather, it is individualism that has gotten us to where we are today in terms of economic, social, and governmental based spheres of our collective social imaginary. While there are some points in this book that I do personally disagree with, this book does serve as a comprehensive retelling of our current social imaginary, from the perspective of a collectivist.

The basis of this book serves as a stepping stone for the author to describe our current form of thought. There exists three spheres of our society, each one of which serves specific purposes to our collective social imaginary, and fosters specific sentiment within those who contribute to the imaginary at large. The author then goes on to show us how as the economic, social, and governmental spheres work in conjunction with another They create an imaginary that works as a collective. In saying this, he means that our society works together to achieve mutual benefit rather than self-benefit.

For example, he describes the economic sphere as being not a zero-sum game, rather with a fair and regulated economic exchange system, we can achieve, and have achieved a state in which economic exchange exists to benefit both parties, rather than just one.  However, I disagree with the author on this point. Since our economic sphere in the west is currently based on capitalistic practices, has always been based on these practices, and always will be, I believe that it makes more sense for society to be driven by the individualist mindset, rather than a collectivist form of thought due to the fact that the individual will always put his needs before the needs of the others which exist in society. This is evident in the fact that it has always been a personal search for success that drives innovation in Capitalist societies. The vast majority of individuals are not simply motivated by an opportunity to help other people. Rather, humans are animals that look out for one’s self and one’s self only.

However, I digress. This is only one of a few points in this book that I disagree with. There is one point in this book that the author attempts to draw connections between spirituality and communitarianism through virtue signaling of biblical and religious texts. In doing this, he attempts to discredit individualism as being falsely tied to spirituality.  However, I do not believe that religious or spiritual ties to either collectivism or individualism are entirely relevant, even within the social sphere. This is due to the fact that due to variance in modern spiritual and religious viewpoints, either collectivism or individualism can be linked to spirituality, depending on interpretation.

In one part of the book, Charles Taylor talked about how western modernities aid us in learning about other social imaginaries beyond our own. The reasoning behind this is due to other states dependence on the west in both the governmental and economic spheres of the social imaginary. Therefore, due to western hegemony across the globe in these spheres, the social sphere of other cultures is changing to fit a western social imaginary as well. This is simply the consequence of maintaining a global hegemony both economically and politically. This also helps us to learn about the social imaginaries of other cultures and how they continue to shift and adapt to our own overbearing imaginaries.

In the fourth chapter of the book, Charles Taylor begins to talk about a phenomenon called the great disembedding, in which in the social sphere, people become progressively more disenchanted with ancient social imaginaries as a new modernity sets in. This is an agreeable point made by the author, as our social imaginaries are always shifting in order to adapt to changes within the economic and governmental spheres of our society. All things considered, Charles Taylor did, in fact, make some reasonable assessments regarding the progress of our social imaginary and the impacts surrounding it in all three spheres of our society.

I do believe that Charles Taylor was incorrect in his thesis that our western social imaginary is based both politically and philosophically on principles of mutual aid, cooperation, and zero-sum games that are meant to secure prosperous living conditions for all within the society. However, some of the tangents that he focuses on in later chapters regarding the disembedding of individuals from the social imaginary, as well as the hegemony of these modernities are in fact quite agreeable in nature. In conclusion, this book was masterfully composed of riveting ideas about our modern social imaginaries.


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