Charles Taylor: Modern Social Imaginaries (2003)

A Systems Library, Vol. 32

Philippe Vandenbroeck
9 min readApr 29, 2024
Image: “Liberty Leading the People — Fake News — Donald Trump”, Weekender Tote Bag by Gordon Coldwell

Charles Taylor tells a dense and fascinating story about the emergence of our ‘modern social imaginary’, at the intersection of historical, philosophical and sociological lenses. Loosely spoken, we might understand a ‘social imaginary’ as a worldview. Taylor explains it as ‘the ways we are able to think or imagine the whole of society’. In other words, the modern social imaginary is “the way we collectively imagine, even pretheoretically, our social life in the contemporary Western world”. Its pre-theoretical nature implies that it can never be adequately expressed in the form of a specific doctrine. A social imaginary is rather embedded in images, stories and legends. It doesn’t prescribe but makes common practices possible.

[Parenthesis: Is he talking about ‘the’ modern social imaginary or ‘a’ modern social imaginary? At the very end of the book, the author expresses the hope that we “we finally get over seeing modernity as a single process of which Europe is the paradigm, and that we understand the European model as (…) one model among many, a province of the multiform world we hope (a little against hope) will emerge in order and peace.” This book offers, therefore, not an account of modernity as such, but zooms in on one particular, historically pre-eminent, embodiment of it.]

Taylor situates the emergence of the Western modern social imaginary in the new conception of moral order of seventeenth-century natural law theory. This was heavily indebted to Stoicism, and among its chief originators were the Flemish and Dutch neo-Stoics, Justus Lipsius and Hugo Grotius. (Incidentally, Lipsius was born in the little village of Overijse, which is just a stone’s throw from where I happen to be writing this review). Stoic natural law asserted the existence of a rational and purposeful order to the universe and assumes within humans a ‘divine spark’ which helps them to live in accordance with this nature. So, the order underlying society derives from the nature of its members. Human beings are rational, sociable agents who are meant to collaborate in peace to their mutual benefit. And thus the picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity against a certain preexisting moral background and with certain ends in view. “The moral background is one of natural rights: these people have certain moral obligations towards each other. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important.” The idea of society as existing for the mutual benefit of individuals and the defense of their rights has taken on more and more importance. Taylor’s book is, therefore, an account of how this basic idea has come to colonize our social imaginary.

Taylor structures his discussion along three key vectors of social-self understanding: the economy, the public sphere and the practices of democratic self-rule.

First, it is quite understandable how the concept of moral order embedded in natural law theory led to a conception of society as ‘an economy’, i.e. an interlocking set of activities of production, exchange, and consumption, which form a system with its own laws and its own dynamic. This is a significant departure of the idea of a social order as Platonic Forms-at-work. In that worldview hierarchical differentiation (‘orators, bellators, laboratores’) is seen as the proper order of things. But in the modern social imaginary the distribution of functions in society is contingent; it has to be justified merely instrumentally. “In one way or the other, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy or any particular structure of differentiation.” (This is a fascinating insight, but then it’s interesting to see how dominant the hierarchical template has become in modern organizations, not on ontological grounds but on purely pragmatic grounds of efficiency. It is only recently that we have started to question this orthodoxy and to experiment with organizational practices of self-rule. So the modern social imaginary continues to manifest itself in sometimes contradictory ways).

Eighteenth-century physiocrats and Adam Smith took the idea of polity as economy further: the web of exchange and collaboration grew beyond a mere metaphor for society but became its important purpose, the royal road to peace and orderly existence.

Very interesting for me personally here is Taylor’s observation that this ‘economic’ view of society engendered a ‘bifocal’ view of society. This is how he puts it: “So the new horizontal world in secular time allows for two opposite ways of imagining society. On one side, we become capable of imagining new free, horizontal modes of collective agency, and hence of entering into and creating such agencies because they are now in our repertoire. On the other, we become capable of objectifying society as a system of normindependent processes, in some ways analogous to those in nature. On the one hand, society is a field of common agency, on the other hand a terrain to be mapped, synoptically represented, analyzed, perhaps preparatory to being acted on from the outside by enlightened administrators.”

Taylor outlines how a ‘systems view’ on society grew out of natural law theory. And this systems view manifests an epistemological rift: we need pictures of the layout of society as inert reality and the causal connections that structure it, just as much as we need models and embodied practices of (and for) our collective action on it. in other words: “Our modern imaginary thus includes not only categories that enable common action but also categories of process and classification that happen or have their effects behind the backs of agents.” This, in my view, is the tension between the hard, objectivist and the soft, constructivist systems view we are still wrestling with today. Taylor thinks these perspectives cannot be dissociated; they fundamentally belong to the same range of imaginings that derive from the modern moral order.

The second vector of change was the constitution of the public sphere. The public sphere is a locus in which rational views are elaborated that should guide government. Taylor conceptualizes it as a ‘metatopical’ common space that knits together conversations unfolding across locales and media. How does this differ from, say, the discussions in an ancient polis? The difference is that the debate in the modern public sphere is carried on by people who are not directly involved in the political decision-making. It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power. “With the modern public sphere comes the idea that political power must be supervised and checked by something outside.” Not by the will of God but by reason embodied in a public discourse to which potentially every citizen had access. The newness of the public sphere lies in its extra-political character. And in its radical secularity. Which means that there is nothing — say, religion, or ancestral laws — that transcends the common actions of the public sphere. It is an association that is constituted by nothing outside of the common actions carried out in it: coming to a common mind through the exchange of ideas.

Popular sovereignty is the third in the great connected chain of mutations in the social imaginary that have helped constitute modern society. The foundations of new political entities were located in ‘a will of the people’ that did not need a pre-existing law to act as a people. It could see itself as the source of law. This conception emerged from the interplay between new and traditional social imaginaries as demonstrated, in distinct ways, by the two great 18th-century revolutions. The American Revolution came down on a new union government that its basis of legitimacy in a “people of the United States” and was embodied in a clear and unconstested institutional form, namely elected assemblies based on manhood suffrage. In the case of the French Revolution this shared understanding of the institutional meaning of the sovereignty of the nation was absent, with fateful consequences. The result was a Rousseauian politics of virtue, highly ‘ideological’ and quasi-religious in tone. It gravitated towards quasi-theatrical forms of representations that make the general will of the people manifest in situ. This kind of politics were, and are, particularly prone to violence and scapegoating.

Taylor sees the unfolding of the modern social imaginary along these three axes as ‘a long march’. The march carried forward an extension of the new social imaginary beyond the social elites that originally adopted it, and it extended the principles of this new imaginary to other levels and niches of social life. Progress was not uniform. “The people of the time can easily seem to us to be inconsistent, even hypocritical. Elite males spoke of rights, equality, and the republic, but thought nothing of keeping indentured servants, not to speak of slaves, and kept their women, children, their households in general under traditional patriarchal power. Didn’t they see the glaring contradiction? (…) It took us a long time to come to see the family, specifically the husband-wife relation in the now nuclear family, outside of the older household framework, in a critical democraticegalitarian light. This happened, as it were, only yesterday. Uniformity across niches is far from an obvious, commonsense requirement.

I’m concluding with an quote in extenso that summarizes our modern social imaginary in a profound and persuasive way:

“What is the feature of our ‘imagined communities’ by which people very often do readily accept that they are free under a democratic regime even where their will is overridden on important issues? The answer they accept runs something like this: You, like the rest of us, are free just in virtue of the fact that we are ruling ourselves in common and not being ruled by some agency that need not take account of us. Your freedom consists in your having a guaranteed voice in the sovereign, that you can be heard and have some part in making the decision. You enjoy this freedom by virtue of a law that enfranchises all of us, and so we enjoy this together. Your freedom is realized and defended by this law, whether you win or lose in any particular decision. This law defines a community of those whose freedom it realizes and defends together. It defines a collective agency, a people, whose acting together by the law preserves their freedom. Such is the answer, valid or not, that people have come to accept in democratic society. We can see right away that it involves their accepting a kind of belonging much stronger than that of any chance group that might come together. It is an ongoing collective agency, membership in which realizes something very important: a kind of freedom. Insofar as this good is crucial to members’ identity, they thus identify strongly with this agency, and hence also feel a bond with their coparticipants in this agency. It is only an appeal to this kind of membership that can answer the challenge of an individual or group who contemplates rebelling against an adverse decision in the name of their freedom.”

A beautiful, tantalizing idea that is in urgent need of re-invention in an age where the economy is vampirizing planet and polity, the public sphere is undermined with fake news and propaganda, and the will of the people is being channeled into a Manichean politics of resentment.

More to read in the Systems Library:

Vol. 31: Martin Savransky: The Adventure of Relevance (2016)

Vol. 30: Martin Savransky: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (2021)

Vol. 29: Augustin Berque: Poetics of the Earth (2014)

Vol. 28: Mary Catherine Bateson: Composing a (Further) Life (1989, 2010)

Vol. 27: Hilary Bradbury: How to Do Action Research for Transformations (2022)

Vol. 26: Francis Laleman: Resourceful Exformation (2020)

Vol. 25: Keller Easterling: Medium Design(2020)

Vol. 24: Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

Vol. 23: Janis Birkeland: Positive Development (2008)

Vol. 22: Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)

Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)

Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)

Vol. 16: Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

Vol. 15: Hanne De Jaegher: Loving and Knowing. Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

Vol. 14: Judi Marshall: First-person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

Vol. 13: Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics (2020)

Vol. 12: John Morecroft: Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (2007)

Vol. 11: Antoine de St Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

Vol. 9: Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Vol. 8: Valerie Ahl & Timothy Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Vol. 7: Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1969, 1998)

Vol. 6: Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Vol. 5: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007)

Vol. 4: Béla Bánáthy: Guided Evolution of Society. A Systems View (2000)

Vol. 3: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: The Path (2016)

Vol. 2: Stafford Beer: ‘Designing Freedom’ (1974)

Vol. 1: John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?