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Day January 4, 2006

Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries and Cultural Transmission Theory

Ken’s
comment to an earlier post reminded me that I haven’t yet made good on my
promise to talk about Charles Taylor’s book, Modern
Social Imaginaries
. I approached
the book because I’m interested in the concept of a "social
imaginary," which Taylor describes as:

"the ways people imagine their
social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between
them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper
normative notions and images that underlie these expectations." (page
23).

Taylor’s
definition sounded an awful lot like the vague notion that anthropologists call
"culture," at least old-school anthropologists and instructors
teaching intro classes. It seems to me,
however, that Taylor doesn’t really mean to include most of those clauses in
his real concept of an imaginary — instead, the last clause of the above
definition comes closest as an intentional definition of the concept he
describes extensionally through narrative. Taylor is really getting a distinction between conceptual levels of
cultural and social phenomena: some
notions and concepts and metaphors are more "core" or "paradigmatic"
than others, and the deeper ones last longer and serve almost as a
"landscape" upon which the more fleeting and transient of our
cultural expressions evolve. Taylor’s
use of the term really doesn’t get more precise than this, which makes the book
both an interesting read because of its expansive narrative of intellectual
history, and frustrating if one is approaching the concept (as I did) from an
analytic and scientific perspective.