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A Secular Age (2): Social Imaginaries

Max-weber-1917 Taylor begins his exploration of the change in the conditions of belief over the past five centuries by a detailed exploration of the nature of society and religion in Europe at the beginning of what can be termed the early modern period. I cannot do justice to the wealth of detail that he provides, but I will attempt to synthesise the key themes.

The dominant beliefs at the beginning of the time in question were those that had persisted throughout the Middle Ages, but new circumstances – such as European colonialism, and the invention of the printing press, brought about fresh changes. One crucial aspect of the changes that began at this time was a profound shift in what Taylor terms “the social imaginaries”. He describes this idea as follows:

What I’m trying to get at with this term is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged 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.

For example, our modern social imaginaries include ideas such as the economy, which is seen as an exchange of services, and the concept of the people as the source of the law, that is, democratic self-rule. But these would have been very alien ideas in the early modern period! The social imaginary at that time was dominated by the idea of the Great Chain of Being, which implied a hierarchical order beginning at God, and descending through royalty, to nobility and the clergy and finally down to the peasantry. This served as the unchallenged background of society for centuries.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Max Weber (pictured above) described a key element of the social imaginary of that time by saying “the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’”. But in the early modern era, this “disenchantment” was a very distant possibility. Drawing on Weber’s infamous term,  Taylor talks of the “enchanted world”, to emphasise that for the people who lived prior to the modern era, the influence of spirits and magic was very real indeed. Many of the formal rituals of the Christian Church at this time were concerned with offering protection to villagers from the perceived threat of evil spirits, as can be seen in practices such as “the beating of the bounds”, in which the whole village would walk the edge of their land to participate in a blessing that would protect their harvest.

The sense of the self that people had at this time was “porous”; open to influence from threats that could not be seen but which were nonetheless part of the background of belief. These influences could be positive (holy relics) or negative (evil spirits), but they were a crucial element in the social and cosmic imaginary of the time. Thus the transition to disenchantment involved a substantial change in the social imaginary, namely the establishment of what Taylor terms “the Buffered self”:

A crucial condition for [disenchantment] was a new sense of the self and its place in the cosmos: not open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers, but what I want to call “buffered”…As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me”, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

There was more to the emergence of an idea of the buffered self than simple disenchantment, however – indeed, to transition from a social imaginary where one was constantly threatened by spirits and forces to one in which these imagined dangers ceased to exist would have been profoundly difficult, perhaps impossible, for most people. The emergence of the buffered self also required “confidence in our own powers of moral ordering”, and this was another profound shift in the social imaginary, one that we will explore later. But in 1500, the moral order was anchored in religious beliefs and practice – the idea of a morality without God would have been difficult for most people to conceptualise, especially since God (via the Church) was at the time the guarantee of protection against evil spirits.

A key step towards the coming transformations came with a new focus on the autonomy of nature – not as distinct from God, but as an aspect of God; the order of nature speaks of God’s goodness, hence Aquinas’ claim “to detract from the creature’s perfection is to detract from the perfection of the divine power”. There is a temptation to view the growing interest in nature as a step away from religion, a view which Taylor finds unsubstantiated in the historical facts:

The new interest in nature was not a step outside of a religious outlook, even partially; it was a mutation within this outlook…. That the autonomy of nature eventually… came to serve as grist to the mill of exclusive humanism is clearly true. That establishing it was already a step in that direction is profoundly false. This move had a quite different meaning at the time, and in other circumstances might never have come to have the meaning that it bears for unbelievers today.

This shift in perspective was to drive a profound transformation of the social imaginary. If the old viewpoint can be described as admiring the order of the world as an expression of God, the new viewpoint holds that we inhabit the world as agents of instrumental reason, and thus our duty is to bring about God’s purpose on Earth, namely human wellbeing. This is the birth (or rather, rediscovery) of a religious humanism, whose first expression can be detected in the rise of a disciplinary society – an attempt by cultural élites to condition the populace at large to a higher ethical standard, to reform not just personal conduct, but to remake societies to render them more peaceful, ordered and industrious.

The origin of this transition, however, came through earlier religious traditions, and dated back more than a millennia before the drive to reform began to manifest. Karl Jaspers referred to the final B.C. millennium (Taylor uses B.C.E.) as the “Axial Age” – a time when various “higher” forms of religion emerged independently in different civilizations, as a result of founding figures such as Confucius, Gautama, and the Hebrew prophets. Taylor comments in regard of these new belief systems:

The surprising feature of the Axial religions, compared with what went before, what would in other words have made them hard to predict beforehand, is that they initiate a break in all three dimensions of embeddedness: social order, cosmos, human good. Not in all cases and all at once: perhaps in some ways Buddhism is the most far-reaching, because it radically undercuts the second dimension: the order of the world itself is called into question…

The Axial religions pushed for a disembedding from the established social order, but they were to some extent prevented from doing so because they were “hemmed in by the force of the majority of religious life which remained firmly in the old mould.” The lives of élite minorities may have been transformed to religious individualism, but something more was required to bring this change to society as a whole. So the appearance of religious humanism was to complete the disembedding that had begun in the Axial age:

We could say that both the buffered identity and the project of Reform contributed to the disembedding. Embeddedness… is both a matter of identity – the contextual limits to the imagination of the self – and of the social imaginary: the ways we are able to think or imagine the whole of society. But the new buffered identity, with its insistence on personal devotion and discipline, increased the distance, the disidentification, even the hostility to the older forms of collective ritual and belonging; while the drive to Reform came to envisage their abolition. Both in their sense of self, and in their project for society, the disciplined élites moved towards a conception of the social world as constituted by individuals… This final phase of the Great Disembedding was largely powered by Christianity. But it was also in a sense a “corruption” of it, in Ivan Illich’s memorable phrase.

We will return to the idea of the corruption of Christianity later; for now, our focus is this disembedding process – a profound transformation of the social imaginary which brought about not only the disenchantment of the world, but a new concept of society as constituted by individuals. It is perhaps hard for those of us who live within a social imaginary which takes as axiomatic this individuality to fully appreciate what a profound transformation this was. Its culmination was to come centuries later, in events such as the French and American revolutions with their notions of a Republic born of the will of the people, able to see themselves as the source of the law. But first, it was necessary for the religious humanism that motivated this change to undergo its own profound mutation.

Next week: Exclusive Humanism


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I didn't mean for the footnote to go out with this post, but since it did go out I'll include it here for completeness. Where I referenced Taylor's use of B.C.E. an asterisk was placed to connect to the following footnote:

*The idea that changing B.C. (Before Christ) to B.C.E. (Before Common Era) will somehow render wholly secular a calendar which is clearly Christian in its origin and construction strikes me as insulting to those responsible for its creation and maintenance, while simultaneously offending other religious traditions, such as Islam, which maintain very different calendars. If we want a calender free of religious associations it will be necessary to create one, not merely to relabel an extant system.


The reason I didn't want this to go out was because it has nothing substantial to do with Taylor's work, which is the subject of the serial. I've included it here only because I accidentally posted the footnote originally, and don't want to be accused of whatever it is people are accused of when they update their blog content.

Carved out the time to read this, glass of wine in hand. Very much in keeping with what I already know of Taylor's work, naturally, but it's wonderful to get the more deeply rooted underpinnings of his thoughts on modernity. Thanks Chris.

Thanks for the support, Jack - always appreciated!

Really glad to have a chance to synthesise this book into something more succinct. Although at ten weeks of serial posts, not something short. :) It gets more and more interesting as it progresses too - we're just warming up right now! At the beginning I was making notes every dozen pages or so. By the end I was taking a dozen notes per page. :D

Trust all is well!

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