Some Books and Articles Recently Read (May 2019) — Taylor, Houellebecq, MacIntyre

Some things read, with links.

I have just finished a book by Charles Taylor (whom we introduced here) titled Modern Social Imaginaries. The title of the book is, in part, an homage to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which is itself excellent (so good I’ve read it three times to date). Taylor in part asks about the historical developments that result in our modern forms of social life, and the conditions that allow us to engage in the practices that make our modern forms of social life possible, but more specifically Taylor seeks to give not a genealogy (though he does engage in genealogical reflections), but an anatomy: an anatomy of the different features of our modern understanding of the moral order we all inhabit (meaning both the background understanding of norms and the understanding of the proper practices that will allow us to pursue these norms together), which features will take different configurations as they migrate across different cultures.

In a review article for The Review of Politics, David Thunder (I am morally certain that this is his bio) summarizes the basic point of Modern Social Imaginaries well, though his summary is necessarily shorn of the insights and brilliant connections that are characteristic of Taylor’s work:

The thesis advanced by Taylor, bared down to its essentials, starting in the seventeenth century, with the modern natural law Grotius and Locke, a new idea of moral order, that is, a new conception “how we ought to live together in society,” took hold among Europeans Americans (p. 3). This new idea of moral order involves a kind of or “secularization” of time, whereby the notion of human society or reflecting some “Great Chain of Being,” along with the trans-historical or supernatural legitimation of social order, were their place, the contractual model of society-rational exchange for mutual benefit-gradually came to dominate the self-understanding Western societies.

In the pre-modern world, as Taylor notes, some form of action-transcendent grounding was necessary in order for people to begin to think of themselves as sharing intelligible space by which they might engage in common action: the ancestral law of the people, for instance, that was not thought of as founded in ordinary time, not established by a contract, but bequeathed through a mythical founding, and holding sway over events within time, and governing social relationships for only a certain scope of people (e.g., the tribe, &c.; common action for and within the tribe can’t exist without this law, and the relevant officers established by the law, such as the monarch). In the pre-modern world, the people are not a people already apart from this action-transcendent grounding. Contrast this with “We, the people” in the U.S. Constitution. “We, the people”, are a people before they settle, through their representatives, the constitution of the nation they are coming together to give a shape to and frame laws for. In the pre-modern world, things are not so: one’s identity is also one’s role in the embedded social order; in the modern world, by contrast, one’s identity as a moral agent is prior to one’s negotiating the generation of such a political order for mutual benefit. There is also in the pre-modern world a necessary connection between authority and transcendence, because of how the world –and not just authority– was understood. The experience of shared, pure temporality does away with this ontic dependence on transcendence for collective action within profane time.

We now think of ourselves as engaged in common action in pure temporality, with no break or window or second floor of this pure temporality in festival or sacred times (this is where Taylor locates the idea of “secularity” and “secularism”); this common, ordinary time is shared, and allows us to conceptualize a shared “space” of sorts with others who are engaged in a common action with us beyond merely face-to-face communities, at a scale that is different in kind from pre-modern imaginings of trans-local spheres. (We already mentioned that this shared action, this sense of belonging to a people of sorts engaged in such an action, does not require action-transcendent groundings — indeed, it does not require a tribe, a state, or God, even if God is understood to ground the moral order of mutual benefit.)

There are three things that Taylor mentions that enable (or characterize?) our modern social imaginary.

The first is the economy (an extra-political sphere, “a way that people are linked together to form an interconnected society” in reality and in their self-understanding, constituted in pure temporality, with no transcendent anchor or referent). This is about an order, originally thought of as rooted in God, where all things operate to mutual benefit. Taylor notes how this is reflected in poetry, as well as other figures of the age.

The second is the public sphere (shared structures that are set up in common space to aid and promote common activity in shared time; they facilitate shared action, and they are thrown up by shared action, but are not needed for shared action). Taylor is here indebted to Jürgen Habarmas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The public sphere is bound together not by a story of “who we are”, but by joint action in sheer simultaneity; it occurs in raw temporality, and the people who come together are already equals, and capable of forming contracts and negotiating without the housing of a religious institution (even when the actors are thought of as religious in character), a state, or (apparently) even a common tradition. Public opinion is related to this, as a kind of tribunal over the legitimacy of this-or-that institution generated by those people who were social and moral before there was a state or a constitution; usually, there are elites who set themselves up as representative of the people, and public opinion. Think newspapers and journals.

The third is popular sovereignty — the trip from the outline of public opinion, above, to the revolutionary idea of the public having the ultimate authority both to make and to undo constitutions and legislation is a very short trip. This moves from the Reformed notion of a community that is bound together by a covenant to the Rousseau-ian notion of the “general will”, with all the problems of representation that arise in the French Revolution that do not in the American, because the American Revolution’s range of theoretical possibilities of interpreting this were hemmed-in by a tradition of how this works itself out practically.

Taylor also later mentions a fourth, rights and charters of rights, towards the end of the book. [172]

These are so deep in the foundations of how we think about the world, that it these are transparent to us.

One of the transitions that he mentions, of course, is the shift from the pre-modern social world, with its ties of mediated dependence nested in tiered relations (I relate to the king through my family and my family through my local lord and whatnot; the chain of being and the ontological chain are both connected here), and the modern world, where we seek to maximize autonomy because of the way our social imaginary works — each individual is liberated from these older ties of mediated dependence, with the kinds of mutual obligations that go with them (the earlier modern notion of economy has this idea of mutual benefit still), into one where each is independent and stands in unmediated relation to the sovereign, the state. Before, all relationships were local, and local relations were un-equal in a number of ways, and to the degree that people imagined themselves as participating in any universal society –the Empire, the Church, the guild, &c.– it was through their involvements with particular people, and these relations were not seen as contractual, but as ties of dependency (principally from the bottom up, but not only). This modern principle of the fundamental equality of each person, the idea of society as a series of contractual relations, and the corresponding moral imperative to liberate individuals from ties of dependence, does not come onto the scene fully realized in any sphere — and there are some spheres where it took a century or centuries to begin to touch (slavery, the family).

Taylor uses “imaginaries”, rather than “ideologies”, because people are not merely deluded in ordering their lives by them: these imaginaries are how many people live out their days, and so these principles of democratic self-rule are descriptions of the real.

So very highly recommended, and so very different from the next author.


Here, in a completely different key from Taylor, Thierry Baudet reviews Michel Houellebecq’s novel Sérotonine (not yet available in English, apparently); I have never read Houellebecq. (Theodore Dalrymple also touches upon this book, and Houellebecq in general, in the shortest review-reminiscence I remember reading.) By all accounts, the review, like the book, look remarkable, if pessimistic about our current age and somewhat depressing, and not without a large dose of danger concerning what kinds of arrangements are suggested on their basis. A taste of the review:

So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to estab­lish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times—and having witnessed ourselves betraying others—for the brief mo­ments of seductive thrills that we, as “liberated individuals,” can no longer resist.

Now this fundamental point which Houellebecq makes time and again deserves further reflection, because it challenges the very fun­damentals of both the contemporary “Left” and the “Right.” It challenges modern anthropology as such. Both the social-dem­ocratic and the liberal wing of the modern political spectrum (re­spectively advocating the welfare state and the free market) wish to maximize individual autonomy. Liberalism and socialism differ when it comes to the most effective way to achieve that objective, but they do not differ in the objective itself. They are both liberation movements; they both want the complete emancipation of the indi­vidual.

And both base their vision of society on the (unfounded but supposedly “self-evident”) principle that every individual enjoys certain “inalienable rights,” which by definition eclipse all other claims, and to which all other ties, loyalties, and connections must ultimately be subordinated. Over time, all such institutions that the individual requires to fully actualize a meaningful existence—such as a family and a connection to generations past and future, a nation, a tradition, perhaps a church—will weaken and eventually disappear. Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints—such as the duty to care for your parents—are placed on the indi­vidual.

It is this fundamental assumption of the modern age—that individual autonomy (be it through free markets or welfarism) leads to happiness—which Michel Houellebecq challenges.

“The more we “liberate” ourselves from our social ties, the more we become the slaves of our own distorted self-image.” Indeed, “we need to rediscover a territorial, social, and historical connection with others around us, a connection which transcends individual choice, momentary whims, and instrumental interests.” Baudet goes on to note Houellebecq’s views on sex (the possibility of intimacy through sex rapidly disappears as we cycle through partners) and religion (historical distance greatly complicates our connection with ancestral traditions) with regard to intimacy and meaning. With regard to sex, similarly to Taylor’s note about relating to to universal societies through particular people, so too in the modern world it is the case that very quickly after acquiring only a few sexual partners, our ability to relate to the other sex entirely through this one person becomes an impossibility; the particular cannot be the universal, but only an instance of an abstract category. “We are free, and we are glad we are free”, but “the freedom we desire eventually makes us unfree and unhappy”.

Acknowledging that the modern project has shadows is necessary; if the reviewer can be trusted to be reporting on Houellebecq’s vision faithfully, it seems that is sees some of our own shadows clearly. My intuition is that it does not see a number of other trends that would paint a very different picture. I am still left wanting to read Houellebecq, having never touched his works.


Somewhere between these two, just over two months ago I finished Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which had been sitting on my shelf for nearly fifteen years, and which was very different from what I’d expected it to be. MacIntyre’s work I’ll need to summarize in a post dedicated exclusively to that work, eventually. It defies easy categorization. It is part historical narrative about how our language for virtue is inherited from a social and intellectual framework that we have entirely forgotten as a culture (this was brilliant and alarming — he thinks that our moral disagreements can’t be settled precisely because of this catastrophe), part an analysis about how the language of morality has replaced the older language for virtue (with impossible attempts to ground morals in either passions or reason). MacIntyre claims that the impossibility of warring parties being able to settle on a common set of first principles from which to evaluate a situation, and the fact that multiple parties can deploy a moral principle for completely opposite and mutually hostile ends, are symptoms that we have all become emotivists with regard to morality, and emotivism won’t work, because our moral claims assert a truth about the matter.

It is also partly a literary analysis of character types which appear in society and in literature — character types that are designed (so I remember) to show us how the acquisition of the virtues has become rather difficult in the late modern period, and how our moral language is constantly misused by us, given our social and intellectual landscape’s difference from the pre-modern world’s. MacIntyre engages in this literary analysis not as a digression, however, but to highlight what kind of social and intellectual fabric we’re trying to thread the older moral language into, and where and why it doesn’t fit: emotivism can only offer reasons as a mask for “unavowed” purposes, and so manipulation plays a key role in modern life. The bureaucrat and the manager and the social scientist all are brought onto the stage, and the nature of their knowledge questioned — are there really laws that allow us to predict and control social life?

He seemed interested in showing us where the practice of the virtues is possible in the modern world (vi&., in what social institutions, given how the landscape has changed), how the virtues sustain the social environment that is necessary to sustain them, and how a proper social environment makes the practice of the virtues possible — virtues, which are connected to the inherent purpose and coherence of the narrative structure of a human life. He is also interested in narrating what he saw as the catastrophe that leads into the modern confusion, and offering an alternative account to Nietzsche.

Given how much trouble I’ve had narrating the contents of this book to others (and how likely it is that I’ve botched it here for you, dear reader), it’s obvious I need to re-read it, but the fact that MacIntyre is one of the few authors I’ve purchased 6+ books by immediately after reading the first, that should tell you how important I regard it to interact with him.


Header image found here.

One thought on “Some Books and Articles Recently Read (May 2019) — Taylor, Houellebecq, MacIntyre

  1. Pingback: Excerpt #26 — Charles Taylor on How the “We” for Whom The State Exists Cannot Be a Mere Aggregate | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.