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Theorists of the social imaginary, such as Benedict Anderson, Charles Taylor, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Marcel Gauchet have given us new ways to talk about the structures of the shared meanings and practices of the West. As a group, they have directed their arguments against the narrow horizons of meaning oyed by deliberative political theories in developing their basic normative concepts and principles. Anderson speaks of the new shapes of time and space provided by the novel and newspaper; Taylor and Gauchet discuss the ontological importance of the emergence of secularity, the public sphere, popular sovereignty, and the market; Castoriadis places creative collective imagination at the center of his work. They have provided an alternative to the oscillation between the constructivism of John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Christine Korsgaard and the realism of Raymond Guess, Raymond Williams, and others. Theorists of the imaginary have enabled us to think about normatively charged collective imaginaries as logically prior to the construction of normative principles.

What theorists of the imaginary have not done is make specific connections between the ontological background of social imaginaries and the normative utterance. This lacuna has left them vulnerable to the charges of “normative deficit” and vagueness that Habermas and others famously make against philosophies of “world disclosure.”[ To be sure, philosophers of the imaginary are careful to supplement third-person accounts of political culture with phenomenological descriptions; however, when theorists of the imaginary move from the common background provided by imaginaries to the first- and second person, the focus is usually on the imagination as a faculty rather than on the new conception of the normative utterance and political dialogue that follows from an understanding of the social imaginary. I will consider the relationship of social imaginaries to individual utterances so that we do not have the individual imagination set against the social context, but the utterance as reproducing and/or intervening in the imaginary structures. In this view, normativity is not expressed in the propositional form of the Rawlsian or Habermasian justification, but through a complex engagement with the worldhood that informs normative judgments. Looking at the normative utterance through the lens of social imaginaries enables us to engage the background structures that subtend discrete utterances, and this engagement requires richer forms of argument.

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APA Citation

Steele, M. (2017). Social imaginaries and the theory of the normative utterance. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 43(10), 1045–1071.

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