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The Language Animal by Charles Taylor

Roger Caldwell looks at Charles Taylor’s views of language.

Charles Taylor, the well-known philosopher, is in many respects an oppositional writer – it is by seeing what he is against that we begin to see what he is for. In particular he is against scientism, against naturalism, and against reductionistic atomism. To be anti-scientistic is not to be anti-science: as organic bodies, human beings are of course susceptible to scientific analysis. However, as persons with intentions and values, we are not. This doesn’t mean that we must give up on explanation at this point. Rather, the human sciences must make space for the way that human beings perceive themselves, which is an essential part of their identity. We must be aware that any account of ourselves is always liable to revision. Molluscs and aardvarks have no means of answering the scientist back. It is given only to human beings to contest the identities ascribed to them. Indeed, we change and grow by continually revising our own understanding of ourselves.

From this follows Taylor’s anti-naturalism. Again, this is not to be construed as being against nature. He doesn’t deny (although he can hardly be said to emphasize) that human beings are part of nature; but he does deny that they are wholly within it, or explicable in its terms.

Taylor’s opposition to reductionistic atomism springs from his perception that society is not just a collection of individuals – rather, from the beginning we are in society; as human beings we are inherently social creatures. Moreover, language is not just an assembly of words – rather, from the beginning we are in language; we are language-saturated beings. The society in which we live and the language we speak are constitutive of the kinds of beings we are. Far from it being the case that (as a famous politician once averred) there is no such thing as society; for Taylor the very reverse is true: without society there can be no such thing as an individual. This leads Taylor to take a communitarian position in politics, opposing what he sees as the individualist bias of liberalism and social contract theory. It also leads him to take a holistic position in regard to language: a language is not merely the sum of its parts but is an all-embracing whole. To speak a language is to embrace what Wittgenstein calls ‘a way of life’.

Taylor was born in Québec, where he found himself in a situation of competing linguistic (and nationalist) allegiances. He saw the proponents of English as viewing their language in utilitarian terms – to be preferred on the basis of its being more widely-recognised – whereas the native French speakers saw their language as part of their culture, part of the way they conducted their lives. His sympathies from the beginning were with the latter view, and in this his latest book he defends these early intuitions by pitting against each other two different traditions of thought. One he sees as springing from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the seventeenth century, and extending, at least partially, into contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophy. The other originated with Johann Herder, a German Romantic thinker of the eighteenth century, and was developed by subsequent, predominantly German philosophers, still resonating in the later work of Martin Heidegger in the twentieth century.

Here I shall largely ignore these genealogies, and talk only of the two antithetical philosophies of language, which can be labelled for convenience as instrumentalism and expressivism.

Speaking In Tongues © istockphoto.com/minimil 2010


Instrumentalism, as its name suggests, sees language as a tool, and its basic task as representing the world. Here there is a clear division between the world on the one hand and language on the other, and language is seen to perform its function when there is a fit between world and word such that the former is mirrored by the latter. The implicit model here is the scientific statement, which Taylor sees as a “late-achieved, regimented, designative use of language.” The result is that with instrumentalism, the discussion of language is reduced to an analysis of propositions (basic assertions of facts) and whether or not they are meaningful or true. The doctrine of logical positivism then came along to say that propositions can only possess meaning and have truth-values if they are potentially scientifically verifiable. Where no such verification is possible – as with propositions ascribing beauty or goodness to things – positivism asserts that we are dealing only with ‘pseudo-statements’ which could have no anchorage in objective reality and are therefore no more than expressions of emotions.

There was a noticeable advance with ‘speech-act theory’, instituted by the British philosopher J.L. Austin and developed by the American philosopher John Searle, among others. In his now classic work Speech Acts (1969), Searle protested against the preoccupation of analytical philosophy with assertions or statements, thereby obscuring other uses of language, such as promising, declaring, ordering, questioning, and so on. Indeed, the same propositional content (for example, marrying Miss X) can be the subject of innumerable kinds of speech acts: thus I can promise to marry Miss X; can claim to have married Miss X (perhaps secretly); can wish I was married to Miss X; can (in a fit of amnesia) ask whether I am married to Miss X, and so on. Searle sees his aim in the study of language as that of reducing “the maximum amount of data to the minimum number of principles.” For Taylor, Searle like other analytical philosophers considers only a very limited range of linguistic data, being unable to move outside of the representationalist paradigm. There is also he says, an implicit bias in this tradition of thought. The model is invariably an individualistic one: there is an I who asserts, promises, declares, requests and so on, but there never seems to be a you who answers back. One would never guess from such analyses as Searle’s that language is a conversational matter, that it is impossible without dialogue. True, Searle et al recognise that the intention behind an utterance is not necessarily at one with the utterance’s literal meaning. The woman who tells you, “I have a spare ticket to the concert” is possibly not simply conveying a piece of information: the utterance may be also be an invitation. However, we have still not moved away from an instrumentalist view of language. Indeed, this example is nothing if not instrumental.


Given how little we know about the early evolution of language – not a major concern of Taylor’s, given his religious commitments (he’s a liberal Roman Catholic) – one should be wary of pronouncing on which of language’s roles is basic or central. Yet Taylor is surely correct in holding that the ‘regimented scientific zone’ of assertions of facts to which analytical philosophers devote their attention is only one suburb of “the vast, sprawling city of language.” As a corrective he emphasizes language’s expressive role. The language of a mother to her baby, the language of lovers to each other, even the language we use on a casual basis to nodding acquaintances, often has little to do with conveying information. To say “Good morning” to one’s neighbour is not (usually) to refer to the weather: it is more a matter of showing good will, of helping to establish or confirm a social relationship. Further, in communicating with one another we have a variety of sign systems at our disposal, especially gestures and facial expressions, whose origins no doubt pre-date spoken language, and are often used to reinforce verbal (strictly speaking, semantic) linguistic expression. It is remarkable how much can be expressed without semantic language at all: by a shrug, an expression of the face, or a certain look of the eyes. However, language proper clearly extends our emotional repertoire. As Taylor argues, a chimpanzee may feel anger, but only we as fully linguistic animals can also feel indignation.

The analytical tradition in philosophy presupposes what Taylor calls “the primacy of the literal”. And like many (though far from all) philosophers, both Hobbes and Locke aim for a language that is translucent and free of metaphor. The oddity is that their language is quite as metaphorical as that of any other writer. Indeed, the very title of Hobbes’ most famous treatise, Leviathan, is itself a metaphor. It is impossible, except in some very restricted ranges of language, to manage without metaphors, although many we do not notice because they have become over-familiar. Indeed, the path of language is strewn with dead metaphors. (There are three of them in that very sentence.)

language jigsaw
Linguistic Jigsaw © istockphoto.com/gyasemin

It is not only poets who concoct new figures of speech. Taylor tells us that they are demanded by new styles of life; indeed, they help to bring about new styles of life. No doubt there were ‘cool’ or ‘chilled-out’ people before those expressions gained currency; but once they had done so a style of living had come into existence and we had new ways of seeing and describing ourselves – and those who were cool were now to be contrasted with those who were ‘uptight’. No doubt there were people like Hamlet before Shakespeare invented the character; but it became much easier for others to identify them and for Hamlets to identify themselves as such once he had done so. We think in metaphorical terms without realizing it, seeing life as a journey, time as a river, youth as springtime and old age as winter. As language animals we live in, and by means of, metaphors, and every language requires its own metaphorical range.

Linguistic Relativity

Every language also has its own especial way of categorizing and describing reality. For Herder each language has its own particular genius, so that the literatures of different nations had very different characteristics, each expressing its own special worldview. This leads to a position of ‘linguistic relativity’, such that, in some sense of the word ‘world’, to speak in a different language is to live in a different world. (Rather an uncomfortable position to be in if one is bilingual.)

Surprisingly, Taylor devotes a chapter of his book to the most-discussed expression of linguistic relativity, which is known as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ – surprising, because one had thought that this hypothesis had been comprehensively demolished.

Benjamin Whorf drew lessons from languages such as that of the Hopi Indians, in which it is allegedly impossible to express simultaneity across space: for the Hopis, an event that happens in another place is seen as happening in a different time. Whorf therefore argued that the language you speak determines even such basic matters as how you think of space and time. He fails to make the case, however – not least because by the time he wrote, the Hopis all spoke English as well as their native language, and some (we may presume) wore wristwatches.

Languages are very various in how they divide up the colour spectrum, and some have many more colour terms than others. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis predicts that the colour discriminations you can make will be limited by the terms of your language. In fact – as one would expect – it has nothing to do with your language, and everything to do with the biology of your eyes. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus, declared in his oracular fashion that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” But this can only be true if we are unable to think outside or independent of language. This is improbable, given that much of our experience is extra-linguistic: such activities as listening to a piece of music, or following a football match, or playing a game of chess, or riding a bicycle, surely involve thinking of a sort, but this is not essentially thinking that is, or can be, put into words.

Taylor’s Language

Taylor espouses a sort of linguistic holism, yet it is not easy to see how far he can push this idea. If our language is a whole from which parts can’t be detached without loss of meaning, and if meaning therefore resides ultimately in the language as a whole, it is hard to see not only how language gets going in the first place, but how translation is possible between one language and another.

From an instrumentalist perspective translation is obviously feasible: a horse is a cheval, is a Pferd, and so on. From the expressivist view things aren’t so cosy. For example, the lyric poetry of one language is never translatable from one language into another, at least without losing a lot. And the same applies to much else: the basic informational content may be translatable, but not all the idioms, the connotations of the words, the cadences, the nuances – in short all those things that, as Taylor would say, make language constitutive of a way of life.

Yet although Taylor makes a spirited case for the expressivist view of language, this doesn’t mean that the instrumentalist view is thereby demolished. It is not surprising that philosophy, insofar as it follows a scientific paradigm, stresses the representational function of language; but such a function is scarcely the specialized scientific matter that Taylor tries to make it. It is the language of courts of law, of medicine, of tax returns, and numerous aspects of ordinary practical life. Clearly it is true that some aspects of a language are peculiar to it alone, as the expressivists would have it. But other parts of language not only are, but have to be, unambiguously translatable. Instructions for taking medicines or for assembling furniture must convey the same information, and they cannot say one thing in Swedish and another in Italian. Whatever language they are framed in is, in this sense, a matter of indifference. One wonders if the same doesn’t apply to philosophy. Charles Taylor wrote this book in English. He could have written it in French. In either case its ideas would surely have remained essentially the same.

© Roger Caldwell 2018

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Setting Out for the Mad Islands, is published by Shoestring Press.

The Language Animal: The True Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, by Charles Taylor, Bellknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2016, 368 pages, £25.95, ISBN: 978 067 4060205

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