Ein bild hielt uns gefangen. Followers of Charles Taylor will recognise Wittgenstein’s dictum as a leitmotif running through his recent work. ‘A picture holds us captive.’ Analytic philosophy has a blind spot, says Taylor, and, for all its achievements, has restricted our view of who we are, and thus of how we relate to the world, into an overly-narrow perspective. His latest book – drawing on a lifetime’s work – aims at broadening that picture, so as to pave the way to free us from it.
Taylor is best known for his twin masterworks, Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), which together chart the evolution of our self-understanding alongside the rise of modern objectivity and the disenchantment of the world. But more recently – for example, in 2015’s Retrieving Realism (with the late Hubert Dreyfus) – he has returned to unpack the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions that tacitly underwrite that worldview. However, far from taking the postmodern or sceptical approach so common to such critiques, Taylor has sought to refine modernity from within, by working through the history of western ideas to a more holistic conclusion.1 For Taylor, ‘we moderns’ – heirs to the Enlightenment – encouraged by the spectacular success of empirical science within its particular domains, have settled upon a limited notion of ‘truth’ that closes off human meanings. The key to understanding how we lost that sense of meaning – and therefore, how we can retrieve it – lies in how we understand what makes us human. And the key to that, he sets out to explain, lies in how we understand language.
In this context, The Language Animal (2016) represents both the source and summary of Taylor’s thinking on questions ranging from truth and meaning through to religion, art, and politics. The long process of actually writing the book – on and off over the past 30 years – has itself formed the background to his most productive scholarship, and readers familiar with his corpus will recognise theses from his earlier essays on language, as well as the themes of his more famous philosophical anthropology. Yet the book is an important one, even – perhaps especially – for analytic philosophers unfamiliar with Taylor’s work and preoccupations. It does more than simply bring together his previous work, but lays out an alternative philosophy of language that challenges both the dominant 20th Century analytic tradition, as well as many of its continental rivals.
Throughout his career, Taylor has straddled the analytic and phenomenological traditions and – as perhaps the only major philosopher as comfortable with Davidson as with Derrida – is impeccably well-placed to bridge and challenge both. But while many readers – especially those with strong analytic commitments – might be wary of any attempts at rapprochement, what makes this book important is precisely the way Taylor navigates such concerns, positioning himself not against analytic philosophy of language, but as refining it through an immanent critique informed both by empirical and phenomenological evidence. Rather than situating himself dogmatically within any one tradition, he instead departs orthogonally from a point before any such ‘split’ occurs, offering a synthesis that reconnects the detached concerns of philosophy’s ‘linguistic turn’ to its most ancient questions: who are we? and how should we live?
It has become a commonplace among philosophers of all persuasions that Descartes’ cogito inspired a philosophical mis-step, entrenching a dualism about mind and world that has persisted even amongst thinkers who claim to have surmounted it. But similar tensions abound in diverse philosophical fields, as fundamental questions about intentionality are expressed in vastly different ways – from asking how material processes can be about anything else in the world, to whether (or how much of) our social reality is independent of our ways of describing it.
With the appearance of various ‘post-truth’ discourses across popular culture, such questions have taken on a new urgency. But it is rarely discussed how the ethical and political debates currently spilling forth beyond the academy have at their heart implicit assumptions about what language is and does – how their tensions often reflect those between modernist emphases on logical cohesion, and postmodern concepts of social constructivism. Taylor opens his book noting that the most influential philosophers of recent times have had theories of language central to their work. As such, understanding how language works (and, just as importantly, is seen to work) becomes crucial to understanding the philosophical trajectory of the past century, and perhaps the key to reconciling the very divergent philosophical and cultural pictures of who we are in the world.
In The Language Animal, Taylor starts from the premise that Cartesian epistemology is but a symptom of the pervading modern worldview, intimately entangled with Galilean and Newtonian science, and underwritten by – as well as informing – the persisting, descriptivist picture of language that is the book’s main target. The view – which he also calls the ‘enframing’ or ‘designative’ view – holds that the elements of language are entirely distinct from the things they name, attaching arbitrarily to objects in the world that pre-exist them. This has roots in Socrates’ arguments against Cratylus, and in the Augustinian story Wittgenstein criticises as he opens his Philosophical Investigations, but Taylor finds its first full expression in the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac in the 17th and 18th centuries (and thus calls it the HLC account). These three giants worked out their theories of language in the context of the developing reductionist science, seeking to explain how words latched on to the things revealed by that science, as well as how we could ensure that the knowledge it revealed was correct.
As Taylor puts it, modern questions about language became concerned with the same epistemological issues that underpin both empirical science and today’s analytic philosophy, rooted in Galileo’s discovery that we can understand the world by breaking it down into its component parts, and Descartes’ idea that knowledge is all about how we put those parts back together. For Locke, for example, we know the world through the Ideas the mind constructs from perceptual raw material. Words are simply things we attach to those Ideas, facilitating their retention, combination, and manipulation. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘truth’ thus become a matter of ensuring that words line up correctly with Ideas that in turn line up with the phenomena they represent. Both Ideas and words are thus atomistic; a word’s “entire meaning is given in its designation” (p. 106). There can be no excess meaning. Thus for Hobbes – prefiguring much analytic philosophy – a key concern became formulating precise definitions: every term should refer unambiguously to exactly one thing, and anything else was fuzzy thinking (or poetry at best). Condillac later developed a more sophisticated version, where language – through enriching our “conceptual armoury” (p. 109) – allows us to think more things than we could without them. But he retains the logical atomism of Hobbes and Locke, where words/Ideas/concepts all correspond, at their core, to objects independent of them.
The obvious reply to all of this is that philosophy – of language and of everything else – has come a long way since Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac. And Taylor is quick to acknowledge that, especially since Frege, analytic philosophy has developed various, much more detailed, nuanced, and critical accounts of mind, language, and world. After Frege, we no longer see words as simplistically mapping onto objects or Ideas, but as referring to them through their sense. These words are not atomistic building blocks, but subject to the primacy of the sentence, where meaning is carried by structure – by a proposition’s force and mode-of-presentation. And of course, especially since Wittgenstein, we have developed a much better sense of language as public – a shared, normative system, rather than an arbitrary expression of private thought.
But for all that – argues Taylor – core features of the HLC live on in analytic philosophy, from Carnap and Ryle to Quine and Davidson. In an important sense, the tradition remains immersed in a Cartesian-derived epistemology, and aims toward the same goals – namely, at defining a form of thinking that gives reliable knowledge. Taking modern science as its paradigm, it envisions a system of true propositions, logically derivable from a set of fundamental axioms. But these aims are deceptively ambitious, says Taylor, because they take as their starting point an already highly-refined form of language, which thus distracts us from language’s true extent. Analytic philosophy takes “a late-achieved, regimented language of accurate description and inference as the key to language in general” (p. 116). For all the success of applied logic and empirical science, these practices are built on, and presuppose, a language capacity that goes much deeper than asserted propositions.
These criticisms are also not particularly new, and echo the century-old tensions that marked the ‘split’ between what would become known as analytic and continental philosophy, perhaps best exemplified by the debates in the late 1920s between Carnap and Cassirer, on the one side, and Heidegger on the other. But as estranged as the analytic and continental traditions are often seen (take the Searle-Derrida ‘debate,’ for example), their predecessors in the German academy of the early 20th Century belonged very much to a single, Neo-Kantian milieu. As many scholars (Gabriel 2003, Friedman 2000) have observed, Heidegger was as aware of and engaged with Frege as Carnap was with Husserl. To locate the sources of these unfolding disputes, Taylor takes us over a hundred years further back, to the first reactions against the Enlightenment’s elevation of rationality and its disenchantment of the natural world – Romanticism.
For Taylor, the key thinkers for a Romantic theory of language are Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Wilhelm von Humboldt (and hence, he calls his alternative strand of thought the HHH). However, just as he takes the HLC as a conception of language that has developed into a more sophisticated family of ideas, so too the HHH represents only the starting point of the contrasting view that Taylor means to work out. As such, apart from an initial discussion of Herder, he does not engage too deeply with the three thinkers. Their importance lies rather with how they bridge thought, feeling, and action, each pushing back in his own way against Enlightenment rationality through a conviction that there exists a possibility of knowledge and truth that exceeds what can be captured in reason and logic. (For Romantic thinkers more generally, art – and especially poetry – has often been seen as the route to such knowledge, and it is worth noting that Taylor conceives of The Language Animal as the first volume of a larger study, whose companion will set forth a Romantic poetics based on the theory of language he outlines here).
In contrast to the HLC’s ‘designative’ picture, the HHH sees language as constitutive of the human life-world. There are several ways that language does this. Most basically, there are the performative utterances discussed by J.L. Austin (1962), which do not describe a prior state of affairs, but actually create it – as when a judge pronounces a person ‘guilty,’ or a couple ‘husband and wife.’ But there are deeper, more subtle ways that language acts on our world. Finding le mot juste can be more than simply describing some situation, like our emotional state, but forms part of a process of actively interpreting it. When we realise that our sense of simmering uneasiness is actually ‘envy,’ to use Taylor’s example, it alters our relation to our feelings, and to those around us. We start to contextualise and deal with the emotions in new ways – repairing our relationship, perhaps, by apologising (another performative) for grumpily undermining the other’s good fortune.
Taylor argues that, as it is actually used, language has an important ‘Cratylic’ dimension – that is, that the words we coin are not arbitrary, but ‘figure’ what they signify; they are ‘the right words,’ and are recognised as such. This, too, occurs in both simple and more profound ways. In a simple case, when someone talks about the ‘key’ to a map, or the ‘key’ to understanding a theory, we instantly get what they mean. We do not need to explicitly reason out the analogy to door-unlocking instruments. The word makes sense. Examples are endless, and new ones are constantly arising in slang or with the development of new tools and techniques, both of which cast the world in new ways.
But a more profound example of ‘figuring’ is poetic speech. When T.S. Eliot says “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper,” he is not talking about the end of the world in a physical sense.2 He leads his readers out of a familiar spiritual tradition – where the idea of an apocalypse and last judgement gave meaning to life and death – into a hollow future, where death’s lonely horror voids all of life’s strivings. His words resonate when the reader hears in them something she recognises but has not yet been able to articulate. Immersed in a shared cultural milieu – and grappling with the same, finite human life – she finds herself on the same path, or at least, at the same starting point. But at the same time, the poet does not merely describe a phenomenon that is somehow ‘out there.’ In saying it, he shapes the very form of human life. If we ‘get’ the poem, we, too, sense what he means – although the full meaning requires participating in an act of interpretation that adds to our understanding of ourselves in the world and – in a deeper sense than the recognition of ‘envy’ or ‘key,’ above – affects how we make sense of our situation going forward.
The Language Animal’s central insight is that this ‘figuring’ dimension of language is possible because ‘language’ – as the essential human capability – goes far beyond a system of expressing descriptive propositions. Language encompasses our entire ‘form-of-life’ (a phrase which neatly captures Taylor’s debts to both Wittgenstein and Heidegger). One of Taylor’s recurring examples of how this works is a ‘macho biker.’ Taylor imagines (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not) that this stereotypical Hell’s Angel – swaggering towards you in leather and chains with an air of nonchalant violence after you unwittingly slighted him – probably lacks most of the vocabulary to discuss his form-of-life in Wittgensteinian or even Heideggerian terms. Nevertheless, everything about him is saturated with articulations of human meanings and values. The way he walks, his choice of clothes, how he speaks (much differently to you, the ‘dude’ who cut him off, than to the tough waitress at his favourite bar) all disclose a set of values – strength, honour, independence, for example – and a sense of a moral order. But just as important as his articulation is our own ability to ‘read’ these values, even unreflectively, as shown by our visceral reaction to his approach. For ‘language animals,’ communication and interpretation go all the way down.
We are skilled at such interpretation because we are immersed in it; to grow up human is to be socially-initiated, a process of which language-acquisition is but one element. Augustine’s mistake – repeated as recently as by Jerry Fodor, among many others – treats language-acquisition as akin to learning a second language. With second languages, we often do in fact learn words by simple, apparently arbitrary, correspondence: ‘gato’ = ‘Katz’ = ‘cat’ (although even this is not so straightforward once we move beyond common objects: ‘saudade’ ≈ ‘Sehnsucht’ ≈ … ‘a sad... sweet... longing (?)’). It is probably noteworthy here that Fodor – an atomist if there ever was one – described himself (1998) as “embarrassingly monolingual,” while Taylor is a polyglot who has spent most of his life in that most bilingual of cities, Montréal. And I suspect that most people accustomed to switching between languages would retain a similar scepticism of the idea that the expressions of one language can be fully reduced to or encapsulated by those of another.
Second-languages – and here we should include the languages of science and logic – are therefore bad analogies for understanding language’s workings and acquisition. We acquire our mother tongues through a long, immersed, interactive process, beginning almost from the moment we are born. Citing a range of developmental psychology and linguistics, Taylor links the formation of “joint attention” between infant and caregiver to Herder’s idea of Besonnenheit or ‘reflection’ – the establishment of a shared frame of reference in which things are understood as being things. But, as Austin (1962b) famously noted, such things are not just “moderate-sized... dry goods.” We have already seen how having language shapes and interprets bodily emotions, like ‘envy.’ It can only do this, argues Taylor, because it is through our embodiment that we come to understand linguistic terms at all. Concepts like ‘shame,’ he suggests, seem to be universal, and are marked by intense internal phenomenology as well as outward posture. But even more complex, developed emotions, like ‘respect,’ are mediated by bodily performances. We learn first to bow, says Taylor (p. 69), before we can explain what ‘respect’ means, which will in turn be partially defined by our experience of bowing.
In short, we enact our meanings. An important part of the story Taylor wants to tell is how our articulations of meaning have evolved from ritual performance, to spoken myth, through literature to scientific research. This reductive trajectory – which parallels the ‘subtraction story’ of A Secular Age – is not meant to imply that empirical science is co-extensive with or ought in some way to be subordinate to myth; Taylor’s is not a postmodern account of competing ‘truths.’ The refined language and method of science and logic is incontestable within its own domains. Taylor’s point is simply that those domains cannot encompass the full range of human meanings.
Because the complexities of human emotions and social life can’t be explained in terms of materialist causality, we have historically ‘figured’ them through metaphor. But the modern mind takes metaphor’s interpretative adaptability as unreliability, and this suspicion – epitomised by a thinker like Hobbes – has only grown stronger and stronger over the succeeding centuries, beyond science to ethics and even to religion (the growth of fundamentalisms since the Enlightenment involves a very modernist resistance to metaphor, resulting in reading scriptures as though they were objective, scientific texts). Taylor’s core aim, linking this book to much of his other work, is to recapture metaphor. Echoing Alasdair MacIntyre (1981), Taylor argues that human lives take meaning from their shape as narratives. We can therefore find and express meaning through the enactment of narratives – as in rituals – or through their portrayal – in works of art.
This is the most powerful conclusion of the book, but will also be the most tenuous for unsympathetic readers. Taylor’s scholarship is admirably broad, and his argument runs through several long – almost meandering – digressions, through ethics, history, and aesthetics. Such apparent departures from the book’s core topics are perhaps necessary, since its thesis is that the “full shape of the human linguistic capacity” (the book’s subtitle) cannot be appreciated, much less understood, in isolation from questions of human meaning. Nevertheless, at certain points – particularly towards the end of the book, with its discussions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Romantic ethics – Taylor leads the reader towards leaps of intuition which – for all their appeal – she may not feel confident to take.
Similarly, other ideas do not feel fully worked out. Herder’s concept of Besonnenheit plays a critical role, yet Taylor only hints at how it might work, and its potential importance for empirical psychology or the links between language and perception. From very different direction, Taylor’s attempt to explain how a sense of narrative cohesion can be conveyed by that most abstractly ephemeral of art forms – music – is a tour de force, drawing heavily on Roger Scruton’s (1997) analysis of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As thought-provoking as it is, one can’t help wondering whether the high point of classical aesthetics is not the musical equivalent of the “late-achieved, regimented language” of Enlightenment objectivity that he criticises earlier. Nothing is said of the (often participatory) practices of folk music, or other traditional arts, which might have offered a richer clue to the creation and transmission of values between art and culture. Although this particular example might be heading ‘beyond the scope’ of Taylor’s aims, it does reveal his own difficulties with defining the scope of such an immersive capacity as he claims language is. As such, although the book is in many ways the summary and pulling-together of Taylor’s varied and overlapping concerns, it is in just as many ways the source of a whole series of questions about how the human linguistic nature manifests over time and space.
But the instability of Taylor’s conclusions are in many ways appropriate. Human beings are always and everywhere interpreters: we are hermeneutic beings. Human meanings are not fixed in art, ritual, or practices, any more than they are in the natural world. It is through the reflexive, hermeneutic circle – between master and apprentice, penitent and confessor, or between artwork, audience, and critic – that meanings are established that are as dynamic as our lives. In this sense, The Language Animal is the first metamodern theory of language. Metamodernism, as characterised by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (2010), is a cultural sensibility that oscillates between the grand narratives of modernism and the de-centredness of postmodernism. In art as much as in politics, it works as an ‘informed naïvety’ that uncynically constructs values from narratives, while accepting that they are in some respects contingent, and drawn from a plurality of evolving possibilities. Like Taylor, metamodernism places a strong emphasis on the feedback nature of the dialectic, and interestingly, metamodernist artists and critics frequently call for a ‘re-enchantment’ of the world.
Both modern and postmodern political thought have their origins in epistemologies and theories of language. Perhaps the importance of this book as time passes will not be Taylor’s picture of language, but its metamodern (re)turn to an ancient way of understanding of ourselves as the language animal – the zoon logon echon – and a re-centring of human meanings in our collective journey through the world.
Josh Bergamin is a philosopher and performance artist, with a PhD from Durham University. Normally based in Edinburgh, he has spent most of 2020 locked down on Nyeri Nyeri country, Victoria, Australia.
1 Cf. his Massey lectures, The Malaise of Modernity, published as The Ethics of Authenticity (1991).
2 Although we could say he is using the Heideggerian sense.