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I Speak, Therefore I Am

by Edward Feser

The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, by Charles Taylor (Belknap, 368 pp., $35)

Newspeak is the artificial, regimented, highly condensed language of the totalitarian society of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. So reduced is its expressive power that certain ideas easily conveyable in (say) ordinary English become, for the Newspeaker, unsayable, and ultimately unthinkable. That is, of course, exactly what its creators intend.

Philosopher Charles Taylor does not mention Newspeak in The Language Animal, which is odd, because it is an apt and obvious analogy for the highly influential but deeply flawed conception of language he devotes the book to criticizing. Perhaps he is being politic; certainly the target of his attack has had some eminent defenders. Taylor labels it the “designative” or “enframing” conception of language and traces it to thinkers including Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac (after whom he also dubs it the “HLC” approach to language). Its modern representatives include (among others) the logical-positivist philosophers of the Vienna Circle. Taylor thinks its deepest assumptions are taken for granted even by many contemporary theorists of language who are otherwise critical of this tradition.

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