Magazine | May 23, 2016, Issue

I Speak, Therefore I Am

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.

Those assumptions are as follows. First, language essentially functions to describe and convey information about objects that exist independently of language and that come to our attention before we name them. Second, metaphorical language adds nothing to the description of objective reality but merely conveys our subjective reactions to it. Third, the objects about which language conveys information should be understood in a metaphysically restrictive way — for example, as being reducible to what is physical, or to what is empirically detectable. Fourth, correct descriptions of reality can be given only from the third-person perspective, rather than from the first-person point of view of the human observer.

Taylor does not deny that language conceived of in this HLC manner has its place. It is obviously appropriate to scientific modes of description. But it does not do justice to moral, aesthetic, religious, political, literary, and cultural discourse. Notoriously, logical positivism dismissed theological and ethical language as strictly meaningless or devoid of cognitive content. Most thinkers in the HLC tradition would not go that far, but they nevertheless inevitably fail fully to capture the aspects of reality conveyed in these non-scientific modes of discourse. In particular, the HLC account of language fails, ironically, to capture the full reality of language users themselves — the flesh-and-blood human beings who are not only scientists but also moral agents, appreciators of beauty, political actors, cultural innovators, and so on.

In opposition to the HLC tradition stands an alternative approach that emphasizes what Taylor calls the “constitutive” and “figuring” aspects of language. It traces historically back to thinkers including Hamann, Herder, and Humboldt (after whom Taylor labels it the “HHH” conception of language), and its modern representatives include (among others) Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty. This rival tradition is the one Taylor champions.

The HHH tradition emphasizes, first of all, that language users are not disembodied minds that merely passively take in information about preexisting objects and then apply labels to them. Rather, they are essentially embodied, and their grasp of the meanings of terms involves various kinds of behavior, including active interaction with the things the terms refer to. We grasp the meanings of words such as “run,” “hammer,” and “apple” in part by virtue of running, using hammers, and eating apples. The use of linguistic expressions is also continuous with gestures, body language, habits, and other seemingly non-linguistic bodily phenomena.

Furthermore, the introduction and use of linguistic expressions sometimes plays a role in actively creating or constituting the phenomena to which the expressions refer. For example, notions such as that of living a “meaningless” life, or of being “cool,” or of being a “dandy,” came into being in part by virtue of the very introduction of these terms into our language. The terms do not describe some reality that entirely preexisted these expressions’ having “caught on” within the community of language users. Certain individual speech acts can also bring into being the realities they describe. For example, someone with the authority to do so can, by uttering the words “I now pronounce you man and wife” under the right circumstances, bring a marriage into existence.

The HHH tradition also emphasizes the irreducible role that metaphor plays in capturing certain features of reality. For example, we often speak of one class of things (dogs, say) falling within a larger class (pets), or of being in love, or of trying to get out of a bad situation. In all of these cases we are applying a “container” metaphor, and it is hard to see how we could convey the ideas in question without it.

From the HHH point of view, the HLC tradition’s empiricist or physicalist metaphysical restrictions, and its insistence that reality can be described only from the third-person perspective, are simply dogmatic and not true to the facts. Actual human life — including the practice of scientists themselves — cannot be understood except in a “hermeneutical” way, one that traces out the interconnected meanings that we grasp only from the first-person point of view. Taylor notes that the HLC tradition has been hypnotized by the successes of post-Galilean science, which deliberately excludes from its picture of nature Aristotle’s notion of final cause or inherent purpose. Human purposes and meanings have tended to go out the window with it, so that the HLC approach to language has seemed, to those beholden to scientism, to be unavoidable. But this fallaciously supposes that, because the scientific mode of description has tremendous utility in understanding some aspects of reality, it must suffice for all aspects.

Taylor ends by calling for a return to Aristotle’s conception of man as a rational animal, emphasizing that what he calls “the full shape of the human linguistic capacity,” rather than the truncated HLC account, must inform our understanding of what rationality involves.

Taylor’s argument is salutary and powerful. His erudition is impressive, and the rich diet of examples he assembles poses a serious challenge to facile reductionist accounts of language and of human nature. On the downside, he can be somewhat prolix, and his arguments are sometimes too sketchy, set out in a manner that is highly suggestive but that more-stubborn opponents are unlikely to find compelling.

There are also some surprising gaps in Taylor’s argument. Amazingly (especially given Taylor’s Catholicism), he says nothing about the theory of the analogical use of language famously associated with Thomas Aquinas and developed by later Thomists. Think of the way we use the word “good” to describe a meal, a book, and a human being. The term does not mean exactly the same thing in each case — the goodness of a meal is very different from that of a book, and both are very different from the goodness of a morally virtuous person. But that doesn’t mean we are speaking metaphorically or non-literally when we use the same word in these cases. Rather, we are speaking analogically, in Aquinas’s sense. We are saying that in the meal there is something that is analogous to the goodness of a book, analogous to the goodness of a person, and so forth.

Like metaphor, analogy greatly expands the expressive power of language, but unlike metaphor, it is literal rather than figurative. Accordingly, recourse to the Thomistic account of analogy can help rescue Taylor, and the HHH approach in general, from the charge of obscurantism, which the HLC tradition is bound to fling at it.

Another problem is that Taylor does not challenge (and indeed at one point even seems to concede) the assumption that post-Galilean science gives us an exhaustive account of the natural world. Thomists and other Aristotelians would deny this and maintain that, while the description of nature that physical science affords is correct as far as it goes, it is nevertheless incomplete and needs supplementation by metaphysics. Despite his expressed sympathy for the classical Platonist and Aristotelian traditions in philosophy, Taylor stops short of endorsing, much less defending, any such metaphysics.

This threatens to open him up once again to the charge of obscurantism. If (as he at least implicitly seems to concede) the physical world in general really is entirely devoid of any purposes or meanings whatsoever, then how could genuine, irreducible purposes and meanings ever come to arise in this one tiny pocket of nature that we call the human world? To concede that nature in general is devoid of purposes and meanings makes it very difficult to resist the conclusion that the human purposes and meanings Taylor wants to affirm are illusory.

But then, Taylor purports only to be making a first step in the recovery of the full range of our linguistic capacity, and he promises a follow-up volume. Judging from his first word, we are well advised to keep our ears attuned to his last word.

– Mr. Feser’s most recent book is Neo-Scholastic Essays.

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