The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Reviewed by: W. Clark Wolf (Department of Philosophy, Marquette University)
Charles Taylor’s new book places the meaning-making capacity of language in service of a philosophical anthropology that has been at the heart of his influential work for decades. In general, Taylor’s hermeneutical approach to philosophy emphasizes the essential character of “human meanings” for any explanation of our world. Taylor has long been concerned that the naturalistic approach dominate in mainstream analytic philosophy has no room to accommodate these uniquely human – “metabiological” – meanings. His new book suggests that a central aspect of the naturalistic failure to understand the human world is due to a faulty conception of language that has been dominant since Frege, and indeed for a lot longer. Taylor places blame on the empiricist view of language common to Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac (HLC). Since, as Taylor argues, language plays an indispensable role in the constitution of the human world (especially in its ubiquitous normativity), an impoverished view of language has resulted in an impoverished conception of ourselves. Taylor proposes that an alternative historical tradition of reflection on language—for which he credits especially Hamann, Herder, and Humbolt (HHH), but which includes the Romantics and phenomenological thinkers like Heidegger as well—provides an understanding of language that simultaneously underlies an adequate philosophical anthropology. Using insights from this tradition as well as his own gift for apt description, Taylor attempts to demonstrate what mainstream philosophical reflection on language has missed and what an appreciation of “the full shape of the linguistic capacity” has to say about the kind of “animal” we are.
The Basic Argument
The core argument of the book concerns the distinction between the “designative” and “constitutive” function of language. Taylor argues that both the HLC tradition of linguistic thinking as well as post-Fregean philosophy of language rely on a model of language wherein its primary (even exclusive) function is to provide signs for designating objects. Accordingly, the existence and characteristics of which can be noticed and known quite independently of those signs. Taylor calls this an “enframing” theory of language, since here language merely puts a framework of human life in place that exists without its help (p. 3). The central doctrine of the enframing theory is that words are signs for prior thoughts. Thus, according to HLC, words are at best obtrusive windows into thought, necessary expedients. This view works hand in hand with a firm rejection of any “Cratylean” dimension to language, a sense that words can “fit” the things they express. Though Taylor acknowledges the modifications to the early modern conception of language within analytic philosophy, he thinks that the mainstream tradition has preserved the central elements of that doctrine. Despite Frege’s appreciation of the fact that words themselves cannot function as signs or meanings of anything apart from the context of a sentence or proposition, analytic philosophy maintained a primarily epistemological interest in language (p. 117), and for this reason seemed only or primarily to notice its assertive dimension. As Robert Brandom puts it, the “assertion game” of language is the one that could be played “though one played no other” (p. 127). Thus, even if other aspects of language are acknowledged, they turn out to be subordinate to its role of enabling the communication of veridical thoughts. According to Taylor, this perpetuates the notion that the function of language is merely to designate what is otherwise available.
Happily, Taylor contends that this impoverished view of language is not the only one on offer. Developed partially in response to the designative view as developed by Locke and Condillac, thinkers like Hamann and Herder inaugurated a conception of language which recognizes its constitutive dimension. Taylor explains this idea using the concept of “articulation,” which was especially significant for a later figure in this tradition, Wilhelm von Humboldt. To articulate, for Taylor, is not simply to express some feature of the world already in the open, but to make it possible to notice this feature in the first place. As Humboldt took pains to demonstrate, human speech uniquely allows for the inscription of differences that allows for the production of diverse thoughts (an insight further developed by Saussure). For this reason, a determinate thought cannot precede a word as its mere sign, but the thought can only emerge coevally with the articulation of the word. If thought does not precede a merely instrumental language, language itself must play a productive role. Taylor argues that it is “human meanings” that are constituted by language.
Human meanings are the modes of significance possible for us on a “metabiological” level, integral features of our ordinary lives such as music, morality, and political community. In each of these cases, language (understood in a broad sense) plays a role in “enacting” a meaning that becomes bound to a certain feature of life, but goes beyond anything merely given. Language for Taylor is thus the clue for the discontinuity between ourselves and the “extralinguistic” or natural world. As he writes,
“We can’t explain language by the function it plays within a pre- or extralinguistically conceived framework of human life, because language through constituting the semantic dimension transforms any such framework, giving us new feelings, new desires, new goals, new relationships, and introduces a dimension of strong value. Language can only be explained through a radical discontinuity with the extralinguistic” (p. 33).
In a strong sense, for Taylor, language provides the basis for all human meanings that transcend our mere naturalness. This is why I suggest that Taylor here proposes something like the foundation of a “philosophical anthropology.”
Taylor’s critical task is to demonstrate the weaknesses of the “enframing” theory as an account of language as it actually features in human life. His positive task is to convince us of how the productive and constitutive function of language is an ever-present (but easily ignored) dimension of ordinary life. To address these tasks, the book is divided into three parts.
Part I, “Language as Constitutive,” argues for the existence of a constitutive dimension of language in contrast to a merely designative function. Taylor informs his perspective here both with classic and contemporary linguistic theory, as well as onto-genetic accounts of language development in children. This research shows that the HLC account of language has underestimated the way in which language is embedded and embodied in broader contexts of human life. Taylor emphasizes, for example, the way language figures in human life as essentially accompanied by bodily gesture and social ritual. The empiricist conception of language as designative simply has no room for such considerations, but this deprives it of explanatory and even descriptive power. The HLC conception of language is fed by a “narrow diet of examples.”
Part II, “From Descriptive to Constitutive,” begins by addressing more specifically the historical roots of the “enframing” theory of language as it originates in empiricism. For Taylor, the key element of this theory lies in its commitment to the notion that thought is prior to language, so that language should be at best an “unobtrusive” window into individual minds. Taylor then considers the merits of Frege’s revolutionary work in the philosophy of language but suggests that, despite crucial innovations, he (and the tradition following him) preserved two mistakes of the empiricists. First, the post-Fregean tradition continues to suppose that words denote features of the world that have already come to our attention (p. 133). In this sense, language does not constitute genuinely new meanings. Second, the analytic tradition ignores what Taylor calls the “Cratylean” dimension of language. By this, Taylor means the ability of language to seem somehow “fitting” to the world. We can experience a metaphor, for example, as getting it right, as articulating a new aspect of things that we couldn’t have noticed without its help (p. 137). Taylor continues Part II by giving a positive account of the constitutive dimension of language that is missed by the HLC tradition. His focus is on what he calls “human meanings,” which always belonging within a network of significance for us. Human meanings are thus intimately interconnected with our practices, values, and emotions. Since language does not describe human meanings that exist prior to their linguistic articulation, Taylor shows that this dimension simply cannot be captured by a designative view of language.
The final part, “Further Applications,” takes a look at how appreciating the constitutive dimension of language helps to understand two more specific issues. Taylor first discusses a thesis central to Paul Ricoeur’s work, that narrative is hermeneutically irreplaceable. That is, narrative understanding cannot be reproduced in the temporally neutral language of facts. This shows how the insights gained from a literary work, for example, cannot be stated without reference to narrative context that gave them rise. The final chapter addresses the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis that each language creates an incommensurable conceptual world, or “linguistic relativism.” Taylor’s distinction between the designative and constitutive dimensions of language enables him to take a nuanced view of this thesis. He suggests that the application of linguistic relativism to designative contexts is unconvincing, that where language serves as a vehicle for signifying objects, different practices do not support the idea of radically different linguistic worlds. On the other hand, in language’s constitutive dimension, where elements of our “ontology” are brought to light by our linguistic practices, we should expect a measure of incommensurability (325). This serves as a warning to the “imperialistic” temptations of enframing theories of language (like Davidson’s, for example), which suppose that we can understand someone’s language without a thick mutual understanding.
The Humanization of “Meaning”
Taylor’s book serves less to introduce a totally new approach to the philosophy of language or “philosophical anthropology” as to remind of the founding insights of the hermeneutical tradition and to provide them with further support, especially from recent empirical studies. I hesitate to say that those familiar with the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer on language, not to mention the prior work of Taylor himself, will find little of groundbreaking significance here. Moreover, despite Taylor’s passing mentions of Ernst Cassirer’s theory of “symbolic forms,” Cassirer himself develops a more systematic and arguably more persuasive account of the unique function of “human meaning” in the constitution of culture and knowledge. This is only to say that the function of Taylor’s book is pedagogical and perhaps therapeutic, rather than didactic. The virtue of Taylor’s writing is the way he “assembles reminders” for the sake of his purpose (as Wittgenstein describes the work of a philosopher). That is, Taylor tells us what we already know but easily forget, especially amidst the tendency to over-intellectualize so tempting to philosophy. Taylor’s work is therapeutic in the way he attempts to reconcile us to our way of life in the “immanent frame.” Taylor wants us to notice how we already live, rather than to change our lives. His anti-naturalist stance relies simply on the sense that a de-humanizing theory requires forgetting the way in which we “always already” depend on a structure of human meanings that cannot be explained from the outside. While Taylor’s book may not be obligatory for the specialist, it is rewarding for the sympathetic enthusiast as well as the hermeneutical neophyte.
Nevertheless, I think there are significant causes for concern with Taylor’s project. I will discuss a few briefly. First, Taylor’s work exemplifies a commitment to a hermeneutical style of philosophy that may strike phenomenologically (not to mention analytically) oriented readers as lacking method. While Husserl’s phenomenology employs a descriptive method in service of the elucidation of “essences” or eidetic invariances, Taylor’s hermeneutics seems to license the use of anecdotal description for any generic project of sense-making or understanding. As Taylor describes hermeneutical reason, it is characterized by drawing together a “constellation” of meanings within some larger whole, against which the parts find greater significance (pp. 317-18). This implies, to a certain extent, that nothing is off-limits for Taylor. Anything, so long as it can claim to be a part of the whole under consideration, can make a demand to be explained. In particular, Taylor’s approach allows him to include a number of surprising features under the banner of language—feelings, gestures, rituals, music, etc.—that are obviously connected with the phenomenon of language in ordinary life, but don’t seem to be essential to a conceptual articulation of language. Taylor can then condemn rival accounts of language for failing to include such elements in their consideration, but their inclusion seems dependent on a holism so broad it starts to spread thin. Taylor seems to forget that that hermeneutical holism can be maintained even while it is bracketed in favor of topical specificity. On occasion, Taylor’s criticisms of rival philosophers amount to a complaint that they are not doing everything all at once.
A second concern relates to Taylor’s concept of “human meanings,” the central target of his book. Taylor’s concept of human meanings seems vague and this almost as a matter of principle. Namely, Taylor resists any distinction between the conceptual articulation of human meanings from their embodiment in human practice. To speak of “human meaning” is to speak of “the significance things have for us” (p. 179), and this in a way that seems viciously subjectivist. While one can agree with Taylor concerning way the genesis of human meanings is coeval with their embodied “enactment,” this does not imply that these human meanings cannot be discussed on a level of abstraction (our rightful caution of this word should not deny it a legitimate place in thought). Failure to distinguish the conceptual level from the mode of its embodiment leads Taylor to bind human meanings to a thorough vagueness or indeterminacy. It is because he does not allow for an (at least notional) abstraction of conceptual meaning that he can say of human meanings, “These meanings cannot escape the circles which help determine their significance; and these circles are always changing. Hence they defy final and decisive definition” (p. 257). Taylor means that our inevitably human concepts concerning morality, mind, custom, and language itself always resist genuine determinacy, since they are bound to personal significance. This seems to reinstate a stereotypical contrast between rationalistic science and fuzzy humanism. Taylor fails to recognize the legitimate rational stratum in human meanings, which is precisely necessary for the critical evaluation of such meanings.
It is here that Husserlian phenomenology holds out a promise. For Husserl, the eidetic clarification of fundamental concepts is not restricted to those that figure in “hard” natural sciences, but includes those that figure in the “life-world” just as well. Husserl writes,
“As regards this, nothing prevents starting at first quite concretely with the human life-world around us, and with man himself as essentially related to this our surrounding world, and exploring, indeed purely intuitively, the extremely copius and never-discovered Apriori of any such surrounding world whatever, taking this Apriori as the point of departure for a systematic explication of human existence and of world strata that disclose themselves correlatively with the latter.”
For Husserl, the natural human starting point provides the basic material for inquiry, but phenomenological inquiry employs it for the constitution of clarified concepts (though they are founded intuitively). My concern with Taylor’s understanding of human meanings is that he takes their naïve and unclarified role in human life as their ultimate truth. His account leads us to resist ultimate clarification of these meanings, since such a clarification could only abstract from the particular contexts in which these meanings have their genetic origin for us. Taylor’s humanization of meaning is a shelter for the vagueness of meaning, while Husserl suggests that the normatively structured concepts of the human world are those that ought to be most clear.
In short, the fact that language (even taken in Taylor’s broad sense) helps constitute a world for us that goes beyond the reach of natural science does not have to have the consequence that Taylor suggests, that this world is one that can be felt but not conceptually grasped. This is of course a Hegelian point, and, from that point of view, it seems telling that Taylor’s Romantic turn has led him to undervalue conceptuality. We have seen that this puts Taylor at odds with a Husserlian conception of phenomenology as well. Still, while Taylor’s work will do little to sway those with rationalist leanings, he provides a thorough and engaging account of an embodied approach to language, meaning, and human life. His book is especially recommended as an insightful reminder of the ways in which we inhabit a world which larger depends on our own making.
 See Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, trans. Peter Heath, ed. Michael Losonsky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), §§ 8-10.
 This tendency of Taylor’s makes a close analogy with Ernst Cassirer’s use of his philosophy of “symbolic forms” as the basis for a philosophical anthropology in his An Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944). Taylor often alludes to Cassirer’s notion of symbolic forms, but the influence is clear throughout. Cassirer, too, uses the inspiration of the linguistic theories of Herder and Humboldt his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1: Language, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).
 I will forgo the typical chapter-by-chapter summary, a version of which is easily accessible in Michael Forster’s review of the same book: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/69603-the-language-animal-the-full-shape-of-the-human-linguistic-capacity/.
 See especially, Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977); Charles Taylor, “Language and Human Nature” and “Theories of Meaning,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
 Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorian Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 138; Hua. I, 165.
 Notice that just later in Husserl’s text we find the conceptual aim of his investigations clarified: “Thus the investigations concerning the transcendental constitution of the world, which we have roughly indicated in these meditations, are precisely the beginning of a radical clarification of the sense and origin (or of the sense in consequence of the origin) of the concepts: world, Nature, space, time, psychophysical being, man, psyche, animate organism, social community, culture, and so forth.” Ibid., 154; Hua. I, 180.