Charles Taylor: The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity

The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity Book Cover The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity
Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press
Hardback $35.00

Reviewed by: Norman Lillegard (The University of Tennessee at Martin)

In the preface of this sprawling work, Taylor informs us that “an important part of [his] task in this book has been to refute the remaining fragments of the legacy of the HLC, by developing insights out of the HHH” (p. ix). The letters refer to two broadly different understandings of the “human linguistic capacity,” namely the understanding more or less common to Hobbes/Locke/Condillac (HLC) on the one hand, and the understanding purportedly common to Hamann/Herder/Humboldt (HHH) on the other. The later names are artfully chosen, as it turns out. Though a good deal of the argumentation in favor of HHH can be found in Wittgenstein and Heidegger and in hermeneutical philosophy more generally, the links between HHH and the significance of Herder for romantic poetics are important to Taylor’s larger project, which includes a forthcoming companion volume on “post-romantic” poetics.

HLC provide us with an “enframing” theory, a way of thinking about language in which the “language animal” has no advantage in principle over animals that lack language (i.e. non-human animals, on Taylor’s view). Language may provide additional control over life, so that fearful events can be discussed and an orientation to them achieved apart from such events. It may also enable dealings with whole classes of objects, whereas the primary possibility was previously one-on-one dealings. Without language human animals might, as Hobbes averred, have “neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace…” In a sense these are “something new” that appear with language in human life. But such advantages are distinct, Taylor argues, from the genuinely new human possibilities accounted for by the views of HHH, which he dubs “constitutive.”

Before looking more closely at this basic claim, Taylor tries to show that the view that some non-human animals are also “linguistic” is mistaken. The claims made for the linguistic capacities of various species (chimps, birds, and the like) depend upon a failure to note the essential significance of correctness to genuine linguistic behaviour. The rat who learns to identify triangles painted on a door that leads to food may indeed distinguish triangles from, say, circles. However, the correctness of his identifications is task-relative, that is, what makes them correct is that they enable getting the food. The rat is responsive to features of the figure (bounded, three-sided), but the presence of those features is not what makes his response correct. In contrast, in genuine language use it is precisely the presence of those features that make the application of “triangle” correct. Correctness of this non-task-relative type is a normative notion, a kind of notion that plays no role in the life of non-linguistic (in fact non-human) animals, however impressive their various performances may be.

This normative character of linguistic performances is effectively not recognized by the HLC views. Moreover, those views tend to assume a kind of semantic atomism. The idea has often been that words could be learned one at a time by attaching them to objects (or ideas), thereby enabling descriptions of the world. But to know how to use the word “triangle” correctly is to grasp that a triangle is not a circle or that colour or size are irrelevant to triangularity, and thus it includes the ability to grasp its use in the larger “whole” of related sentences. Frege’s insistence on the sentence as semantically basic, Wittgenstein’s attack on ostensive definition, and his emphasis on the following of rules (the normative) make similar points. However, Taylor wants to stress something he finds in Humboldt and Herder—namely a strong departure from the notion that the main purpose of language is for describing (also clearly rejected by Wittgenstein). A continuing belief in the centrality of description tends to persist in much of the contemporary philosophy that has been influenced by Frege, thereby missing how language brings us to something qualitatively new.

The language for emotions illustrates how finding words for feelings, such as “indignation,” does not merely amount to finding a label for a previously existing and demarcated item. Recognizing that “indignation” is the right word for what I feel brings with it a new emotional capacity, an “articulateness” that adds focus and clarity to life where before there was darkness and confusion. Here, “rightness” is more than semantic. The continual emphasis on description as basic, or on some base level of linguistic practice from which other levels can be derived like theorems from axioms (the notion of ‘autonomous discursive practices’), entails a failure to recognize this creative and expressive role of language. It also constitutes the main “remaining fragment” of the HLC view in much contemporary philosophy of language that Taylor wants to excise. There is a qualification however; contemporary descendants of the HLC views are able to account for the descriptive aims of scientific discourse. Taylor admits that, but there is much that the “linguistic animal” does that cannot be accounted for in terms of expansions of descriptive resources for dealing with a value-neutral nature.

Indeed, the limitations of HLC show up already in the historical and social sciences, where, in order to:

…understand these [social] phenomena, we have to understand the meaning they have for the agents concerned, the significance the footings, ethical values, and other human meanings have for them. But these are only understandable against the background of the practices from which they arise, and the words and images by which they interpret these. To treat their action as we do other parts of self-standing nature is to gravely misunderstand them (p. 287).

Taylor is focusing here on the naturwissenschaft/geisteswissenschaft contrast that has shaped debates in the social sciences and figured prominently in philosophy for quite some time. For example, the idea of constitutive rules has been used to critique the fact/value distinction (cf. Searle, Winch, etc.) and to inform hermeneutical types of anthropological inquiry. Taylor’s distinction between a “designative semantic logic” and a “constitutive semantic logic” thus continues a well established critique of covering law conceptions and related conceptions in the social sciences.

However the heart of this book is in the further development of HHH that carries the reader beyond linguistic practice, in a narrow sense, to a consideration of representational powers in poetry and other literature, and in the visual arts and music. “Representation” may in fact be misleading. Better to think in terms of “enactments” and “portrayals.” A new meaning can be “enacted” in a style of behavior (Taylor’s example is the swagger of a biker) without achieving verbal articulation. The biker’s swagger does not mean something that can be independently indicated, although the swagger itself “means something.” One might think here of ballet, which Taylor never mentions, though it would be apt for his purposes. In literature and the visual arts the meanings that become available are more than what might be “represented” (and that is true for “representational art” also). Rather they become available through portrayals. In Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf Taylor does not just observe represented dancing figures. Rather what comes to expression in the painting, and what cannot be rendered in other terms, is the foolishness of their idolatry.

The irreplaceability of artistic expressions can be understood as an extension of the search for the right word mentioned above. It is a feature of a broader “Cratylism,” i.e. the idea that certain expressions are right, not replaceable by any other expression. The Platonic Cratylus rejected the idea that the connection between a word and what it stood for was arbitrary. By way of contrast the arbitrariness of the word-object relation is an essential postulate of HLC accounts of language. We can see what this Cratylism of the HHH views comes to by reflecting on meaning in the arts, and music might provide the clearest case. The notion that all of the arts aspire to the condition of music may be understood in this way; in music it is quite obvious that nothing can replace the music itself. Written commentaries, gestures, (ballet again), formal analysis, may all aid a listener in trying to grasp “what the music is saying”, but the notion that they might replace the music itself is patently absurd:

…in one dimension of their being, portrayals offer another example, along with enactment, of meaning creation which can’t be understood simply on the model of sign and signified. A novel, a traditional painting, does represent something, but the full meaning of the work can’t be accounted for in this way. Of course, this nonrepresentational “excess” is often most obvious in music (p. 249).

In the various endeavors that could be described as “trying to get at the meaning,” questions about rightness are bound to arise. It is clear that they cannot all be answered in the straightforward way that we might answer the question whether a given use of “triangle” was right. The expansion of a discussion of linguistic capacity in the directions indicated here naturally raises the question of rightness and objectivity. Was it really indignation that I felt? Clearly it is not the case that whatever I feel is what I feel and is beyond challenge. I may come to understand what I felt as merely a kind of angry defensiveness. I can be wrong about what I feel. Similarly, I can be wrong about what was meant in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music. These possibilities of self-or-other correction imply a degree of objective rightness.

Such a fact is of particular importance where morality is concerned, where the sense that there is something beyond myself that can challenge my self-understanding seems to be essential. Sentimentalists (Hume) and rationalists seem to misconstrue what actually takes place in the struggle for moral clarity. There is no simple “approval” of benevolence, ala Hume for example. Nor is there some simple motivation called “sympathy.” Rather there is a struggle which is a response to the sense that a better life is possible, but the “emotional economy” of that struggle is complex, not reducible either to mere “surds” however strongly felt, nor to whatever motivation can arise from or be associated with an abstract principle, perhaps of a Kantian sort.

What then does motivate that struggle? Here, and elsewhere in this work, Taylor reprises some of his Sources of the Self (1989). We respond to the draw of the Platonic Good, or to the god of some religion, to a sense of a cosmic order (e.g. Stoicism), some high principle (universal respect) or to nature (Wordsworth) or to moral exemplars (Taylor mentions Nelson Mandela). These are our “moral sources.” But what provides strength for this struggle? Do these sources really impart strength, or are our “pro-attitudes” towards one or another sufficient to explain how we live and strive? Clearly, with respect to religious sources the former is believed to be the case. But even with nature some might sense, as did Wordsworth, “a motion and a spirit that . . .rolls through all things.” But what could justify such beliefs? Here, Taylor’s transcendental strategies come into play; what justifies them is the fact that without them we cannot make sense of ourselves. The more highly articulated sources (the religious ones for example) serve that purpose best. On the other hand the labors of the poet may involve a kind of struggle to make articulate, and thus more “objective,” those sources that seem on the surface to merely play on idiosyncratic sensitivities.

As in Taylor’s earlier works, there is a wealth of historical detail here that is passed over swiftly (some may think too swiftly). And some may think that the threat of historicism, or of some other kind of relativism or anti-realism is not averted by the transcendental moves. But whatever the misgivings, few will find a tour through this book unrewarding, and many will look forward to the greater specification of some of its themes in the forthcoming companion volume.