Robert Sokolowski: Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology

Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology Book Cover Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology
Robert Sokolowski
Catholic University of America Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by:  Chad Engelland (The University of Dallas)

The fourteen essays in this volume are exercises in what the author terms “applied phenomenology” (ix) in contrast to the formal analyses found in his Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. The aim of both volumes is to recover the question of being by reclaiming the truth of appearances.

The essays in this book are attempts to describe various ways in which things can appear: as pictured, quoted, measured, distinguished, explained, meant, and referred to, and also as coming to light in moral conduct. The description of each of these forms is made more vivid and exact by being placed alongside the descriptions of the others. And because appearance always involves that which appears and the one to whom it appears, my essays are meant to be not only an analysis of appearance but also a venture into the question of being and a clarification of what we are. (xiii)

The fourteen essays, arranged in six parts, cover central topics of interest to students and specialists in phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and ethics. Sokolowski exercises a sovereign philosophical voice that plainly and without fuss lays bare the being of things—and in doing so infectiously invites us to do the same.

In the first part on representations in image and in speech, Sokolowski explores ways of referring to absent things as well as to beliefs other than our own. Picturing requires a unique intentional relation that makes present something that is absent. Naming, by contrast, targets something whether present or absent without making it present in any way. Quoting allows us to target things as intended by others so that we can toggle between our own present articulation of things and those of others without, however, necessarily adopting others’ views as our own.

In the second part on coping with intelligibility, Sokolowski reflects on the explanatory power of strategically distinguishing one thing from another: making sense is not principally a matter of argument or dialectic; it is principally a matter of elucidation by identification with the appropriate kind. For example, pictures are other than quotations and sense is other than reference.

In the third part, Sokolowski details the part-whole structure of time and space and considers themes that arise in the ambit of science concerning the intentionality of timing and of measurement. He also includes a rewarding essay on the relation between the complex world in which we live and the exact one arrived at through the idealizations of science.

In the fourth part, Sokolowski turns explicitly to the philosophy of language and develops, in a phenomenological voice, the difference between sense and reference. He argues that we should “exorcise concepts” as nothing more than a baleful prejudice that, while explaining nothing, generates a host of intractable pseudo-problems. Philosophy’s habitual appeal to concepts comes from a continual failure of nerve, a continual failure to realize that we can and do refer to absent things without the mediation of some sort of present mental entity; in fact, the positing of such an entity is a matter of falling prey to what Sokolowski calls a “transcendental mirage,” a matter of thinking something is there when it is not. Instead, we can handle everything about the phenomenon of language by positing a speaker, speaking about something, to someone. The speaker presents something to someone by means of a “slant” on things. Positing concepts undermines the intentional relation to things; slant-talk reestablishes the fact that speaking is at bottom an issue of the presentation of something to someone. Sokolowski’s analysis of referring nicely displays the advantages of the phenomenological method for exploring the intentionality of naming; it defends both the integrity of ordinary ways of reference and the value of philosophical idealizations of the sort operative in mathematical logic.

In the fifth part, Sokolowski attends to the part-whole structure of sentences and images. Grammar signals not only the thoughtful activity of the speaker but also the need for the listener to undertake the same activity to achieve understanding. Despite a surface similarity between words and pictures, they present things with different conditions of satisfaction.

In the sixth and final part, Sokolowski presents a phenomenology of ethical performance, which develops themes from his Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. Abstraction stands in the way of moral understanding, which is by nature embodied in the very behavior of morally good agents: “To be able to respond to the natural law—indeed to let it become actual as law, to show by one’s actions what can be done, and thus to make others see what should be done—is to be a certain kind of person: not one who simply conforms to things set down, but one who lets the good appear, to himself and to others, in what he does” (291).

With Sokolowski, the practice of philosophy may be fruitfully understood as a matter of explaining or exhibiting intelligibility by means of carefully distinguishing one thing from another, and of doing so for ourselves and each other together. Hypothesized mental entities only gum up our understanding of language and being; exorcising them allows language to spring again to life so that the wonder-inducing operation of presentation and articulation can once again be registered and appreciated. Those who wish to follow concrete paths into the heart of being could not do better than to pick up this illuminating collection. Highly recommended. 

Constantin Noica: The Romanian Sentiment of Being

The Romanian Sentiment of Being Book Cover The Romanian Sentiment of Being
Constantin Noica. Translated by Octavian Gabor and Elena Gabor
punctum books
Paperback $23

Reviewed by: Elena Gabor (Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University) and Octavian Gabor (Professor of Philosophy at Methodist College)

Being “întru” (within) a language: Bending time and space while translating The Romanian Sentiment of Being by Constantin Noica

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z, perhaps one of the most difficult of his works, begins by his famous claim that being is said in many ways. Aristotle refers to the Categories, where he explains the various ways in which one thing is said to be. He writes about being in a language that, after all, is no longer spoken today. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced generations of philosophers who could not work in ontology without first referring to his work. The greatness of Aristotle as philosopher makes it so that when we speak of being we do it as if we were analyzing a universal idea. But is it possible that being itself always appears in a body, a language, and due to this, is always particular to a culture?

Noica’s The Romanian Sentiment of Being seems to make such a claim: being in a universal sense is only an abstraction. Being, though, is embodied, and thus it manifests particularly in a particular environment.

While this final claim may be appealing to many, a philosopher focused on metaphysical concepts would not readily agree. In 1978, existential philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995), friend of Constantin Noica (1909-1987), wrote him a short letter. The epistle ended with some words about Noica’s newly published volume, The Romanian Sentiment of Being: “Your last book is excellent; the only thing is that it could have been called just as well The Paraguayan Sentiment of Being. In your place, I would return to Logic: where, if not there, can one engage in delirium  better?”[1] Indeed, what would make the Romanian sentiment of being both unique and also interesting to other peoples?

We should not rush into believing that Noica claims that cultures have no way of communicating among themselves because of their unicity. Their particular way of being is, to use Noica’s word, întru, oriented within. However, the particularity in which they express being gives beauty to the diversity of the world. So, if we refer to one of the questions above, one reason for anyone to understand the particular way of being in Romanian culture is to further enjoy the beauty of this world. Furthermore, as Anna Marmodoro and Erasmus Mayr remind us, “metaphysical questions are not just questions about language […]. But nonetheless, natural language can be an important guide in many cases, since it usually encapsulates ways of thinking about the structure of reality which come naturally to us and which have proved useful and viable over the time the language evolved.”[2] Noica would add this: “But every language is, after all, the wisdom of the world in one of its versions. This wisdom of the world needs the particular wisdom of language in order to explore reality in all the ways and to transfer its knowledge into words.”[3]

Noica finds six ways of being in Romanian, all of them expressed grammatically in a doubling of the verb to be. These expressions are used quite often in typical interactions and feel natural to the native Romanian speaker. In English, the doubling of the verb to be poses challenges of meaning making, since English-speakers rarely employ such constructions that invite rather imprecise temporality. Here they are:

It was not to be (n-a fost să fie)

It was about to be (era să fie)

It may well be to be (va fi fiind)

It would be to be (ar fi să fie)

It is to be (este să fie)

It was to be (a fost sa fie)

The Romanian language, then, has a grammatical peculiarity in all of these cases: the doubling of the verb to be. For Noica, this is a very important philosophical aspect: all of these modulations of being are întru Being itself. Some of them, such as the first four, are moving toward Being, but they do not achieve it. The fifth one is on the border of being, while the last is accomplished being. This doubling of to be allows for both becoming and being in the same expression: the suggestion of becoming within (or întru) being. English, however, does not allow for this doubling in all of the previous expressions. We can, of course, rely on philosophical terminology and say that the six modulations of being from Romanian can be organized in the following categories: impossibility, possibility, contingency, necessity, and existence. Here, though, we lose the slight modulations taking place in Romanian, as for example the difference between va fi fiind (it may well be to be) and ar fi sa fie (it would be to be). None of these modulations expresses the fulfillment of being. The first one, though, is a region of being that is somehow exterior to it, as Noica says, while the second is a modulation that has almost all of the conditions to be, but it cannot fulfill its calling.

What is one to do in such a situation? The problem is as old as translation is. Eugenio Refini, for example, writes about Antonio Colombella, an Augustinian friar, who translated in the vernacular Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sometime at the beginning of the 15th century. In his prologue, he writes about the difficulty of the translation, pointing to the distinction between what he calls words and sense. The translator must find himself in this dichotomy: to be faithful to the words of the author (in our case, to expressing modulations of being by doubling the verb to be) or to be faithful to the sense of the ideas. It is the enduring “debate over verbum de verbo and ad sensum translations.”[4]

The beauty of Noica’s volume is that mediation and translation already happened at various levels. His text is a philosophical endeavor that deals with literary works, bringing into dialogue different approaches to culture. Translation between the philosophical language of necessity, possibility, or contingency to the folk language of children stories or to the elevated literary language of a poem considered the chef-d’oeuvre of Romanian culture make out of his book a feast of words. Indeed, “Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning.”[5] In this volume, mediation is at work in the original language prior to even encountering its English version. The children’s story and Eminescu’s poem “The Evening Star,” both of them protagonists of Noica’s philosophical thought, are not included in the original volume. Known by every Romanian reader, they appear in Noica’s text in the beauty of his interpretation only. The English edition could not have rendered this mediation without bringing forward the texts themselves, and so readers will find original, new translations of both these jewels of Romanian thought.

It is here that we can rediscover the dialogical nature of translation, as some scholars call it: the translator must attempt to live in two cultures at the same time, and transfer one’s way of being from one culture to another. How can this be done, especially since this particular work raises deeper problems, because it is not directly about universal philosophical problems, which would offer a common philosophical language, but it is rather about knowing the Romanian soul itself, the Romanian expression of being in the world. Implicitly, the question becomes, how can one know the soul of a people?

Folktales are the source of inspiration for Noica. Even Eminescu’s poem, “The Evening Star,” has a folktale as its origin, Noica says. The story is about a young princess who falls in love with the Evening Star and calls upon him every night. He descends from heaven and invites her to take a place next to him:

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!

I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride sincere.

She refuses, inviting him to give up his immortality instead. At the end, it is a story of unfulfillment of being. The maiden asks the Evening Star to offer her necessity: the individual nature asks from the general to receive a law. The way she asks for it and the way he can offer it do not match, so the story is a failed encounter between contingency and necessity.

What do thou care, oh, face of clay,

If it’s me or some other…

In narrow circle you relive,

Your luck is daily master,

But I, in my world, always live

Immortal and cold aster.

However, Noica says, the story shows that, at least, the two called each other. While the poem shows unfulfillment in this relationship, Noica believes fulfillment is shown in the second example, a centuries old folk story, Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, first documented and published by Petre Ispirescu in the 19th century and identified with the Romanian ethos ever since.

As Noica says, the story is quite straightforward and down to earth in the way it accounts for the essence of the activity of being.

I don’t know another work in prose of the Romanian genius that has so much substance, from the first to the last word, and such rigorous writing or saying. I wouldn’t dare to interpret any other Romanian work in prose, verse by verse, as I plan on doing, […]—the only one which does not have a positive ending, as it has been observed, and still the only one that expresses, not indirectly, as any other fairytale, but directly, the fulness, the measure, and the truth of that which can be called: being.[6]

Here is a quick summary of the story: a child of a royal couple cries from within his mother’s womb, not wanting to be born into this world of becoming. His father makes him many earthly promises, he offers him the entire world itself and the most beautiful wife he could have, but the baby is not convinced. The only promise that makes him be born is ageless youth and deathless life.

When he grows up, he searches for it himself, since the father reveals he cannot offer it after all. After many trials, he reaches the realm of ageless life and dwells there without time. One day, however, he is struck by memory and wants to go back. Regardless of the advice from the princesses of the realm, he goes back to his parents’ castle, finds that centuries have passed and everything is changed, and death, his own death, finally finds him and slaps him dead.

Reading it or trying to translate it, one can feel how verb-driven and action-oriented the narrative is. In two-three sentences the reader is already in Fat-Frumos’ next stage of life. The story is out of balance at times, with certain less important details being given more space than key magical events in the prince’s journey. You almost get a sense that the story was captured from a capricious storyteller, as if told while doing some other activity. The text is only four pages and a half long, single spaced, but it contains the whole life of a soul inside and outside time. An example of “outside time” is when the unborn soul of the prince refuses to be born and to begin his linear temporal lifepath before his father promises him eternity in the offering of ageless youth and deathless life. The story normalizes a relative view of time long before Albert Einstein wrote about the relativity of space/time. The few pages of this folk tale contain the entire life story of Fat Frumos with accelerations and decelerations, with ascensions and descensions both physical (in the magical flight of the horse) and emotional (sadness and happiness). Memory also transcends the physical body, since the nine-month-old fetus remembers what he was promised before becoming an egg in his mother’s womb. As part of the process of translation, the translator has to believe that the English reader will accept this Romanian story of being that bends time and space without much explanation.

And this is where knowledge comes in: reading the English translation of “Ageless Youth and Deathless Life” can stimulate our own reflecting on the detours we take in life, the importance of challenges and encounters that affect us for decades and even impact how we die. This centuries old fairytale has the potential to be not just an old Romanian folk story but a story of the human soul, with universal appeal and resonance.

Perhaps this volume reminds us that we don’t need to be universalists or relativists to be able to know and accept others. One doesn’t have to be Romanian to know a Romanian, just like one doesn’t need to be Russian to understand Dostoevsky. This doesn’t mean that our knowledge of Dostoevsky is the same with the knowledge a Russian or someone else may have of him. But this is perfectly fine. It is our or your personal knowledge of him—not in a relativist sense, but rather in a truly personal fashion. This means that one can know the Romanian “soul” by accepting who one is, a unique person that belongs to a unique people, American, Ukrainian, Indian, or Paraguayan. Once we know where we come from, once we know how we greet every morning of our lives, we can have a genuine relationship with anyone else.

[1] Emil Cioran. 1995. Scrisori către cei de acasă (Letters for Those Who Remained Home). Bucureşti: Humanitas, p. 310.

[2] Aristotle. 2019. Metaphysics: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates and Their History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 8.

[3] C. Noica, The Romanian Sentiment of Being. Punctum Books, 2022, p. 58. The one term/idea that has been at the core of our work proceeds from Noica’s philosophy. The Romanian notion of întru can be rendered in English by using both “within” and “toward.” “Întru” originates from the Latin prefix intro (to the inside, inward—as in, for example, the English word “introduction”: intro—inward + ducere—to lead). Alistair Ian Blyth has translated the title of Devenirea întru fiinţă as Becoming within Being (Marquette University Press, 2009). Noica’s “întru” captures the idea that becoming does not only take place within a nature of something, but also always toward a nature: it is perhaps the path a translation takes, a becoming into something that it already is, but not yet manifested prior to the completion of a project.

[4] Eugenio Refini. 2020. The Vernacular Aristotle, Cambridge University Press, p. 101.

[5] Anthony J. Liddicoat. 2016. Translation as intercultural mediation: Setting the scene, Perspectives, 24:3, 347-353, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2015.1125934

[6] C. Noica, op. cit., p. 122.

Christoph Staub: Reden über etwas: Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur Sprachphänomenologie, Academia, 2021

Reden über etwas: Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur Sprachphänomenologie Book Cover Reden über etwas: Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur Sprachphänomenologie
Philosophische Theorie (Band 3)
Christoph Staub
Hardback 44,00 €

Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, Sébastien Richard (Eds.): Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021

Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy Book Cover Philosophy of Language in the Brentano School: Reassessing the Brentanian Legacy
History of Analytic Philosophy
Arnaud Dewalque, Charlotte Gauvry, Sébastien Richard (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 114,39 €
XVII, 322

Jesús Padilla Gálvez, Margit Gaffal (Eds.): Intentionality and Action, De Gruyter, 2017

Intentionality and Action Book Cover Intentionality and Action
Jesús Padilla Gálvez, Margit Gaffal (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardcover 79.95 €

Anton Marty: Sur l’origine du langage, Éditions Hermann, 2017

Sur l'origine du langage Book Cover Sur l'origine du langage
Le Bel Aujourd'hui
Anton Marty
Éditions Hermann
Broché 25,00 €

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
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Hardcover, $35

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[1] (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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]  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.”[5]

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.[6]

            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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] 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:

[4] 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).

[5] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorian Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 138; Hua. I, 165.

[6] 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.