There is gold in Charles Taylor's new work on language—a pity it's so hard to findby Julian Baggini / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
One of the paradoxes of creativity is that originality tends towards sameness and similarity. What makes a Wagner opera stand out from others is also what makes it unmistakably Wagnerian.
Philosophy is no different. Its greatest practitioners have a singular vision which forms a coherent whole, and so all their individual works tend to be variations on a theme. The more of that whole we have already seen, the more familiar new parts will already seem, which is certainly the case with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s latest work, The Language Animal.
Taylor, the author of Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), has consistently argued against the kind of reductive naturalism that attempts to divide the world into discrete atoms of understanding that require no context, no history, no narrative. While such pure, pared-down accounts might work for some natural sciences, it is a hopelessly simplistic way of understanding the domain of human meanings and values. To get a grip on that, we need to be attentive to the ways in which all ideas are embedded in particularities of culture and history, specificities that we ignore or pretend don’t exist at our peril.
Taylor’s work is also embedded in his narrative, his intellectual history, which makes the central ideas of The Language Animal broadly predictable. He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: “The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life.”
The real interest of the book is in how Taylor develops this idea. He starts with a distinction between what he calls “designative” (or sometimes “enframing”) and “constitutive” views of language. Designative views work on the assumption that things in the world and ideas in the head are given, and the job of language is simply to label them. Once we have enough such linguistic raw materials, we can create larger units of meaning, such as sentences, and so…