How words shape our world

There is gold in Charles Taylor's new work on language—a pity it's so hard to find
March 24, 2016


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 on, up to the greatest works of literature or philosophy.

This simplistic view is another example of the “empiricist atomism of experience” that Taylor abhors. He agrees that “speech is the expression of thought,” but insists “it isn’t simply an outer clothing for what could exist independently.” The broadly Wittgensteinian alternative he offers to this reductionism is a kind of holism, in which the meanings of words hang together in complex webs in which culture and semantics cannot be disentangled. “A word only has meaning within a lexicon and a context of language practices,” he writes, “which are ultimately embedded in a form of life.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, this view means that you can never truly understand a word or a sentence in isolation from the society and language it belongs to. The cultural background is always needed to make sense of the linguistic foreground. Hence our very ability to understand anything depends on our being members of a community where meaning is possible. The Cartesian idea that the individual ego comes first has to be inverted, and we must “see self-awareness as emerging out of a prior intersubjective take on things.” That, incidentally, helps explain why spoken dialogue was historically prior to inner monologue.

Another aspect of the constitutive nature of language is that as we acquire new words, we also acquire new ways of seeing the world that can profoundly alter our experience of it. Sometimes this is trivial, such as when we learn to distinguish elms and oaks. But when we come to new understandings of the possible forms of love or freedom, for example, our expanded articulacy changes the form of our experience in life-changing and even society-changing ways. When we take a word like “marriage” and extend its possible use to same-sex couples, we change what is actually possible in the world. This is what Taylor means when he says: “Discovery and invention are two sides of the same coin: we devise an expression which allows what we are striving to encompass to appear.”

This challenges the way in which moral progress is often characterised. For example, it baffles many of us today that although the constitution of the United States decreed that all men were created equal, it took so long for them to realise African-Americans were men too. But this is to fall for the myth that the values we now uphold already existed before we coined terms for them, or at least changed the scope of the terms we had. As Taylor puts it: “We persuade ourselves that equality always meant this, and that the minority who controlled things were just being hypocritical.” Moral change is therefore deeply connected with—and even partly driven by—semantic change.

These, like most of the positive arguments Taylor makes, are important and persuasive. That’s what makes it such a shame that this is a rambling and repetitive dog’s dinner of a book, albeit one made from the leftovers of a three-star Michelin kitchen. This is especially frustrating because Taylor has plenty of moments of clarity and memorable turns of phrase. He just needs a tougher editor.

There is also, however, a substantive rather than merely stylistic reason why this book is neither as readable nor as convincing as it could be. Like most of his peers, Taylor places his arguments in the context of local debates between professional academics. For example, he attacks the errors of “the mainstream of post-Fregean analytic philosophy,” but even if we set aside that this mainstream is stuck in the 20th-century Oxford of his graduate days, engaging in narrow debates with other philosophers is not how the greats of the past worked. Immanuel Kant, David Hume and René Descartes were perfectly familiar with the debates of their day and would at times refer to them. But for the most part, they set out their positive arguments to be assessed on their own merits. Taylor should have followed suit.

Picking fights often leads to a bloody nose and Taylor will provoke many unnecessary counter-blows, especially from “naturalists,” those who hold that the natural world is all that there is. Taylor—a practising Roman Catholic—underestimates the sophistication of naturalist thinking, writing as though to maintain that all that exists comes within the purview of nature is necessarily to reduce all the richness of human life to the interaction of atoms. But naturalism is not the same as scientism: the view that the natural sciences provide the only reliable and meaningful ways to understand the world.

This leads Taylor to make some unwarranted claims, such that naturalistic accounts leave morality as an “epiphenomenon”: a kind of useless by-product of natural selection. However, plenty of people think that we can explain how morality arose without recourse to anything outside nature, but do not therefore conclude it is just an epiphenomenon. Take Patricia Churchland, often caricatured as a madly reductive materialist. She believes that by studying the brain we can understand the “neural platform” on which morality rests, but even she denies that this debunks morality or shows it to be a kind of illusion. Ironically, it is Taylor, rather than most naturalists, who presents an overly reductive view of science, failing to see how it has moved on from a crude version of the Newtonian world view and has embraced complexity theory and systems biology, with their multiple levels of explanation.

This is a pity, because naturalists could find much to agree with Taylor. Take his arguments about ethics. He argues that all ethical outlooks share a common structure in which we experience a kind of call, divine or inner, which requires us to seek with varying success to overcome our limitations and blindness. To be open to this call requires that we can recognise “something as right or worthy, and this recognition cannot be dispassionate.” Emotion and empathy are thus central to moral reasoning.
"Despite the superficial similarities between modern cultures, where we all drink Coca-Cola and eat at McDonald's, we are frequently opaque to each other"
This presents a challenge to those who would maintain that reason is of its nature dispassionate and suggests that more needs to be said about what passionate reason looks like. But instead of developing this positive point he labours the negative one, targeting Hume, who he says was “right in seeing that our moral convictions originate in felt intuitions; but wrong in thinking that these intuitions are immune to reason.” I would question this is the right way to read Hume, but even if it is, he was writing nearly 300 years ago. Many of the naturalists who self-consciously follow in his footsteps would have no problem accepting that Hume made mistakes, while insisting that his main insights are compatible with granting reason a greater role in ethics.

Towards the end of the book, Taylor says a little more about the wider implications of his view that “differences in lexicon and grammar require that we pay attention to different things.” While this might be unimportant when it comes to words for snow, it gets more significant when we are thinking about metaphysics, value and meaning. Despite the superficial similarities between modern cultures, where we all drink Coca-Cola and eat at McDonald’s, “it is clear that their diverse understandings of human meanings, ethical ideals, and aspirations to self-transformation are frequently opaque to each other.” These differences might matter a great deal when thinking about human rights in China or democracy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Taylor doesn’t help us understand what to do with this insight. He takes some comfort in the fact that the “ethic of universality” has taken root in many parts of the world, in which there is “an instinct of belonging, of solidarity, without the obligatory contrast case of the other, the outsider. A transformation of belonging and friendship, therefore, which transcends the need for the enemy.” But he doesn’t explain how this shared value managed to spread despite the huge differences in cultures. His analysis of what lies behind the most egregious rejections of this value is a disappointing rehash of the view that the likes of Islamic State (IS) are nihilist death cults, motivated by “a kind of joy in destruction, a sense of heroic greatness in tearing down what the ethic of universal benevolence has tried to build.”

There is gold in these pages but the reader has to work hard to mine it and cast it into something useful. Taylor deserves his reputation as a thinker of unparalleled breadth and depth, but in this book his vision has turned too inward and backward. It is as though he has become too transfixed by his insight that we are the products of our cultures and history and so has become trapped in his own.