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Charles Taylor: Language makes us human


“I am looking for a man!”, Diogenes of Sinope cried from his barrel. Since then, we have all being looking for him — the man — or at least trying to describe who he is. One of the best answers we have found is to say that it is language that makes humans human. The philosopher Charles Taylor, who has followed this humanistic quest in all his work, offers in his latest book an extensive account and defence of the linguistic dimension of being human.

But it all depends what one means by language. Taylor sees two opposite philosophical traditions that have dealt with its description. The first, the “designative”, developed by Hobbes, Locke and Condillac, sees language as a useful tool that allows us to describe reality and convey information. Language translates the ideas in our mind into words, and it grows more specific with the expansion of our technical knowledge. The second, the “constitutive” — the Hamann, Herder and Humboldt tradition — with its Romantic roots, sees language both as the landscape in which we live — the specific culture and society which surround us — and as a crucial element for shaping this culture. Language is built by the world and builds it back: hence its “constitutive” role. Ideas grow with and through language, not independently from it. Far from being a mere utilitarian tool, language is both a means and an end within human life.

Taylor is clear from the beginning that he favours the second tradition, and shows that the “rational animal” described by Aristotle is in fact a “language animal”, rehabilitating the full dimension of the Greek logos — both reason and language.

This is not an easy book, far from it. But the main merit of Taylor’s work is to offer an extensive review of the respective views of philosophers, from Condillac to Chomsky, on this issue, and a deep reflection on it. Plus, within each side of the debate — designative versus constitutive — arguments differ from one author to another, and nuances are important. I suppose that some basic knowledge of linguistics is necessary to fully grasp the depth of Taylor’s work. But beyond the linguistic debate, there is much value in recognising a deeper dimension to language than the mere designative one.

For language as “constitutive” is not only a matter of information: it has to do with our values — how they determine our language, and how we determine them back through our language. Now, when seeing modern language from the perspective offered by Taylor, it is as if a certain kind of designative language had taken over the general conversation. The utilitarian side of language has always been epitomised by science and its tremendous and continuous success. As a matter of fact, the language of science is made to convey information and describe reality — even if a “model” reality. Of course, science can be beautiful, and in that sense “constitutive” — for scientists, science is utterly poetic. But the modern use of science and especially technology point to a utilitarian kind of language, which has pervaded many aspects of our life. Technology is indispensable for every human society, but it has to remain in its realm. Now it is common to use a utilitarian language where a constitutive one is needed.

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A reader
April 28th, 2016
1:04 PM
Am I the only one to think that this book deserves a real review, not the vain considerations of a writer who obviously seems unable to understand the issues she is supposed to write about?

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