‘The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity’ reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

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

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016. 360pp., £27.95 hb
ISBN 9780674660205

Reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

About the reviewer

Piotr Stalmaszczyk is Professor of English and General Linguistics at the University of Lodz …


Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University, is one of the most important and influential contemporary philosophers; he has published extensively on philosophy and human sciences, on political philosophy, on the individual and society, on religion and secularity. His interest in language has been clearly seen already in earlier work, with the papers collected in Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge 1985) offering an important critique of the dominant form of philosophy of language. Taylor described his agenda underlying those studies as ‘philosophical anthropology’. This term might be also applied (together with ‘critical philosophy of language’) to his most recent book.

Taylor is concerned in The Language Animal with the human linguistic capacity, and he demonstrates that it includes ‘capacities of meaning creation which go far beyond that of encoding and communicating information, which is too often taken as its central form’ (ix). Taylor’s philosophy of language is inspired by German Romanticism, and especially the works of Hamann, Herder, and Humboldt (HHH). The basic thesis of the book, repeated and justified throughout, is that ‘language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life’ (261).

The book is composed of three parts. In Part I, ‘Language as Constitutive’, Taylor discusses and contrasts the designative and constitutive views, comments on language growth, and moves ‘beyond information encoding’. In Part II, ‘ From Descriptive to Constitutive’, Taylor moves from the Hobbes-Locke-Condillac theory to the constitutive approach. Part III is concerned with ‘Further Applications’, and Taylor discusses there the issue of narratives, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and speculates about the range of human linguistic capacities.

Throughout his work Taylor contrasts two types of theory of language, the ‘designative-instrumental’, with the ‘constitutive expressive’ one. In the first type, associated with, among other, Hobbes, Locke, Condillac (HLC), ‘the attempt is made to understand language within the framework of a picture of human life, behavior, purpose or mental functioning, which is itself defined without reference to language’ (3). This is an ‘enframing’ theory, also referred to as the ‘designative-instrumental’ theory, in which language was understood within the confines of Cartesian representational epistemology. Taylor observes that this theory, though inadequate to contemporary thinkers (influenced by de Saussure on the one hand, and Frege on the other), has nevertheless survived into analytic post-Fregean philosophy, as well as some approaches within cognitive theory. On the other hand, the ‘constitutive’ theory presents language as making possible new purposes, new meanings, ‘and hence as not explicable within a framework picture of human life conceived without language’ (4). Language in this theory constitutes meaning and shapes human experience. The two theories belong to ‘very different understandings of human life’ (4), with the constitutive theory of language breaking out of the bounds of the enframing (33).

Taylor provides a meticulous analysis of Locke’s and Condillac’s view through Herder’s standpoint, and observes that the latter’s theory of language is holistic ‘in the way that the traditional view he was criticizing was not’ (12). An important feature of Herder’s holism was holism of meaning: ‘a word only has meaning within a lexicon and a context of language practices, which are ultimately embedded in a form of life’ (17). A more recent application in philosophy of this insight can be found in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations; Taylor stresses that according to Wittgenstein ‘our words only have the meaning they have within the “language games” we play with them, and these in turn find their context in a whole form of life’ (21). A practical dimension of this approaches is implicit in Gramscian philosophy of language. However, as remarked by Hilary Putnam (in Reason, Truth and History) the purposes of a language game are not statable without using the language of that game or a related game.

Taylor’s analyses and his philosophy of language transcend language: this ‘holism of meaning is inextricably connected to the fact that human beings as linguistic animals also live in a bigger world, which goes beyond the episodic presence’ (21-2); furthermore, with humans, enacting a meaning lies fully within the linguistic dimension: and hence this enacting ‘can help constitute a meaning which wasn’t in our world before’ (45). In the constitutive approach language can open human beings to new possibilities in two ways: the accessive and the existential. In the accessive ‘we sense that language is enabling us to have “reflective” awareness of what previously was there” (46), in the existential way we see that language ‘is opening us to new human meanings, new existential possibilities’ (46). Taylor also observes that ‘linguistic beings can be sensitive to distinctions which are lost on prelinguistic animals. Important among these are distinctions involving moral or other values’ (28). These fragments (and the following discussion) demonstrate how Taylor’s philosophy of language can justify the linguistic foundations of values.

In Chapter 2, ‘How Language Grows’, Taylor looks at the ontogenesis of language. His claims here are rather traditional (and even controversial): ‘the first obvious fact is that children can only become speakers by being taught language’ (52). In contemporary theories, influenced by the Chomskyan approach, the first (not always that obvious) fact is that there needs to be a necessary mental state enabling language acquisition, and acquisition is triggered by experience (i.e. contact with language). Taylor further claims that ‘language cannot be generated from within; it can only come to the child from her milieu – although once it is mastered, innovation becomes possible’ (55). Again, in the generative paradigm language is – by definition – the generating device. In this chapter Taylor also mentions ritual and ceremonies, noting that though human life is inconceivable without them, the ‘performative dimension seems to have withered’ (82). Nevertheless, the continuing importance of ritual is further explored in Chapter 7, devoted to the creative force of discourse. Taylor discusses there performative speech, speech events, and the pragmatics of speech, in the tradition of both Benveniste, on the one hand, and Austin and Searle, on the other. In this chapter he also makes a strong claim (echoing the work of John Searle) that ‘a complex of key phenomena, norms, footings, institutions, social orders, political structures and the offices that figure in them are constituted and transformed in discourse’ (283), and concludes with stressing his position that understanding language ‘involves seeing it in the context of meaningful enactment, and the whole range of symbolic forms’ (288).

Chapter 3 moves ‘Beyond Information Encoding’, and Taylor argues here for the superiority of the HHH by providing an analysis of the shortcomings of the HLC. He claims that the functions of description and information-coding are very far from exhausting the functions, uses and potentials of language, and that the descriptive function cannot be exercised independently of the other functions (88-9). He also discusses linguistic awareness and linguistic consciousness, and observes that ‘the world as we live it at any time is full of things and states which we can describe, matters that we can formulate; and at the boundary, there are others that we can’t yet articulate, but might be invited to at any moment’ (93), in this context he also stresses the constitutive force of discourse. An apt metaphor concludes this chapter: ‘The “country” of language goes way beyond the “province” of information-encoding, important as this is’ (99).

In Chapter 4 Taylor looks back in more detail at the theory which Herder challenged, and identifies the following main features of the account of language developed by Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac: its dependence upon the Cartesian model of epistemology, its tendency to reify the mind, voluntarism, and two kinds of atomism (applied to the objects of thought, and to the subjects of thought), its ‘constitutional anti-Cratylism, which carries with it a phobia against tropes of all kinds’ (111). Final sections of this chapter look at the legacy of the designative-instrumental view of language, at the ‘post-Fregean successors of HLC’. Taylor seems to parallel here the theories of language proposed by Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett on the one hand, and Noam Chomsky on the other. Whereas it is possible to attribute a post-Fregean approach to language (especially semantics) to the former philosophers, Chomsky’s approach (the prominence of syntax and rejection of Fregean semantics) definitely does not qualify as post-Fregean. This issue is connected with the fundamentally different ontologies and epistemological assumptions underlying these approaches, very briefly (and admittedly inadequately): more ‘linguistic’ for Chomsky, whereas ‘philosophical’ for Dummett and Davidson.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the figuring dimensions of language, and Taylor devotes there considerable attention to the consequences of the Saussurean thesis of arbitrariness, and to metaphors (especially the cognitive theory of metaphor), and in Chapter 6 he takes on the issue of semantic innovation. He returns to Humboldt’s remark that ‘possessing a language is to be continuously involved in trying to extend its powers of articulation’ (177), on which Taylor comments ‘we always sense that there are things we cannot properly say, but we would like to express’ (177). The chapter provides interesting philosophical observations on the potential universality of the linguistic system, especially the issue how novel meanings can be described and formulated (in connection with various philosophical traditions, development of culture and ethics).

Part III offers two sketches on further applications of Taylor’s approach: on meanings in narratives (where the telling of stories in fact and fiction is seen as a creative and constitutive feature of language), and on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis viewed in the light of the constitutive uses of language. A general conclusion on the range of human linguistic capacity closes the volume. Taylor stresses that ‘or language straddles the boundary between “mind” and body; also that between dialogical and monological’ (333)

Taylor mentions in the Preface and in the closing lines of the volume that he intended to complement the original project with a study of certain strands of the post-Romantic tradition (x; 345); though this second part remains to be completed, the present book is rich in insights into Romantic and post-Romantic poetics and theory of language. This is a very refreshing book, rich in thought and ideas, transcending the field of philosophy of language. In the opening sections of the book Taylor observes that ‘all major philosophers have their theories of language: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Derrida’ (3) (and one might easily add numerous names to this short list), the reviewed book clearly demonstrates that Charles Taylor has his own, distinctive, highly original, and hopefully influential, critical theory of language.

Noam Chomsky, another immensely influential and important contemporary American thinker, asked in his 2013 Dewey lectures the famous question: ‘What Kind of Creatures Are We?’ (this is also the title of his recent, 2016, Columbia University Press publication), echoing Kant’s question: ‘What is Man’ (posed in his Logic, 1800). Charles Taylor provides the answer: we are ‘The Language Animal’. Crucial methodological and theoretical (probably even impassable) differences notwithstanding, Taylor’s and Chomsky’s books provide fascinating examples of contemporary inquiry into human language.

Taylor has been recently awarded The Berggruen Prize. This prize is ‘awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity’ (as reported by Daily Nous http://dailynous.com/2016/10/04/charles-taylor-wins-million-dollar-berggruen-prize/). The Language Animal perfectly fits into this description.

6 November 2016


  1. This is a bit curious: a review of a book about language on a marxist website that doesn’t raise any questions around language and class. You could argue that to treat language as if it’s neutral is itself ideological.

  2. I think Michael is right, it is odd. I kept waiting, too, for some mention [in the review, anyway] of Volosinov and Bakhtin, or indeed Raymond Williams or even Michael Billig. The range of ‘philosophy’ seems too constrained. Though the book does still sound interesting….

    1. I totally agree with you, but it might be useful to note Raymond Williams point in _Marxism and Literature_, more or less correct in my opinion, that “Marxism has contributed very little to thinking about language itself…” Taylor is hugely important in critiquing mainstream liberal individualist approaches to language as well as that put forth by Habermas, etc…, but fundamentally lacking in understanding questions of language and power — for which Gramsci, Volosinov, etc… are crucial.

  3. The case isn’t that the range of philosophy is constrained. The case is that Marxist philosophy of language is too constrained. Human nature, without adjectives, please.

  4. I think it’s a great review. This is an important book for an era in which the science and practice of digital programming is becoming a very strong influence on language use and conceptualization, at every level.

    “Encoding” meaning with a language, to describe/define the world in a logical (or at least reasonable) and useful way, and “constructing meaning” with language to understand the world, are dialectically related reciprocals, since, ultimately, they always require each other – even although in “encoding” with language we attribute fixed meanings, while in “constructing” (new) meanings with language, we dissolve this fixity.

    The critical issue is, how we actually go about those processes, qua methodologies. Because that importantly shapes the kinds of solutions that will be adopted to try and solve the problems of the world, and what the overall outcome of that will be.

    Using languages can take us very much deeper into understanding the world, with a rich and seemingly unlimited palette of distinctions and generalizations, but it can also totally mystify and confuse things. In that sense, languages have a very powerful effect on human behaviour, more powerful than in the world of animals.

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