Figure of Speech

How language constitutes human consciousness.

There is an interesting moment about halfway into Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s 1992 NFB film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. The titular character explains he has never been able to find an intellectually satisfying connection between the work that he has done on language (his concept of generative grammar, which he laid out in 1957’s Syntactic Structures and refined in 1965’s Aspects of the Theories of Syntax, was a discipline-defining revolution) and his political work (his long history of uncompromising criticism of U.S. foreign policy beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing right on up through Obama’s drone warfare). This is the sort of problem that has led to the joke that there must be two guys named Noam Chomsky: one a path-breaking linguist fully engaged in -cutting-edge scientific work largely having to do with cognition and then some other guy writing furiously about American imperialism. Gee, it must be a more common name than I had thought.

One remarkable aspect of Charles Taylor’s new book, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, is that it suffers from no such duality. This is a dense, closely argued work that operates, if not quite on the cognitive-computational level of Chomskian linguistics, then at least on a high level of abstraction. Taylor sees language as constitutive, that is to say utterly fundamental in terms of making us who we are, in a way comparable to Chomsky (who comes up only a few times in The Language Animal), writing early in the book that “to move from nonlinguistic to linguistic agency is to move to a world in which a new kind of issue is at play, a right use of signs which is not reducible to task rightness.” It is precisely this need to grapple with what exactly lies beyond task rightness that brings us into the realm of Taylorian philosophy writ large. It brings us into the realm of the constitutive.

I offer this quote not only to lay out the basic task of the book, but also to give some sense of how it reads, and how it is different from some of Taylor’s recent work. Of that recent work, the best known is probably 2007’s massively ambitious A Secular Age. That book attempted to lay out the kind of secularity that we are living in, to distinguish it from “absence of religion” (a difference that is at the heart of his short 2004 book Modern Social Imaginaries, from which parts of A Secular Age are drawn) and to trace the ways in which that intersects with shifting visions of modernity. I expect that people will know Taylor best as a philosopher of multiculturalism, because of books such as 1992’s Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” (revised 1994) and his many essays on the topic published in the 1990s and 2000s. That work, together with the international acclaim given to A Secular Age, led the government of Quebec to appoint Taylor in 2007 as one half of what was officially called the Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles, but became known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. The commission produced a much-discussed report in 2008, and that may actually constitute Taylor’s most widely read work. This is all to say, for someone following Taylor since his 1989 book Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (which arguably marked the beginning of his full-scale engagement with identity), a work such as The Language Animal may seem incongruous.

But this book does fit in to Taylor’s oeuvre in two ways. First, his work as a philosopher goes back many decades, and the philosophy of language has long been a concern. In 1985 he published a collection devoted to these kinds of issues, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, Volume I, which included “Language and Human Nature,” the lecture he gave at Carleton University in 1978. Indeed, most of the collections of miscellaneous essays that Taylor has published over the years (most recently 2011’s Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays) have included papers on the philosophy of language. He has been working away on these problems for a long time, but recently that has been mostly in the background of somewhat splashier writing on politics or identity. Second, Taylor is very thorough, and contra Chomsky quite convincing, in his attempts to link these often highly abstract considerations of language with his more explicitly political work.

One key aspect of Taylor’s thought has been his critique of liberalism, and here it takes the form of skepticism that a language of autonomous individuals is adequate for what he calls (in A Secular Age and elsewhere) “fullness.” Fullness is a concept that has come in for criticism in response to A Secular Age; Jonathan Sheehan’s essay in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age is the most substantial I know of. For Sheehan, Taylor’s deployment of the term seems to be an example of the values of religion—the importance of experiencing, or at least being able to imagine experiencing, the full range of human uniqueness, including an engagement with the ineffable—sneaking into philosophy. Non-believers seem to be cut off, unable to engage with this key part of modernity. “One could argue that the unbeliever makes very little use of the idea of fullness at all,” Sheehan wrote. “It simply does not govern his or her phenomenal life the way it supposedly does that of the believer. Milking cows, eating lunch, even working long hours can all be done easily in the ignorance of ‘fullness.’” Taylor defends himself in the afterword of the same anthology, and with a colloquial humour that in my limited experience is nearly unknown among academic philosophers: “what is put forward as universal is secretly hooked up to the theological, to draw in unwary humanists (you gotta watch these Catholics).”

This small controversy points to another crucial aspect that informs Taylor’s work, namely his Catholicism, which is on fullest display in his 1999 lecture A Catholic Modernity? Anyone who knows this work will immediately recognize formulations from The Language Animal such as:

The fundamental point that emerges from the ontogenesis of language is that it can only be imparted from within relations of shared emotional bonding, what we might call “communion.” Language cannot be generated from within; it can only come to the child from her milieu—although once it is mastered, innovation becomes possible.

This invocation of communion lets us know that we are dealing with Taylor the serious Catholic, but we are also clearly dealing here with the Taylor of Multiculturalism, or of the book that he co–authored in 2011 with Jocelyn Maclure in the wake of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, Laïcité et liberté de conscience: the Taylor who sees collective, shared experiences as formative, but who recognizes the need for a kind of “internal pluralism” (what he calls in Multiculturalism and elsewhere a “deep diversity”) wherein innovation becomes possible. What Taylor has in mind by innovation goes beyond the kinds of cognitive adaptations that long-term use of a language necessitates; at stake here is the ability to exist within norms (languages, cultures, societies) but not to be fully subservient to them. Crucially, such innovation is only possible within a mutually understood, and ultimately normative, system, because without that kind of stability, the recognition of the other that makes legibility or comprehension conceivable is also impossible. The sense of all norms as being inherently oppressive or only ever a matter of unequal power relations (in Sources of the Self he called such a Foucault-led assessment “deeply implausible”) is the path not only of anarchy, but of atomism and illegibility: of non-recognition.

Nonetheless, Taylor makes it very clear throughout that the book overall is an engagement with the legacy of Romantic philosophy and poetics. He is balancing what he calls the “HLC,” referring to the theoretical nexus of Hobbes-Lock-Condillac, with “HHH,” referring to the nexus of Hamann, Herder and Humboldt. In his very first pages, he writes that “an important part of my task in this book has been to refute the remaining fragments of the legacy of the HLC, by developing insights out of the HHH.” That is to say, he is trying to return to the legacy of Romanticism and post-Romanticism, particularly as it emerged in Germany, in order to fully put to rest what he presents as an empiricism unable to account for the complexity and the depth of a specifically linguistic consciousness. “The result (I hope) is a much more satisfactory, and therefore varied (if less tidy), account of what the human linguistic capacity consists in.” What is lost by following what he calls the legacy of the HLC is close to this sense of fullness: an understanding of the possibilities, many of them ineffable and resistant to positivistic description, of the human experience. Human capacity is understood more fully via HHH: it is also, in keeping with the intense physical, emotional and spiritual experiences so central to the Romantic world view, much less tidy. “We come to grasp joy, or remorse, as a new kind or quality of feeling with its own properties,” Taylor writes of the “new articulated descriptions” that emerged in the wake of Romanticism. “But this grasping of a difference based on criterial features is of the essence of linguistic ‘reflection’ [Besonnenheit] in Herderian terms. Joy emerges from a vaguely felt difference into a recognisably distinct experience when we find the words.” This engagement with the Romantic challenge to enlightenment coldness, especially via Herder, underwrites a lot of Taylor’s work, on everything from Kantian rationalism to identity to politics to religious experience. It is also notable how concerned the book is with these maters that Taylor argues are “constitutive.” Invocations of joy lead us immediately to the considerations of A Secular Age, but that quasi-religious vocabulary is not the only reason to connect The Language Animal to A Secular Age, which at the time seemed like Taylor’s summa.

Taylor writes in his introduction that he sees this book as a prequel to another book on Romantic philosophy and poetics, which he says he will publish subsequently. If that does materialize, then the result might seem to be on the order of A Secular Age: a second iteration of a somewhat sprawling but comprehensive attempt to account, through a revised version of modernity, for fundamental problems, first of existence (in A Secular Age) and now, basically, of consciousness.

Given this level of ambition, it is little surprise that Chomsky the great linguistic revolutionary only comes up in passing, because my sense is that this kind of thing is anathema to him. In What Kind of Creatures Are We?, a short, fabulous book that he published just this year, Chomsky takes stock of both the political and linguistic work he has done over his career. Those connections, though, are not very convincing. Indeed, he makes basically no attempt at them: the third chapter titled “The Common Good” shares almost nothing with the discussion of his scientific linguistics (“What is Language?”, “What Can We Understand?” and “The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden”) that come before and after it. But Chomsky is very clear about how he sees his scientific work, and how little that has to do with the philosophical considerations we find chez Taylor (a name that does not appear in What Kind of Creatures Are We?). Chomsky writes that “it is, in the first place, odd to think that language has a purpose. Languages are not tools that humans design but biological objects, like the visual or immune or digestive system. Such organs are sometimes said to have functions, to be for some purpose. But that notion too is far from clear.” Taylor, however, is not presenting language as a tool that humans have designed, but he is quite a bit further from presenting it as akin to the digestive system. He is, in any event, very clear in his belief that language has a purpose. It is not just that language has a purpose; it is that language creates purpose in us. Taylor concludes a richly literary chapter called “How Narrative Makes Meaning” with a single–sentence paragraph: “It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time.”

For Taylor, we think about language not to understand better how we have come to cognition, or to understand better that computational complexity of that cognition (read: Chomskian linguistics), but to understand better who we are in the world, with the emphasis very much on “we.” Late in The Language Animal Taylor writes that “Specialized pared-down languages, stripped of human meaning, may be ideal for certain important purposes, but these austere modes cannot provide the model for human speech in general. That is one of the main messages of this book.” That may be true, but I take the main message of this book to be that the equations and semi-mathematical reasoning that characterizes linguistics as a scientific field are quite different from a meaningful philosophy of language. Living bearably, refusing to allow human meaning to be stripped from communication, a rejection of austerity: these are all quite irrelevant to a systematic description of the cognitive mechanics of language, but they are central to the philosophical project that Taylor has been developing over some six decades.

Dense though it may be, Taylor’s work on language is a compelling intervention into the “big problems” that face us inasmuch there is no chance of confusing it with a work of technical refinement. Chomskian approaches really are of a different order altogether. And yet I am left with a sense that despite my sympathy with Taylor’s concerns for shared experiences of shared norms, the communion that this sharing leads to, and so forth, The Language Animal is not the work of an expert who is summarizing a career of consideration in the way that A Secular Age was. That book is obviously a masterpiece, and I think will long live as the early 21st century’s major work of religious scholarship. The Language Animal feels more eccentric to me, more like an attempt to tie together a number of loose ends in an ongoing set of philosophical concerns. It is quite possible the projected companion volume will engage more fully with contemporary concepts of language and the ways it functions, and thus round out what occasionally feels like a very academic foray into the darker corners of Romantic philosophy, something that I cannot say about earlier monographs by Taylor, such as A Secular Age and Sources of the Self. For me, Taylor is without a doubt the most important Canadian philosopher writing today. I do not think, though, that The Language Animal stands as his most important work.