Many People, Many Tongues

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, April 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Many People, Many Tongues


Jane O'Grady on a reminder that the development of communication was a collaboration

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

By Charles Taylor

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 368pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674660205

Published 31 March 2016

As a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford in the 1950s, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor found anglophone analytic philosophy disappointing: too much scrupulous dissecting of definitions within a series of narrowly circumscribed issues. He turned to continental philosophy for a sense of life, history and large horizons, and became an early enthusiast for mixing the two philosophical traditions. Characteristically, his latest book transgresses the boundaries of usually distinct philosophical topics, incorporating disciplines outside philosophy: anthropology, sociology and developmental psychology. Philosophy of language becomes the doorway to metaphysics, politics and ethics, and to working out the nature of modernity and what it has made us.

Debates on the nature of language have preoccupied philosophers since the 17th century, as Taylor says, ever since what he denominates the Hobbes-Locke-Condillac (HLC) theories. According to these, language is principally a matter of naming and describing, and its starting point is the individual human who labels her own mental representations of the things outside her. By uttering sounds that correspond to these internal classifications, she conveys them into other people's minds, and ultimately many individuals' private languages converge into common speech.

But, argues Taylor, no part of reality is in itself pre-packaged as "a bit of potential information" ready for labelling. "Objects" (which include feelings and institutions) are transformed or even created by the way they are designated. And the designations are not a series of discrete, and discretely generated, labels; words have meaning only within the context of other concepts, and these concepts' past and potential usages. Otherwise they would be no different from the signings for "banana" and "want" that chimpanzees are painstakingly trained to make. …

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