Stewart Clem

In his book God Matters, Herbert McCabe wonders why we are unable to ask the question, “why does the world exist?” We find it reasonable to ask the question “why does this exist?” about events or things or whole classes of things, but somehow, we find ourselves unable to ask this question about the world as a whole. “The belief that such a question is unaskable,” McCabe writes, “is based, firstly, on the fact that we have no answer to it, and, secondly, on the fact that the language in which it is asked is exploratory; we are using words in ways that are stretched beyond their familiar use.”[1] McCabe, following in the tradition of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, acknowledges the profound limits and power of human language. As a Christian, McCabe believes in the existence of God, but “[t]o exert the existence of God…is not to state a fact within an established intellectual system but to claim the need for exploration; it is to claim that there is an unanswered question about the universe: the question ‘How come the whole thing instead of nothing?’”[2] For McCabe, stretching language to its limits does not necessarily lead us into nonsense—it often opens a window into reality itself.

But where did language come from? Since Charles Darwin, scholars have sought to understand how and why language could have evolved in human beings. Even as biologically-focused theories have given way to gestural, symbolic, and community-based theories of language’s development, the current literature is dominated by an emphasis on language as an extension of preexisting biological capacities. This is understandable from the standpoint of those working within the sciences. For those who wish to derive normative or axiological significance from the evolution of language, however, there remains a temptation to collapse into reductionist understandings of language—and, by extension, of human nature. Such reductionism can only explain language as a tool given to us by evolution for the more efficient expression of our basic animal impulses. Any additional functions of language (such wordplay or making puns) are an aberration, at least from an evolutionary standpoint. But what might it look like if we began our inquiry by asking what language does rather than why it evolved?

In his recent monograph The Language Animal, the philosopher Charles Taylor gives us resources for understanding how the semantic dimension of language transforms any pre- or extra-linguistic framework through which we might trace its evolutionary development. This transformative feature of language, he argues, is the key to understanding what it means to be human. Taylor renders Aristotle’s definition of the human being zoon echon logon (traditionally translated “rational animal”) as “animal possessing language.”[3] The centrality of language to “human nature” (a contested term, to be sure) cannot be understated. For Taylor, the specific difference of Homo sapiens is not something that can be described in terms of instinct or recurring behavior patterns; rather, the emergence of language in human beings introduces a “capacity to change, even to transform ourselves, which has no parallel among other animals.”[4] Whatever formal similarities we might find among other species that use vocal or gestural signification are of minimal significance for understanding human modes of communication; only human beings are capable of transforming their lived experience through the communal enterprise we call language.

To support this claim, Taylor appeals to the notion of linguistic rightness. Since “language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life,”[5] and human life is manifestly social, the question arises as to how language can operate as a shared project. For Taylor, language is the “domain of right and wrong moves,”[6] but we should not mistake this as task rightness. That is to say, “words” are not mere instruments for conveying more basic and fundamental “ideas” from one person to another, like prisoners tapping in code to one another through the walls of their cells. If this were the case, then it would be very difficult indeed to claim that human language is significantly different from nonhuman animal communication. Linguistic rightness is not defined as success in completing some non-linguistic task; rather, rightness refers to a kind of shared linguistic recognition, while acknowledging “the relevance of a challenge that we have misspoken.”[7] Getting things right, from a linguistic standpoint, necessarily depends on a mutual recognition of the world we live in and a shared focus on some particular feature of that world, as well as an ability to reflect mutually on that shared focus.

The preceding analysis might leave some readers wondering what exactly is new about Taylor’s arguments. After all, many philosophers of language—not least Wittgenstein and his followers—have been attacking the designative, instrumental view of language for several decades. This consideration, alongside the fact that Taylor does not show much interest in the work of contemporary analytic philosophers, might lead one to assume that he has simply ignored vast swaths of the relevant literature. But there are at least two features of Taylor’s monograph that distinguish it from other works in the field that share similar concerns.

The first novel feature is that Taylor draws upon a vast treasury of resources to bolster his arguments. Most of his philosophical insights are drawn not from discussions within contemporary philosophy of language but from German Romantic theories of language. Longtime readers of Taylor will find this unsurprising, given his intellectual history, but this feature alone sets his project apart from mainstream post-Fregean discourse[8] on the nature of language. In one of the few places where he does delve into typical post-Fregean waters, he apologizes to the reader for “dragging all that old stuff up again.”[9] Taylor also draws liberally on developments in evolutionary theory and recent studies in the social sciences. In light of this project’s aims, he is explicit in giving priority to ontogenetic study over phylogenetic.[10] While we might fantasize about having a complete evolutionary story that would unlock the many mysteries of language, Taylor contends that we largely lack “undoubtedly real knowledge about how humans evolved” and instead must rely on speculative deductions.[11] But if instead we turn to the ontogenetic development of language, which we are able to observe firsthand, there is much that we can learn.

Taylor cites numerous studies in comparative and developmental psychology to support his notion of linguistic rightness. The chapter on “How Language Grows” is largely dedicated to examining the ontogenetic development of language and the insights this gives us into what it means to learn how to speak and how to use the “right” words. An examination of human ontogeny reveals that we “learn language in exchange.”[12] But the purpose here is not merely to offer a social-scientific analysis. He turns once again to the German Romantic tradition and, in particular, to the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed that humans are free from the absolute “command of instinct” (as he put it) that dominates the existence of nonhuman animals. Herder’s notion of reflection (Besonnenheit) becomes an anchoring point for Taylor’s development of the linguistic dimension. The human ability not only to experience but to reflect on our experience—as well as our ability to share our reflections with other human beings—is the source of language’s creative power. “Linguistic beings,” writes Taylor, “are capable of new feelings which affectively reflect their richer sense of their world: not just anger, but indignation; not just desire, but love and admiration.”[13] The relationship between language and the irreducible rightness of the linguistic dimension is reciprocal: no language without the linguistic dimension, and vice versa.[14]

There are several excurses in which Taylor explores a dazzling array of subjects—art, metaethics, ritual, and narrative—but the bulk of his monograph is devoted to defending two theses: 1) that human linguistic capacity extends far beyond encoding and communicating information, and 2) that this limited conception of language arose out of modernist theories in the wake of Descartes—namely in the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. The latter approach, which he dubs the “HLC” model, stands in contrast to his own preferred “HHH” model (designating the works of the German Romantics Johann Georg Hamman, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Alexander von Humboldt). The reader, who sees little discussion of current advocates of the HLC model in Taylor’s book, might be forgiven for assuming they are few and far between. Taylor is not so generous in his assessment of current scholarship and he hopes to eradicate any remaining traces of the HLC model in the way we think about language.

This leads to the second novel feature of Taylor’s book, his choice of targets. These targets fall into three categories. The first category includes those, such as Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky, who advocate for enframing theories of language, in which language functions as a kind of “code” for transferring information.[15] While these thinkers make for obvious opponents to Taylor’s model, they are not the only ones prone to HLC-inflected mistakes. As an example of the second category of targets, Taylor cites the early twentieth-century pragmatist George Herbert Mead, who, on the whole, sought to combat the Cartesian understanding of the self and its crippling effects on one’s perception of oneself in relation to others. Yet Mead’s break with Cartesian monological epistemology was insufficiently radical, Taylor argues. On his reading, Mead describes the realization of the “self” alongside the realization of an intersubjective world. While this is an improvement over Descartes, it does not go nearly far enough. Taylor suggests that we should instead invert the Cartesian priority, such that self-awareness emerges out of a prior awareness of intersubjectivity.[16] The third category includes those proponents of constitutive theories similar to Taylor’s HHH model who nevertheless commit Cartesian peccadillos on occasion. Here he cites the work of comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello, whom he otherwise admires, as a cautionary tale for those who uncritically adopt the dominant vocabulary of psychology, which often harbors monological assumptions. Even Tomasello uses descriptors such as “perceiving communicative intentions” to describe the human capacity for language. For Taylor, this cedes too much ground to the notion that the individual subject—not the relational mode of linguistic beings—should take priority in our analysis of language.

Apart from the volume’s success as a novel and persuasive argument in favor of a constitutive theory of language in its own right, this book deserves the careful attention of theologians. While Taylor himself only hints at the theological import of his arguments, they are simply waiting to be gleaned by those concerned with the problems surrounding theological language. More specifically, this volume can be profitably read alongside Rowan Williams’s Gifford Lectures, published as The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language.[17] Williams’s insistence that language transcends material reality to the point that we cannot understand the world without it meshes perfectly with Taylor’s main theses.[18]

The similarity between Taylor’s and Williams’s analyses of language is striking. Williams shares the view that language is not fundamentally about the transfer of information from one container to another, but rather is concerned with “establishing a world in common.”[19] His analysis focuses on the material nature of language—that is, he makes a distinction between “description” (the conventional assumption of how words relate to the world) and “representation” (which relates to how we structure our perceptions in cooperative activity involving both the material universe and other speakers of our language). The radical implications of this view become clear as Williams explains that language is “the natural integrating factor in the evolving material universe. Rather than looking to material processes, understood in a mechanical fashion, as the key to understanding what language is, it would be nearer to the truth to say that we look to language to show us what matter is.”[20] This is to say both that: language is an aspect of material reality and our embodied existence, and that language transcends material reality to the point that we cannot understand the world without it.

To conclude, I would like to extrapolate two principles based on the insights of Taylor and Williams, assuming they are right. These are principles for interdisciplinary research regarding the significance of language and what it can tell us about being human. The first principle is that language (not just “words”) creates reality and does not merely communicate or describe an independent reality. Or, following Herbert McCabe, we might say that language under pressure can offer surprising new insights into reality. The second principle is that we will never grasp the significance of human language (insofar as it informs our understanding of human wisdom) if we limit our inquiry to the evolution of language. Or, put differently, it is misguided to assume that a complete evolutionary story (with no gaps or loose ends) will fully answer the question of how language helps us understand the meaning of wisdom. We must resist the temptation to think that unlocking the hidden details of the evolution of language will answer all of our questions about its significance for human beings. Even if we are able to provide a full account of why language arose in human beings, we are still a long way off from answering the question: What does the possession of language mean for us as human beings now that we have it? That is to say: this is where the interdisciplinary task begins, not where it ends.[21]

STEWART CLEM is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. His research interests include topics in theological ethics, the thought of Thomas Aquinas, and issues at the intersection of virtue theory, law, and public policy. He is the author of several journal articles and is currently working on a book-length project titled, Truth as a Virtue: A Thomistic Framework for the Ethics of Lying and Truthtelling. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Duke Divinity School and also serves as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He was a Graduate Student Scholar on the Human Distinctiveness project.


[1] Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London: Continuum, 1987), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Range of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 338.
[4] Ibid., 339.
[5] Ibid., 261.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 7.
[8] Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) is widely considered to be the father of what is now known as analytic philosophy, with its emphases on the formal structure of arguments and the relationship between language and logic. Frege set the terms for nearly all the debates that continue under the banner of “philosophy of language” today.
[9] Taylor, The Language Animal, 112.
[10] Ontogenesis refers to the growth and development of an individual organism, whereas phylogenesis refers to the development and diversification of an entire species.
[11] Taylor, The Language Animal, 68.
[12] Ibid., 61.
[13] Ibid., 28.
[14] Ibid., 29.
[15] Ibid., 332.
[16] Ibid., 64–5.
[17] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
[18] Taylor acknowledges the considerable overlap between his and Williams’s projects (The Language Animal, 89n8), but unfortunately the authors’ publication schedules did not allow for any direct interaction.
[19] Williams, The Edge of Words, 99.
[20] Ibid., 102.
[21] Portions of this essay originally appeared in my review of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal in Modern Theology 34.2 (April 2018): 297–99.



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