Tell It Like It Is

Standpoint, May 2016

“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.

This is especially the case in politics. Take the example of the “nudge”, the process of inciting behaviour through indirect suggestions. For example, people are more likely to pay their taxes when they are reminded that 80 per cent of their neighbourhood has done so. In that sense, their abiding by the law does not come from an understanding of their moral and political duty, but from narcissistic and gregarious impulses. Increasingly, we are seen as stimuli-reacting animals, whose choice won’t even be moral and rational but “engineered”.

There is another side in this obsession with an information-conveying language. The language we use every day — the oral one, and especially as used on social networks — is now over-simple and assumes that information is better transmitted through signs and abbreviations. Politicians and media generally express themselves with shorter and simpler phrases, because they tend to favour the direct and simple over the truly evocative and “constitutive”.

The contrast with earlier political speeches is stark. However much I support the Conservative cause, George Osborne’s slogan “We’re all in this together” was pathetic. Or see the more recent “We have more people than ever using food banks, we have a greater number of people being homeless and many people in housing stress,” from Jeremy Corbyn. Every political announcement or speech today is full of vagueness and misuse of language. Another tendency is to use technocratic or pompous phrases to describe simple realities, as some academics do.

This Newspeak achieves the paradoxical goals of both lacking any specific meaning and damaging the beauty of language. Human beings may have always exerted, as Taylor shows, a constitutive language, but a large part of the current elite seems to have decided that language has to be purely descriptive, and because of that, non-evocative. The poverty of current language therefore expresses the poverty of our imagination and creative power, but also the poverty of our moral environment. As Orwell put it, “It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes.” Maybe we are not sure of the values we want to share any more — what should constitute a common background. Maybe we are afraid of saying the world as it is, and we avoid this by using both a technocratic, emphatic and empty language.

Taylor does not even touch upon this question — and this is fair enough, because he has many other things to say. But it is strange to describe language as if it were timeless. The language of our time cannot be compared to that of Condillac’s or Herder’s, and we would need a whole new theory of what kind of “language animal” we have now become.

Today, in scientific circles, specific language — including code, which is a language of its own — is thriving. In other elite circles where literature and poetry are appreciated, language is on the contrary too often pushed to its limits, where it does not convey anything but an aestheticising character. But for the rest of us, what remains? Nietzsche famously wrote that “we have art so that we may not perish of the truth”. We could also write that we have language so that we may not perish of the lack of truth. But of course, it all depends what we mean by truth.

Read the article on Standpointmag.co.uk