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

Charles Taylor_The Language Animal_web

In seminal works ranging from Sources of the Self to A Secular Age, IWM Permanent Fellow Charles Taylor has shown how we create possible ways of being, both as individuals and as a society. In his new book setting forth decades of thought, he demonstrates that language is at the center of this generative process.

For centuries, philosophers have been divided on the nature of language. Those in the rational empiricist tradition—Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, and their heirs—assert that language is a tool that human beings developed to encode and communicate information. In The Language Animal, Taylor explains that this view neglects the crucial role language plays in shaping the very thought it purports to express. Language does not merely describe; it constitutes meaning and fundamentally shapes human experience. The human linguistic capacity is not something we innately possess. We first learn language from others, and, inducted into the shared practice of speech, our individual selves emerge out of the conversation.

Taylor expands the thinking of the German Romantics Hamann, Herder, and Humboldt into a theory of linguistic holism. Language is intellectual, but it is also enacted in artistic portrayals, gestures, tones of voice, metaphors, and the shifts of emphasis and attitude that accompany speech. Human language recognizes no boundary between mind and body. In illuminating the full capacity of “the language animal,” Taylor sheds light on the very question of what it is to be a human being.


Das sprachbegabte Tier – Grundzüge des menschlichen Sprachvermögens
Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017

Seit Jahrhunderten wird in der Philosophie über die Natur der Sprache gestritten. Für die rationalistisch-empiristische Tradition in der Folge von Hobbes, Locke und Condillac ist sie ein Werkzeug, das Menschen erfunden haben, um Informationen auszutauschen. In seinem neuen Buch bekennt sich Charles Taylor zum gegnerischen Lager der Romantik um Hamann, Herder und Humboldt und zeigt, dass der rationalistisch-empiristische Ansatz etwas Entscheidendes übersieht: Sprache beschreibt nicht bloß, sie erschafft Bedeutung, formt alle menschliche Erfahrung und ist integraler Bestandteil unseres individuellen Selbst.

Taylor geht jedoch noch einen Schritt über das Denken der deutschen Romantik hinaus und entwirft eine umfassende Theorie der Sprache im Sinne des linguistischen Holismus: Sprache ist ein geistiges Phänomen, aber sie kommt auch in künstlerischen Darstellungen, Gesten, Stimmen, Haltungen zum Ausdruck und kennt daher keinen Gegensatz von Körper und Geist. Indem er dieses grundlegende Vermögen des »sprachbegabten Tiers« erhellt, wirft Taylor ein neues Licht darauf, was es heißt, ein Mensch zu sein.

Charles Taylor ist emeritierter Professor für Philosophie an der McGill University in Montreal und Permanent Fellow am IWM. Er ist einer der einflussreichsten Sozialphilosophen der Gegenwart.

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