This essay is my attempt to lay down in plain terms the expressivist position advanced by Charles Taylor as an alternative to the dominant approach to the study of man, based upon an influential shift in philosophers’ understanding of language. Taylor adopts a view of man as the language animal, an animal whose very conscious experience is constituted by its capacity for speech and expression. This position reveals faults with the dominant approach, and leads to a holistic conception of language and meaning. Subsequent progression down this path leads to intriguing accounts of human nature and the source of our ancient notion of God.
The Failure of the Dominant Approach
In extracting Taylor’s argument for expressivism, it will serve us well to begin with a discussion of his critique of modernity. Taylor is critical of several mainstream disciplines, including the natural sciences, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. He takes issue not with these disciplines themselves, but rather with a conceptual scheme which underlies the dominant approaches in these fields, and consequently their objectives.
Taylor’s discontent is directed toward one influential attempt to resolve the old problem of meaning in the philosophy of language, a problem which has fuelled debate for centuries. This is what Taylor calls the ‘designative’ theory of meaning, the view that meaning consists in the role of individual words and sentences as designators for objects, relations, ideas and so forth in the world. This position represents a shift in our world-view, a shift which Taylor feels has done wonders to advance science, but which ultimately has moved us away from any plausible account of human nature. I should first like to examine this shift and its effects before outlining Taylor’s critique of it and of its off-sprung explanations.
The nature of meaning in language has elusively defied every attempt to provide a fully accurate account of it. And while the problem stubbornly resists satisfactory resolution, various attempts to explain the meaning of our words and linguistic constructions have met with more or less limited success. During certain historical periods, certain theories of meaning have risen to prominence, and these have been thought in their own times to have, as accurately as possible, captured the function of meaning in language. Doubtless the most influential of such theories is what Taylor refers to as the designative theory of meaning.
The evolution of the designative theory has been more prolonged and thus more successful in delivering strictly material gains than any of its competitors. But its inability to explain the human experience in any satisfactory or even plausible way has cast doubt on its own plausibility, at least for thinkers such as Taylor. For Taylor, the designative theory and its web of explanations, which infest almost all sub-disciplines of...