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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

How words shape our world

There is gold in Charles Taylor’s new work on language—a pity it’s so hard to find, says Julian Baggini

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

by Charles Taylor (Belknap Press, £25.95)

One of the paradoxes of creativity is that originality tends towards sameness and similarity. What makes a Wagner opera stand out from others is also what makes it unmistakably Wagnerian.

Philosophy is no different. Its greatest practitioners have a singular vision which forms a coherent whole, and so all their individual works tend to be variations on a theme. The more of that whole we have already seen, the more familiar new parts will already seem, which is certainly the case with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s latest work, The Language Animal.


Taylor, the author of Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), has consistently argued against the kind of reductive naturalism that attempts to divide the world into discrete atoms of understanding that require no context, no history, no narrative. While such pure, pared-down accounts might work for some natural sciences, it is a hopelessly simplistic way of understanding the domain of human meanings and values. To get a grip on that, we need to be attentive to the ways in which all ideas are embedded in particularities of culture and history, specificities that we ignore or pretend don’t exist at our peril.

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In Prospect’s April issue: Sam Tanenhaus profiles Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination and asks if Trump makes it to the Oval Office, what would he do? Stephen Glover, examines what is happening at the Guardian as the newspaper looks to cut costs. Ferdinand Mount says Tony Blair transformed Britain but he should have cared more about the Labour Party. Also in this issue: Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI5, says that Brexit would not damage the UK’s security and Christopher de Bellaigue questions whether France’s clampdown on radicals is having the right effect. Plus Miranda France looks at the legacy of Don Quixote and the Duel asks: “Should the Church of England be disestablished”?