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Vol. 17, No. 2, 2018
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interview of philosopher



Nigel DeSouza teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He and Anik Waldow edited Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 2017).

NIGEL DESOUZA: There is always some capacity on our part to work out the concepts you’re talking about, even though you know, in your way of putting it, that those concepts never exist in abstraction entirely, their very meaning is different in different cultures, etc. But like with Socrates and the concept of justice, we can see an action as being just because we have this understanding of what justice means even if we can’t perfectly de?ne it. That capacity is still there as human beings—when people want to claim that trying to get clear on those concepts, that’s when you’re doing true political philosophy, is that an illusion?

CHARLES TAYLOR: No, it’s not an illusion, but it’s very much a different kind of thing from, e.g., if you want to lift the house. And it’s very much, therefore, less immediately applicable or immediately valuable than knowing we want to lift the house. And further, because our imagination is always deeply shaped by the society that we’re familiar with, we might get this formula of words and rush out to Japan and propose it, and a lot of cross-purposes would be involved here, whereas lifting the house, there would be no problem. So if a thing can only be realized in a certain cultural setting, it may involve changing my cultural setting in order to realize how to do that. It can only actually be imagined in a different cultural setting, However, there’s this wonderful possibility using words through which we really can grasp the formula abstractly, before we start thinking again about what it actually means in a concrete situation. Which means before we start thinking again about how our imagination of it is perhaps really very different from theirs, before we start thinking about how we can realize it, before we start thinking about the changes we would have to make in our present society to realize it, you try to clarify your mind about the general principle. No doubt that is useful. But you can’t act on this principle without understanding the particular society. And in the political domain when you say “It just needs to be applied,” the “just” has no place here. As it does in the case of lifting the house.

Tocqueville is very interesting because he was very impressed with this, he saw some very important principle he could formulate, this democratic social condition—the fact that they’re treating each other as “I’m as good a guy as you,” “a man’s a man for all that” to quote Robbie Burns—so he’s describing that, he’s abstracting something more general, and it’s very interesting and we can argue about that and that’s part of what a political science department ought to be, to have discussions about that even on its own: e.g., let’s see if Rawls’s theory will work in its own terms. But, if you want to do the study of politics, then you need both, you need the way the two interpenetrate. If you want to ask the other question: should I buy Rawls, and Dworkin, and so on, well, just a minute, let’s see what it means, let’s be clear on what it actually means, and then you have to go down this path. So an ethic where you don’t quite know what its formulation really means, there’s something lacking in it, not that as a partial portrait it can’t be very useful, but something important is missing because it’s claiming to guide conduct, and you don’t quite know what it means.

NIGEL DESOUZA: Now a related topic, I want to talk about the question of naturalism and its relationship to philosophical anthropology. Is there another way in which we can look at philosophy in a naturalistic way?—and this, I think, is in your work, and in Herder’s also. It starts with the acknowledgement that when we’re doing philosophical anthropology we need to look at how the languages of thick description, its concepts, are part of a certain way of being, a certain cultural framework, and see how the values that are coming out of this particular cultural framework only have their full meaning in a particular context, whereas lifting a house is the same anywhere, of course. But that then one can go on from this and say, “There is a naturalistic conception of the human being implicit here which is that of a creature that has these particular kinds of structures.” In your case, in one area of your work on philosophical anthropology, morality, you claim that human beings are all, universally, capable of strong evaluation, goods, hyper-goods, moral sources, and that they exist and are oriented in moral space. And in Herder too, there are these structures there that are universal to human beings, to the human soul. Is that something that philosophical anthropology can in part be about? That there is something universal, so we can say something here?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, exactly, we can get something that is universal of the following kind—not the universal of, for instance, in political science the supposedly generally applicable laws of voting and so on. But the way you see Montesquieu doing it, Montesquieu has this concept of mainspring, of ressort, and the ressort of the republic is virtue, the ressort of the monarchy is honour, and so on. So there’s an interesting contrast, which clari?es what the differences are between the two by saying: something is playing a similar role here to what is played by that there, now let’s see what those two different things are. Now that kind of universal, where you even get a word like ressort, which you could say applies to any kind of regime, what makes it go, what makes it work, is ?ne. But it’s not like saying “people will always vote for the most monetarily advantageous program,” which would apply as another kind of generalization, a law applying everywhere. So there is a necessity of building up this language of contrastively applied categories. It’s the same thing we were seeing with the example of equality because I want to have an equal society, what does this actually mean, and you get some very great differences. These are different ways of realizing, of striving for, parallel or similar or related goals, which we can use the word equality for. So there is the possibility of a general language, but it’s very important to see that it’s like Montesquieu rather than standard comparative politics.

NIGEL DESOUZA: But what about in the understanding of the human being, if we restrict it to that? Are there structures of human agency that are universal there, like your analysis of morality, or Herder’s own analysis of morality? He responds to Mendelssohn in a letter and says that we have treated moral terms in an a-historical fashion. He uses the term Realitäten to represent our reifying of terms like Vollkommenheit (perfection), Tugend (virtue), for example, which become like pieces of money that we can collect, in his words. Whereas in fact, all these terms of our language of morality rest in, or have their origin in, moralische Gefühle (moral feel- ings), which we all have as human beings, which then get re?ned upwards in speci?c times and cultures into things like moral norms, values, etc. So he has a kind of physiological account here, that all our moral languages rest in, or are anchored in, moralische Gefühle that we feel, physiologically even, in empathy, that we’re not made to be “isolated monads,” as he says in the Treatise on Language, that when we hear someone cry, we are pulled towards them. But these things do need the language of abstraction or culture to re?ne them upwards into norms that we act on or live by. So it’s a naturalistic account of us as human beings that says that there are certain structures there—is that part of philosophical anthropology?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, it’s important to understand human beings as a particular kind of species among others. Now, you immediately get differentia that they have that the others don’t, like language. But you immediately also see that these differential features of universal human beings are always realized, the moralische Gefühle, for example, in ways that aren’t the same. So the moralische Gefühle about honour, for example, you insulted me and my response, probably exist everywhere and in some cases there’s a moral struggle against it. But what it actually gets triggered by is something very different, the language exists everywhere and a certain outlook coming from the language, but, for example, the Germans and the French are not really the same. So we have these Montesquieu-contrastive concepts that have an intrinsically contrastive application, but, you can see the similarity, the Ähnlichkeit, the relatedness between these different things, and you get a word for it like, honour system, or moralische Gefühle, as the most general one. But the whole thing is founded on what I would call a good naturalism: we take this human species and we try to see what it’s like, how it’s different. In language you have to start thinking how it is different from chimps, to get clear on the differences, on the universal differences (but actually chimps are interesting because there are different tribes of chimps that have different ways of operating that are really on the road towards us, in a sense). But there is this tremendous importance that we articulate it and that changes the whole nature of it. That’s the good naturalism. The bad naturalism is where the word nature comes in through another routing, that is the routing of looking at what natural science is like, post-Galilean natural science, where there’s no room for hermeneutical distinctions, there’s no room for issues of culture, in the extreme case with Pinker and Dennett it’s all mechanical and so on, it’s all done by the brain in ways that we don’t understand but will one day, as with Patricia Churchland. So naturalism, which takes post-Galilean natural science as the measure of all things, and takes everything else that we don’t understand yet in these terms as “future agenda”—when I use the word naturalism in a negative way, I mean that. But it’s totally different from the perfectly justi?ed project of how does this animal, this speaking animal, work?

NIGEL DESOUZA: Last question, on philosophical anthropology in your current work. I know you are working on language again. Can you give a sense of what your starting point is in this work and what you are trying to show?


CHARLES TAYLOR: I’ve always been deeply interested in this other front of what is language? and what is art? And there were some beginnings of that in the Philosophical Papers (1985), and recently I’ve been working on that, and I’m publishing a book on it currently and I want to go on and talk about post-Romantic poetics. As for my starting point, I think Aristotle is right, the human is a zoon echon logon, which is translated too quickly, as Heidegger pointed out, as “rational animal,” animal rationale, and really if you bring it back to the original, it’s much more “animal possessing language.” And clearly that’s something so central to us, that’s something that really makes us different from all other species, so what is it? And that’s what needs to be looked at. Now that’s also very Herderian, this focus on language, this focus on the cultural development. So, just as in looking at the history, I’m really a Herderian, that’s why I’m against explaining the rise of secularity by “We’re exactly the same kind of people as we were in the sixteenth century, only we just got rid of one of our illusions.” No, on the contrary, we have a completely different idea of what it is to be an agent, how it is to relate in society, what kind of place we have in the cosmos—I want to trace these massive changes in self- understanding and culture. And then, we get back, and still the core of this is language, and there again I’m very Herderian. The book starts off with Herder, Hamann, and Humboldt, the heroes as it were, the thing we’ve got to take off from—not Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac—and then there is the Romantic period that I’ve been fascinated with—the history I did for the Hegel book is one of my ?rst attempts to understand that background, and I’m fascinated by how a different kind of poetics arises out of that, Hölderlin, for example, which is what I’m trying to do now and I may not succeed as it’s a very big project and I may not live long enough to complete it.

NIGEL DESOUZA: Are there any particular contemporary takes on us as language beings that get it wrong and that are motivating your work?


CHARLES TAYLOR: Well certainly, in the ?rst book, the idea that we could simply explain this in [Steven] Pinker-type terms of language of thought operating through our brain like a kind of program. These seem to me to very inadequate ways of understanding ourselves as language beings, and that’s the book I’m publishing now. And its response is that this could only be an account of language if language were con?ned to very exact, rigorous, descriptive language of the world we live in. But you also have the way in which some of our most important meanings are enacted, again borrowing the word from Evan Thompson, and also another dimension, the way in which our social relations are constituted and changed by enactments. Quick example, the way in which we have these differences of modes of address, which in certain cases are profoundly hierarchical—like in French tu and vous—and which are interestingly deeply challenged in modern practice, so that in Quebec the pattern of tu and vous is so different. We said vous to our parents, and when I tell my grandchildren, they stare in astonishment “Where do you come from!? What a strange world!” So here the discourse has a very formative force; you can’t understand language as just wanting to describe a lot of stuff out there accurately, such that we’re going to ?nd the right words and put them together, which is of course the Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac approach that has been made immensely more sophisticated by the Fregean revolution, by the Saussure revolution. Chomsky falls into this too, but the theory can’t have the all-embracing explanatory force that Chomsky gives it.

Let’s drop into Wittgenstein here: there are all sorts of language games, one language game is describing the world accurately in science, another set of language games is my putting one up on you by saying, “That’s a rather silly question you’re asking,” and you ?ghting against this, and another thing that’s going on in language is my trying to make sense of this ideal I’m acting out, etc. etc. So you can’t have a general theory of language which only explains one set of language games—that is, this purely descriptive one—it’s very important in our world to be sure, but this didn’t exist in say 10,000 BC, whereas some of the other ones probably did, but while it’s very important in our world, it’s not the whole of language. So if you have a description, if you have a characterization of what makes them work, if you take Davidson, one of my targets, I understand you if I can make T-statements where what you say is on this side, and what I say is on that side, and they match. Well that implies that for any foreign language I must have the terms in my own language that can translate it. Now this could work as an ideal for what Austin calls “medium-sized dry goods,” but then when you get these kinds of things that are created in discourse, like regimes of equality, inequality, and so on, it’s very different. My example is that of a Persian dropped into Athens in the age of Pericles: you see these Athenians saying isonomia and isêgoria—there’s a kind of equality here, and you think, “Well, I can understand equality in relation to height, muscles, but I don’t understand this crazy Athenian idea about treating each other as equals.” Now what would happen, if there was going to be success here, is that this guy would immerse himself in Athenian society and learn the language and then he’d go back to Sousa or Ekbatan and he’d write a monograph about crazy Athenians and he would not translate “isêgoria” into Persian; rather, he would say, let me try to explain to you what it means. You see, it’s just absurd to think that the theory of meaning, that getting your meaning, would be being able to make that kind of simple translation. Getting your meaning is either to get myself inside your culture and then I’ll ?nd some kind of way of getting this across, or maybe if that culture spreads, then they’ll have a word.

NIGEL DESOUZA: So the realization of our linguistic capabilities involves more, obviously, than just this descriptive, Hobbes-Condillac approach, and, what is more, language doesn’t even start out like that either.


CHARLES TAYLOR: Exactly, that’s the point. I took a phrase from Robert Brandom: the idea of an “autonomous discursive practice” would be one that we could have without any other, it doesn’t need to be complemented, it could exist on its own. Now an issue arises about this whole set of proto-scienti?c or scienti?c descriptions as a family of discursive practices—getting the right, accurate description of what is out there. The issue is: Could you could consider this complex as such an autonomous practice? It seems clear that you couldn’t have that without the other ones I’m talking about because you have to be brought up, inducted into a language, live in human relation- ships, in order to be initiated into the practice of objective description that abstracts from all that. So this practice just couldn’t be autonomous. It’s not the case that you could have it without all these other uses of language. So these theories, like Davidson’s, which is based on the Hobbes-Locke- Condillac view, make this very big mistake. If I were talking about some- thing that you could just lop off, then it would be a theory of meaning for some wise, developed people, but no, even this wise, developed people has to have all these other practices or they don’t ever get to the point where they can do this, that is, have this language of pure description.





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