Charles Taylor: Atomism and Language

Charles Taylor’s work spans a number of disciplines in its discussions of contemporary political debates. As will be shown, his essays arguing against atomism in the realm of political science—with regard to negative liberty, republican society and the primacy of individual rights—are mirrored in his similarly non-atomistic essays on his conception of linguistics. Indeed, it is in his analysis of language that Taylor finds his most potent rhetorical asset in arguing for a non-atomistic, or holistic, approach to political consciousness. Furthermore, his approach to language could be enriched by supplementing the work of contemporary linguists who are similarly not only working to underscore the non-atomistic nature of language and semiotics but are also finding techniques for analysis and models for understanding that provide a more complete comprehension of language.

Though placing political thinkers under the headings of particular schools of thought is fraught with possibly misleading implications, it is helpful to consider Charles Taylor’s work in the broader context of communitarianism. One of the key ideas of which is that individuals “conceive their identity – the subject and not just the object of their feelings and aspirations – as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part.” With this context in mind, let us now look at Taylor’s representation of atomism.

The term ‘atomism’ is used loosely to characterize the doctrines of social contract theory which arose in the seventeenth century … [it] is also applied to contemporary doctrines … which try to defend in some sense the priority of the individual and his rights over society …

Thus, the origins of atomism in this context lie in the contractarian writing of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the central doctrine of this tradition is an affirmation of what can be labelled the “primacy of rights.” As Taylor sees it, this primacy of rights entails that certain rights are ascribed to individuals, while the same status is denied to principles of belonging or obligation to society. In other words, there is nothing to suggest that individuals should be obliged to sustain or interact positively with the community or society of which they are a member—the individual is prioritised at the expense of the community. From the point of view of an advocate of the primacy of rights, our relationship to society, our sustaining it and our obeying its authority are simply conditions placed upon us when we consent to join it. We consent to these conditions because it is in our own self-interest. Thus, society serves a purely instrumental purpose—we join and uphold it because of what it offers us. Interrelated with notions of individual rights is the notion of individual liberty. Theories of negative liberty define freedom in terms of individual independence from others, whereas positive theories also identify freedom with collective self-government. Hence, the same atomistic conception is at work in the notion of negative liberty, while positive theories of liberty are more compatible with the holistic approach of communitarian thinking. Taylor sees that “primacy-of-right theories have been one of the formative influences on modern political consciousness” and, as will become evident, his work questions why this claim for individual rights is given such weight.

The atomistic viewpoint that upholds the predominance of the individual over society contrasts with the Aristotelian notion of man as a “social animal” incapable of surviving outside the polis. Though Taylor admits that most proponents of the atomistic point of view would not necessarily believe that man could physically survive outside of society, as he does in Rousseau’s lonely ‘state of nature’, there is still a suggestion of self-sufficiency if we take the individual as the starting point and society as the derivative. Taylor notes that the matter of physical survival outside of society is not the point of contention here. Instead, the issue is whether or not individuals are only capable of developing their characteristically human capacities within a society. If it is only possible for someone to develop rationality, moral agency and other specifically human potentials within the framework of a society, then how is it possible for an atomistic viewpoint to defend giving precedence to the individual over society? In other words, if a human can only realize their potential by being part of a society, the primacy of individual rights actually works against the individual. The importance of these human capacities is made evident by their inclusion under the heading of individual rights—the right to our own convictions and the right to practice our religion, for example. Thus, the way in which we ascribe rights and our conception of what is human are thoroughly intertwined. Moreover, if we protect certain capacities with individual rights, we are affirming the worth of these capacities and, more importantly, if these capacities can only be developed in a certain kind of society then we are also affirming the worth of that society. Therefore, it would be incoherent to assert these individual rights while denying our obligations to the society. Hence, if we accept Taylor’s reasoning, an atomistic conception of rights is fundamentally confused by its denial of society’s importance in an individual realizing their specifically human potential.

However, Taylor has yet to convincingly show why these human capacities are only achievable within societal structures. It is at this point that Taylor’s analysis of language becomes important. The centrality of language in Taylor’s writing is perhaps best explained by him:

The question of language is somehow strategic for the question of human nature … man is above all the language animal.

Taylor’s perspective on language is best understood in relation to his discussion of the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder. According to Taylor, it is in Herder’s writings that the origins of an “expressivist” theory of language are found. To begin with, it is simplest to define the expressivist theory as being opposed to the “designative” approach to language. This latter theory holds that “words get their meaning from being used to designate objects.” From this, the French thinker, Etienne de Condillac, developed a notion of the origin of language to which Herder responded. Taylor provides a neat summary of Condillac’s explication:

Two children in a desert utter certain cries and gestures as natural expressions of feeling. These are what Condillac calls “natural signs.” By contrast, language uses “instituted signs.” The story is meant to explain how the second emerged out of the first. He argues that each child, seeing the other, say, cry out in distress, would come to see the cry as a sign of something (what caused the distress). Then the child would be able to take the step of using the sign to refer to the cause of distress. The first sign would have been instituted. The children have their first words, and language is born. The lexicon would then increase slowly, term by term.

The problem with Condillac’s parable, which Herder identifies, is that it presupposes what is at stake, it begs the question as it were. The children relate a cry (signifier) to a cause of distress (signified) as though it were an instinctive ability. Yet, it is precisely this capacity to comprehend that words or utterances can indeed stand for something that must be explained for the origin of language to be understood. For Herder, it is not sufficient that an observer can identify a correlation between a signifier and its signified object or event, because the true nature of language is an internal subjective experience. Unfortunately, as Taylor admits, Herder does no better in explaining the origin of language but, “by focusing on the framework understanding which language requires, Herder opened a new domain of insights into its nature.”

Herder’s focus on the subjective experience of language is the basis of his expressivist theory. Looking at language from the standpoint of the user, Herder posited that language came about as a new, reflexive stance toward things. Rather than simply designating or classifying certain objects, the use of language is an expressive action. The signifier denotes our relation, our stance, toward the signified. Furthermore, it also acts reflexively in that, on the one hand, it communicates this stance to others while, at the same time, it actualises this stance for the language user themselves. Traditional notions of language held that thought preceded language and, hence, language acted simply as a means of communicating thoughts to others or as a means to organise thoughts. However, Herder’s notion of reflexivity suggests that thoughts are only possible with language. In other words, the reflexive power of language means that, for example, we experience emotion through its expression. As Taylor writes, “expressions … make our feelings manifest.” And to re-emphasise that this capacity is not designative, the expression of emotions is not necessarily achieved through their description—for example, one might express one’s feelings of admiration for someone by praising them. Thus, the emotion is implicit in the language, which is given meaning not through set relationships between signifier and signified but through overarching “systems of meaning.”

Though the phrase ‘systems of meaning’ might be an invention of twentieth-century linguistics, Herder’s expressivist theory has similar implications. Herder recognised that a word has meaning only within a lexicon—like Humboldt’s “web of language” —and a context of language practices. For example, to truly understand the meaning of a word such as “triangle” one must not only be able to recognise what a triangle is but also what a triangle is not, or, one must be able to recognise other things as “nontriangles.” To understand something one needs to understand its opposite—Jacques Derrida recognised this in his work on binaries. In other words, meanings of words are based not on a simple relationship between signifier and signified but on a more complex chain of signification or system of meaning. Thus, Herder swept away the designative theory’s claim that language was a collection of independently introduced words and, in so doing, removed the corresponding atomism that had dominated understandings of language. So, one can begin to see how Taylor’s views on linguistics parallel his views on political philosophy in that both undercut atomistic traditions. However, there is more to be said on this subject because Taylor’s non-atomistic, holistic approach to the study of language goes beyond the realm of meanings to incorporate identity as well.

Taylor makes two key points in relation to language and identity. First, that language is a fundamentally dialogic phenomenon that is fashioned and developed within what he terms a “speech community.” While monologue is possible, from an expressivist perspective, language is only given significance when it is a common asset of a community. This is because the expressivists see the core nature of language residing in the process of speech, which in turn has its locus in conversation (with others). This shared, dialogic feature of language suggests that we are never in full individual control of the language we express and, by implication, the thoughts we realise.

People do not acquire the languages needed for self-definition on their own.

This is an idea that has become more and more significant through the poststructuralism of the last century and it fundamentally opposes the sovereign rational subject of René Descartes—cogito ergo sum—because it decentres the individual from our philosophical consciousness and shows that any claims of individual autonomy must be qualified. Again, one should be able to see the link here between the expressivist model of language, which denies complete subject sovereignty, and Taylor’s views on primacy of rights, where he denies that individuals should be considered self-sufficient creatures separable from their society. So, language is something that is shared by a speech community, but how does this relate to the notion of identity?

The second major point that Taylor makes on this subject, that identity is formed through language, has already been alluded to with respect to the expression of an emotion being synonymous with the manifestation of such an emotion. In other words, if all our thoughts, feelings and beliefs are tied to language, then it is evident that our sense of ourselves is likewise established through language. The reflexive nature of language is the vehicle for self-awareness and self-understanding.

… the expressive conception gives a view of language as a range of activities in which we express/realize a certain way of being in the world.

Thus, as language is a shared activity, our identity is to a certain extent always bound up with the broader identity of our speech community, which is, in turn, shaped by our identity. Once more, Taylor uses the expressive conception of language to undermine the atomistic sense of individuals as autonomous entities.

The word “activities” in the above quotation should be given due recognition. The identity, the “way of being in the world”, that we realise through language is not a static affair. Language is active and, as such, it is a dynamic influence. On the one hand, language can be transformative in that “the development of new modes of expression enables us to have new feelings” because, in being able to express our feelings, we give them a reflexive dimension which not only realises them but transforms them. What’s more, while language is not under an individual’s control because of its delocalised existence amongst a speech community, each and every language user is, simply through the use of language, reshaping it. As Taylor sees it, we come to express/realize a certain way of being in the world against a background of language practices that we can never fully dominate but it is also a background we are never fully dominated by because we are reshaping it. In other words, we are inducted into a language community that has existing practices but as soon as we become interlocutors we become creators of new modes of expression that relate to our personal experiences. Thus, we make for ourselves an identity and a self-awareness that fits into the larger web of understandings and meanings that constitutes a speech community. Extending this idea further, while language is shaped by the community, the community is itself shaped by language because our modes of expression serve to characterise our relationships with others. Our social status and our feelings towards others are all expressed/realized through language.

So, our individual identity is inextricably linked to others in a dialogic relationship. Relating this back to the discussion of atomism that began this essay, this understanding of language and the resulting conception of identity clearly runs in opposition to the atomistic conception of individuals with no obligations to their society. We can only achieve our particularly human capacities through language and, because language is a shared, common set of activities, we require society to fulfil this human potential. Therefore, it is incoherent to set out individual rights that do not carry with them any obligations to belong to the (speech) community that fosters the language necessary to develop as a human being. Similarly, with regard to competing conceptions of personal liberty, Taylor suggests that “freedom requires a certain understanding of self” and, as has been shown in this exposition of his expressive conception of language, “self-understanding is not something we can sustain on our own [because] our identity is always partly defined in conversation with others or through the common understanding which underlies the practices of our society.” Hence, Taylor’s work in undermining the influence of atomism on our notions of rights and freedom is largely based upon his parallel work on expressivism in linguistics.

Another element of Taylor’s work that benefits from his work on linguistics is his notion of a republican society. He outlines his arguments on this topic in his paper Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate. The view of the republic that Taylor supports is one where patriotism is a binding element, where the value of the political society lies not in what it offers the individual—as it does for Locke or Hobbes—but in what it offers to the common good. It is based on an “understanding that the political institutions are a common bulwark of citizen dignity.” As Alan Patten writes, in Taylor’s opinion “individuals view citizenship not merely in instrumental terms, but as a good in itself, which is shared with others, and which is integral to their identities and self-understandings.” The crux of his argument is that atomistic principles have caused a misunderstanding around the distinction between matters that are “for me and for you” and matters that are “for us.” In other words, the atomistic impulse to think of discrete individuals holds sway over our conceptions of political society because we think of our shared goods (welfare, police force etc) as being for you and for me rather than for us. So, what exactly is the distinction? Yet again, Taylor draws on linguistics to make his point. Let us consider a conversation between two people over something as simple as the weather. Prior to the conversation beginning, both parties would have been aware of the weather—it was a matter for him and for her. When they begin to discuss the weather, they make it a matter for them. As Taylor puts it,

A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action.

This commonality changes the relationship between people. It familiarises them, builds a common understanding and can lead to a sense of intimacy—an “essentially dialogic phenomenon” in Taylor’s view. So, in Taylor’s thesis, this same monologic-dialogic distinction is evident in relation to goods.

Some things have value to me and you, and some things essentially have value to us. [my emphasis]

Hence, a republic’s shared goods should in fact be considered as “convergent” goods in Taylor’s terminology because their value is as much in their commonality as it is in what they offer to the individual. So, the significance of the nation’s common goods, and my basis for belonging, is not based around the contractarian notion that they provide for me what I cannot provide by myself. Instead, my enjoyment and appreciation of these goods is heightened by the fact that I share the experience with other members of my community, with whom, through our common language, I identify myself with. So, once more, through a notion of expressivism that emphasises the commonality of language, Taylor shows that one must similarly accept a non-atomistic or holistic approach to political society. To place this continuing correlation in context, Taylor writes,

The battle between expressors and designators is one front in the global war between the heirs of the Enlightenment and the Romantics.

So, in the light of this discussion, it should be evident that Taylor’s philosophical approach is centred around a push to overturn the primacy of the paradigm of atomism. He works to undermine the influence of atomism on political matters such as rights, liberty and republican society through linking them to the underlying framework of language that, once understood from an expressivist point of view, reveals the importance of commonality, of communitarianism.

As an addendum to this discussion it is worth noting that Taylor could easily enrich the potency of his linguistic analysis by taking on some of the similarly non-atomistic principles of contemporary linguistics. The shared purpose of Taylor and linguists such as Michael Halliday is striking. Halliday writes that semiotics, the study of signs that originated with the Stoics and saw more recent development with Ferdinand de Saussure, has historically been limited by the notion of the sign as an “atomistic concept.” In place of this, Halliday posits that we must think of “systems of meaning”, where language is one expression of these systems, which also incorporate other modes of meaning such as art and music. As discussed earlier, Taylor has a similarly non-atomistic approach to language. Moreover, Halliday makes the important leap of linking semiotics to its social context, whereas other linguists have focused on psychological or psychoanalytic facets of language. Again, this parallels Taylor’s focus on the “speech community” and the manner in which language shapes social structures. Where Halliday goes further is in creating a model for the analysis of language that incorporates this new social-semiotics. Though this clearly is not the place for a detailed exposition of this model, it is nevertheless worth noting that Taylor’s stand on language is supported and reflected in some of the most significant linguistic studies of the last two decades and, for those who make the link, Taylor’s attacks on atomism and his support for a holistic political consciousness can only be enhanced by the increased depth achieved in applying Halliday’s work in conjunction with Taylor’s. The result is an understanding of a powerfully different communitarian notion of political society compared to the liberal-atomism which has dominated modern political theory.

Works Cited
Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1993.
Hjort, M. “Literature: expression or interaction?” in J. Tully (ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: the philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Patten, A. “The Republican Critique of Liberalism” in British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1996).
Sandel, M. Limits of Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Taylor, C. “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty” in A. Ryan (ed.) The Idea of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
———— “Atomism” (Ch. 7) in Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
———— “Language and Human Nature” (Ch. 9) in Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
———— “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate” in N.L. Rosenblum (ed.) Liberalism and the Moral Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.
———— “The Politics of Recognition” (Ch. 12) in Philosophical Arguments Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.
———— “The Importance of Herder” (Ch. 5) in Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Further Reading
Descombes, V. “Is there an objective Spirit?”, D.M. Weinstock (trans.) in J. Tully (ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: the philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Gutting, G. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.