Linguistic turn

Linguistic turn

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The linguistic turn was a major development in Western philosophy
Western philosophy
Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western or Occidental world, as distinct from Eastern or Oriental philosophies and the varieties of indigenous philosophies....

 during the 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing
Attention is the cognitive process of paying attention to one aspect of the environment while ignoring others. Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience....

 of philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 and the other humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

 primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language.

Very different intellectual movements were associated with the "linguistic turn", although the term itself is commonly thought to be popularised by Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty
Richard McKay Rorty was an American philosopher. He had a long and diverse academic career, including positions as Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, Kenan Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University...

's 1967 anthology "The Linguistic Turn", in which it is taken to mean the turn towards linguistic philosophy
Linguistic philosophy
Linguistic philosophy describes the view that philosophical problems are problems which may be solved either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use. The former position is that of ideal language philosophy, the latter the position of ordinary language...

. According to Rorty, who later disassociated himself from linguistic philosophy and analytic philosophy generally, the phrase "the linguistic turn" originated with the Austrian philosopher Gustav Bergmann
Gustav Bergmann
Gustav Bergmann was a philosopher born in Vienna, Austria. He studied at the University of Vienna and was a member of the Vienna Circle. In the United States, he was a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Iowa.- Biography :Bergmann earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the...


In the tradition of analytical philosophy, according to Michael Dummett
Michael Dummett
Sir Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett FBA D.Litt is a British philosopher. He was, until 1992, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford...

 the linguistic movement first took shape in Gottlob Frege
Gottlob Frege
Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege was a German mathematician, logician and philosopher. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern logic, and made major contributions to the foundations of mathematics. He is generally considered to be the father of analytic philosophy, for his writings on...

´s 1884 work "The Foundations on Arithmetic", specifically paragraph 62 where Frege explores the identity of a numerical proposition . This concern for the logic of propositions and their relationship to "facts" was later take up by the notable analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these things...

 in "On Denoting
On Denoting
"On Denoting", written by Bertrand Russell, is one of the most significant and influential philosophical essays of the 20th century. It was published in the philosophy journal Mind in 1905; then reprinted, in both a special 2005 anniversary issue of the same journal and in Russell's Logic and...

", and played a weighty role in his early work in Logical Atomism
Logical atomism
Logical atomism is a philosophical belief that originated in the early 20th century with the development of analytic philosophy. Its principal exponents were the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, the early work of his Austrian-born pupil and colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his German...


Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947...

, an associate of Russell, is one of the progenitors of the linguistic turn. This follows from his ideas that philosophical problems arise from a misunderstanding of the logic of language in his earlier work, and his remarks on language games in his later work. His later work significantly departs from the common tenets of analytical philosophy and might be viewed as having some resonance in the poststructuralist tradition.

In the 1970s the humanities recognized the importance of language as a structuring agent. Decisive for the linguistic turn in the humanities were the works of yet another tradition, namely the structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 of Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics...

 and the ensuing movement of poststructuralism. Influential theorists include Judith Butler
Judith Butler
Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley.Butler received her Ph.D...

, Luce Irigaray
Luce Irigaray
Luce Irigaray is a Belgian feminist, philosopher, linguist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and cultural theorist. She is best known for her works Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which Is Not One .-Biography:...

, Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and, most recently, novelist, who has lived in France since the mid-1960s. She is now a Professor at the University Paris Diderot...

, Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

 and Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

. The power of language, more specifically of certain rhetorical tropes, in historical discourse was explored by Hayden White
Hayden White
Hayden White is a historian in the tradition of literary criticism, perhaps most famous for his work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe...

. The fact that language is not a transparent medium of thought had been stressed by a very different form of philosophy of language
Philosophy of language
Philosophy of language is the reasoned inquiry into the nature, origins, and usage of language. As a topic, the philosophy of language for analytic philosophers is concerned with four central problems: the nature of meaning, language use, language cognition, and the relationship between language...

 which originated in the works of Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann was a noted German philosopher, a main proponent of the Sturm und Drang movement, and associated by historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin with the Counter-Enlightenment.-Biography:...

 and Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt was a German philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, and founder of Humboldt Universität. He is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice...


These various movements often lead to the notion that language 'constitutes' reality, a position contrary to intuition and to most of the Western tradition of philosophy. The traditional view (what Derrida called the 'metaphysical' core of Western thought) saw words as functioning like labels attached to concepts. According to this view, there is something like 'the real chair', which exists in some external reality and corresponds roughly with a concept in human thought called "Chair" to which the linguistic word "chair" refers. However, the founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics...

, held that definitions of concepts cannot exist independently from a linguistic system defined by difference, or, to put it differently, that a concept of something cannot exist without being named. Thus differences between meanings structure our perception; there is no real chair except insofar as we are manipulating symbolic systems. We would not even be able to recognise a chair as a chair without simultaneously recognising that a chair is not everything else - in other words a chair is defined as being a specific collection of characteristics which are themselves defined in certain ways, and so on, and all of this within the symbolic system of language. Thus, everything we think of as 'reality' is really a convention of naming and characterising, a convention which is itself called 'language'. Indeed, anything outside of language is by definition inconceivable (having no name and no meaning) and therefore cannot intrude upon or enter into human reality, at least not without immediately being seized and articulated by language. Opposing this interpretation would be the concept of philosophical realism
Philosophical realism
Contemporary philosophical realism is the belief that our reality, or some aspect of it, is ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc....

, that the world is knowable as it really is, as propounded by philosophers like Henry Babcock Veatch
Henry Babcock Veatch
Henry Babcock Veatch, Jr. was a twentieth-century American philosopher.-Life and career:Veatch was born in Evansville, Indiana. He obtained his Ph.D...