Linguistic turn

Linguistic turn

The linguistic turn was a major development in Western philosophy during the 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy, and consequently also the other humanities, primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein can be considered one of the ancestors 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.

Very different intellectual movements were associated with the term "linguistic turn". It became popular with the anthology "The Linguistic Turn. Essays in Philosophical Method" which Richard Rorty edited in 1967. According to Rorty, who later disassociated himself from the linguistic turn and analytic philosophy generally, the phrase "the linguistic turn" originated with the Austrian philosopher Gustav Bergmann. [Rorty, 'Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language' in Essays on Heidegger and Others]

The fact that language is "not" a transparent medium of thought had been stressed by a very different form of philosophy of language which originated in the works of Johann Georg Hamann and Wilhelm von Humboldt. It is claimed that analytical philosophy did "not" relate to this 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 structuralism and poststructuralism. Influential theorists are Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida.

The view that language 'constitutes' reality is contrary to common sense and to most of the Western tradition of philosophy. The traditional view saw words as functioning like labels. First there seemed to be something like 'the real chair', followed by the meaning 'Chair' to which the word "chair" refers. The founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, demonstrated that differences between meanings cannot exist independently from differences between sounds. The differences between meanings structure our perception. We would not be able to recognize a simple chair "as" a chair without knowing the meaning of "chair" as opposed to "arm chair". Therefore it is claimed that all we can know about reality is conditioned by language.

The power of language, more specifically of certain rhetorical tropes, in historical discourse was explored by Hayden White.


Opposing this interpretation would be concept of philosophical realism, that the world is knowable as it really is, as propounded by philosophers like Henry Babcock Veatch and Ayn Rand.


1. Rorty, Richard. 'Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language.' "Essays on Heidegger and Others". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

* Clark, Elizabeth A. (2004), "History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn", Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

* Toews, John E. (1987), "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience", "The American Historical Review" 92/4, 879–907.

* White, Hayden (1973), "Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe", Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

See also

* Aretaic turn
* Iconic turn
* Cognitive turn
* Semiotic turn
* Cultural turn
* Spatial turn

Related topics

* Cognition
* Iconicity
* Indexicality
* Rhetoric
* Semeiotic
* Semiotics
* Symbolicity
* Virtue ethics

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