Linguistic turn

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The linguistic turn was a major development in Western philosophy during the early 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy and the other humanities 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 popularised by Richard Rorty's 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn, in which it means the turn towards linguistic philosophy. According to Rorty, who later dissociated himself from linguistic philosophy and analytic philosophy generally, the phrase "the linguistic turn" originated with philosopher Gustav Bergmann.[1][2]

Analytic philosophy[edit]

Traditionally, the linguistic turn is taken to also mean the birth of analytic philosophy.[3] One of the results of the linguistic turn was an increasing focus on logic and philosophy of language, and the cleavage between ideal language philosophy and ordinary language philosophy.


According to Michael Dummett, the linguistic turn can be dated to Gottlob Frege's 1884 work The Foundations of Arithmetic, specifically paragraph 62 where Frege explores the identity of a numerical proposition.[4][5]

In order to answer a Kantian question about numbers, "How are numbers given to us, granted that we have no idea or intuition of them?" Frege invokes his "context principle", stated at the beginning of the book, that only in the context of a proposition do words have meaning, and thus finds the solution to be in defining "the sense of a proposition in which a number word occurs." Thus an ontological and epistemological problem, traditionally solved along idealist lines, is instead solved along linguistic ones.[3]

Russell and Wittgenstein[edit]

This concern for the logic of propositions and their relationship to "facts" was later taken up by the notable analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell in "On Denoting", and played a weighty role in his early work in logical atomism.[6]

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an associate of Russell, was one of the progenitors of the linguistic turn. This follows from his ideas in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that philosophical problems arise from a misunderstanding of the logic of language, and from his remarks on language games in his later work. His later work (specifically Philosophical Investigations) significantly departs from the common tenets of analytic philosophy and might be viewed as having some resonance in the post-structuralist tradition.[7]

Quine and Kripke[edit]

W. V. O. Quine describes the historical continuity of the linguistic turn with earlier philosophy in Two Dogmas of Empiricism: "Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word."[8]

Later in the twentieth century, philosophers like Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity drew metaphysical conclusions from closely analyzing language.[9]

Continental philosophy[edit]

Decisive for the linguistic turn in the humanities were the works of yet another tradition, namely the Continental structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure. Structuralism was the initial outcome of Saussure's linguistic turn, which later led to poststructuralism with the input of Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas.[10] Influential poststructuralist theorists include Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The power of language, more specifically of certain rhetorical tropes, in historical discourse was explored by Hayden White.

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 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, chair, to which the linguistic word "chair" refers. However, the founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, 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 recognize 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, a large part of what we think of as reality is really a convention of naming and characterising, a convention which is itself called language.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Rorty, "Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language" in Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  2. ^ Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, University Of Chicago Press, 2008, p. xxix.
  3. ^ a b Dummett, Michael A. Origins of analytical philosophy. Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0674644735. OCLC 38153975.
  4. ^ "Language, Philosophy of – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 20 April 2018.
  5. ^ M. Dummett, "Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics"
  6. ^ The Philosophy of Physical Atomism, p. 178
  7. ^ Although Wittgenstein never used the term Linguistic turn. See Analytic Philosophy: Beyond the Linguistic Turn and Back Again (St. Johns College website)
  8. ^ Quine, W. V. O. Two Dogmas of Empiricism
  9. ^ Brian Garrett (25 February 2011). What Is This Thing Called Metaphysics?. Taylor & Francis. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-136-79269-4.
  10. ^ David Kreps, Bergson, Complexity and Creative Emergence, Springer, 2015, p. 92.

Further reading[edit]

  • Neil Gross (2008), Richard Rorty, The Making of an American Philosopher. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
  • Richard Rorty (ed.), 1967. The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
  • 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.
  • Cornforth, Maurice (1971), Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy, Lawrence & Wishart, London (repr. of 1967). The classical critique from the left-wing standpoint.

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