Skip to main content
Select Source:

Linguistic Turn

LINGUISTIC TURN.

"Where word breaks off no thing may be": this is the line from a poem by Stefan George repeatedly cited by Martin Heidegger to indicate his version of the linguistic turn, which affected many philosophers in the early twentieth centuryliterary scholars already having made the turn, whether consciously or not (Heidegger, p. 60). The phrase "linguistic turn" is actually Gustav Bergman's, given new currency by Richard Rorty, but the phenomenon is far from unprecedented. Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of "the infinite interpretability of all things" is an analogy drawn from language, and a century earlier there was what H. G. Gadamer called "Herder's ill-fated criticism of the Kantian transcendental turn"that is, his "metacriticism" of Immanuel Kant, which Jacques Derrida likewise recalled. Renaissance humanism, too, was in part a linguistica philological, a rhetorical, and a literaryprotest against the excessive abstraction of Scholasticism, following the lead of the ancient Sophists and orators.

The "linguistic turn" has been made by many philosophical movements by now, even analytical and Marxist philosophy, and as usual this has been done in the search for foundations and a universal standpoint from which to pass judgments on the human condition. Linguistic criticism certainly undercuts the spiritual world of ideas; but "language," when divorced from the particularities of different linguistic traditions, can also be "reified" and made into a philosophical fetish. Martin Heidegger speaks of language but in practice regards German and Greek (rather than, say, Sanskrit or Chinese) as closer to Being than any other. His former pupil Gadamer, while regarding hermeneutics as universal, is more self-critical, speaking of "trying to draw out of one's mother tongue new ways of thinking." The implication is that there is not only no Ding an sich (thing in itself) but also no Geist as sich (spirit) and moreover that "there is no meaning where expression fails." Language is the ocean in which we all swimand whatever our dreams of rigorous science, we are fishes before we can become oceanographers.

Literary Aspects

The linguistic turn was apparent in other connections, one the "new rhetoric" of the past generation, which draws attention to the habits and conventions of language, like Michel Foucault calling into question the control of speakers and writers over their own discourse. The arts of speaking and writing are both based on conscious imitation, but every literate person is moving in linguistic channels carved by predecessors, deposited in the memory, and repeated in different contexts. Particular languages produce semantic fields that make possible communication and dialogue; and linguistic usageparticular topoi, copulas, and word combinationshas its own inertial force that acquires meaning apart from the intentions of users. This is one reason for being wary of the "intentional fallacy" in interpreting texts.

One of the most impressive vistas opened up by the linguistic turn is the modern philosophy of hermeneutics in the form given by Gadamer, who, following Heidegger, extended the line of thought in the direction suggested not by Friedrich Nietzsche (as did Heidegger and Derrida) but rather by Wilhelm Dilthey. Rejecting revolutionary ruptures as a condition of understanding, Gadamer preserved belief in a kind of continuity making communication and "dialogue" possible not only between speakers but also over time. There are no absolute beginnings, no understanding without prejudice, without "forestructures of understanding" provided by language and the "life-world." Pursuing Friedrich Schleiermacher's old quest for "the I in the Thou," Gadamer accepts the horizon-structure of experience but doubles it to accommodate the contexts of the past as well as the inquiring present. Language is a continuum making interpretation possible, but it does not permit the sort of retrospective mind reading assumed by the "empathy" of Romantic hermeneutics. That meaning must always be constructed in the present is the hermeneutical condition of Gadamer's kind of historicism. To understand, in short, is always to understand differently.

An important offshoot of hermeneutics is reception theory, or reception history (Rezeptionsgeschichte ), which follows Gadamer's line by shifting attention from writing to reading. In fact intellectual history is more concerned with the original intention of authors and meaning of their texts than with their "fortune" in later contexts. What Paul Ricoeur calls the "semantic autonomy" of texts is the condition of the interpretations and misinterpretations that accompany the reception of writings. For Ricoeur the poles of interpretation are the hermeneutics of tradition and the hermeneutics of suspicion, the first locating the position of Gadamer (and of Arthur Lovejoy), who seeks an experience of tradition, the second that of Foucault, who is devoted to the critique of ideology. For Gadamer "tradition" and continuity make possible the common ground of understanding and communication that, via ideas, connects present and past (the Western past); for Foucault they mean entrapment in or complicity with ideology and a denial of the ruptures between the successive epistemes that represent decipherable codes (critically fabricated Weltanschauungen ) of culture and patterns of underlying power relations.

Textualism

The linguistic turn prompted another and more severe tactic, which was the textualist turn. In this literary/philosophical game of one-upmanship Derrida substituted the transcendent phenomenon of language by the visible presence of "writing," through whichor rather through the hyper-textualist device of "traces"he attempts not only to operate in the "margins" of texts but also speak in the realm of the unspeakable and in effect to "get behind the back of language" (in Gadamer's terms) and of philosophical discourse. Taking writing as the condition of knowledge is itself a traditional move, as illustrated in the Renaissance preoccupation with littera (letter-atura ) and scriptura and, more conspicuously, in the tradition of rabbinical (but also of Protestant) scholarship.

In this and other metalinguistic maneuvers of deconstruction, Derrida surpasses even Heidegger in claiming to be a "beginning thinker"in the goal of transcending criticism or even, as in the notorious (non-)confrontation with Gadamer, dialogue. The very idea of situating Derrida's own writing in the history of philosophical thought, declares one devotee, "would amount to defusing its alterity and explosive potential." To be effective, it seems, cultural criticism, like philosophy, must be beyond the horizons of historical inquiry. Breaking with tradition is itself traditional in philosophical thought, as this Derridean adds, though without suggesting that the break and the "alterity" occur in the medium of rhetoric, or writing, rather than a transcendent tradition of thinking (in Derridean terms a transcendental state of "différance, née difference ")or an antitradition of deconstructionthat is itself set beyond language, criticism, and perhaps even history.

Foucault, too, sought to transcend language and "the history of historians," hoping, with the help of his episteme, to uncover the structures of society and relations of power underlying social practice and discourse, but historians have questioned the methods and especially his attitude toward historical evidence. For Foucault learning does not enjoy high priority; and whether or not he himself was, by intention or vocation, a historian, his opinion was that history was too important to leave to such. Foucault had more important things on his agenda. Criticisms of the concept of episteme (and of "practice" and "discourse") must be of the same order as criticisms of other such collective abstractions as spirit (Welt- or Volksgeist ), Weltanschauung, mentalité, and other shorthand devices for grouping apparent homologies in various areas of behavior within a particular cultural horizon. Like Marxism, Freudianism, and Critical Theory, including the work of Jürgen Habermas, it is another effort of getting "behind the back of language," which had for centuries been the dream of "philosophy as a rigorous science."

Intellectual History

This is also to some extent the noble dream of the German approach to intellectual history that succeeded old-fashioned Geistesgeschichte or Ideengeschichte (history of thought, history of ideas). Like the French mentalités, German "history of concepts" (Begriffsgeschichte ) is an effort to reconstruct an intellectual field through the history of terms and families of terms like the English study of "keywords." In fact Begriffsgeschichte is a species of cultural history focusing on semantic change and the social and political context of ideas, and its program depends on metahistorical considerations to determine the meanings behind the keywords being analyzed. This enterprise began in the early 1970s, before databases like Proteus and ARTFL made possible a much more extensive searching of semantic fields, but it has nonetheless greatly enriched the practices of intellectual and social history.

The linguistic turn in women's studies allowed for the awareness of gender constructs throughout historical records as well as in the limited questions of historians. Words such as masculinity, femininity, and androgyny became keywords as gender studies scholars began new inquiries into the history of ideas. A last new frontier of intellectual history at the end of the twentieth century is the effort to understand cultures not only past but also alien. Philosophy has not been much concerned with alterity, what Michel de Certeau calls "heterology," which has been faced by historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, mythographers, and other outward-and backward-looking scholars. "The course of history does not show us the Becoming of things foreign to us," argued Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, "but the Becoming of ourselves and of our knowledge." But the hermeneutical philosophy of his contemporary Schleiermacher sought the thou as well as the I the Other as well as the Weand this aim has been carried on and intensified by more recent followers. It is here that the methods of "anthropology," which had been found suspect by Immanuel Kant and Foucault alike, again become relevant, especially the interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz, which depends on a language model rather than a natural science model of understanding and that has made its way also into historical studies. Language is the "house of being," in Heidegger's famous aphorism, and the history of ideas, too, has taken up residence here.

See also Language and Linguistics ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Language, Philosophy of .

bibliography

Gadamer, H.-G. "Die Begriffsgeschichte und die Sprache der Philosophie," Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Forschung des Landes Nordheim-Westfalen 170 (1971).

Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. Translated by Peter D. Hertz. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982.

Jay, Martin. "Should Intellectual History Take a Linguistic Turn?" In Modern Euopean Intellectual History: Reppraisals and New Perspectives, edited by Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Koselleck, Reinhard. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

Nelson, John S., Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey, eds. The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Richter, Melvin. The History of Political and Social Concepts: A Critical Introduction. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976.

Rorty, Richard, ed. The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Schrift, Alan D. Nietzsche and the Question of Interpretation: Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Scott, Joan Wallach. "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis." In her Gender and the Politics of History. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Smith, Bonnie G. The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1976.

Donald R. Kelley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Linguistic Turn." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Linguistic Turn." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/linguistic-turn

"Linguistic Turn." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/linguistic-turn

Linguistic Turn

Linguistic Turn

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Where word breaks off no thing may be: This line from a poem by Stefan George was repeatedly cited by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (18891976) to indicate his version of the linguistic turn, which affected many philosophers in the early twentieth centuryliterary scholars already having made the turn, whether consciously or not (Heidegger [1959] 1982, p. 63). The phrase linguistic turn actually was coined by the philosopher Gustav Bergman, a former member of the Vienna circle, who made an effort to reformulate philosophy with regard to syntax and interpretation and was given new currency by the American philosopher Richard Rorty (b. 1931). Currently it is extremely popular, but the phenomenon is far from unprecedented (Rorty 1992; and see Jay 1982). Friedrich Nietzsches idea of the infinite interpretability of all things (Nietzsche [1901] 1967, p. 327) is an analogy drawn from language, and a century later Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002) carried on the criticism of Kants transcendental turn (1975, p. 176)that is, his metacriticism of Kant, which Jacques Derrida likewise recalled (Michelfelder and Palmer 1989, p. 102; cf. Derrida 1978). Renaissance humanism, too, was in part a linguistica philological, a rhetorical, and a literaryprotest against the excessive abstraction of scholasticism, following the lead of the ancient Sophists and orators (Kelley 1991).

The linguistic turn was apparent also in the new rhetoric of the mid-twentieth century, which drew attention to the habits and conventions of language, as when Michel Foucault (19261984) denied the control of speakers and writers over their own discourse (e.g., Foucault 1970). The arts of speaking and writing are based on conscious imitation, but every literate person moves in linguistic channels carved by predecessors, deposited in the memory, and repeated in different contexts. Particular languages produce semantic fields that make possible communication and dialogue; and linguistic usagefor example, topoi, copulas, and word combinationshas its own inertial force that acquires meaning apart from the intentions of users. This is one reason for distrusting the intentional fallacy in interpreting texts.

One of the most impressive vistas opened up by the linguistic turn is the modern philosophy of hermeneutics in the form given by Gadamer, who, following Heidegger, extended the line of thought in the direction suggested not by Nietzsche (as did Heidegger and Derrida) but rather by the German philosopher and historian Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911). Rejecting revolutionary ruptures as a condition of understanding, Gadamer preserved belief in a kind of continuity that made communication and dialogue possible not only between speakers but also over time (Gadamer 1975). There are no absolute beginnings, no understanding without prejudice and the fore-structures of understanding provided by language and the life-world. Pursuing the old quest for the I in the Thou, Gadamer accepts the horizon-structure of experience but doubles it to accommodate the contexts of past as well as the inquiring present. Language is a continuum making interpretation possible, but it does not permit the sort of retrospective mind reading assumed by the empathy of Romantic hermeneutics. That meaning is always constructed in the present is the hermeneutical condition of Gadamers historicism. To understand, in short, is always to understand differently.

An important offshoot of hermeneutics is reception theory, or reception history (Rezeptionsgeschichte ), which follows Gadamer in shifting attention from writing to reading. In fact, intellectual history is more concerned with the intention of authors and meaning of their texts than with their fortune in later contexts. Paul Ricoeurs semantic autonomy of texts is the condition of interpretations and misinterpretations accompanying the reception of writings (Ricoeur 1981, 63ff). For him, the poles of interpretation are hermeneutics of tradition and hermeneutics of suspicion, the first locating the position of Gadamer, who seeks an experience of tradition, the second that of Foucault, who is devoted to the critique of ideology. For Gadamer, tradition and continuity produce the common ground of understanding and communication which, via ideas, connects present and past; for Foucault, they mean entrapment in or complicity with ideology and a denial of the ruptures between the successive epistemes that represent decipherable codes (critically fabricated Weltanschauungen ) of culture and patterns of underlying power relations.

This is also to some extent the noble dream of the German approach to intellectual history that is the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte ), an effort to reconstruct an intellectual field through the history of terms and families of terms such as the English study of keywords (Williams 1983, and see Richter 1995). Under the influence of J. G. A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and others, political thought has turned its attention to questions of terminology and vocabulary rather than abstract systems (Pocock 1971; Tully 1988). Likewise, Begriffsgeschichte is a species of cultural history focusing on semantic change and the historical context of ideas, and it depends on metahistorical considerations to determine the meanings behind the keywords being analyzed. Such enterprises began thirty years ago, before databases such as Proteus and ARTFL made possible a much more extensive searching of semantic fields, but nonetheless they have greatly enriched the practices of intellectual and social history after the linguistic turn.

The linguistic turn has had an impact across the whole range of disciplines, whether through the idea of social construction or through the extension of the interpretive method into the human and even the natural sciences (Bernstein 1980; Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey 1987). The result was to place the observer in the field of observation, that is, the discipline, in the search for meaning. In anthropology this meant not the establishment of general scientific knowledge, but rather the hermeneutical interpretation of cultures, in Clifford Geertzs phrase (Geertz 1973); and so it was in the other social and human sciences, which after the linguistic turn took language rather than mathematics as the model of understanding. For some scholars this represented the threat of relativism or the basis for a claim to postmodernism, but in any case it permitted a more critical approach to the social sciences.

The new cultural history proclaimed in the 1980s also included a linguistic turn, drawing extensively on post-Marxist literary theory and the idea of history as a text to be read. Some social scientists have resisted this move toward the social construction of knowledge, and a decade later a number of scholars affected to take their disciplines beyond the cultural turn (Hunt 1987; Bonnell and Hunt 1999). In any case, there is no turning back.

SEE ALSO Meaning

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bernstein, Richard J. 1980. The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bonnell, Victoria E., and Lynn Hunt. 1999. Beyond the Cultural Turn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Edmund Husserls Origins of Geometry: An Introduction. Trans. John P. Leavey. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1975. Truth and Method, eds. Garrett Barden and John Cumming. New York: Continuum.

Foucault, Michel. [1966] 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Heidegger, Martin. [1959] 1982. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper and Row.

Hunt, Lynn. 1987. The New Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jay, Martin. 1982. Should History Take a Linguistic Turn? In Modern Intellectual History, eds. Dominick LaCapra and Steven Kaplan, 86110. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kelley, Donald R. 1991. Renaissance Humanism. Boston: Twayne.

Michelfelder, Diana P., and Richard Palmer, eds. 1989. Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt. 1986. The Hermeneutics Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, John S., Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey. 1987. The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. [1901] 1967. The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1971. Politics, Language, and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richter, Melvin. 1995. The History of Political and Social Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1981. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, Richard, ed. 1992. The Linguistic Turn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tully, James, ed. 1988. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana.

Donald R. Kelley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Linguistic Turn." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Linguistic Turn." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/linguistic-turn

"Linguistic Turn." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/linguistic-turn