Linguistic Turn Research Paper

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“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 (1889–1976) to indicate his version of the linguistic turn, which affected many philosophers in the early twentieth century—literary 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 Nietzsche’s 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 (1900–2002) carried on the criticism of Kant’s 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 linguistic—a philological, a rhetorical, and a literary—protest 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 (1926–1984) 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 usage—for example, topoi, copulas, and word combinations—has 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 (1833–1911). 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 “forestructures 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  Gadamer’s  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 Ricoeur’s “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 Geertz’s 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.


  1. Bernstein, Richard 1980. The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. Philadelphia: University  of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. Bonnell, Victoria , and Lynn Hunt. 1999. Beyond the CulturalTurn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Derrida, J 1978. Edmund Husserl’s “Origins of Geometry”: An Introduction. Trans. John P. Leavey. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
  4. Gadamer, Hans-G 1975. Truth and Method, eds. Garrett Barden and John Cumming. New York: Continuum.
  5. Foucault, M [1966] 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: PantheonBooks.
  6. Geertz, Cliffor 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  7. Heidegger, Mar [1959] 1982. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper and Row.
  8. Hunt, L 1987. The New Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  9. Jay, Mar 1982. Should History Take a Linguistic Turn? In Modern Intellectual History, eds. Dominick LaCapra and Steven Kaplan, 86–110. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  10. Kelley, Donald 1991. Renaissance Humanism. Boston: Twayne.
  11. Michelfelder, Diana P., and Richard Palmer, 1989. Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  12. Mueller-Vollmer, Kur 1986. The Hermeneutics Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. Nelson, John , Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey. 1987. The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  14. Nietzsche, F [1901] 1967. The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House.
  15. Pocock, G. A. 1971. Politics, Language, and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  16. Richter, M 1995. The History of Political and Social Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Ricoeur, P 1981. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Rorty, Richard, 1992. The Linguistic Turn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  19. Tully, James, 1988. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  20. Williams, 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana.

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