Columns > Published on May 19th, 2015

The Linguistic Turn: Explorations at the Edge of Language

In 1936, Oxford logician A.J. Ayer gave an intriguing speech on the nature of language. He said:

The philosopher, as an analyst, is not directly concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them.

It’s probably overly ambitious to attempt to squeeze an entire era of philosophical thought into a short article, so let’s begin with a simple question: what is the “Linguistic Turn”? Finding a concrete answer is a bit like chasing a pile of leaves blown by the wind; there are multiple responses that tumble out of reach as you approach. To broadly summarize them all, Ayer’s quote seems to fall pretty near the mark. The Linguistic Turn was exactly that— a “turn” in thought, followed by a period of intense philosophical contemplation on the nature of language. A time which Jean Michel-Roy of the University of Bordeaux says "can be characterized by saying that it turned (better said, intended to) every philosophical problem — and most of all every psychological and epistemological one — into a problem about language, or at least into a problem dependent upon problems about language."

Words are only functional because they allow another party to see an image that corresponds with the one in the speaker’s brain.

A few major players in the shaping of the Linguistic Turn included thinkers, mathematicians, and philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Gottlob Frege, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Each contributed heavily to the discussion of the topic (or topics, considering the spectrum of subjects the Linguistic Turn addressed). Honing in on Wittgenstein, his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was the only full work he ever penned, with ironically little regard for paragraphs of indentations. Its introduction reads, “The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” At its heart, the Tractatus is an attempt to make a roadmap of human thought through language. How far beyond the horizon can our thoughts travel? How finite are thoughts, and can they only extend as far as we are capable of articulating them?

Philosopher Rom Harré illustrates some of Wittgenstein’s thinking on the podcast Philosophy Bites, bringing up an example where Wittgenstein goes to the market and encounters the words apple, red, and five. Seems straightforward at first, but then you start to think about the last word in that set. Five is a word for a number. It’s a noun, like apple, but five is also used as part of a procedure. It’s a description while simultaneously serving as an instruction.

Part of Wittgenstein’s theory was that language works by triggering visions in the mind. Words are only functional because they allow another party to see an image that corresponds with the one in the speaker’s brain. Because our language isn’t efficient enough to create truly accurate pictures, communication fails, wreaking havoc and creating problems that might take years to rectify. Later in life, Wittgenstein began to revise some of his earlier ideas, calling language more like a series of various “games.” Problems arise when we think someone is playing a different game than they actually are. An example of this might be if you went to the movies with someone believing yourself to be on a date while they only wanted to see Interstellar and eat popcorn. Their game concerns amusement while yours is focused on romance.

As the years marched on, the Linguistic Turn began to slowly morph into the Cognitive Turn, and the study of philosophy turned its gaze towards other pursuits besides the nature of language. The notion that any idea existent outside of language is by definition inconceivable to the human mind has been questioned, but it makes wonderful thought food for writers. Creating vivid pictures in a reader’s mind is, after all, a major literary goal. Can you imagine that which you can't describe? Try it for a moment and let us know what you come up with.


Interview with Rom Harré                                                                                                                                                                              Cognitive Turn and Linguistic Turn
Ludwig Wittgenstein

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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