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Linguistic Turn

Literary Aspects, Textualism, Intellectual History, Bibliography

"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 century—literary 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 linguistic—a philological, a rhetorical, and a literary—protest 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 swim—and whatever our dreams of rigorous science, we are fishes before we can become oceanographers.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosm