On Turns

For a thinker, or whatever term you prefer, a fundamental category is “turn.” In 20th century philosophy, the classic example is “the turn” (or, “the Turn”) which occupies so many pages of scholarship about Martin Heidegger. (If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the TL;DR: Heidegger is generally considered the Nazi philosopher, and is best known for his unfinished tome Being and Time, or in the much more epic German, Sein und Zeit.) “The turn” in this context means a number of interrelated things; it is an example of what Slavoj Zizek would call a short-circuit: between Heidegger’s most prominent engagement in the Nazi counter-revolution, and the manifold changes in his philosophy from before to after; for Heidegger himself, between the latter conceived as an injunction into the history of philosophy–more precisely, the shift in analytical perspective from the “Dasein” or existence of humans and the “History of Being” or Seinsgeschichte—and a process within that History, distinguished, in more nuanced Heidegger scholarship/translation, from the previous short-circuit as “turning”. That is, a turn is a lane-change or even an exit ramp on the self-building highway of history, regardless of whether you focus on the initial paver or the more normal automobiles that often follow. A prime example is what’s known as the Linguistic Turn.

It’s an interesting example of such a turn, principally but not mainly in philosophy, first of all because it can only be pinned down to a specific thinker in a normative fashion (that is, to identify the Linguistic Turn with either Wittgenstein or Derrida or… is to say quite a lot about what one thinks of the whole phenomenon, to say nothing of the tone by which one references one or another specific thinker in this way). I think, probably not uniquely, that the Linguistic Turn is at the heart of the binary that both splits and structures the current epoch of philosophy as a tradition, namely between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy. It’s easy to map this split onto the political one between Right and Left, respectively, based on how the split itself is used unironically by analytics and, by their opposite number, only with that sense of resigned despair peculiar to the Left. We can see that this conflict is “at the heart” of this split by way of how it is simultaneously independent and constitutive of both sides. The ultimate example of this is undoubtedly the split between the early and late stages of the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the very different trajectories and influences of the two principal doctrines which sprang from them: the Vienna Circle and Ordinary Language philosophy, respectively. Not quite as poetic, in my opinion, an example, but a bit more obviously related to the opposition between analytic and continental philosophy, is the wide gap that separates Bertrand Russell, and Heidegger. In French thought, the Linguistic Turn names a magnificently wide-ranging current of thinkers and schools that defines almost the entirety of what could be termed its short 20th century, from figures as different as Ferdinand de Saussure, thru Jacques Lacan, to Jacques Derrida. What unites all these disparate developments in 20th century philosophy? What is the Linguistic Turn?

I think the Linguistic Turn is best viewed as a massive shift in the nature of philosophy; not simply the various intentions or projects of these various thinkers, but moreover a transformation in philosophy itself to which they are all responding: philosophy’s self-destruction in its giving birth to modern science. As you might know, what we now call “science” used to be part of philosophy, separated, in a rather Cartesian, dualistic way, as “natural” philosophy from what we might call speculative philosophy, and which might be more pejoratively called metaphysics today. The standard example here is Isaac Newton, who was, in the language of the time, a natural philosopher. (The major remnant of this lost status of philosophy is that we still refer to the highest level of academic qualification as the “PhD”, a doctorate of philosophy in some particular subject.) Why, then, is this turn “linguistic”? As science, that is investigation into the nature of the material world by means of what is called the “scientific method,” came to dominate the university, dethroning philosophy as the apogee of human knowledge, a question necessarily presented itself: what was to be philosophy’s role? How, as a tradition and a discipline, could it survive in this new world? What unites analytic and continental philosophy is their answer to this question: the analysis of language. This focus is what unites all those philosophers who are otherwise so different. While their understanding of what this project of the “analysis of language” varies, from the standard analytic focus on the language of scientists, to the standard continental focus on language as such, they nonetheless share this often unacknowledged presupposition. From Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy’s purpose as clearing up linguistic confusions, to Heidegger’s position that everyday language reflects basic human understandings of the nature of Being, from Lacan’s analysis of signifying structures as the backbone of human psychology, to Foucault’s analyses of the relationship of power between the “discourses” or “epistemes” hegemonic in the academy and what counts as “knowledge,” this dethroning of philosophy is the background of its turn towards human language as the horizon of its existence as a discipline.

An important precursor of the linguistic turn, so to speak the hands to start turning the wheel, is Immanuel Kant. His Critiques, especially the first, the Critique of Pure Reason, is the first major response to this losing-ground of philosophy to the sciences, with its project of drawing the boundaries for what can be legitimately theorized by the philosopher. But the prehistory of the Linguistic Turn truly ends, I think, with Karl Marx, and the last of his famous Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophy hitherto has only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” From this perspective, then, the Linguistic Turn is philosophy’s turning inwards, its turning down towards its navel…


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