The linguistic turn was a major development in Western philosophy during the early 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy and the other humanities primarily on the relations between language, language users, and the world.
Very different intellectual movements were associated with the "linguistic turn", although the term itself is commonly thought to have been popularised by Richard Rorty's 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn, in which he discusses the turn towards linguistic philosophy. According to Rorty, who later dissociated himself from linguistic philosophy and analytic philosophy generally, the phrase "the linguistic turn" originated with philosopher Gustav Bergmann.
Traditionally, the linguistic turn is taken to also mean the birth of analytic philosophy. One of the results of the linguistic turn was an increasing focus on logic and philosophy of language, and the cleavage between ideal language philosophy and ordinary language philosophy.
According to Michael Dummett, the linguistic turn can be dated to Gottlob Frege's 1884 work The Foundations of Arithmetic, specifically paragraph 62 where Frege explores the identity of a numerical proposition.
In order to answer a Kantian question about numbers, "How are numbers given to us, granted that we have no idea or intuition of them?" Frege invokes his "context principle", stated at the beginning of the book, that only in the context of a proposition do words have meaning, and thus finds the solution to be in defining "the sense of a proposition in which a number word occurs." Thus an ontological and epistemological problem, traditionally solved along idealist lines, is instead solved along linguistic ones.
This concern for the logic of propositions and their relationship to "facts" was later taken up by the notable analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell in "On Denoting", and played a weighty role in his early work in logical atomism.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, an associate of Russell, was one of the progenitors of the linguistic turn. This follows from his ideas in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that philosophical problems arise from a misunderstanding of the logic of language, and from his remarks on language games in his later work. His later work (specifically Philosophical Investigations) significantly departs from the common tenets of analytic philosophy and might be viewed as having some resonance in the post-structuralist tradition.
W.V.O. Quine describes the historical continuity of the linguistic turn with earlier philosophy in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism": "Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word."
Decisive for the linguistic turn in the humanities were the works of yet another tradition, namely the continental structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure,: 92 an approach introduced in his Cours de linguistique générale, published posthumously in 1916. He said language is a system of signs, comparable to writing systems, sign systems used by the deaf, and systems of symbolic rites and can therefore be studied systematically.: 158 He proposed the new science semiology—from the Greek semeion meaning the sign.: 158 It was later called semiotics, the science of signs.: 249 Prior to the work of Saussure in the early twentieth century, linguistics focused mainly on etymology, an historical analysis (also called a diachronic analysis) tracing the history of the meanings of individual words. Saussure was critical of the comparative philologists of the 19th century, who—basing their investigations only on Indo-European languages—whose conclusions, he said, had "no basis in reality." At that time "language was to be a "fourth natural kingdom.": 4 Saussure approached language by examining the present functioning of language (a synchronic analysis)—a relational approach in which he looked at the "system of relations between words as the source of meanings.": 249 Saussure described the synchronic, as the static side of the science of linguistics, in contrast to the diachronic, which has to do with evolution.: 81 By comparing different languages, Saussure demonstrated that there is "no fixed bond" between the signified—for example the real chair—and the signifier—the 'chair', 'chaise', etc.: 69 Spontaneous expressions of reality are not dictated by "natural forces".: 69 Saussure demonstrated the grammatical consequences of phonetic evolution by illustrating how diachronic facts take on different forms, for example chaise 'chair' and chair 'desk',: 121 and chaire 'pulpit'.: 121
Saussure held that definitions of concepts cannot exist independently from a linguistic system defined by difference, or, to put it differently, that a concept of something cannot exist without being named. Thus differences between meanings structure our perception; there is no real chair except insofar as we are manipulating symbolic systems. We would not even be able to recognize a chair as a chair without simultaneously recognising that a chair is not everything else - in other words a chair is defined as being a specific collection of characteristics which are themselves defined in certain ways, and so on, and all of this within the symbolic system of language. Thus, a large part of what we think of as reality is really a convention of naming and characterising, a convention which is itself called language.
Structuralism was the initial outcome of Saussure's linguistic turn, which later led to poststructuralism with the input of Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas. Influential poststructuralist theorists include Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The power of language, more specifically of certain metahistorical tropes, in historical discourse was explored by Hayden White.
These various movements often lead to the notion that language 'constitutes' reality, a position contrary to intuition and to most of the Western tradition of philosophy. The traditional view (what Derrida called the 'metaphysical' core of Western thought) saw words as functioning labels attached to concepts. According to this view, there is something like 'the real chair', which exists in some external reality and corresponds roughly with a concept in human thought, chair, to which the linguistic word "chair" refers.
Although Wittgenstein never used the term Linguistic turn