Twentieth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

3. The linguistic turn

If the inaugural projects of twentieth-century philosophy thus often involved a conception of philosophical clarification as the analysis of underlying structures of logic, language, and meaning, this idea of structure became more explicit in the projects that soon followed. One of these was the approach of the circle of philosophers, almost all having scientific backgrounds, that began meeting around Moritz Schlick in Vienna in the 1920s. The philosophers of the Vienna Circle agreed in combining the project of an empiricist epistemology with that of a logical and linguistic analysis of the overall structure of facts, which they saw as uniformly expressible in a single language, the so-called “language of physics.” This combined project was termed “logical positivism” or (the preferred term for most of the members of the Circle) “logical empiricism,” and was pursued, as the Circle’s 1929 manifesto, “The Scientific Conception of the World” clarified, not only as a narrowly epistemological one but simultaneously also as a social and political program with a view to the construction of an improved and more rational social structure. A central aspect of this program was the elimination of what the Circle understood as the “metaphysical” claims and statements of religion and much previous philosophy, namely those that could not be verified by any possible empirical evidence whatsoever. In the field of ethics, some logical positivists followed A. J. Ayer in adopting the position of emotivism, according to which, since there are no moral facts, apparent claims about value are to be understood as expressions of the emotional or other evaluative state of the utterer.

The project of logical empiricism found a bold programmatic expression in Rudolf Carnap’s 1928 Der logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Structure of the World). Here, Carnap sought to outline a “constructional” analysis of the concepts of science as forming a single, unified structure, which was definable ultimately in terms of a single relationship of partial similarity among the basic experiences that served, on Carnap’s view, as unitary science’s ultimate epistemic foundation. Along with other Vienna Circle philosophers, Carnap linked intersubjectively communicable logical or linguistic structure to the very possibility of objectivity: only purely structural descriptions, purged of any elements of essential subjectivity, indexicality, or time-dependence, could ultimately be used to express the objective claims of an ultimately systematized unitary science. In the philosophy of mind, this broad conception led to the position of logical or analytic behaviorism, according to which descriptions of mental states are to be analyzed as descriptions of behaviors or tendencies or dispositions to behave in particular ways (including verbal behavior).

This conception of linguistic structure, and others closely related to it, broadly marks what was only later called the “linguistic turn,” that is, the turn toward the pursuit or dissolution of traditional philosophical problems by means of an investigation into the structure of linguistic terms and expressions. For philosophers within the linguistic turn, philosophical investigation proceeds by means of a consideration of the regular structure of language overall rather than (for instance) by means of intuitive insight, metaphysical speculation, or the analysis of the attitudes or thoughts of the individual subject. This sort of broad concern with linguistic structure marks not only many of the variety of projects later characterized under the heading of “analytic” or “analytical” philosophy (see §6, below), but a number of other characteristic twentieth-century projects as well. For example, the “structuralist” linguistics that was developed from Saussure’s conception of language as a conventional structure of signs sought to illuminate the varieties of culturally situated languages and the common structural patterns that emerged across their differences. Along partially similar lines, projects such as those of philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction drew central methods and results from their analysis of the structure and significance of language.

Citing this article:
Livingston, Paul M.. The linguistic turn. Twentieth-century philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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