DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2018
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

1. The historical context

Ever since Plato, Western thought has recognized language as a central topic of theoretical philosophy, on a par with mind and reality. Throughout the ages, some authors, notably Locke, have also accorded a special, propaedeutic role to reflections on the meaning of words. But it was only in the 20th century that language came to occupy a central role in debates about the proper task and method of philosophy. To some extent, this holds true of hermeneutic philosophy as envisaged by Heidegger and Gadamer. Properly understood, however, the linguistic turn is the form which this preoccupation with language took within the analytic tradition (see Analytical philosophy). It dates back to the 1920s and is embedded in a wider intellectual revolution, the rise of analytic philosophy from the end of the 19th century onwards (see Glock 2008: ch. 2). One root of this revolution consisted in developments in logic and the foundations of mathematics. They culminated in Gottlob Frege’s invention of a new, non-Aristotelian logic (first-order propositional and predicate calculus) that was powerful enough to formalise all inferences essential to mathematics (Frege 1879; see also Predicate calculus). Another was G.E. Moore’s and Bertrand Russell’s revolt against British idealism (see Idealism). Moore accused idealism of ‘too psychological a standpoint’ (1898: 199). The objects of knowledge or thought are not psychological phenomena in the minds of individuals. They are propositions, complexes of concepts that exist independently of being known or thought about (Moore 1899: 4–5). The British idealists had prima facie compelling arguments for their paradoxical answers to philosophical questions. In response, Moore insisted that the questions themselves must be questioned. The ‘difficulties and disagreements’ that have dogged philosophy are due mainly

to the attempt to answer questions without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer. … [philosophers] are constantly endeavouring to prove that ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ will answer questions, to which neither answer is correct.

(Moore 1903: vi)

Philosophy needs common sense and painstaking analysis rather than dazzling dialectics: ‘a thing becomes intelligible first when it is analysed into its constituent concepts’ (Moore 1899: 182). Moore regarded analysis as a decomposition of complex concepts – including propositions – into simpler concepts by way of definition (see Moore, G.E.).

Russell was even more expansive in his praise for analysis: ‘all sound philosophy begins with logical analysis’ (1900: 8; 1914: 14). Russellian analysis targets propositions rather than concepts. Its pinnacle is the celebrated theory of descriptions (Russell 1905), which analyses propositions such as ‘The present king of France is bald’ as quantified conjunctions – namely, ‘There is one and only one thing which is a present king of France, and everything which is a present king of France is bald’. Definite descriptions (‘the so-and-so’) come out as ‘incomplete symbols’ on this analysis: they have no meaning on their own, yet can be paraphrased in the context of the meaningful sentences in which they occur. Russell practised logical analysis by means of Fregean logic and put it in the service of a reductionist project. In the spirit of Occam’s razor and of earlier empiricists, the unnecessary reification of objects of discourse is avoided by ‘analysing away’ the troublesome expressions (e.g. ‘the round square’). More generally, he pursued a metaphysical aim by logical means: true sentences properly analysed are supposed to be isomorphic to the facts they express, and therefore logical analysis can reveal the ultimate components and structures of reality (see Russell, B.).

Citing this article:
Glock, Hans-Johann and Javier Kalhat. 1. The historical context. Linguistic turn, 2018, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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