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

5. Past the linguistic turn?

Linguistic philosophy began to wane from the mid-1970s onwards, largely as a result of the rise of naturalism in the United States, a blend of logical positivism and American pragmatism. The main artificer of this ‘naturalistic turn’ in philosophy was the logician and philosopher W.V.O. Quine. In his famous paper ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951), Quine challenged the distinction between analytic statements, which are true solely in virtue of meaning, and synthetic statements, whose truth also depends on the way the world is, on the grounds that analyticity is part of a circle of ‘intensional’ notions (i.e. notions concerning what expressions mean or say), which lack clear criteria of identity and hence are obscure. Quine took the rejection of the analytic–synthetic distinction to amount to a rejection of any qualitative difference between philosophy and science. Philosophy, he claimed, is a branch of, or continuous with, natural science (Quine 1960). To this metaphilosophical naturalism, Quine added an ontological naturalism. One of philosophy’s central tasks is to help science draw up an inventory of the world. To do so, philosophers must regiment scientific theories into a ‘canonical notation’, a logical notation that displays our ontological commitments and keeps them to a minimum (see Glock 2003: chs 2–3; see also Quine, W.V.O.).

Quinean naturalism paved the way for the gradual reorientation of mainstream philosophical concern away from language and back towards the nature of reality itself. In a nonempiricist vein, this development was continued by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. Their ‘realist semantics’ spawned an essentialist metaphysics. Thus theoretical identifications like ‘Water is H2O’ are held to be both a posteriori, because they are discovered by science, and necessary. For natural kind terms (like proper names) are ‘rigid designators’. In all possible worlds in which they pick out anything at all, they pick out the same thing, namely a substance with a particular microstructure (H2O in our case), and that microstructure constitutes the essence of the natural kind. Their metaphysical ambitions notwithstanding, descriptive metaphysics, Quinean naturalism, and realist semantics remained faithful to the linguistic turn, in so far as they proceeded through reflections on language (see Essentialism; Kripke, S.; Putnam, H.).

By contrast, subsequent developments in modal metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and cognitive science, as well as the rise of experimental philosophy, have led some philosophers to assert that the linguistic turn is past (Williamson 2004: 106). Grice (1989) initiated an influential research programme of reducing semantic notions to psychological ones like intention, thereby turning the philosophy of language into a subdomain of the philosophy of mind (see Grice, H.P.). And Fodor (1975) explains both the meaning of public languages and the intentionality of thought by reference to internal symbols, sentence-like representations in the brain which constitute our thoughts. But even Fodor’s ‘language of thought hypothesis’ fails to reverse the linguistic turn completely. While it extols the priority of private minds over public languages, it retains the machinery and vocabulary (e.g. ‘meaning’, ‘content’) of logico-linguistic analysis (see Language of thought).

In recent years, there has also been a notable rehabilitation of conceptual analysis and thereby of a type of linguistic philosophy. On the one hand, ‘classical’ conceptual analysis in the explicitly linguistic vein of Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Strawson has been defended (Hanfling 2000) and applied to the theoretical foundations of cognitive and neuroscience (Bennett and Hacker 2003; Racine and Slaney 2013). On the other, Frank Jackson and David Chalmers have developed a new type of conceptual analysis on the basis of their two-dimensional semantics, which synthesises descriptivist and direct reference theories of meaning and content (Jackson 1998; Chalmers and Jackson 2001; see also Semantics, possible world).

Citing this article:
Glock, Hans-Johann and Javier Kalhat. 5. Past the linguistic turn?. Linguistic turn, 2018, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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