Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Understanding the Linguistic Turn and the Quest for Meaning: Historical Perspectives and Systematic Considerations

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Understanding the Linguistic Turn and the Quest for Meaning: Historical Perspectives and Systematic Considerations

Article excerpt


Although the linguistic turn is usually described in historical terms this article aims at combing the significant historical transitions with systematic philosophical considerations. Against the background of earlier rationalistic and empiricist trends particular attention is given to the successive epistemic ideals manifest in the conceptual rationalism of the Enlightenment, followed by the historicism of the 19th century and subsequently by the linguistic turn. An assessment of these transitions will explore systematic issues, in particular the relationship between universality and what is individual, the difference between junctional laws and type laws, and regarding the limits of concept formation the distinction between conceptual knowledge and concept-transcending knowledge. This distinction enables the introduction of a new understanding of the difference between rationalism and irrationalism. Apart from Dilthey the linguistic turn penetrated also the thought of thinkers such as Freud, Wittgenstein, Frankl, Heidegger, Habermas, Dooyeweerd and Gadamer, all of them (implicitly or explicitly) elaborated the initial criticism raised by Herder, Jacobi, Hamann, Heidegger and Gadamer against Kant's Critique of Pure Reason for neglecting language. After briefly referring to the connection between the linguistic turn and the idea of the meaningful construction of reality, the article ends with a concluding remark emphasizing the fact that no single concept-transcending usage of modal (aspectual) terms should be elevated above others or employed at the cost of other equally legitimate idea-statements.

1. Introductory remarks

The aim of this article is to investigate the historical roots and related systematic considerations elucidating the background of what became known as the linguistic turn and the quest for meaning. In order to accomplish this a number of historical perspectives as well as systematic distinctions will be considered first - in support of our main line of argumentation.

From a historical point of view modem philosophy initially moved between the extremes of rationalism (Descartes, Hobbes and Leibniz) and empiricism (Locke, Berkeley and Hume). Subsequently, during the past three centuries, distinct epistemic ideals dominated the scene of Western philosophy: (a) the ideal of conceptual rationality reigned during the Enlightenment of the 18th century; (b) historicism largely dominated the scene since the beginning of the 19th century; and (c) by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the well-known linguistic turn took shape, further developed in logical positivism and the hermeneutic tradition and eventually accompanied by a guest for meaning.

It will be argued that within these epistemic ideals one may discern important systematic issues co-determining the just-mentioned historical changes. The transition from concept to history and from history to words (language) is made possible by the universality of what will be designated as the sign mode of reality, embracing both the functioning of lingual subjects and lingual objects (i.e., the lingual subject-object relation). Acquiring always concepts involves the logical identification and distinguishing of universal features. Since concepts are blind towards what is individual, the rise of a historical consciousness during the early 19th century caused serious problems for the conceptual rationalism of the Enlightenment. The relationship between universality and what is individual also has implications for the difference between order for (law for) and orderliness of (lawfulness of). The implications of these distinctions for the human cognitive faculty in turn coheres with the fact that human knowledge is co-conditioned by the dimension of modal aspects (modes of being) and the dimension of concrete (natural and social) entities functioning within all these modes of reality - reflected in the inevitable use both of fonction concepts and thing concepts. …

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