Random thoughts on random topics


On the linguistic turn in Wittgenstein

On the linguistic turn. How should it be evaluated? On the one hand: the isomorphism of language and thought places the Tractatus squarely in the traditional, epistemologically inspired framework. (Cf., in connection with this, the first formulation of the aim of the book in the preface: ‘Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen’.) On the other hand: the assignment to the principles of logic of the place that before that was reserved for the principles of thought (and perception) does constitute a fundamental step (one that is reflected in Wittgenstein’s characterisation of epistemology as ‘philosophy of psychology’ (4.1121)). For now the limits of thought are determined by something that is of a different nature than thought itself: logic. In the traditional framework there was the possibility of thought, including its limitations and fundamental principles, being its own subject matter. (A possibility left open by Kant, taken up with gusto by German idealists, to which Schopenhauer emphatically objected.) After the linguistic turn, thought appears to be forced into a more passive role. (Is it to emphasise this that the Tractatus assigns logical principles an ontological status?)

The resulting picture is mixed. What we see is a transition that potentially represent a fundamental break with the past, but the consequences of which are by and large not worked out. Locating the limits of thought outside thought itself opens up a space of possibilities. But bu opting for logic as the source not much of that space is actually explored, let alone exploited. For both, logic and thought, are essentially discursive (which is why it is possible for the Tractatus to regard them as isomorphic). It is only from the angle of language that it becomes visible what the limitation is: only the discursive (‘logical’) part of language is within the scope of the analysis that the Tractatus offers.

In the years following the Tractatus we see a shift from logic to grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense of the word), and concommittant with that attention for other functions of language than just the discursive one. One consequence of that shift is a relaxation of the concept of ‘limits of thought’: there are as many ways of thinking as there are different, autonomous languages games. Even stronger: the central role itself of thought (in both a positive and a negative sense) is being questioned.

It is only at this point that the consequences of the linguistic turn come into their own: the diversity and multiplicity of language, of grammar, shows that there cannot be such a thing as a determination of ‘the’ limits of thought ‘as such’, that thought itself is not a monolithic whole but rather consists of various practices, with various links between them and embedded in our ways of acting. In this sense, one can say that it is only in his later work that Wittgenstein fully and completely ‘takes the linguistic turn’, and that, by doing so, he finally brings about the radical break with the old ‘philosophy of consciousness’ that he was after.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 09/03/1992