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What does the linguistic turn in history mean? I have looked it up but none of it makes sense to me.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This simple question draws into focus several complex conversations that began in linguistics (with Saussure and Structuralism) and philosophy and, from there, reached out and altered the perception of the discipline of historical study. One of the effects of the impingement of this linguistic debate was the development of the sub-field of intellectual history that is tied closely to textual theory: "For textually oriented studies of premodernity, the lament for "the end of history" is groundless" (Elizabeth A. Clark. Introduction. History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn).

Saussure's definition of language is that language is signified plus signifier equaling sign (signified + signifier = sign) for which meaning is defined by what the signified is not according to arbitrariness and difference. As this concept permeated the twentieth century and scholarly disciplines and as it was expanded upon by such as Foucault and Derrida--who gave Saussure's system of signs "play" and "binary oppositions" and unending chains of potentiality of meanings--it began to undermine the foundations of scholarly pursuits because scholarly emphasis turned toward Saussurean linguistics (the "linguistic turn").

In all humanities, reality had beforehand been understood as objectively described by language. Saussure and Derrida and Wittgenstein and others presented the revolutionizing idea that language is not objective, thus cannot describe what something is but can only describe what something does not encompass: words are defined by what they are not. This concept of the subjective quality of language, with signs ordered by cultural convention and agreement, has been supported by linguistic study that shows, for example, some cultures have seventeen words for the brother-of-my-father relationship while English has only the one, "uncle,"  thus indicating subjective realities.

This introduction of a scholarly turn toward Saussurean linguistics and subjective reality (the linguistic turn), affected all the humanities including history. Since emphases following the linguistic turn opposed the concepts behind the scholarly historical procedures of (1) an objective subject/referent to examine, (2) temporal antecedents (time related precursors) of events, and (3) causal chains (cause and effect relationships), the influence of Saussurean linguistics--arbitrariness of signs and signs differentiated within systems of signs--called into question the nature of objective historical study (Clark): objective historical procedures conflict with the suppositions of subjective language. Many, like Georg Iggers, declared the scholarly discipline of history dead. Now others, like Clark, declare it "resurrected" in the sub-field of intellectual history.

  • Georg Iggers: Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, "The 'Linguistic Turn': The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline."
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'Linguistic turn' refers to the connection between philosophy and language and is a twentieth century concept.

Philosophers study the basis of different concepts and their relation to each other. Philosophy studies the human relationship to these concepts and our interpretation on an ongoing basis. It is a logical, analytical, critical way of looking at something.

The 'linguistic turn' came about because, as linguistic theory developed, the idea of the subjectivity of language replaced the idea of the objectivity of language. Language became something where meaning was selected subjectivity in cultures instead of meaning existing objectively in reality.

Structure is very important in any language, as Ferdinand de Saussure found.

Structure, reference, truth, meaning, and necessity

are the fundamental considerations. "Things" only exist because we named them according to characteristics. In doing so, we attached relevance and importance to them according to cultural agreement. Objectivity is lost in this circumstances.

Saussure therefore introduce the idea of signifier + (what is being) signified = sign. For example,

  if some one (the signifier) shouts “run” to a tree, that person is only “making noise.”

and there is, of course, no reaction from the tree. Now consider if someone overhears another conversation but it is in a foreign language - it means nothing to him or her and no connections can be made although that person is aware that something has been "signified."

The underlying theme in the 'linguistic turn' is the fact that

 language’s underlying structure, always eludes the individual and the social will.

When this was applied to the Humanities, as it was soon applied, it was found that objective pursuit of explanations and reasons for events in history were not possible. This was the 'linguistic turn': the humanities including history turned toward a subjective understanding of language and sholarly pursuits. Meaning is only attached to the word once it is shared and a relationship between the form or structure and the perceiver takes place.

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