Why “Linguistic Turn”?

wittI’ve never explained why this blog is called “Linguistic Turn,” but two recent articles on Wittgenstein in (of all places) the New York Times has spurred me to action!

The linguistic turn is a well-known shift in Western philosophical thought that occurred primarily in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Its central insight is that the “problems” of philosophy stem primarily — perhaps exclusively — from a certain fuzziness in our ordinary use of language, and that understanding what we really mean when we use words will reveal why many philosophical puzzles are illusory, poorly stated, or nonexistent.

That’s a very general statement so let me share my own understanding of this insight, taken primarily from my now-corrupted understanding of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Suppose I were to ask you the meaning of a commonplace word that you probably use every day without any problem — like “chair.” What is a chair? As a first stab you might say that a chair has legs, a flat surface to park your tush, and a back. But what about a chair made from a tree stump? Or an exercise ball chair? If somebody were to refer to these objects as “chairs,” you wouldn’t be taken aback, and yet they don’t fit your initial definition at all.

Fine, you say. A chair is something you plant your butt on. But what about a kneeling chair?

spikesFine! you exclaim. A chair is something you can park yourself on in a semi-folded position. But what about a chair with spikes on it? A chair that’s on fire? You can’t sit on those! At the opposite extreme, does this mean that a desk is also a “chair,” since I can sit on it? How about the floor? A horse?

We can go through the same process with any number of other words. One of the most famous examples is “game.” What is a game? The mind boggles at the sheer range of activities, objects, and abstractions covered by that word, from Monopoly to Gears of War to Punch Buggy to Calvinball. Some games have rules, some don’t. Some use physical objects, some don’t. Some involve many people; some involve only one; some involve none. Etc.

Here is Wittgenstein’s first insight: many, perhaps most, of the words we use are not susceptible to hard-edged definitions that encompass their full range of use. No single concept will cover every attribute that we consider relevant to the meaning of “chair,” or “game,” or — to get into even more difficult territory — “loyalty,” “beautiful,” “poor,” etc. At the very most, we might say that particular examples of a term bear a “family resemblance” to each other; just as Aunt Sally might look like Brother Jimmy but for a different reason than Brother Jimmy looks like Uncle Bob, so an office chair and a tree stump might both be “chairs” for reasons different from why a tree stump and a flaming chair are also both “chairs.”

And here is Wittgenstein’s second, more crucial insight: this is no problem! I mean, who wanders through life taxing their brain over what he really means when he calls something a “chair”? We use words that are not susceptible to hard-edged definitions, and we do so easily, fluidly, and without deep consideration. More importantly, other people easily, fluidly, and without deep consideration understand exactly what we mean! A “problem” with language only arises if you try to impose structure that does not really exist.

As with ordinary words, so with philosophical ones. It’s easiest to understand the linguistic turn as a response (in part) to modern analytic philosophy, which sought to introduce clarity and rigor to philosophical thinking. Much of modern philosophy is concerned with nailing down exactly what is meant by such concepts as knowledge, identity, existence, or consciousness. But if we can’t even figure out what we mean by simple words like “chair,” what makes us think that broader philosophical terms are susceptible to similar analysis? More importantly, why do we insist on a particular type of answer to these philosophical issues — an answer with hard, clean edges, with all messiness cleared up?

brownsLet me give a rather simplistic example. There is a puzzle about identity known as the Ship of Theseus. The question posed by this puzzle is whether a ship is “the same” ship after every single piece has been replaced slowly over time. It’s a very interesting puzzle that quite naturally leads to attempts to deconstruct what we mean by “same.” But in point of fact ordinary non-philosopher human beings have zero problem dealing with far thornier Ship of Theseus problems every day. I give you as dispositive proof ESPN and its coverage of sports teams. The current New York Yankees used to be the Baltimore Orioles. The current Baltimore Orioles used to be the Milwaukee Brewers. And the current Milwaukee Brewers used to be the Seattle Pilots! (Ok, that’s less interesting.) The NFL is almost worse. When the current Indianopolis Colts left Baltimore, Art Modell moved the then-Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, where the team became the Ravens. But wait! The NFL brokered a deal which made the Browns’ legacy stay in Cleveland, and a new (old?) team called the Cleveland Browns sprang into being three years after the actual physical team’s move to Baltimore.

Yet fans of all of these franchises say: no problem. (At least with identity; Browns fans are not happy about Modell.) And that is one answer to philosophical puzzles. Where is the problem with identity in sports teams? A philosopher might say, “Well, I haven’t figured out what it means for a sports team to be the same!” But Wittgenstein’s response (arguably) is: that’s your problem, a problem that you invented, not a real problem that in any practical sense has to be “solved.”

Now many modern philosophers are naturally not keen on this argument, since it calls into question the whole point of their studies, so there’s a somewhat softer interpretation of Wittgenstein that calls into question philosophers’ methods (i.e., armchair introspection) without necessarily calling into question the project itself. But I like the broader approach. In my view it doesn’t eliminate all philosophical problems entirely — it simply shifts the focus from analyzing philosophy to treating philosophical issues and problems in a more anthropological way, i.e., figuring out from actual experience how words and ideas are used, and how disparities in practical usage between people contribute to conceptual disagreements.

Of course none of this explains why a blog based on a major philosophical debate primarily features reviews of science fiction and fantasy books. Now that’s a puzzle.