The linguistic turn in retrospect

The linguistic turn transformed all research on society and culture during the late twentieth century. At the core of the revision was the mode of conveying information: language is not a neutral medium. The content of knowledge is not independent of the form in which it is presented nor is it possible for a researcher to master all the aspects of a text. Even if the extent to which the scholar is at the mercy of some discourse has been the subject of a heated controversy one thing is for certain. Once it is accepted that the comprehension of reality is conditioned by the language used to express one’s beliefs, it is hard to regard attempts to reach an ‘objective reality’ as viable.
As regards the discipline of history the necessity of asking, at every stage of the research process, ‘whose reality?’ and ‘whose discourse?’ is what the linguistic turn calls for. To be sure, this advice is self-evident to historians in one respect and they have also displayed outstanding skills in reconstructing the concepts of reality and the discourses in which these understandings have been expressed. The problem is that this scrupulousness has only been thought of in terms of the past people studied while one’s own concept of reality and the discourse for expressing it have been taken for granted. This stance comes close to regarding the scholar’s own tenets as objective and neutral as well as judging the patterns of thought of the people studied against them.
The revision problematized the historians’ particular way of understanding the ’objective approach’ that had been considered self-evident as late as in the early 1960s when I was taught the basics of historical research at the university. This pattern of thought called for guarantees against present influences and was concretised by two maxims that turned out to be counter-productive in the light of the linguistic turn. The first rule of conduct a historian was expected to follow had been put forward by one of the ’founding fathers’ of academic history-making, Leopld von Ranke. It required ’extinguishing one’s self’. The second maxim was a more general one and called for ’deliberately abandoning the present’, as the rule was put by e.g. the Cambridge historian G.R. Elton. – – – –
What the historian must not forget is that he or she is in fact conducting a dialogue with his or her audience. The findings must be thought about in terms of the patterns of thought that the people to be addressed have in the subject at hand. This requirement of examining the audience’s way of thinking is on a par with the demand to carefully reconstruct the ideas and actions of the people studied. Actually, the historian has two simultaneous dialogues, one with the people studied and the other with those he or she is addressing. And to examine carefully the connection between the worlds of these two parties in order to create a dialogue between them (a virtual one, of course) is the core of his or her work. This is, in my opinion, the deepest message of the linguistic turn.
theory of history, social history-making.
For the whole of the article, see / kirjoitus kokonaisuudessaan löytyy teoksesta K.Rentola and T.Saarela (eds.): Kulkijapoika on nähnyt sen: Kirjoituksia nykyhistoriasta, Työväen historian ja perinteen seura 2014.

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