On the use and critique of Wittgenstein in the social sciences
Hermansen, Jens Christian
Sociology University of Copenhagen 1014 Copenhagen K, Denmark
Historically, the influence of philosopher Peter Winch on the readings of Wittgenstein in the social sciences has been enormous. Though this paper deals mainly with what Winch took to be the implications for the social sciences of Wittgenstein's late philosophy as well as the later critique of Winch in social theory, the wider and more recent influence of Wittgenstein in areas such as technology and science studies, social theory, feminist and gender studies and conversation and discourse analysis is also considered. Historically, the readings of Wittgenstein in the social sciences have taken the implications of Wittgenstein's philosophy to involve three general theses (what I shall call the three theses of the linguistic turn). According to these (a) social life is organised in and through language (the linguistic thesis), (b) language is a practical activity, a language-in-use (the practical thesis) and (c) language is an inherently social phenomenon (the social thesis). What the readings of Wittgenstein have disagreed on is what these theses involve and to which extent the social sciences ought to buy into them. According to what I shall call the critical turn i.e. the orthodox critique of the linguistic turn in social theory, the linguistic turn is a double-edged sword of both profound insights and limits; the claim is that the limits of the linguistic turn are the strengths of functionalist, structuralist and materialist approaches to the social sciences. The approach of the critical turn is to develop a more comprehensive social theory that is sensitive to these strengths and thus supersedes the limits of the linguistic turn. This paper suggests a different approach. Against the critical turn, the paper argues that the limits of the linguistic turn are identical with the very assumptions on which the adherents of the critical turn build their own (critical) theories, namely the thesis that language is an inherently social phenomenon. Drawing on newer readings of Wittgenstein in philosophy, the paper defends a linguistic turn in the social sciences that questions exactly that thesis.