Can we have a ‘turn’ to end all turns?

In the early 20th century there began a marked reorientation within analytic philosophy, with a concern for language gradually coming to supplant some of philosophy’s more traditional concerns. In fact, it’s not entirely meaningful to describe this as a trend within ‘analytic philosophy’ because this ‘linguistic turn’ was integral to the field formation of analytic philosophy in its current form. Therefore I think talk of a linguistic turn is entirely meaningful. It refers to a change of direction within a discipline which had important consequences for that discipline. However consider this list of other ‘turns’ within the social sciences and humanities:

  1. the linguistic turn
  2. the cultural turn
  3. the affective turn
  4. the sensory turn
  5. the reflexive turn
  6. the digital turn
  7. the participatory turn
  8. the narrative turn
  9. the biographical turn
  10. the spatial turn
  11. the social turn
  12. the interpretive turn
  13. the ontological turn
  14. the postmodern turn
  15. the practice turn
  16. the pragmatic turn
  17. the historical turn
  18. the discursive turn
  19. the cognitive turn
  20. the critical turn
  21. the computational turn
  22. the transnational turn
  23. the emotional turn
  24. the practical turn
  25. the neuroscientific turn
  26. the complexity turn
  27. the nonhuman turn
  28. the ethical turn
  29. the argumentative turn
  30. the action turn
  31. the animal turn
  32. the gender turn
  33. the constructivist turn
  34. the somatic turn
  35. the pictorial turn
  36. the auditory turn
  37. the communicative turn
  38. the dialogic turn
  39. the global turn
  40. the semiotic turn
  41. the theoretical turn
  42. the cosmopolitan turn
  43. the relational turn
  44. the naturalist turn
  45. the material turn (via Jesse in comments)
  46. the temporal turn (via martin eve)
  47. the insect turn (via martin eve)

With the exception of the cultural turn, I think these are all a bit silly. While the linguistic turn and (I think) the cultural turn were largely retrospective, proposing the concept as a way of making sense of a shift in focus that had already taken place, the invocation of other turns usually aims to be performative. In declaring a turn, we aim to bring that turn into being, implicitly positioning the text that declares the turn at the centre of the new tradition of inquiry.

When you see the scale with which turns are claimed, it gives the impression of disciplines unable to come to terms with their own lack of development. The hyperactive proclamation of new turns stands in for cumulative progress, often grounded in little more than a claim that a few people have published on this topic recently and that more should do so soon. To a certain extent it makes me despair but I also find it very interesting. I’m getting increasingly interested in shifting naming conventions (e.g. how does the ‘X turn’ relation to ‘X studies’?) and the role they play in shaping the unfolding of intellectual inquiry.

13 Comments

  1. I’d say the use of ‘turns’ varies enormously: some uses are largely historical/retrospective names for important shifts, on the other end is when the term is used for a relatively minor branch of new work that the author wants to give the air of large-scale, discipline/sub-discipline encompassing change.

    But what about the hybrids, turns that really are relatively large-scale, but are still on-going and the people participating in that turn are still competing for funding, articles in prestigious journals, etc.?

    Also, a question, you list a bunch of turns from the social sciences and humanities, but which disciplines did they come from, exactly? ‘Turn rhetoric’ is everywhere in human geography in the UK, for instance, but not in economics. So who says it and who doesn’t?

    1. I think that’s VERY interesting. I’m just done a new post partly in response to your comment – I think this would really benefit from textual analysis of the particular turns and comparisons of their divergent features. It’s ultimately an empirical question and one I’d really like to know the answer(s) to.

  2. I’d say the use of ‘turns’ varies enormously: some uses are largely historical/retrospective names for important shifts, on the other end is when the term is used for a relatively minor branch of new work that the author wants to give the air of large-scale, discipline/sub-discipline encompassing change.

    But what about the hybrids, turns that really are relatively large-scale, but are still on-going and the people participating in that turn are still competing for funding, articles in prestigious journals, etc.?

    Also, a question, you list a bunch of turns from the social sciences and humanities, but which disciplines did they come from, exactly? ‘Turn rhetoric’ is everywhere in human geography in the UK, for instance, but not in economics. So who says it and who doesn’t?

    1. Is it necessarily ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ though? I wonder if this would be a way to empirically explore whether turns are less likely to be more succesful as more people use the rhetoric.

      1. Hi …! I meant ‘real’ as in ‘relatively significant’ to be contrasted with ‘relatively insignificant’ (at least according to this metric) rather than to be contrasted with ‘fake’. I was frankly surprised that `computational turn’ didn’t move the dial given the age we live in. Also, I realised the other day that our various revolutions (Industrial, Internet, and so on) are also turns both figuratively and etymologically.

        I posit that we are in the `Age of Involution’ :/

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