“Language on Holiday:” Wittgenstein and the Language-Reality Gap in Historical Narratives
AbstractThe role of language in historical representations is a crucial issue. Empiricist and realist understandings of historical studies were vastly complicated by new theories of language developed in the last century and a half. Important works by Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, among others, threw into doubt the ability of language to correspond to reality. This posed major problems for the ability of the historical discipline to represent the reality of the past. Various modernist theorists have challenged the conclusions of postmodernist linguistic and historical theories, arguing that they leave the possibility for knowledge about the reality of the past in serious doubt because of a gap they open up between the language used to describe the past and the reality of the past itself. Frank Ankersmit provides a key re-envisioning of the nature of language in the historical discipline to attempt to accommodate this change in the understanding of the nature of the relationship of language to reality. This paper will use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later language theory to interrogate Ankersmit’s historical theories as well as criticisms directed towards Ankersmit’s and other postmodernist theories. I argue that a revised conception of the nature of language based on Wittgenstein’s language theory, while it disagrees with elements of Ankersmit’s theory, does enable the postmodern historian to answer crucial modernist critiques.
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