By Duncan Richter
I like Wittgenstein, but there are ideas of his that seem to lend themselves to abuse fairly easily. This post is about them.
A quick one to mention and get out of the way is a quotation rather than an idea. Whenever anyone quotes "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" it is usually best to run the other way. It tends to be said as if it were both self-evident and profound, while simultaneously trading on Wittgenstein's fame as a reason to accept it. The idea you are expected to accept (either because it is falsely supposed to be self-evident or else because of a fallacious appeal to authority) is that because language is reality, English majors are masters of reality. So you should study, and preferably major in, English. Or something like that. (On a related note see here for an argument that "the liberal arts" are good because people who do well in later life tend to have: a) taken a lot of courses outside their major as undergraduates, b) talked a lot to faculty members outside of class, and c) had "intense philosophical discussions in class." Steve in NC and couchloc make good comments, but the problem with the argument seems fairly clear. Just in case what seems clear to me is not so clear to you, here are two problems: 1) correlation is not causation, and 2) if you want philosophical discussions you should take philosophy courses, not courses in "the liberal arts".)
Another bad Wittgensteinian idea is the idea that words are deeds. This can be a useful corrective to certain kinds of views of language, but it can also itself need correcting, as I tried to point out here. Language does not simply name or describe states of affairs, but it isn't just things we do either. It has meaning, and that is not something we should oversimplify or reduce to something else.
Thirdly, and the thing that mostly prompted this post, is the idea of language games. I had an interesting discussion with my students once about the ethics of cheating and lying. We have a strong honor code at my school, which means that students who lie or cheat can be (and are, if found guilty) expelled for doing so. So no one spoke in favor of lying or cheating. But several athletes talked about how their coaches had explained to them that it's not cheating to try to get an advantage in ways that you hide from the referee. And it's not lying to give a misleading sense of what life at the school is like when prospective athletes are on a recruitment visit. That's just how the game is played. The idea of language games, which, like the idea that words are deeds, I think is useful in its place, lends itself to this kind of cynicism. Although maybe a cynical age reads everything through a cynical lens.
Perhaps it's worth adding that I don't think any of these is bad when understood as Wittgenstein intended it to be. But a superficial understanding of Wittgenstein might be worse than none at all.