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Following on from our Wittgenstein special last issue, Brandon Absher shows how Wittgenstein’s style of therapeutic philosophy can help us be more attentive in our use of language in everyday contexts.

One day – I suppose sometime in 2001 or 2002 – we Americans [and others] learned to use a new phrase. Somehow, overnight, the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ crept, insidiously, into our everyday vocabulary. I recall I sent a letter to my Senator asking that he vote against giving the President the authority to go to war in Iraq. His reply was littered with the phrase and its now more common abbreviation ‘WMD’. I was struck immediately by the novelty of the phrase and by what was packed into it. Eventually, despite my early sneering, I began repeating it, everywhere.

Upon reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Free Press, 1990), I found myself reliving these events. Monk speaks of an exchange which took place between Wittgenstein and Norman Malcolm in 1939. Malcolm made some offhand remark about “British national character” and Wittgenstein was characteristically furious. About five years later Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm concerning the incident:

“I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc, & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any… journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.”
(Quoted in The Duty of Genius p424.)

I could imagine Wittgenstein being similarly disgusted with me when the words “weapons of mass destruction” poured out of my mouth. I began to wonder what bearing the study of philosophy could have here. How could philosophy make me more conscientious in my use of such ‘DANGEROUS phrases?’

I think this question also motivated much of Wittgenstein’s later work. He did after all say, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” (Philosophical Investigations §109) Surely then his work could offer insight into the danger posed by these dangerous phrases, and assistance in avoiding and overcoming the danger? I want to approach Wittgenstein with the aim of discussing our tendency as humans to turn our words into slogans – to be bewitched by dangerous phrases – and to think about the means at our disposal for overcoming this tendency.

Language and Danger

How is it that we are endlessly drawn to make our words dangerous? What does this danger consist in? One major part of Wittgenstein’s insight into this problem is his sense that our language itself is bewitching. We are led by language to assume that the world conforms to some picture suggested to us by the surface grammar of our everyday speech. Wittgenstein explains, “A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces false appearances, and this disquiets us.” (Investigations §212) For example, among other things, we begin to think, that objects called by the same name share some important feature – an essence. We are held captive by this belief – even though these objects appear different, they must in some sense be the same. So for instance Socrates admonishes Euthyphro, “Bear in mind then that I did not bid you to tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious…” (Plato, Euthyphro, 6d.) According to Wittgenstein, something about our language sets these ‘essence assimilation’ traps for us in advance, and we are unfortunately prone to succumbing to them.

A pervasive theme of the Philosophical Investigations is that the problems of philosophy are the traps set for us by our language. Thus, philosophy arises when language is ripped from the context of its ordinary use; at which time it takes on an almost magical character and enthralls us. Wittgenstein asserts, “The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work.” (Investigations §132) The fact that we can and often do pull words from their everyday context where they do their work, to misapply them, leaves us subject to the many prejudices that beset us, and this leads us to do philosophy. For instance, because we observe with fascination that we can say “It’s going to rain,” “It could rain,” and “It is raining,” we begin to puzzle over questions about potentiality and modality. Language captivates and captures: it exerts a force over us of which we are only rarely free.

Contexts, Names, and Slogans

These considerations also bear on the scenario with which I began. It seems that with ‘weapons of mass destruction’ a trap has certainly been set for us by our language; one that suggests a certain picture of things. The phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is used to designate a group of objects. Given the words that make up the phrase, one might guess that it designates weapons that kill or destroy much more than the average weapon kills or destroys. In fact, the term is generally used in legal and military contexts to specifically refer to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Interestingly, as pointed out by Gert Harigel, this grouping of types of weapon is largely inconsistent with the impression suggested by the words ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Among the objects designated by this phrase, one finds many weapons that do not, in fact, cause mass destruction. Indeed the term doesn’t actually refer to those weapons that are known to have caused more deaths and violence in the course of the twentieth-century than any other – namely assault rifles, handguns, and land mines. Thus ‘weapons of mass destruction’ aren’t necessarily weapons of mass destruction.

This is a puzzling fact, and I think one that is due consideration. While I did suggest that the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is used normally to name or designate a group of weapons, I would now like to be more careful. As Wittgenstein points out, “…we call very different things ‘names’; the word name is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word…” (Investigations §38) On the whole, there are probably many ways this phrase is used, as a name or otherwise. However, I would like to concentrate on three main uses of the phrase and the contexts in which these uses arise.

The first use of these occurs in legal and military discourse. In these contexts the phrase appears to be used like a tag or a marker. There is a very specific group of objects to which it refers, and for any object it can, in principle, be determined whether it is among that group. However, the phrase is also used in everyday speech, and in this context it is not so precise. Here the word ‘weapon’ is modified by the words ‘mass’ and ‘destruction’ to indicate a vaguely-defined range of weapons. So in common usage, the ‘WMD’ phrase is not so much a tag as it is a signpost; it offers a direction and a horizon for thought and action concerning some vague group of objects.

I would also like to suggest that in the public forum where politicians and journalists take up these words, the words no longer function in either of the above ways. Rather, here the words become slogans. Here the words do not designate anything, precisely or otherwise. Further, they do not offer a horizon for thought or suggest a characterization of things. Rather, in this usage, the words become empty rallying points.

‘Slogan’ comes from the Gaelic for ‘battle cry’. The word ‘slogan’ is familiar to us from advertising, where the intention to rally is more or less explicit. “Just do it” doesn’t say much of anything, but it draws us together and inspires us to action. We buy Nikes because we have rallied around this cry as a marker of who we are. In the build-up to war in Iraq ‘weapons of mass destruction’ became just such a slogan. Whether you were for or against the war, these words did not function so much to designate some group of objects. Instead, they were a battle cry used to rally us together and to inspire us to action.


Wittgenstein conceived of his later work as a therapy which could rid philosophers of the disquiet that led them to philosophy. The idea was to dispel the ‘superstitions’ which overtake us when we demand that the world conform to some linguistic picture. He believed that by giving us a perspicuous presentation of the varied, context-dependent uses of our words, he could undercut our bewitchment. As he described his work “…we destroy the outward similarity between a metaphysical proposition and an experiential one, and we try to find the form of expression which fulfils a certain craving of the metaphysician which our ordinary language does not fulfil and which, as long as it isn’t fulfilled, produces the metaphysical puzzlement.”

Wittgenstein’s therapy for philosophers consisted in showing the dis-analogies between uses of words, and suggesting alternative forms of expression that do not cause such confusion. A similar procedure can be used to alert us to ‘dangerous phrases’ and to cure us of our propensity to use them. As I indicated, words become particularly dangerous when they’re transformed into slogans. When this happens we use and repeat phrases as a means of rallying ourselves together and inspiring ourselves to some action. However, as Wittgenstein suggested to Malcolm, we could use what we have learned from philosophy to spare ourselves this danger. If we pay close attention to changes in the purpose and the context of the use of some word or phrase, then we’ll begin to notice when it is used variously, and sometimes dangerously. By concentrating on and analyzing what we say and when we say it, we can avoid spouting emotive slogans. We can take Wittgenstein’s work as a provocation to deliberate about our use of language; and therefore, to be deliberate when we use it. So by offering a perspicuous presentation of our actual language use, philosophy can teach us to mean what we say, and to leave unsaid the dangerous phrases that often suggest themselves.

© Brandon Absher 2006

Brandon Absher is in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

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