Any people except Wittgenstein, who have written about the misuse of language?

For example, today I noticed that Facebook uses the term "organic reach" to denote advertising, which is not paid.

While one can understand the meaning in some weak sense, it can also be considered to be misuse of the term "organic", because the thing it describes does not posses the kind of properties that organic matter does. Or does so only in very, very abstract sense (although this is not specific, it doesn't read "abstractly organic", but "organic").

I don't directly imply that it would be wrong to use the term "organic reach". However, it's not very good use of language, because it "distorts", how the internet technology is perceived for example. Because the term "organic reach" gives an impression of "organic computing", which is not a very trivial thing to claim.

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    Aristotle with De Sophisticis Elenchis (Sophistical Refutations) : the first part is dedicated to the fallacies in the language. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 28 '18 at 7:50
  • See also Francis Bacon's idola fori. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 28 '18 at 12:24
  • A lot of philosphy is basically all about removing habitual misuses of language. For instance this word 'organic' figures hugely in Science and the Modern World, where Whitehead analyses how mechanistic models have removed the proper meanings of many descriptive terms, and how that impedes a natural understanding of 'post-mechanistic' physics like relativity and quantum dynamics. Would that count? Then half of a Kant is the same thing, and all of Quine, etc, etc --- It is hard to imagine a boundary around valid answers to this question, so I am going to vote to close it as too broad. – jobermark Mar 2 '18 at 2:54
  • But does Wittgenstein argue that we "misuse" language, or that language itself misleads us? The latter is the impression I get from Philosophical Investigations, but I have seen also the former interpretation in the internet. – Luís Henrique Mar 10 '18 at 21:01
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    @Luís Henrique. You are right : the essential problem in Wittgenstein's view is not that we (knowingly) misuse language but that language itself misleads us. I have now referred to this, with acknowledgement, in my answer. Thanks. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 11 '18 at 14:36

Organic is quite a good example of the change of use of language over time. It start out meaning the sound from the keyboard musical instrument. It got used for organism in the early days of biology. Organic chemistry as that science got increasingly sophisticated. Then organic food. Now as vs forced, or artificial. Complaining about 'organic reach' is just complaining about a neologism, like saying organic food isn't right because there is no inorganic food.

A huge number of philosophers have written about languages and it's misuses. Do you mean specifically to condemn neologism? Or vagueness? Because you could work on improving on your own vagueness before criticising Facebook's.

  • I tend to use quotation marks on words that are "not what things are, but this can be used to express this thing". – mavavilj Feb 28 '18 at 16:37
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    It is funny that going back to the origin (relating to musical instruments) makes the modern usage from something that is almost abuse into perfect sense. Media with broad 'organic reach' spread like the effect of music, the product of an instrument -- through the voluntary repetition of the content by individuals. – jobermark Mar 2 '18 at 2:59

I don't think "organic reach" is an example of Wittgenstein would call either a "misuse of language" or an instance where "language suggests a body and there is none".

Rather, it seems to me that he would argue that "organic reach" is an ordinary use of language; this would lead us into error if we start attributing "organic" qualities (being green, having DNA, growing and reproducing like living beings, being good for health, etc, etc, etc) to it, but not if we realise that there is nothing "organic" in "organic reach" more than there is anything starry or fishy in a star fish.

But this kind of (mis)interpretation seems common in the internet. I have seen things like "Wittgenstein would be against gay marriage because marriage by definition is between a man and a woman, so that would be a misuse of language" and even "the actual meaning of 'you must be kidding' is 'you have a moral obligation to talk in jest', otherwise that is a misuse of language, and therefore nonsense, or non-sence, or metaphysic, or simply absurd".

But yes, other people followed his lead on this subject. Anscombe, Quine, Austin, come to mind, but there is, or used to be, a whole field of "phylosophy of language", ultimately leading into "analytic philosophy". Whether any of those people had an adequate grasp of Wittgenstein (whether it is possible for anyone to have such an adequate grasp) is debatable.


You use an example from advertising but also refer to Wittgenstein, which suggests you are interested in a philosophical dimension. That dimension is what I'll address. Luis Henrique is right : it is not our (knowingly) misusing language that causes philosophical puzzles and false ideas. Rather, 'language itself misleads us'. Wittgenstein is very clear on this : 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language', 'Philosophical Invesigations', 1953, I, §109.

Plato in the 'Phaedrus' mocks the written word as, separated from the living mind, incapable of reproducing thought clearly and with certainty (274c).

Plato aside, at least since the time of Aristotle, philosophers have been aware of and have tried to guard against the specious and deceptive use of words. In 'Sophistical Refutations' (De Sophisticis Elenchis) Aristotle identifies six kinds of skids of language that produce false arguments or slippery claims.

More recently - 'recently' at least in terms of the history of philosophy' - Francis Bacon (1561-1626) identified certain, actually four, idols of the mind (idola intellectus) among which which were the idols of the marketplace ('idola fori'). These derived from the deceptive use of language. Confused and ill-defined terms, for example, generate endless empty controversies.

Hobbes in 'Leviathan' (1651) hankered for 'perspicuous words' to keep us firmly away from the 'absurdity' of our speech ('Leviathan, ch. 5). Later Locke had two chapters in the 'Essay concerning Human Understanding' (1690) which focus on the unreliability of language : III.9 'Of the imperfection of words' and III.10 'Of the abuse of words'.

Mention should also be made of Leibniz's (1646-1716) project or dream of a 'characteristica universalis' or universal language : a flawless system of deductive theories formalising our knowledge of the world and framed in terms a perfect language - of which we were sorely in need. (A language in which it would be impossible to go wrong.)

In another jump across the centuries we can cite the work of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida notably holds that we can never in spoken or written language have any present stable or decidable meaning. (A claim that applies to itself ?) Note, however, that this is not a claim that language is misused, only that it has inherent limitations insufficiently recognised in the past.

Many other examples could be cited but you probably have a sense now of how much and for how long the pitfalls of language have vexed philosophers.

  • Hmm, I haven't heard about that one from Leibniz, but I would classify that as a good example to another question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/49652/… . That theory is certainly not new, but rather "universal language" and related problems tend to bounce back from time to time. However, such problem is idealistic, because humans are still not in some abstract state, where perfect language would be the primary problem. Language's primary function is survivalistic. – mavavilj Mar 10 '18 at 12:59

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