- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Pi Press; 1st edition (November 16, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0131499971
- ISBN-13: 978-0131499973
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,338,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
While numerous critical studies have traced Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to his study of mathematics and logic under Bertrand Russell, Sterrett, professor of philosophy at Duke, bases this novel intellectual history on the assiduously researched and surprising idea that Wittgenstein's advances in logic and the philosophy of language were related to another early 20th-century invention: the airplane. Weaving together the history of ideas in fin-de-siècle Austria, Germany, England and the United States, Sterrett deftly demonstrates that Wittgenstein drew the inspiration for his groundbreaking Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1914) from theories of physics and of music. She traces his influences to physicists like Ludwig Boltzmann and Edgar Buckingham, as well as his own study of the gramophone and the sound waves it produced. Sterrett draws on Wittgenstein's early aeronautical research and experiences building kites, asserting that the philosopher of language used models of wings as a model of language. Much like scale models of propellers or other toys, he said, language represents facts as we perceive and imagine them. Although often mired in dense, labyrinthine prose, Sterrett's compelling history of ideas offers a new glimpse of this perennially difficult philosopher and his intellectual milieu. (Dec.)
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Sterrett's research . . . is detailed and thorough; and what she has uncovered . . . is fascinating. Her style can be engaging, especially in the historical sections, and is, I believe, accessible to intelligent lay readers. The book includes an excellent index and, as an appendix, a translation of Boltzmann's 1894 lecture on aeronautics. It should definitely be considered as a text for courses in the history and philosophy of technology or science, and as recommended reading for analytically-oriented students of the early Wittgenstein. -- Journal of the History of Philosophy, October 2007
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In her first chapter Sterrett cites Wittgenstein seemingly equating the recording of music in a groove of a phonograph record with its musical score. This struck me as a gross misunderstanding. The groove contains a recording of the air vibrations which we hear as musical sound whereas the musical score is an encoding, a transcription of that sound into the `language' of musicians. The recording of sound in the groove is similar to remembering that sound in one's brain; that is, a phonograph can reproduce that sound just as a person can imagine, hum, sing, whistle or play it on a musical instrument from memory without having to transcribe it into its musical score. Thus the recorded sound is not the equivalent of the musical score.
But it really doesn't matter whether that analogy is valid if that's what inspired Wittgenstein to his insights about philosophy; so be it. Thru-out Sterrett's book she speculates about what in Wittgenstein's milieu may have influenced him and helped shape his thinking; for example see pages 203-5. For a Wittgenstein scholar, this may make fascinating reading, but for me it was only marginally helpful in understanding his ideas, altho I found her history of the early days of aeronautical research interesting. It also took me back more than fifty years to my course in fluid mechanics.
What I gained about Wittgenstein's ideas from reading Sterrett is the distinction between facts and propositions. A proposition is an attempt to depict a fact in some language, whatever that language might be. A musical score is a `language' of musicians. A formula is a mathematical `language'. And of course there are many spoken/written languages that are only intelligible to those who know that language. These `languages' are attempts to encode perceived reality, facts, into propositions, that is, statements about reality that humans can comprehend provided they know that language. Then there's the relation between language and models. I would argue that, while languages may be analogous to models, they're not the same, any more than the musical score is the same as the record groove.
Curiously, Sterrett only covers Wittgenstein's thought processes up to his "Tractatus" eventho later, as reported by other authors, he reconsidered and rejected much of what he'd said in the "Tractatus". Another minor quibble: on pages 182, 185 & 201 she refers to Figure 3 with no mention of where to find Figure 3; it doesn't appear until page 225.
Unfortunately, the quality of the editing in these later chapters falls off steeply. The quantity of typos rises beyond a standard level for professional publishing. The explanations becoming increasingly opaque to the lay reader without an engineering background. As an earlier reviewer pointed out, simple, valuable aids to reader comprehension are omitted (e.g. Figure 3 is mentioned many pages before it shows up without any reference to where it will be). I felt like I got a pretty good grasp of what Sterrett was trying to say in these chapters, but it was frustrating and required more effort than it should have.
The book redeems itself towards the end by offering useful insights into Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Although I am no expert on the Tractatus, I feel that Sterrett's book sheds valuable light on Wittgenstein's terse and sometimes inscrutable exposition.
Overall, I think the book was worth reading. I won't recommend it to friends without a philosophy background because it simply gets too dense and confusing in the middle for anyone without drive to understand. I would recommend it to those with a special interest in Wittgenstein's philosophy. What would have made this book brilliant is a good editor. It's probably not Sterrett's fault when her prose is not clear or when the reader aids aren't working. What she needed was for some non-specialists to read through the book and point out every place where things weren't clear. She is obviously capable of writing clearly (she pulls it off in several chapters), but it's hard for a writer to see the confusing points in her writing because she knows exactly what she's writing about. I almost suspect that the editors assumed that the material was over their heads and that the intended audience would get it. I feel like I'm part of the intended audience, and I few added explanatory notes would have made it much clearer.
It's worth giving it a try. The early chapters are great. If you struggle in the middle, you can always skim to the last chapters and catch some interesting takes on Wittgenstein.