- 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: #2,853,994 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.
a) ...entirely speculative. There is no direct evidence that the precise strand of scientific/engineering thinking, the author identifies, that was current in certain circles while Wittgenstein was conceiving his Tractatus directly influenced Wittgenstein's thinking. It is, accordingly, far from certain whether Sterrett's interpretations of key passages in the Tractatus align with Wittgenstein's own thinking.
b) ...enormously repetitive. In the technical chapters of WFaK, Sterrett repeats the same observations ad nauseum.
c) ...bloated with superfluous detail.
d) ...almost entirely silent on the question of Wittgenstein's broader philosophy of language and the place of his 'model' theory of language within it, hardly common knowledge among Sterrett's non-expert readers.
e) ...addressed to no obvious readership. There is a lot of historical/biographical information in this book that has no bearing on its central claim. Presumably, the author or her publisher thought to fold all this detail into the book to appeal to the interests of a lay readership. Unfortunately, the historical/biographical portions of WFaK serve even that readership poorly: as the author herself notes, other writers have already written very able biographies of Wittgenstein; others have also written far more compelling histories of flight and of late-19th/early 20th-century history of science/technology in general. There is little in these portions of WFaK to entertain or enlighten. As for the technical parts, they are at once far too technical for a lay readership and overly technical (albeit accessible) for a specialist readership. Sterrett need not have presented all of the technical detail she did to establish or bolster her essential argument. Besides the fact that she repeats a lot of this information again and again in the technical chapters, an enormous mass of it is simply beside the point. As such, much as specialists may find merit in the substance of Sterrett's argument, I doubt they'd find much merit in its structure/presentation.
Sterrett herself strikes a similar note in the closing chapter of WFaK, expressing concern that the various figures she presents (in the closing chapter) and the analogy she's endeavored to develop (throughout the book) may be less intelligible to her readers than she hopes, and encouraging her readers to arrive at their own understanding by whatever means necessary. I appreciate Sterrett's earnestness in voicing these thoughts, but wish she had precluded the need to do so by having been a more concise and lucid guide to that point. I also wish I had, per my expectation when I began reading WFaK, emerged from this book with a deeper understanding of what Wittgenstein had in mind by the 'model' theory of language -- not simply what some of the sources/analogies may have been that drove Wittgenstein's thinking.
I appreciate the interesting thesis at WFaK's core, and admire Sterrett's tremendous effort in composing the book in review, but as a lay reader with more than a dilettante's interest in philosophy, philosophy of language, the history of philosophy, intellectual history, science, and the history of science, I found little nourishment in the results.