Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World

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9780131499973: Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World

In this elegant historical narrative of ideas, Duke professor of philosophy Susan Sterrett reveals a story at the beginning of our modern fascination with the nature of language. The philosophy of language and experimental research in aeronautics made great leaps at about the same time in the early twentieth century. Strange as it may sound, this was no coincidence. Sterrett shows what Wittgenstein's glimpse of a solution to the problem of language in 1914 had to do with experimental models- which had been so crucial to the Wright brothers' solving the problem of flight. On the ever of World War I in Europe, Wittgenstein, after having left aeronautical research to study philosophy, was deeply dissatisfied with Bertrand Russell's solution to the paradoxes of logic: the theory of types. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a physicist called upon to help set up U.S. aeronautical research capability was pondering how the logic of empirical equations held the key to identifying physically similar situations, which in turn explain the success of the Wright brothers' research on their apparatus constructed of cardboard cartons and bicycle parts. His conclusion had a twist: what mattered was the mere existence of an equation that would work for any units one chose to use. This highly abstract explanation held an answer to Wittgenstein's problems about the logic of propositions. In a moment of insight, he became convinced that thinking about a proposition a model or picture would solve the problems of philosophy. The result was the strikingly different view of language presented in the Tractates Logico-Philosophicus that has commanded attention ever since.

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From the Back Cover:

A Story of Ideas at the Heart of Our Modern Fascination with Language—and Airplanes

"Stories about thinkers who have solved problems once thought insoluble string together three key moments: First, there is the private moment in which the thinker glimpses the possibility of a solution. Later, a moment in which the solution is actually worked out, validating that first glimpse. And, finally, a crowning moment, in which the wider world recognizes that the problem once thought insoluble has really been solved. The story of a great accomplishment then turns to its subsequent consequences, and so fans out into numerous threads, the strands of each thread eventually tapering into the fabric of history somewhere, becoming part of the background against which later moments in other people's lives are lived.

This book traces threads in the background of the first private moment of just such a story: the moment of insight in which a young aeronautical researcher-turned-philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein glimpsed the "main thought" (or Grundgedanke, in his native German) of his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At the time he completed the manuscript for his book, he was confident it contained the solution to all the problems of philosophy. It would become one of the most well-known philosophical works of the twentieth century."

—from the Preface


In this elegant historical narrative of ideas, Duke professor of philosophy Susan Sterrett reveals a story at the beginning of our modern fascination with the nature of language.

The philosophy of language and experimental research in aeronautics made great leaps at about the same time in the early twentieth century. Strange as it may sound, this was no coincidence. Sterrett shows what Wittgenstein's glimpse of a solution to the problem of language in 1914 had to do with experimental models—which had been so crucial to the Wright brothers' solving the problem of flight.

On the eve of World War I in Europe, Wittgenstein, after having left aeronautical research to study philosophy, was deeply dissatisfied with Bertrand Russell's solution to the paradoxes of logic: the theory of types. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a physicist called upon to help set up U.S. aeronautical research capability was pondering how the logic of empirical equations held the key to identifying physically similar situations, which in turn explained the success of the Wright brothers' research on their apparatus constructed of cardboard cartons and bicycle parts. His conclusion had a twist: what mattered was the mere existence of an equation that would work for any units one chose to use. This highly abstract explanation held an answer to Wittgenstein's problems about the logic of propositions. In a moment of insight, he became convinced that thinking about a proposition as a model or picture would solve the problems of philosophy. The result was the strikingly different view of language presented in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that has commanded attention ever since.


© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

About the Author:

SUSAN G. STERRETT, assistant professor of philosophy, Duke University, is the author of many academic papers, including "Physical Pictures: Engineering Models circa 1914 and in Wittgenstein's Tractatus" in History of Philosophy of Science—New Trends and Perspectives. She received a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Fellowship for the writing of this book. She lives in North Carolina.


© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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