November 16, 2005
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 nineteen fourteen 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 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 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.
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.