peteg's blog - noise - books - 2018 05 18 KarlSigmund ExactThinkingInDementedTimes

Karl Sigmund: Exact Thinking in Demented Times.

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Kindle. I found this via a review by Ernest Davis after enjoying his take on Valiant's PAC learning book. It certainly sounds promising: an accessible account of the Vienna Circle, though what we really get is a potted history studded with capsule biographies of some players, with words expended roughly commensurate with the size of the personality. Coming to it completely cold, a reader would learn about such standards as Wittgenstein's poker and Gödel's construction of a model of Einstein's field equations that allows time travel. Conversely there's not much explanation of the philosophy itself; for instance, why did the Circle rail so hard against metaphysics, and of precisely what kind? Did Rudolf Carnap's agenda have any lasting impact? Was the Circle's agenda killed by Karl Popper as legend has it, and if so, precisely how? Did anyone build on Moritz Schlick's ideas?

Sigmud has a fine German sense of humour, of which Wittgenstein is often the butt (apropos glossing over Austrian history circa World War I and II: It was a fine example of that old Viennese proverb, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."). One comes away with the impression that he would bracket the great philosopher with the other obscurantists that he freely derides (... in university libraries, whole shelves are filled with erudite tomes explaining Wittgenstein’s thoughts — a task as thankless as that of explaining jokes); Heidegger, for instance, cops a dismissive pasting. Sigmund summarised a question of abiding interest to me:

Later, Ludwig Wittgenstein summed matters up as follows: "Gödel’s theorem forces us to view mathematics from a new perspective." (Most scholars agree, however, that neither Wittgenstein nor Russell ever really understood Gödel’s ideas.)

Stuart Shanker's article in the book he edited (Gödel's Theorem in Focus (1988) with a contribution from Kleene amongst others) begs to differ, and apparently Putnam weighed in a decade later. (I came away from Shanker's article negligibly enlightenend.) Sigmund observes that Wittgenstein must also have encountered Turing, whose analysis of computation is far less open to misinterpretation. Martin Davis wrote an article on why Gödel did not proceed to do what Turing did. I'd also be interested to understand what Wittgenstein thought of Brouwer's intuitionism. Sigmund is not wrong about the old coffee houses being closed.

This book has been extensively reviewed.