Sunday, November 9, 2014

Wittgenstein's Beetle Book Review

Wittgenstein's Beetle by Martin Cohen 

Summary: Very disappointing.

What could have been a great primer on one of the essential tools of philosophy, is held back by the author's mediocre understanding of many of the issues he discusses. The prime example is the 'thought experiment' by Wittgenstein that serves as the name of the book. Wittgenstein held that the idea of private language was incoherent because languages were games played between people. His beetle experiment was designed to make this idea concrete by proposing a world in which we all owned a private box containing a beetle. Mr Cohen provides a direct quote from Wittgenstein's Investigations in which he (Wittgenstein) clearly states that the word beetle, if used in such a society, could not be referring to the thing in the box. Mr Cohen then turns around and tells us that the point of Wittgenstein's experiment is to show that we assume that because we use the same word as other people we are talking about the same thing. This is not what Wittgenstein said, and he says this clearly in the text.

To make matters worse, Mr Cohen returns to pick on Wittgenstein's Beetle at the end of the book as an example of a poorly done thought experiment. It fails to meet several of Mr Cohen's criteria for successful thought experiments. One needs to note that it is Mr Cohen who has massaged the definition of a thought experiment to get Wittgenstein's beetle in, and then he criticises its performance, all the while failing to understand it.

I am not going to mention the numerous fallacies the author pens on many topics of science, and his horrendous attempts at jokes. The only reason I am giving the book 2 stars is because the discussion of Searle's Chinese room argument is excellent. Read this chapter and then throw the book away.

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