Sterrett, 2006, Wittgenstein Flies a Kite

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Susan G. Sterett. 2006. Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: a story of models of wings and models of the world. Pi Press. xxii+329 pages.

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein was an engineering student with an interest in aeronautics in 1907, and worked on a propeller in 1910 and filed for a patent on it. Later he became a famous philosopher. This book connects the visions and methods of aeronautics to his philosophy.
  • Scale models were important to work in aeronautics at the time, and the mentality of thinking about models helped Wittgenstein come to some insights about the relations of "facts" and "things."
  • Wittgenstein worked on aeronautics from 1907 until at least 1911. He was not gifted working with tools which led to some dissatisfaction.
  • discusses Edgar Buckingham, a scientist at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards who worked on scale models, and Wittgenstein's references to Buckingham.(pages xiv-xvi)[1]
  • In 1894 Ludwig Boltzmann gave a talk in Vienna encouraging research into heavier-than-air flight. "Boltzmann was concerned that Germany was falling behind England" in aeronautical research, and believe the problem was close to being solved based on kites. (p. xxi). Boltzmann's On Aeronautics, a talk given in Vienna in 894 and published in 1905, is included here in this book on pages 255-264. It gives a brief survey of the experimental aeronautics that will lead to an airplane, consistent with and analogous to Chanute's.
  • "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."[2]


  • theory of types: An approach of Bertrand Russell's to the philosophy of language; Wittgenstein found it unsatisfying and seeked and found other approaches he preferred[3]
  • picture theory: "Wittgenstein suggested that a meaningful proposition pictured a state of affairs or atomic fact"[4] -- this frames models/facts/abstractions/ideas and things/reality
  • language games: another perspective brought by Wittgenstein[5]
  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Wittgenstein's major book on philosophy, addressing relationships between language and reality and the limits of science.[6] Wittgenstein tended not to cite or credit his sources, which leaves historians debating them (p. xx). The Tractatus was a founding document of the phlosophical school of "logical empiricism." (p. xx)

More sources to draw from

extensive review:'s%20Kite%20Site/scrapbook/page%2005.html

Per The photograph show Wittgenstein (on the right) with his close friend and mentor William Eccles and the instrument-bearing kite on the moors above Glossop in the summer of 1908.


  1. w:Edgar Buckingham
  2. Brief review at Publishers Weekly
  3. w:Type theory
  4. w:Picture theory of language
  5. w:Language game (philosophy)
  6. w:Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
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