March 23, 2007


Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel
Rebecca Goldstein (2005)

Let me be succinct with this one: I really did not enjoy this book. The author is apparently a MacArthur fellow, but I guess even geniuses (genii?) are allowed a clunker now and then.

I hardly know where to begin, and in a way it feels like I shouldn't dig in so deep to make criticisms. The book is an attempt to interweave biography and philosophy, and seems to me it fails at both. I've never been much of a lover of the biography form in general, but the best ones do give you a sense of a stretch of history and one person's place in it. Not so much of that here. The author is very interested in talking about the Vienna Circle, the positivists, and especially a long side-track into Wittgenstien, but not in giving their philosophies and place in history more than the most cursory description.

The worst sin is that Goedel's mathematics, which is nothing short of revolutionary, is rendered boring here. I think it takes a serious effort to lose one's wonder about it, and to describe what it all means in such arid disinterested prose. It's disconcerting to read a book like this one and wonder if the author even really understands the implications of Goedel's work. On the flip side, I feel like she over-explains easier concepts like what theoretical mathematics is and how it fits into the contemporary academy.

There are the seeds of a few good books here. I suppose a pure biography could be illuminating (though as I mentioned, that wouldn't be my favorite option). Definitely a real exploration of how philosophy was forever changed by Goedel's mathematics would be exciting. The story of turn-of-the-century Vienna, with Goedel as a key character, or perhaps a side-by-side contrast of Goedel and Wittgenstien, would make for compelling reading.

As the text stands, it makes small forays into all these areas without making any of them interesting. Disappointing.

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