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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / philosophy

Reflections on Kurt Gödel

Hao Wang

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To purchase Reflections on Kurt Gödel

Title: Reflections on Kurt Gödel
Author: Hao Wang
Genre: Biography/philosophy
Written: 1987
Length: 330 pages
Availability: Reflections on Kurt Gödel - US
Reflections on Kurt Gödel - UK
Reflections on Kurt Gödel - Canada
  • Includes 11 photographs and a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B : valuable resource, presentation not entirely ideal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 11-12/1989 William E. Hartnett
Modern Logic . (2) 1991 Wim Ruitenburg
Philosophical Quarterly . (39) 1989 John L. Bell

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The complete review's Review:

       Hao Wang's Reflections on Kurt Gödel is an unusual exercise in intellectual biography. Hao Wang, himself an eminent logician, knew his subject: he "had close contact with Gödel in his last years" and clearly occupied himself closely and intensely both with Gödel's work and life. It is also a fairly personal document, in that Wang gives his own opinion on many of the philosophical issues and questions, as well as noting his interactions with Gödel. (A companion volume, focussing on "Gödel's private sayings (oral or written)" is already anticipated here, though in his Preface Wang announces its title as Conversations with Kurt Gödel; it was eventually published after Wang's death in 1996 as A Logical Journey.)
       Reflections on Kurt Gödel explores the life and work of the man, paying specific attention to the public record and Gödel's writings. It is very much an intellectual biography, the focus primarily on Gödel's thought (and mind). The book begins with a summary (though still eight page) Chronology, and is then divided into two parts: 'Facts', concerning itself with the details of Gödel's life (though also considering these in close relation to his work), and 'Thoughts', in which the focus is on his philosophical work (and general philosophy).
       Wang's presentation -- and, especially, documentation -- are nothing if not meticulous. In the first section, the facts of Gödel's life are (repeatedly) examined; everything down to the address of every apartment and house Gödel lived in appears to be documented (and Wang appears to have researched all the titles Gödel ever checked out of any library). After a general overview, chapters three and four offer detailed chronological accounts of the two halves (and locales) of Gödel's life: 'Central Europe (1906-1939)' and 'the Princeton years (1940-1978)'. There is a good deal of repetition here, as Wang considers various sources -- and highlights various points and incidents, depending on what he wishes to emphasise. Source material -- including a letter from Gödel's brother Rudolf about Kurt's youth and the 'Grandjean questionnaire', in which Gödel responded to specific questions about his life -- is reproduced in whole (and, where applicable, in German) and specific information is often presented several times over.
       It makes for an unusual biography -- though in some ways it is also fascinating. Wang comes to few conclusions about the facts of Gödel's life without revealing to the reader exactly where the information he bases his conclusions on is derived from, giving what amounts to a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the biography. His deference to Gödel is also of some use, since it becomes fairly clear how Gödel himself wanted to be seen: a 1976 text Wang wrote, to be published after Gödel's death as 'Some facts about Kurt Gödel' (which the subject reviewed and commented on) is particularly interesting in this regard. So, for example, Wang originally noted in this chronological account that Gödel married Adele Porkert on 20 September 1938; however:

He asked me to delete this information from an early draft on the ground that his wife had no direct influence on his work.
       Gödel was an incredibly influential thinker. His contributions to logic are considered among the most important philosophical advances of the 20th century, and his work has had a lasting impact on mathematics, computer sciences, philosophy, and physics. He also led an interesting life, studying physics and mathematics (and philosophy) in Vienna at a time when the university there was a leading centre in those fields, and making great contributions to the fields at a very young age. He moved to the United States only in 1940, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (where he was also a close friend of Einstein). He married Adele Porkert, a woman six years his senior (and who worked at a nightclub when they first met), -- but only a decade after they began their relationship. He also suffered some medical ailments the affected him catastrophically in old age; a strict diet and/or fear of being poisoned left him weighing sixty-five pounds (thirty kg, at a height of five foot six (168cm)) before his death, and Wang reports his death certificate states: "G died of 'Malnutrition and inanition' caused by 'personality disturbance.'"
       Wang relates much of Gödel's life, but in relatively compressed style: this is not narrative biography. Nevertheless, this makes the book an excellent resource, as most incidents -- and a variety of aspects of Gödel's life (private, public, intellectual) -- are examined and fairly clearly presented. Still: it reads more like the outlines of (or the notes for) an actual biography.
       The second part of the book, considering Gödel's thoughts, is also clearly organised, but Wang's examination is more liberal and far-reaching. He notes that Gödel's work can be divided into an early period, focussing on mathematical-logical problems (for which he is most famous), and a later period in which he devoted himself to philosophy more generally. Wang admits a personal perspective (and brings in, for example, Chinese philosophy as a way of suggesting what interpretation might allow for); this has the advatage of presenting the subject matter in a way that is clearly well-considered and of interest to the author (an intellectual enthusiasm that fairly effectively carries over to the reader). Certainly, Wang also conveys Gödel's interests, approaches, and the foundations he worked off of (a fascination with Leibniz, for example, or a later interest in Husserl)
       Wang does also put the major discoveries (and Gödel's other work) in context: from Gödel's university professors to the Vienna Circle (to the uninfluential (in this case) Wittgenstein) and, later, to Einstein (as Gödel also did interesting work regarding relativity) -- and especially the early response to Hilbert -- Wang does a fairly good job of explaining the significance of what Gödel did. However, the discussions of the philosophical issues -- and especially the logical breakthroughs -- are often very demanding, and presuppose some familiarity with the material. No symbolic language, but Wang's concise renderings, reliance on logico-philosophical terminology (without spending much time defining it), and frequent speculation (welcome by those who know what he's talking about, but enough to set the heads spinning of those who don't) can make sections of the book difficult to get through. (Readers who come to a screeching halt when confronted with sentences such as: "the formalist assumption that consistency of 'transfinite' axioms assures the nonderivability of any consequence that is 'contentually false'" (and that's the basic stuff) should be aware of what they're in for.)
       Ultimately, Reflections on Kurt Gödel is more useful as a reference work than a straightforward intellectual biography. It suffices neither solely as a biographical account (though the basic details are certainly there) nor as an introduction to or commentary on Gödel's work. It appears, however, to be an ideal secondary work, helping to fill in details that fuller accounts of the man or specific parts of his work miss.

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Reflections on Kurt Gödel: Kurt Gödel: Books by Kurt Gödel under review: Other books about Kurt Gödel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hao Wang (1921-1995) taught at Rockefeller University.

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