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Wittgenstein's Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments [Paperback]

Martin Cohen
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

14 Sep 2004
Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments invites readers to participate actively in discovering the surprisingly powerful and fruitful tradition of "thought experiments." Gives a lively presentation of an "A to Z" of 26 fascinating and influential thought experiments from philosophy and science Presents vivid and often humorous discussion of the experiments, including strengths and weaknesses, historical context, and contemporary uses Provides a "how to" section for engaging in thought experiments Includes illustrations, mini–biographies, and suggestions for further reading.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (14 Sep 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1405121920
  • ISBN-13: 978-1405121927
  • Product Dimensions: 14.4 x 21.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 385,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Martin Cohen is a well-established author specializing in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics.

His most recent book, called 'How to Live: Wise (and not-so-wise) Advice from the Great Philosophers', examines a whole load of unexpcted philosophical things like the virtues of cheese sandwiches (Rousseau) and making the wife work in a factory (John Locke). Being essentially 'snack reading', it is definitely available as an e-book (ASIN B00GOGQRJW).

He is best known for his two introductions to philosophy, 101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge 1999, 2001, 2007) and 101 Ethical Dilemmas (Routledge 2002/2007) which despite being originally aimed at the academic market, between them have sold over 250,000 copies and been translated into 20 different languages. He also published an "anti-history" of great philosophers, Philosophical Tales (2008) for Blackwell.

His most recent projects include the UK edition of Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley June 2010); Mind Games: 31 days to rediscover your Brain (Blackwell, July 2010) and The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel (co-authored with Andrew McKillop). A project with Richard Stanyer developing resources for Philosophy for Children has led to a beautifully illustrated children's book called Milo and the upside-down Goggles. (The project website is http.//

A book on Thought Experiments was well-reviewed despite being entitled (confusingly perhaps!) Wittgenstein's Beetle, (2004) and other more academic books include a mini book on Adam Smith; and a reference guide to philosophy and ethics for Hodder Academic.

Martin now writes full-time, but in the past has taught philosophy and social science at a number of universities in the UK and Australia, and was involved in a research project at Leeds University under George MacDonald Ross exploring ways to shift philosophy teaching away from the the mere study of philosophical facts and toward a view of philosophy as an activity.

A respected environmentalist, he wrote an influential series of articles in the Times Higher (London) about the politics of the climate change debate. He has written discussion papers on environmental concerns for the European Parliament and been invited by the Chinese government to discuss ecological rights and indigenous communities.

{Martin, be creative - include an anecdote - Amazon editors]

Martin's PhD is actually in computers and education - not 'pure philosophy' - a fact that has often led to him being sneered at in philosophy circles, and the most-important-job-that-he-never-got was to be head of the UK's quango responsible for implanting information technology into schools.. He was invited to the organisation's headquarters for interview with a shortlist of one - and asked his research influenced his view of the use of computers in school. Naturally the questioners expected him to paint a very rosy picture, but being not only honest but a little contrarian, Martin instead described how in school after school that he had visited, he had seen computers reducing creativity, stifling learning and generally being very badly used.The moral of the tale? Honesty is rarely the best policy.

He is also the editor of THE PHILOSOPHER, a journal founded in 1923, which counts some of the best known names in Twentieth Century philosophy amongst its contributors. His editorial strategy is to allow as wide a range of ideas as possible a forum in the Journal, and this often prints papers by non-specialists with unusual and original ideas. He is currently based in Normandy, France, but travels often to the US and UK.

Product Description


"Martin Cohen′s book is a delight to the intellect. His discussion of historically important thought experiments displays considerable erudition, permeated by wit and occasionally farcical invention which embellish the philosophical value of his treatment." Zenon Stavrinides, University of Bradford <!––end––> "Cohen′s book is packed with wit and scurrilous remarks about mainstream philosophers. His inimitable writing style, which entertains as it instructs, is directed towards making philosophical ideas immediately accessible to the general reader." George MacDonald Ross, University of Leeds "One of the fun things about philosophy is that you can sit back in your armchair, set up a laboratory in your own head and calmly observe the results of mixing x with y. This is the grand tradition of the "thought experiment", to which Cohen provides a zippy alphabetical guide. Cohen′s explanations of the problems are lucid, and he defends the tradition against killjoys who argue that thought experiments cannot ever give reliable conclusions. At its best the thought experiment can be a highly compressed, conceptually fruitful marriage of science and literature." Steven Poole on Wittgenstein′s Beetle Saturday November 20, 2004 The Guardian "The value of this little book is that it collects a wide range of thought experiments and presents them in an accessible way. It is a good place to start, and it will be especially useful for those who teach courses on the topic and want to introduce it to a new generation of students." James Robert Brown, University of Toronto "There are several books of philosophical thought experiments currently in print... Cohen′s A–Z are mostly of historic significance to science. They are wittily presented..." Times Literary Supplement


Wittily presented... [and] satisfy as pleasing paradoxes --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice disappears at one point 'down the rabbit hole': The rabbit hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic! 22 April 2005
I thought this book was fantastic. Martin Cohen's prose was clear and interesting, and I really enjoyed learning about the thought experiments. I highly recommend reading it!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 28 July 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Really Great. Interesting, amusing and arrived promptly and great condition.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Book review 29 Mar 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Not a very helpful guide to Wittgenstein.
Having studied Wittgenstein as a part of a philosophy degree I think some of the interepretations in this book are misleading.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars heterogeneous 22 April 2005
By A reader - Published on
If I may be allowed to coin a common noun `a cohen' to signify a type of philosophical work containing a series of short sections each dealing with a distinct topic that exemplifies or illustrates a broad area of philosophical interest, I could say confidently that with his latest book Wittgenstein's Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments Dr Martin Cohen has offered us yet another splendid cohen, following upon the successes of its precedents 101 Philosophy Problems and 101 Ethical Dilemmas.

The new book opens with a Foreword entitled `Forward!' in which our author characterizes thought experiments as `that special kind of theory that predicts particular consequences given certain initial starting points and conditions'. Cohen does not think that it is appropriate to draw a sharp distinction between empirical experiments and thought experiments. He suggests both `are tests devised either to explore intuitions about how the world works - or to destroy them...' adding: `The characteristic thing about both real and thought experiments is that you control and limit the circumstances and conditions for the test, so as to pick out just one variable or one unknown. The key difference is that in the latter, everything is set out not in reality but merely in the imagination. The circumstances are described, not created, and the action is imagined, not created.'

Cohen's broad conception of a thought experiment enables him to select a highly heterogeneous variety of examples of the genre. One gets a taste of the importance of the subject in the Introduction of the book entitled `Deep Thought - a brief history of thought experiments' which provides historical evidence for what may appear a surprisingly creative use to which this technique of inquiry was put throughout the development of philosophical, scientific and also ethical thought.

The author proceeds to the main part of the book, which comprises an A - Z series of 26 sections, beginning with `A is for Alice and Astronomers Arguing about Acceleration', followed by `B is for Bernard's [. Bernard Williams'] Body-Exchange Machine' and so on, all the way to `Z is for Zeno and the Mysteries of Infinity'. Each section offers a brief exposition of a particular thought experiment and then a philosophical discussion of the topic liberally punctuated with irreverent jeux d'esprit.

There follows a chapter on `Notes for Experimenters' which includes a highly suggestive section on `How to Experiment' - in my judgment the most original part of the book.

The interest of the book is clearly dependent on, and derived from, the interest and value of the technique of thought experiment in science and philosophy. On this last point Cohen is emphatic. `It is no exaggeration to say,' he exaggerates, `that the whole of modern science is built upon the surprisingly modest foundation of half a dozen of the thought experiments included here' - or so it strikes me. I would say rather that scientific work involves a dynamic interplay between, on the one hand, empirical data in various degrees of rawness accumulated by scientists in response to a problem and provisionally conceived, described, classified, analysed and so on, in a language impregnated by low-level theory (For instance, Darwin's observation and study of fossils and bones of long-extinct animal species or Brownian motion described in terms of the kinetic theory of fluids), and on the other, intellectual efforts to bring these phenomena under explanatory schemata of increasing scope and predictive power which can be tested against experience (for example, the theory of evolution or atomic theory of matter and the relevant mathematical models).

This book is not addressed to professional philosophers, but is by no means a beginners' piece, much less reading matter for Aunt Edna to take on the train. It will best be appreciated by readers who already have some understanding of philosophy and scientific methodology, and have developed some taste for conceptual inquiry. For all the clarity of the writing, the text is never facile - indeed, it is occasionally hard-going and controversial in its interpretation of particular thought experiments. Like previous cohens, Wittgenstein's Beetle brings together diverse material which displays a unity of viewpoint and a seriousness of treatment, embellished with wit and delightful comic invention.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lively, snarky prose. Short on details and depth. 8 Dec 2010
By O. King - Published on
I was looking forward to this book. However, in reading it I was a bit disappointed.

The descriptions of the 26 thought experiments are not very deep and are often not very clear. In particular, the entry on "Identity of Indiscernibles" consists of a few long block quotes from an important philosopher and a few pages of barely relevant remarks (a few of which betray the author's ignorance of Leibniz's philosophy). Other entries, like the one on "Maxwell's Demon," are clearer and more helpful.

There is a bit of additional material before and after the descriptions of the thought experiments, leaving only 85 pages for the discussion of 26 thought experiments. To make matters worse, many of the pages are half white space. This means that none of the thought experiments is covered in much detail. That is a problem since many famous thought experiments were devised to influence debates of complicated scientific or philosophical matters. Cohen doesn't spend much time on this background information; he doesn't take the time to lay out the precise context in which each thought experiment was invoked. Furthermore, the short descriptions he gives us are not always as careful or clear as they could be.

All that said, for a reader with a bit of knowledge on the history of science and history of philosophy, this book can serve as an entertaining refresher. On the other hand, I would not recommend it for someone who has little background in such material.

One final gripe: The author misspells the name of famous contemporary philosopher Judith Thomson (Cohen spells it "Thompson") in his "V" entry on Thomson's violinist thought experiment.
7 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book 7 Aug 2005
By Raphael Rosen - Published on
I thought this book was fantastic. Martin Cohen's prose was clear and interesting, and I really enjoyed learning about the thought experiments. I highly recommend reading it!
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