Ramsey, Wittgenstein, Gödel and the rest.

Cheryl Misak’s biography of “Frank Ramsey – A Sheer Excess of Powers” is proving to be an excellent read. It’s a 500 page tome and is a beautifully presented academic reference work in terms of front and end materials. The main narrative is broken only by occasional elaboration in text box asides, contributed by recognised experts in each subject.

For anyone interested in the limitations of logical positivism as I am, Ramsey’s key touch points with the other main players of early 20th century philosophy, logic, mathematics and economics – Cambridge and the Bloomsbury set – are already legendary. A legend of genius sealed by his untimely death in his prime, aged only 27 in January 1930.

Part of that interest is in the Vienna Circle and its relationships with the other players, so another book I have lined-up to read after Misak is David Edmonds “The Murder of Professor Schlick”. (Schlick being the “leader” of the Vienna Circle and the murder it seems being literal not rhetorical.)

But I’m only 70 pages into Misak’s Ramsey as I write this. After the Cambridge childhood and Winchester schooldays, Chapter 3 has set the stage for the the main players who “[really lived] in a great time for thinking” and with whom Ramsey was already interacting.  Keynes, Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein.

At this remove, it’s hard to understate the importance of the world-in-crisis in the first three decades of the 20th century and the search for better models for understanding and living together in the world. Misak conveys the import. An import we surely face again as we enter the third decade of the 21st. Politics or economics, philosophies or logics, Ramsey had already discovered, before going up to Trinity Cambridge aged 17 in March 1920, as I have (now aged 65 next month in 2021), that metaphysical questions are unavoidable in these otherwise worldly topics. “PPE” depends on metaphysics to this day.

Russell’s mentor Whitehead had understood. Wittgenstein clearly had too. His WW1 (Austro-German) isolation evolved the written Tractatus to the point he was apoplectic at the empty tautology of “Russellian orthodoxy” misunderstanding his seeming “completion” of logic. Looking ahead in the index it is gratifying to see that the “speculation” of how different things might have been had Ramsey, Wittgenstein and Gödel had time to work together in educating the logical positivists in the errors of their orthodoxy. Another fascination of mine.

400 pages to go. I’m all in.

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