Ramseyian Pragmatism

Nearing the end of my reading of Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey in the chapter Wittgenstein Comes Home [and below, the penultimate chapter on the necessary layering of philosophy].

Previously so far:
“Ramseyian Pragmatism” (this post).
A Vienna Interlude“.
The Hypocrisy of Debate“.
Ramsey, Wittgenstein, Gödel and the rest.”
Final round-up:
The Best Consequences of a Life Lived

The current chapter, after Ramsey’s contributions to Economics and Mathematics, concerns the last year of his interactions between Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in January 1929 to Ramsey’s death in January 1930, and Wittgenstein’s subsequent reflections.

A grumpy and defensive Witt clearly respected Ramsey’s brain above any other at the time (and obviously later gave him top billing in the credits to his own work) but still found Ramsey’s critiques “tiresome”. This was partly because whilst Ramsey focussed on the theses in front of him rather than revering, let alone seeking, any fundamental, sacred or transcendent metaphysical angles, his brain nevertheless got there faster than Witt could keep up with. Getting there being recognising that the Tractatus needed “upending” rather than simply “fixing” on Witt’s subsequent journey to the Philosophical Investigations – the “later Wittgenstein” as we know him.

The paradigm shift like so many Schumpeterian waves, or evolution of any new species, starts as a heretical mutation and becomes a common sense reality with hindsight. A hindsight Ramsey never lived to see. And yet Witt reflects:

“That short period of time, as Schopenhauer calls it, between two long ones when some truth appears at first paradoxical and then trivial to people, had shrunk to a point for Ramsey.”

So much more in the preceding chapter(s) about what became known as the Linguistic Turn, the pragmatics of language in use in the informal games of otherwise formal language. In Misak’s summary:

“They would both come to the conclusion of there being no foundations for knowledge independent of humans.

Ramsey was cheerful about that,

and Wittgenstein anguished.”

Finally for now – consider co-evolution – like all evolutionary processes causation and influence are two-way or circular – “their views evolved together”.

Despite massive evidence to the contrary, I still hold the view that there was some mischievous fun in Wittgenstein “playing” the difficult absolutist on his way to “coming-out” as the human-linguistic pragmatist. There can be no doubt that my impressions of Wittgenstein are thoroughly Ramseyfied with hindsight (a co-evolved species called “Ramstein” anyone?).

And, that debates about exactly who meant what, when, are of merely academic interest in relation to the human-scale pragmatism. The academic value is that we learn – from Ramsey, Wittgenstein and Misak – that knowledge is a human-scale evolutionary process. (Those parts described by a closed system of logic and axioms being empty tautologies.)


A few additional thoughts from the penultimate chapter, where Misak is piecing together what Ramsey’s version of pragmatism might actually have been.

Positive of Peirce yet surprisingly dismissive of James based on a somewhat “believe whatever works for us” version of  his thinking, largely because that caricature leaves reality open to the supernatural, god and the like.

Yet, very much recognising the naturalistic fallacy. That, even when we have constructed a natural picture of reality, we still need to consider what is actually good, that what is natural isn’t necessarily good. Even a natural is, is not the same as the human ought. We may associate this old idea with a 1739 Hume, but that’s yet another footnote to Plato:

“And what is good, Phaedrus?”

Misak speculates that Ramsey’s posthumously (ie selectively by others) published position suggested the reason he didn’t complete the project in the 6 years between his 1923 critique of the Tractatus and his death in 1930 was essentially one of complexity. Once you’ve dispensed with a one-dimensional reductionist view of causation we undoubtedly have a multi-layered world of emergent or supervenient entities involved in two-way or circular processes of causation between the layers. Many have since developed such models.

A process view I’d call it, but not a single reference to Whitehead in the whole biography other than as Russell’s earlier co-author in their Principia. The older man with his dissonant contemporary – metaphysical – ideas had obviously been banished from these intellectual circles by the logical positivist fashion (and his emigration to the US)?

“One obstacle, perhaps surmountable, is that it would be impossibly complicated. For instance, if the primary language [of formal logic] is concerned with a series of experiences, it needs ‘time order’ and a structure for things like colour and smells [the secondary language of subjective experience]. But the really insurmountable obstacle is that ‘if we proceed by explicit definition we cannot add to our theory without changing the definitions, and so the meaning of the whole’. That would be a disaster for we need to be able to explain how [an apparently physical] concept such as mass both evolves and retains its meaning.”

Of course, that’s only a disaster if you’re a logical positivist. To the rest of us it’s evolving reality.

“all ‘useful theories [must have] more degrees of freedom’ than the primary system – ‘the dictionary alone does not suffice’. Neither does the dictionary plus the axioms, unless we are happy confining ourselves to a finite, primary system much less rich than the theory itself.”

Very exciting that Ramsey had come to the conclusions some of us have learned more recently with Dennett, Pirsig, Smolin, Rovelli, Tononi et al.

(If I’m reading Misak right, all those quotes within quotes are from Ramsey’s original 1923 critique – not from his nachlass? I’m going to need a good published version of Ramsey’s actual work and nachlass – distinct from editorial selection and critique. Wonder which that is in 2021?)


[Post Note – Final Round-up of Misak on Ramsey here.]

[PS – as well as the question above, also spotted maybe three typos in the 500 word first-edition tome – which isn’t bad. The only one I kept ready access to was this one: First sentence, last para, p399

“That’s not to say that Ramsey there was any value to be found in these realist philosophers.”

A verb of some sort missing between “Ramsey” and “there”.
Presumably a “didn’t believe” or similar, after editing maybe a triple-negative form from the original sentence?

Important sentence because I’ve now started reading Edmonds on Schlick and he seems (?) in his introductory chapter, to still hold the logical positivists in higher regard than the later pragmatists. I find, like Misak, that Ramsey clearly found:

“Such realist (as opposed to realistic)
philosophies … not to his liking”

It’s why I’m here.]

2 thoughts on “Ramseyian Pragmatism”

  1. ‘Ramstein’. Cheeky. I’ve gone for less accurate but more patently absurd ‘Rammstein’.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.