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Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers

Cheryl Misak
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Frédéric Morneau-Guérin
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Frank Ramsey, the British mathematician, philosopher and economist, died on January 19, 1930 — just one month short of his 27th birthday —, presumably after contracting an infection while bathing in the River Cam. For people like him, whose genius is clear, an early death is likely to lead to the development of a myth about their life and work. For, as the author aptly points out, intellectuals also need heroes.

Cheryl Misak has done valuable work in producing the first biography of Frank Ramsey which is both comprehensive and detailed. Through meticulous documentary research (very well described in the preface), the biographer is able to lift the veil on some of the little-known aspects of Ramsey’s intellectual journey and remedy some of the erroneous or magnified perceptions of his life and work. Various excerpts from his correspondences allow us, for example, to put in context Ramsey’s depressive episode resulting from an impossible love.

Ramsey’s intellectual legacy, it must be said, is of exceptional scope and requires, in order to appreciate its breadth and innovative character, a certain familiarity with the work of his mentors: the economist John Maynard Keynes and the philosophers Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cheryl Misak has successfully met the challenge of inspiring her readers to take the next step — following Ramsey — toward the high peaks of abstract thought in analytical philosophy, mathematical logic, economics, and pure mathematics.

Misak’s expertise lies in philosophy and it is from this discipline that she approaches Frank Ramsey’s thinking. This is a fortunate choice since this discipline is probably the one that most appropriately allows us to see Ramsey’s work as a unified whole. The biographer has also made the wise choice to enlist the help of some of the most eminent scholars in some of the more technical aspects of Ramsey’s work. In all, some 20 contributors have produced short, specialized texts that complement this biography (otherwise accessible and comprehensible for the non-specialist). These will appeal to anyone interested in any of the various aspects of the work of the British mathematician, philosopher and economist.

Misak skillfully brings out what she considers to be a fundamental characteristic of Ramsey’s thinking, namely his “suspicion of anything indefinable or unanalyzable (p.115).” The author shows us that while many of the great thinkers among his contemporaries (including some of his own mentors such as Russell and Wittgenstein) were seeking the highest degree of logical purity, Ramsey, while equally interested in the subtle complexities of mathematical logic, was determined to stay away from metaphysical questions, indefinable concepts, and mystical solutions.

Ramsey’s economic thinking is also imbued with pragmatism. He did not hesitate to use abstract mathematics to shed light on certain issues in economics and he recognized the importance of avoiding a false sense of mathematical certainty about human issues. For “apart from laziness and woolliness,” the “chief danger to our philosophy,” he believed, “is scholasticism, the essence of which is treating what is vague as if it were precise and trying to fit it into an exact logical category (p.277).” The American economist Paul Samuelson, moreover, described Frank Ramsey’s economic legacy as a “substantive contribution [to the] theory of the feasible first best (p.312),” namely the search for the optimal solution within the constraints that characterize the world as it really is (as opposed to the world as we would like it to be).

Misak does not fail to point out that it is by trying to solve a particular case of a problem concerning the foundations of mathematics (a problem adequately, though somewhat summarily, placed by the biographer in the context that reveals its meaning) that Frank Ramsey has solidified his place in the history of pure mathematics. From a few pages of computations with a strong combinatorial flavour, under the impetus of a group of Hungarian mathematicians who have gone down in history, a far-reaching mathematical theory was born; the underlying principle of which is presented in a very luminous manner by the late Ronald Graham, who was himself one of the most eminent scholars and an ardent promoter of the theory derived from Frank Ramsey’s mathematical work.

Frédéric Morneau-Guérin is a professor in the Department of Education at Université TÉLUQ. He holds a Ph.D. in abstract harmonic analysis.