Russell and Ramsey

Ray Monk

  • Russell’s Idealist Apprenticeship by Nicholas Griffin
    Oxford, 409 pp, £45.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 19 824453 3
  • Philosophical Papers by F.P. Ramsey, edited by D.H. Mellor
    Cambridge, 257 pp, £30.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 521 37480 4
  • The Philosophy of F.P. Ramsey by Nils-Eric Sahlin
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £27.50, November 1990, ISBN 0 521 38543 1

It may surprise those who do not already know it that the world centre for the study of the life and work of Bertrand Russell is at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Shortly before he died Russell sold his vast collection of manuscripts and personal papers to McMaster for a huge sum of money in order to finance the various projects of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. The sale has proved fortunate, not only for the work of the Peace Foundation, but also for Russellian scholarship. For the Bertrand Russell Archives, established at McMaster under the leadership of Kenneth Blackwell, have made exemplary use of the material acquired for them.

Since 1983, the Archives have been publishing, at irregular intervals, volumes of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, which will ultimately comprise about fifty volumes and contain practically every short piece Russell ever wrote, including a great deal that has so far been unpublished. Volume I contains his youthful diaries, his undergraduate essays and the papers he wrote before becoming a fellow of Trinity, then the edition splits in two parts: Volumes II to XI containing his philosophical work, and Volume XII onwards his ethical, personal and political papers. As is often the case with this sort of multi-volume edition, the order in which the volumes have been published is somewhat erratic, but it is already clear that the series is a model of its kind – it is certainly the envy of anyone who has had to work on Wittgenstein’s Nachlass. Each volume has been skilfully edited and handsomely produced.

Sadly, this superb resource has up to now been greatly under-used by philosophers at British universities, among whom Russell’s work has not been much in vogue for a long time. The editors of the Collected Papers, therefore, have not only had to provide the source material for a close study of Russell’s work: they have also had to generate discussion of it themselves. This they (and others) do in Russell, the journal of the Archives, which comes out twice a year. In addition, there have now been two full-length studies of the work published in the Collected Papers, written by members of its editorial team. Two years ago we had Bertrand Russell: The Psychobiography of a Moralist by Andrew Brink, a lecturer in English at McMaster who helped to edit Volumes I and XII of the Collected Papers. This presented a Freudian analysis of the personal papers published in those volumes.

Nicholas Griffin’s Russell’s Idealist Apprenticeship has a similar genesis, although in terms of philosophical sophistication and scholarly meticulousness it is a much weightier proposition. Griffin is a philosophy professor at McMaster and was one of the editors of Volume I of the Collected Papers, and one of only two editors of Volume II, which presents for the first time the work that Russell did during his years as a Hegelian Idealist, between 1894 and 1898. The papers published in Volume II amply reward Griffin’s interest in them. They show the astonishing swiftness of Russell’s mind and his equally astonishing ability to write lucidly and at length on ideas that were quickly evolving, Griffin’s book presents, in a quite masterly fashion, a discussion of the development of these ideas, setting them in context and criticising them where appropriate. It is one of the finest works of philosophical scholarship I have ever read.

The period of Russell’s thought covered by Griffin has been ill served by commentators, not least Russell himself, who dismissed his work from this period briskly and unfairly in My Philosophical Development: he describes his fellowship dissertation of 1895 as ‘somewhat foolish’, his Hegelian essay of 1897 ‘On the Relations of Number and Quantity’ as ‘unmitigated rubbish’, and his work on the philosophy of physics from 1896 to 1898 as ‘complete nonsense’. Russell, though, is his own most unreliable critic, and his account of his intellectual development during the years covered by Griffin is particularly prone to exaggeration and distortion. Russell liked to present each change in his intellectual stance as a more or less sudden flash of insight. His story of how, as an undergraduate, he became an Idealist is a notable example. Having been persuaded by his tutor James Ward that the metaphysics of Idealism turned on the validity of the ontological argument, he was, so the story goes, in the middle of writing a paper for Ward criticising Descartes’s version of the ontological argument when he interrupted his work to buy some tobacco. On his way home he experienced a sudden conversion that threw him into a state of ecstasy. ‘Great God in boots, the ontological argument is sound!’ he cried and flung his tobacco tin in the air.

He also liked to present his development away from Idealism as a clean break, which occurred some time in 1898. At the end of that year he said, ‘Moore and I rebelled against both Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way, but I followed closely in his footsteps.’ Thanks to Moore, he could, he said, ‘rejoice in the thought that grass is really green, in spite of the adverse opinion of all philosophers from Locke onwards.’

These stories of Russell’s have been repeated many times and are now part of the folklore of 20th-century philosophy. It is one of the great merits of Griffin’s book that it replaces them with an account which, while certainly less dramatic, is more detailed, more coherent, more plausible and ultimately more interesting – a story not of sudden transformations but of a series of insights, not handed over by G.E. Moore, but won by Russell himself in the course of a sustained and productive engagement with some of the most intractable problems of abstract thought.

The centre of Griffin’s account and the thread that gives some kind of unity to Russell’s very varied output during these years is his struggle against the theory (which he inherited from Bradley and McTaggart) of internal relations, the characteristically Hegelian doctrine that all relations are between intrinsic properties For Griffin, part of Russell’s genius consists in the lengths to which he was prepared to take a theory in order to test it, which meant, therefore, that it was a struggle to supplant any theory tested in this way. Accordingly he first traces the labyrinthine paths into which Russell’s adherence to the theory of internal relations took him, and then presents the twists and turns that were necessary before he could abandon it.

Though his book is for the most part rigorously, not to say relentlessly philosophical Griffin devotes the first three chapters to an account of Russell’s life up to 1900 – though even here it is Russell’s intellectual development that primarily interests him. His first chapter presents a careful examination of Russell’s first efforts as a philosopher, the socalled ‘Greek Exercises’ written while he was still a teenager. The second chapter is given up to a description of Russell’s life at Cambridge between 1890 and 1894, while the third describes Russell’s personal life during the six years that form the subject of the rest of the book, 1894 to 1900. For Griffin, the progress in mathematics, logic and philosophy during these years represents Russell’s ‘greatest intellectual achievement’.

As he points out in the preface, Griffin leaves out of his account any discussion of Russell’s views on ethics and politics during these years. This is a pity, because not only did Russell publish much on politics during this time, including his analysis of Marxism in German Social Democracy, but – as Griffin acknowledges – Russell’s revolt against Hegelianism was heavily influenced by ethical considerations. His first public renunciation of the metaphysics of Idealism, the paper, ‘Seems madam? nay it is’, read to the Moral Sciences Club in 1897, presents an essentially ethical argument. Idealism is condemned as morally objectionable because it encourages thinkers to settle for comfortable doctrines rather than true ones. Griffin excuses himself for omitting any discussion of ethics and politics on the grounds that ‘neither the author’s nor the reader’s patience is endless.’ What does he mean – that there is only so much Russell that one should be expected to take?

The heart of the book (it forms almost a quarter of the total) is the long discussion of Russell’s work on geometry that makes up Chapter Four. The focal point is provided by An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, Russell’s first published book on philosophy and an expanded version of his fellowship thesis of 1895. Griffin’s exposition here is as detailed, clear and critical as one could wish for. Not only does he give a very thorough exposition of the book itself: he also sets it in context with an examination of the genesis of Russell’s interest in non-Euclidean geometries. So meticulously thorough is Griffin that at times the material seems to be cracking under the weight of the scholarship brought to bear upon it, as when, for example, he subjects Russell’s undergraduate paper on epistemology to painstakingly detailed critical scrutiny. On the other hand, this attention to detail pays off in his interesting attempt to reconstruct from the available evidence the differences between Russell’s lost fellowship thesis and the Essay. Much of this evidence has been published in Volume I of the Collected Papers – ‘Observations on Space and Geometry’, a previously unpublished draft of the thesis written in 1895, is of particular interest. Griffin makes good use of this and of the material collected in Volume II, using it, for example, to show how Russell responded to criticism of his theory of geometry from, among others, G.E. Moore and Henri Poincaré, who prompted him to provide his ‘axioms’ for projective geometry in 1899.

Griffin’s chapter on Russell’s philosophy of physics is somewhat schematic. What survives from Russell’s work is sketchy and, on the whole, supports his own denigration of it. But there is enough for Griffin to fill out what Russell said: that his views on physics changed from a point-atom theory (expressed, for example, in ‘Four Notes on Dynamics’, 1896) to a plenal theory: a theory that regards space as a continuum. The difficulty with such a view is dealt with in his 1897 paper ‘Motion in a Plenum’. It is doubtful whether in this case the work really merits this amount of attention For, as Griffin makes clear, Russell was always at least one step behind contemporary physical theory and his whole approach to these problems was swept aside after Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

The justification for retracing Russell’s tortuous steps through this subject must be to get a clearer picture of the thinking that was eventually (in 1903) to culminate in Principles of Mathematics. Griffin’s chapter on Russell’s work on pure mathematics is fascinating to anyone interested in the genesis and development of that great work. He begins with an analysis of the quantity view of mathematics, held by Russell until Whitehead’s Universal Algebra shook him out of it in 1898. Before that, Russell, always prolific, had got some way with his proposed book ‘On Quantity and Allied Conceptions: An Inquiry into the Subject-Matter of Mathematics’ (what survives from this aborted project can be studied in Volume II of Collected Papers). Griffin stresses the importance of Whitehead’s book, and, in particular, his notion of a ‘positional manifold’, to Russell’s development. Whitehead defined mathematics, not as the science of quantity, but as ‘all types of formal, necessary, deductive reasoning’.

After the abandonment of ‘On Quantity’, Russell began and abandoned no less than five different projects for a book on the foundations of mathematics before, finally, in 1900, his thoughts on the content and structure of Principles of Mathematics began to take shape. Of these the three most important are reprinted in Collected Papers, Volume II, and Book One of one of these projects was to have been called ‘Logic’. It was renamed ‘The Manifold’ in the light of Whitehead’s book, but logic was still its theme and it was here. Griffin shows, that Moore stepped into the picture. What Russell took from him – derived primarily from conversations but also from Moore’s paper, ‘The Nature of Judgment’ (published in 1899) – was Moore’s notion of a concept, which corresponds more or less to what Russell called (at this time and later in Principles of Mathematics) a ‘term’. The importance of this was that it provided an extensional notion upon which to found logical relations. Equipped with Whitehead’s notion of a manifold and Moore’s notion of a concept, Russell was ready to tackle the central plank in the logic he had been bequeathed by the neoHegelians: the doctrine of internal relations. A key paper (reprinted in Collected Papers, Volume II ) is ‘The Classification of Relations’, written in 1899. Finally, at the turn of the century, he emerged with a foundation upon which to build The Principles of Mathematics.

Griffin’s book ends here, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that one isn’t left with a feeling that it ends just when the interesting story begins. He finishes the book in schoolmasterly fashion, giving Russell’s early work a better report than it has had so far. It was, he says, ‘well up to the standards of the best British philosophical work of the day’. What he finds most admirable about it is ‘the way Russell unearths a single set of principles as responsible for problems which emerged in such a wide range of work, encompassing geometry, physics, psychology and pure mathematics’. ‘Few philosophers,’ he concludes, ‘have had such a good eye for fundamental unifying principles while conducting detailed investigations over such a wide range.’ It is a tribute that applies equally to Professor Griffin’s fine work.

A mathematician by training and profession, a philosopher by vocation, and an economist in his spare time, Frank Ramsey was blessed with an extraordinarily acute intelligence and an extremely likeable nature. Unfortunately for all those who knew him and for the intellectual history of the 20th century, he was also cursed with a chronic liver condition. He died in 1930 at the age of 26.

For someone who died so young, his list of achievements is nothing short of amazing. In pure mathematics, he is famous for two theorems about combinations which now form the starting-point for what is known as ‘Ramsey Theory’; in economics, he is acknowledged as providing the foundation for the theories of optimal taxation and optimal accumulation; in mathematical logic and the foundations of mathematics, his work is seen as a culmination of the logicist tradition founded by Frege and Russell; his theory of probability forms the basis of modern decision theory; and his work on the philosophy of science anticipates, by more than thirty years, the discussion by Thomas Kuhn of ‘incommensurability’. His more general philosophical work, his discussions of belief, knowledge and causality, is today the subject of a renewed and growing interest among philosophers.

A further claim to fame is that he was, at the age of 19, the first translator of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and also – as he demonstrated in the review he wrote for Mind – its most perceptive critic. When Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, he did so in order to work with Ramsey, who, for the last year of his life, acted as Wittgenstein’s supervisor, despite being 14 years his junior. The year they spent together was crucial for Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, and if Ramsey had lived a little longer, we can, I think, be sure that Wittgenstein’s later ideas would have taken a rather different form.

Ramsey’s intellect inspired respect and even awe, and his personality inspired a great and lasting affection. John Maynard Keynes – who held Ramsey’s gifts as an economist in enormously high regard – has written of his ‘bulky Johnsonian frame, his spontaneous gurgling laugh’ and ‘the simplicity of his feelings and reactions’, which, he said, blended ‘most harmoniously’ with ‘his honesty of mind and heart, his modesty, and the amazing, easy efficiency of the intellectual machine which ground away behind his wide temples and broad, smiling face’.

Apart from Keynes’s memoir, there is, considering the warmth with which he was regarded, curiously little published material that gives any impression of Ramsey’s life and personality. His last hours are described very movingly by Frances Partridge in her book Memories; some letters of his to his mother have been published (mainly because of the light they throw on Wittgenstein’s life in rural Austria in the mid-Twenties); and a group of his Cambridge friends contributed their recollections to a BBC radio programme put together by D.H. Mellor and broadcast in 1978.

He was born in Cambridge in 1903. His father was President of Magdalene College and his brother Michael became famous as Archbishop of Canterbury. Most of his short life was spent in Cambridge. After gaining a first in mathematics at Trinity in 1924, he was elected, at 21, to a fellowship of King’s and a university lectureship in mathematics – positions which he held until his death in 1930. His first published work dates from when he was 19. In 1922 he published three short pieces: a devastating critique of Keynes’s theory of probability, a discussion of the ‘Douglas Proposal’ for social credit, and a review of the second part of W.E. Johnson’s Logic. In the following year came his celebrated ‘Critical Notice’ of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Between 1925 and 1928 his work focused on what we now know to have been a doomed plan: to complete the work of Frege and Russell in successfully deriving the whole of mathematics from a few logical axioms. It was crucially important, he felt, that the achievements of the logicist tradition should be safeguarded from the ‘Bolshevik menace’ of the Intuitionist school led by Brouwer and Weyl. During this time he also published two papers in economics, ‘A Contribution to the Theory of Taxation’ (1927) and ‘A Mathematical Theory of Saving’ (1928). Keynes considered the latter ‘one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made’.

Alongside this work Ramsey was also engaged on a series of related philosophical problems to do with the analysis of belief, truth and scientific knowledge. Had this come to fruition, it seems likely that the result would have been a book of great depth, brilliance and lucidity, putting forward a pragmatist theory of knowledge in the tradition of C.S. Peirce. It would surely have been one of the most important works of 20th-century philosophy, and might even have helped to steer contemporary philosophy onto a more fruitful course.

Ramsey was a great philosopher who died before he could deliver his great work. And who really knows what direction his work would have taken? In the very last year of his life, his thoughts took a fresh and apparently fruitful turn when he abandoned logicism and embraced a finitist view of mathematics similar to that held by Weyl, one of the ‘Bolsheviks’ whose influence on mathematics he had previously feared. This conversion seems to have thrown his whole work into a state of creative flux, out of which came a series of brilliant papers which remained unpublished in his lifetime but which his friend Richard Braithwaite included in the collection of papers he edited immediately after Ramsey’s death.

Among these are the papers upon which Ramsey’s reputation as a philosopher now rests: ‘Theories’, ‘Knowledge’, ‘General Propositions and Causality’ and ‘Philosophy’. To this list must he added ‘Truth and Probability’, a paper written in 1926 which remained unfinished and unpublished at the time of his death but which is today regarded by many as his most significant contribution to philosophical thought.

In ‘Philosophy’, Ramsey provides a typically forthright statement of what he considers to be the aims of the subject and the methods appropriate to it. ‘Philosophy,’ he says, ‘must be of some use and we must take it seriously; it must clear our thoughts and so our actions.’ He identifies the chief danger to such an aim – ‘apart from laziness and woolliness’ – as scholasticism, and gives as a ‘typical piece of scholasticism’ Wittgenstein’s view that all our everyday propositions are completely in order and that it is impossible to think illogically. This last, he says, ‘is like saying that it is impossible to break the rules of bridge because if you do break them you are not playing bridge but, as Mrs C. says, not-bridge.’

He wrote this in 1929, the year when he and Wittgenstein were at their closest, when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge specifically to study with Ramsey. In the preface to Philosophical Investigations he paid handsome tribute to the stimulus he received from Ramsey’s criticisms, which, he says, helped him to realise the mistakes of the Tractatus. In his private diaries of the time, though, he was less generous, emphasising the differences between his way of thinking and Ramsey’s and, ultimately, dismissing Ramsey as a ‘bourgeois’ thinker uninterested in ‘real’ philosophical thinking. For his part, Ramsey once told Wittgenstein simply: ‘I don’t like your style of arguing.’ The majority of philosophers may be said to have followed Wittgenstein. D.H. Mellor for one, and Nils-Eric Sahlin for another, think that they would have been better advised to have followed Ramsey.

Philosophical Papers, edited by Mellor, is the third attempt to present Ramsey’s small but important corpus of work to the public. It is interesting to notice how each successive attempt has reflected the changing perception of where his importance lies. Richard Braithwaite’s collection of Ramsey’s papers. The Foundations of Mathematics, took its title from the paper for which Ramsey was at that time best known. In 1978 Braithwaite’s edition was replaced by a selection made by Mellor and published under the more general – and presumably, it was felt, more appetising – title Foundations: Essays in Philosophy, Logic, Mathematics and Economics. As the subtitle suggests, this edition sought to emphasise the range of Ramsey’s work by including (as Braithwaite had not) Ramsey’s economic essays. To make room for this extra material Mellor left out Ramsey’s review of the Tractatus, some ‘Further Considerations’ to his 1926 paper on probability, ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Epilogue’, the last being a kind of apologia that Ramsey read to the Apostles in 1925.

In making this latest selection. Professor Mellor has clearly reconsidered his earlier editorial decisions and, more or less, returned to Braithwaite’s original choices. The emphasis now is on making Ramsey’s work as accessible as possible, rather than on stressing its variety. Out, therefore, go the two papers on economics and the purely mathematical work, and back in come ‘Further Considerations’, ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Epilogue’ (but not, alas, the review of the Tractatus.) Of Ramsey’s purely mathematical work, there is – perhaps surprisingly, given that mathematics was, after all, his living – not very much. The first nine pages of ‘On a Problem of Formal Logic’, a paper on the Entscheidungsproblem in mathematical logic, constitute the only purely mathematical work he ever published. In Braithwaite’s collection, the whole paper was included; in the 1978 edition, only these nine pages; and in this latest edition it has been excluded altogether, condemned as ‘too technical’. Similarly, the economics papers are dismissed as ‘of no great philosophical interest’.

What this leaves are the five philosophical papers that Ramsey published in his lifetime between 1925 and 1928, together with ‘Truth and Probability’ (1926), its associated ‘Further Considerations’ (1928), and the papers mentioned earlier from the last year of his life, collected together in Braithwaite’s edition as ‘Last Papers’ (1929), but here scattered throughout the collection. There is, then, nothing in this new edition that has not been published previously. It is, to that extent, simply a reissue. There is, nevertheless, some attempt to give a new slant to the material, based on the editorial decisions made by Professor Mellor and, more explicitly, on the interpretations of Ramsey’s work offered by Nils-Eric Sahlin, whose study of Ramsey’s work is expressly designed to complement this new edition of Ramsey’s papers, and, in so doing, to replace the specialist introductions of the 1978 edition.

Until fairly recently it was generally agreed that Ramsey’s most outstanding contribution to philosophy was contained in his two early papers on the philosophy of mathematics: ‘The Foundations of Mathematics’ (1925) and ‘Mathematical Logic’ (1926). On the basis of the first of these, he acquired his reputation as the philosopher who brought to its culmination the logicist tradition, its last important defender before the death blow dealt it by Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof. Today, however, these papers are of more interest to the historian of ideas than to the philosopher of mathematics. They are a contribution to a battle that is no longer being fought. Their central philosophical thesis we now know to be provably false, and the technical innovations of the first paper, its attempts to repair the logical leaks in the system of Principia, have been largely ignored. The mathematical logic that is today taught to students of mathematics and philosophy is Russell filtered through Zermelo rather than through Ramsey.

So where does the interest of his work for present-day philosophy lie? A theme running through Mellor’s introduction is that the ideas of Ramsey, neglected at the time of their publication, have tended to anticipate recent work in philosophy. He refers in particular to the way Ramsey’s work anticipates that of Kuhn, Dummett, Nozick and D.K. Lewis. The paper he singles out as ‘the one from which we still have most to learn’ is ‘General Propositions and Causality’, one of the ‘Last Papers’, It deals with the distinction between a scientific law and a merely accidentally true generalisation, and provides, according to Mellor, ‘a starting-point for progress towards an adequate account of the relations between time, knowledge, action, causation and laws of nature’. He offers his own book, Real Time, as evidence that progress has indeed been made from this starting-point.

Nils-Eric Sahlin offers a rather different perspective. His book emphasises the importance of ‘Truth and Probability’, to which he devotes the first and largest chapter and which he represents as ‘a first and portentous step away from logic, mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics’. His exposition is detailed and enthusiastic, but whether it is any improvement on Ramsey’s own – whether it is any clearer or easier than Ramsey’s presentation – is doubtful.

The parts of Sahlin’s book which will probably be of most use to non-specialist students of Ramsey’s work are those where he is less expert. In his chapter on ‘Logic and Mathematics’, he explains many things which a reader coming to Ramsey’s papers for the first time might be grateful to have explained, such as Russell’s Theory of Types and what, exactly, is stated by the Axioms of Reducibility, Choice and Infinity.

Though the aim of his book is to supply an introduction to the papers published in this new edition of Ramsey’s work, he does devote two short and interesting chapters to discussions of the material that has been left out: one each on ‘Ramsey’s Theorem’ ( a discussion of the combinatorial theorems in the first part of ‘On a Problem in formal Logic’) and the economics papers. He also devotes a chapter, the last, to ‘Biographical Glimpses’, but confines himself to stating the facts in an almost comically dull fashion and to quoting at length from published sources. This is a pity, because he has gone through Ramsey’s letters and notes, and talked to Ramsey’s sister Margaret Paul, his daughter Jane Burch, and others who knew about the life. He could surely have written something more vivid, but he seems to have thought there would be something improper in doing so. He does not want Ramsey ‘to suffer the same biographical misrepresentation as Wittgenstein’.