Wittgenstein's master

The genius who died at 26
January 23, 2013

Frank Ramsey in 1921: Ramsey was friends with Keynes, supervised Wittgenstein's PhD thesis and made breakthroughs in maths, economics and philosophy

Frank Ramsey: A Sister’s Memoirby Margaret Paul (Smith-Gordon, £20)

Frank Ramsey was 26 years old when he died after an operation at Guy’s Hospital in January 1930. In his short life, he had made lasting contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy, and to the thinking of a number of his contemporaries, including Ludwig Wittgenstein.

When I taught at St Anne’s, Oxford during the 1980s, I was introduced by my colleague Gabriele Taylor to Ramsey’s sister, Margaret Paul, by then retired from teaching economics at Lady Margaret Hall college. As with anyone with some knowledge of the fields of enquiry Ramsey influenced, I was immediately recruited into helping with her research into his life and thought, though in a minor capacity; she had a formidable array of other helpers besides, from eminent philosophers like Taylor and PF Strawson onwards.

Frank Ramsey was 18 when Margaret was born, so her own memories of him were those of a little girl. A large part of her motivation in writing about him was to get to know him. In this quest she was equally tireless and scrupulous. Most aspects of his work require advanced technical competence, but she was determined to understand them; an afternoon at her house talking about him could be as gruelling as it was educative.

Her memoir has now been published. It is a remarkable book, a window not just into a prodigious mind—Ramsey translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as a second year Trinity undergraduate, simultaneously publishing original work in probability theory and economics—but into the amazingly rich intellectual world of his day. The book’s roll-call includes John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and Wittgenstein, and the mise-en-scène equals it: Ramsey’s father was president of Magdalene college at Cambridge, his famously bushy-eyebrowed brother, Michael, later became Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ramsey himself, after scholarships at Winchester and Trinity, became a fellow of King’s, aged 21.

Suffering unrequited love for a married woman drove Ramsey to Vienna to be psychoanalysed by one of Freud’s pupils. It was there that he met Wittgenstein, spending hours every day in conversation with him, and later helping Keynes to bring him back to Cambridge. In the last year of his life, the 26-year-old Ramsey was the 40-year-old Wittgenstein’s nominal PhD thesis supervisor, the thesis being the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus itself.

Margaret Paul has traced the brief days of Ramsey’s life with assiduity, much helped by his copious correspondence and the memories of those who were still alive when she was conducting her research and whom, therefore, she could interrogate. Even if she had written little about his work, her portrait of him and his world would by itself be fascinating—to talk of Ramsey is to talk of an extraordinary time in the history of intellect.

But she describes Ramsey’s work, too. To philosophy he gave a first version of the “redundancy” theory of truth, stating that to describe a statement as true is merely equivalent to asserting it, so that predicating “is true” of an assertion is strictly otiose. So to say “'Europe is a continent' is true,” is equivalent to simply saying “Europe is a continent.” This in turn means that “true” does not denote a substantive property of utterances. Although it sounds simple, redundancy theory went on to have a huge impact on formal logic and epistemology.

To economics Ramsey contributed important ideas on probability theory, taxation, and economic growth and saving. This work was described by Keynes as “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made, both in intrinsic importance and difficulty of its subject.”

To mathematics itself Ramsey gave the theorem from which the field known as Ramsey Theory stems. This explores how order emerges from combinations of objects. A simple example of this intricate and powerful field is the “party problem,” which asks: what is the smallest number of invitees to a party such that at least some of them will know each other and some of them will not know each other?

As Ramsey’s work shows, each of his contributions has given rise to spreading fields of enquiry. There are now several redundancy-style theories of truth; his work on probability inspired John von Neumann’s discoveries in game theory; the Ramsey-Cass-Koopmans mathematical model shows how an economy can maximise its potential, and there is more besides.

In the autumn of 1929 Ramsey suddenly developed liver failure and had an operation at Guy’s, it being thought that a gall bladder blockage was causing his jaundice. The operation revealed a long-standing condition affecting his liver and kidneys, and he died a few days after the operation, not knowing that he was in mortal danger.

His loss was a tragedy, not only to his family and friends but, as his sister’s luminous and absorbing account shows, to the progress of the human mind. Frank Ramseys do not often come our way.

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