Although he died at 26, Ramsey was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th centuryby Alex Dean / May 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Unless you have studied philosophy, maths or economics, it is unlikely you have heard of Frank Ramsey. And if you have, it is probably as a minor character in stories about his celebrated Cambridge philosophical contemporaries Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
That’s a shame. Even as a teenager Ramsey displayed a genius to rival these figures. He was Wittgenstein’s favourite intellectual sparring partner. GE Moore revered him. AJ Ayer, meanwhile, once said it was a great pity that Cambridge philosophers spent the 1930s “chewing over Wittgenstein when they ought to have been chewing over Ramsey.” And he was revolutionary not only in philosophy and maths, but also economics: Keynes found Ramsey’s criticisms devastating and agonised over how to answer them. This is all the more remarkable given that Ramsey died at the age of 26 from a mystery liver ailment.
Today there are professorships bearing his name not only at Cambridge but also at Harvard; there is even a Frank Ramsey medal. Even so, he should occupy a much more prominent place in the story of modern philosophy. Despite the posthumous publication in 2012 of a memoir written by his sister, Margaret Paul, there has never been a comprehensive biography—until now. In her important new work, Cheryl Misak, of the University of Toronto, finally gives Ramsey the consideration he deserves. Misak has access to previously unaired interviews with family members shared with her by documentary-maker Laurie Kahn, who had planned to write a thesis on Ramsey while a student. Her project is both to truly render the life of this little-known thinker and to put his work in its proper place.
As a child, Ramsey was something of a prodigy, even in the context of a gifted family—his brother Michael went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Arriving at Cambridge in 1920, he was described by Keynes as “far and away the most brilliant undergraduate who has appeared for many years in the border country between philosophy and mathematics.” Moore was so intimidated by his intellectual abilities that he was afraid to lecture to him. By his early twenties, Ramsey was a full fellow at King’s, and would…