1 May, 2020 • • 43.2BiographyPhilosophy

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The Deflationary Truth

Michael Bevan

Cheryl Misak
Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers
Oxford University Press

It might sound like faint praise to commend the fact that this book begins with Frank Ramsey’s birth and ends with his death. But in writing the biography of a short life, one suspects an author must feel very tempted to console at a length beyond what the life had space to contain; the question of what might have been ‘looms large’, as Misak notes, and though she gives it its due space, she never allows it to undermine the richness of what was. Such levelheadedness is especially appropriate in discussing Ramsey—‘Frank’, as Misak refers to him in the context of his personal life—who emerges from this study as an impossibly able, rather admirable, but most importantly very down-to-earth sort of person. Having established himself before the age of thirty as one of the most significant figures of both early analytic and modern British philosophy—not to mention 20th century economics and mathematics—the theme of Ramsey’s ordinariness is one of the more satisfyingly developed themes of the book, which might be seen as something of an antidote to the more familiar awe-struck style of philosophical biography. This idea of seeing Ramsey’s life as counterpoint to our grand idea of the philosophical life, and thus Misak’s study as a counterpoint to the biographical norm, is self-conscious. Not halfway through the preface we find the following:

Ramsey was the antithesis of the kind of figure with which this label [genius] is often associated. He was not an enigmatic, cult-encouraging eccentric. He was that rarity among so-called geniuses—genial, open, and modest.

The ribbing allusion to You-Know-Who sets the tone for the book generally, as well as for the portrayal of many of Ramsey’s personal relationships. Not only with Wittgenstein, but with the other eccentrics he encounters, Ramsey’s extra-philosophical virtues emerge for us by contrast: others seem to make every effort to be some variation of interesting, authentic, or whatever—see for example C. K. Ogden in the figure of a nocturnal dandy, W. J. H. Sprott as caped and peripheral Bloomsburyan, or Geoff Pyke as sometime educational reformer and international man of mystery. Ramsey, for his part, appears both interesting and authentic without much of the associated fuss. We might say, appropriating his own phrase, that his virtue throughout is to draw stars in perspective.

Thankfully, this contrast is never made absolute. Indeed, in places one gets the impression that Ramsey’s quiet sanity obtained despite himself (see the self-imposed stint of psychoanalysis in Vienna following a bout of unrequited love for Mrs. Pyke, or the later, rather unhappy attempt at an open marriage); in general, Misak does not seem to be constructing for us an Anti-Wittgenstein—a figure equally ideal in his ease as his counterpart was in agitation. That sort of project would anyway have been self-defeating; if Ramsey’s example is to serve as corrective to puffed-up ideas surrounding philosophical lives and the wizards who ought to live them, then he cannot be cast as just a sage of a different sort. And indeed, rather than idealising him in some novel direction, Misak’s project conveys the welcome message that, besides being very clever, Ramsey was also very normal. This is enough by itself to distinguish him, without requiring that he also shed the kinds of weakness and struggle the rest of us also shoulder. So between lengthy discussions of his work on the paper ‘Truth and Probability’ and his trailblazing work in economics for example, we find a tender account him and his wife Lettice trying to make-do within the painful circumstances surrounding the sudden death of his mother Agnes—moving back into the family house, stepping in as surrogate parents to his young sister Margret, dealing with his increasingly distant and difficult father Arthur—as well as within the already-mentioned, emotionally turbulent arrangement the two had regarding marital fidelity. Earlier, between being elected to the Cambridge Apostles, fundamentally challenging Keynes on probability, and being invited by Ogden to take on the task of translating the Tractatus while only a final year undergraduate, we find him in his diaries chewing through teenage worries about being too behind on sex and whether he wasn’t masturbating too much. In all, we do not tend to lose sight of Frank the man in favour of some fantastical Ramsey, and that willingness to give him the space to be broken and ordinary allows his greatness to be seen all the more clearly. The candidness also makes the read all the more enjoyable.


It seems to me that two factors have allowed Misak the freedom to follow this theme. The first is the bare-faced fact that Ramsey was a philosophical genius of the first rank, and that the people who ought to know it do. Misak says this enough; more remarkable is one of the ways that she shows it. The ‘guest boxes’ scattered throughout are not something I have seen before, and they serve as both a helpful expository aid, and as testament to the significance of Ramsey’s work. In these, academics working in those field to which Ramsey contributed chime in, usually for two or three pages at a time, to either explain the technicalities, or the afterlife, of one or another aspect of his work. There is a strong cast assembled here, including Timothy Williamson among the philosophers, discussing Ramsey’s early advocacy of necessitism (Williamson’s own view, which says that it is absolutely necessary what things there are); Ronald Graham among the mathematicians, discussing the later development of Ramsey theory within combinatorics; and Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus Partha Dasgupta among the economists, discussing Ramsey’s treatment of utility theory and optimal saving. This would seem an innovation born of necessity, given the breadth of Ramsey’s competence, for any biography that would attempt to do more than scratch the surface of his life and thought. But Misak deserves praise both for the superb execution of this part of the book and, moreover, credit for attempting it. For necessary as it might be, it has taken a hundred years for someone to consider this tack.

Indeed—and this takes us to the second factor—in completing this book, Misak has given us Ramsey’s first full biography. The only thing to come close previously was the memoir written by his sister Margret Paul (A Sister’s Memoir, Smith-Gordon & Co Ltd). But that was only published eight years ago. So for nearly a hundred years, Ramsey has been without a substantial character study. The canvas remains largely blank. Now, the following might seem a more nebulous point, but it is one I think worth making. Philosophers all have a certain sort of picture of Russell in their minds, and certainly of Wittgenstein. Mathematicians seem to have something similar for Hardy and, though I cannot speak for economists, I can only imagine that they have a similar sort of thing for Keynes. By ‘certain sort of picture’ I mean something like a silhouette: a broad-stroke impression of what they were like when they were at home. Something which has all the marks of a parody, yet which is held in a spirit of sincerity—most importantly, of deference. Russell, always the wise but smug and randy old rake; Wittgenstein, always the borderline psychotic oracle; Frege, always the bearded and angry nazi. Of Ramsey, we seem only to picture that he was always very clever and, tragically, always very young. Indeed, perhaps he was spared a caricature because we never got to know him very well. I say ‘spared’ because such a thing, so presumptuous of a person while yet lacking in detail, open to interpretation, and subject to imitation, is far more capable of doing harm than good—both to the person’s memory and to those who would remember them.

After all, receiving such a caricature is the sort of thing that happens to figures at or near the head of a tradition—the greats. Traditions (after all) will look to their founders to provide cases to emulate, in work, but also in life and temperament. Over time, such cases degenerate, and we are left with our caricatures. Setting aside the mathematicians and economists for one moment, for analytic philosophers, our founders are Russell, Frege, Wittgenstein, and Moore. Perhaps besides Moore, these are not people you should actually want to be like. The problem is that lots of people want to be great themselves, and sometimes think that they must be like greats in order to have a chance. So they take on a ‘Wittgensteinian’ quirkiness, or a ‘Russellian’ lordliness—or worse, a Fregean beard. Undergraduates are the most obvious at this game, but graduate students are only slightly less-so, and I suspect that this sort of hero-worship is resilient enough in intellectual crowds to survive more-or-less silently long into working life, and long after it has ceased to be fun. Thus, it may be precisely because he was a genius spared the brunt of the spotlight that Ramsey’s biography can serve all of us as an antidote to that usual academic practice of mistaking oddballs for role-models.

But anyway, those are the two factors that have allowed Misak her theme. Had either obtained without the other, there would have been far less point. Had Ramsey not been so biographically neglected in the last century, then there might have already been too much said about him, and so too much of an entrenched aura, to allow Misak’s theme the space to take root. On the other hand, had he been any less than the genius that he was, there would have been little interest in Misak’s revealing him to be so like the rest of us. That is to say, as a subject for intellectual biography, he would have been boring. As it is though, Ramsey has always been a philosopher’s philosopher, both in the sense of his status of reverence among experts and his relative obscurity to the general reader. And his genius, plus the lack of precedent regarding his portrait, allows Misak to paint hers with our attention, but without our interruption.


As already mentioned, there can be a lot of awe in biography—and especially when it comes to the lives of philosophers. We have already hinted at one reason why this is, in general, a bad thing: too much awe in the sense of reverence for a person can turn them into a caricature. And caricatures harm both the memory of their subjects and, too often, the temperaments of their inheritors. But ‘awe’ is a more general term than reverence (which is always positive), and so its excess can be detrimental for reasons besides those concerning the excesses of reverence mentioned already. For though awe often leads to positive evaluation, it is equally possible for someone to be inappropriately in awe of something they dislike—we see this especially in melodramatic attitudes, insofar as they result in deferential responses to misfortunes and set-backs in a way that is out-of-proportion. In fact, one need not even think that the object of one’s awe is real; even the meanest parody of a nihilist may be so precisely because of an overly-awed view of (say) morality. In such a case, an overly exalted idea of what the world would have to be like for morality to exist may cause one to raise their expectations of the world to such a level that nothing—not even moral reality—may reach it. We may fail to recognise our heroes if we expect them to be taller.

In other words, there are two further dangers to an excess of awe in biography. The first is in melodrama, and the second is in a kind of nihilism. It is to Misak’s testament that she has been able to avoid both, through generally avoiding an excess of awe, with respect to a figure whose life and especially death might easily have inspired a great deal of both.

With respect to condemning ‘melodrama’, I am not suggesting that Ramsey’s death ought to be viewed with any kind of jadedness. That would border on the puerile, not least for betraying a deeper excess of awe concerning what something ‘ought to be’ in order to be considered tragic. Rather, I think that Ramsey’s death is probably among the greatest tragedies to befall British philosophy, and it is precisely when we are faced with such tragedy that we must take the most care not to slip into the melodramatic. Because the melodramatic is also puerile; it distorts by inflating what is really there into something that is not, thereby undermining the sufficiency of the reality to inspire appropriate lament or regret. But, for example, Ramsey’s death does not owe its tragedy to some unfulfilled promise of what he might have given us next. All-too-often, this is the kind of thought which attaches to the death of a young talent, and to make too much of it demotes so much else of what is truly awful: in this case, how sudden and seemingly avoidable it was, and how little of his own life this rather pleasant and modest man was allowed to live.

It’s also an unstable foundation for grief. In the middle of her sensitive discussion of the immediate mourning surrounding Ramsey’s death, Misak raises the comparison of Ramsey to Hume. This is one drawn by Keynes, whom Misak quotes at the start of the following passage.

‘Ramsey reminds one of Hume more than anyone else, particularly in his common sense and sort of hard headed-practicality.’ The similarities are indeed striking, despite the two centuries between these two great naturalist philosophers. Hume and Ramsey both resisted scepticism by turning their backs on the quest for certainty. They both made their major contributions to philosophy by the age of twenty-seven and extended their intellectual reach into economics. Both were clever wits, with large girths. They were also atheists, able to turn their humour on religion, and unafraid of a godless death. They both enjoyed life, while also being susceptible to the low spirits that come from trying to think hard about fundamental questions.

The point about age, though made in passing, is crucial—on this, Misak might also have noted the case of Kurt Gödel, Ramsey’s junior by three years, who, had he died at twenty-six (i.e. the same age as Ramsey), would still have left us his greatest contributions to logic: the completeness of the first-order predicate calculus, as well as both incompleteness theorems. When Misak hints at Ramsey’s age, I take it that it is not meant to undermine the likelihood that Ramsey would have gone on to give philosophy further substantial contributions, rather than ‘peaking early’ (which at any rate, certainly cannot be said of Hume, or of Gödel). Rather, it can serve to demonstrate to us this instability: does the possibility that Ramsey might actually have managed to make his most important contributions before his death lessen its tragedy? Of course not. We cannot assume we were robbed of a vision of Ramsey at his prime. And to think that such might have been be the chief tragedy of his death is to have lost perspective—to have lapsed into melodrama. He was suddenly and needlessly taken, leaving behind two young children, a wife, a family, many dear friends, besides a community of colleagues and admirers that persists down to today. That ought to be robbery enough.

We move from melodrama to nihilism, to end on a happier note. From what we have said already, it should not be too much of a surprise that both of these can exist at once: both can result from excesses of awe—melodrama as a loss of perspective on tragedy, nihilism as an over-inflation of expectation. And an excess of awe towards Ramsey’s unfulfilled potential might have resulted in both. It might have resulted in melodrama of the sort just discussed, by elevating said potential to a place of greater importance than the man himself, and it might have resulted in a kind of inflated expectation of what worthy successors of Ramsey—people capable of fulfilling that potential in his stead—would have to be like to exist. Such would then leave us an image of not only a potential which Ramsey was rendered unable to fulfil, but of a potential which no one should now ever hope to fulfil. In other words, the backside of over-valorising the subject in biography is that ordinary human beings are suddenly seen as incapable of inheriting their legacy. (This is just a consequence of the fact that to make the past into an age of heroes is almost unavoidably to make the present into an age of decay). To the extent that Misak has avoided this, by avoiding such valorisation, she has been able, besides offering a detailed and compelling account of Ramsey’s life, to make us feel as if we are of the same species as Ramsey—even if his contemporaries were occasionally less than sure. The possibility is then left open that mere humans might yet be capable of following him and, importantly, without needing to posture as an eccentric, a character, or anything like that. He did not need to be unearthly to be great and, therefore, neither do we.


Michael Bevan is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Magdalen College.