SHADOWS OF AN ALTERNATIVE PRESENT
Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers
by Cheryl Misak
© Nora Grant
Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers
by Cheryl Misak (OUP, 2019)
Reviewed by Matthew McKeever
It’s the 20th year of the century. The world is in chaos: Europe is knitted together by financial obligations that seem to benefit few and hurt many, a fact that has led to nationalism, protectionism, and the discrediting of the laissez-faire liberal ideology that formerly reigned. Neither Washington nor Moscow stalks the world as it could, given their respective huge amount of resources. Britain is labouring under the illusion that it remains special, that its glory days aren’t in the past. There’s a global pandemic around.
It’s not all bad. Technology has removed the need for much rote work, created time for leisure, and partially made the world smaller. Sex is still sex, and people still like doing it and talking about it, even if in ways their parents would blush at. And philosophy is still philosophy, concerned with perennial problems about how the world and how we, its observers, relate to each other.
You get the conceit: I could be talking about 2020 or about 1920. About the Versailles treaty or about the Euro, about the waxing or subsequent waning of the US and Russia, about the steam engine or the computer, Spanish flu or COVID-19, or – in ways I’ll get to in more detail – about early 20th and early 21st century philosophy.
I labour the point because the latent question behind Cheryl Misak’s new biography of Frank Ramsey is historical. What would the history of 20th century philosophy have been like had Ramsey, who “went up” to start his undergraduate degree in Cambridge in 1920, made the mark on it he so clearly could have?
The reason he didn’t is because he died at 26, from a liver illness whose nature is still unclear. He is the fitting subject of a biography because before that he had: 1) translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus from German to English, 2) defended pragmatism, the idea that the core ideas of philosophy are illuminated by how they help us do what we want to do, 3) made fundamental contributions to the theory of probability, 4) introduced – in 8 pages on his way to proving something else – a new branch of mathematics, and 5) made two contributions to neoclassical economic theory, about savings and taxation, that remain at the foundations of their respective subfields. And that’s a non-exhaustive list.
I can’t hope, of course, to discuss all this. Read Misak first, and then read Ramsey (and then read the philosophers, economists, and mathematicians who followed him). What I’ll do in this review is concentrate on one set of philosophical problems Ramsey was concerned with, to do with truth and probability, which are both of intrinsic importance in the history of philosophy but which remain, much translated and refined, central concerns of analytic philosophers today, before considering the tantalising question about what philosophy could have been had Ramsey lived.
Before doing that, though, let me discuss the book itself a bit more. You might quite reasonably be concerned that if he was so prolific, and died so young, there wouldn’t be much to say about him as a person. How much life is there in this biography?
Invidious comparisons are definitely nearby. Misak’s book will sit alongside the rightly lauded biographies of Ray Monk of Wittgenstein and Russell, and Robert Skidelsky’s three volumes on their contemporary Keynes. And Ramsey’s life wasn’t as interesting as these three. It lacks some of the intrigue of the massively annoying Wittgenstein, who came from a family of suicidal Austrian millionaires and wrote his first book in the trenches of the First World War, or of Russell, who was imprisoned for not supporting that same war; or of Keynes, who, in what surely must be one of the most acute predictions all of time, saw early and tried to convince the powers that be that the Versailles treaty wasn’t going to lead to peace in Europe.
But if it lacks world historical events, Ramsey’s life, and Misak’s telling of it, has plenty of the existential bread and butter that we’re all interested in: sex and death. In addition to his tragically young death, Ramsey moved in the Bloomsbury circle and suffered much unhappiness in his early twenties as a result of his sexual inexperience (compared with the median Bloomsburyite, most of us would). When he later found love, under the shade of Bloomsbury’s polyamorous prescriptions, his marriage was an open one and, reading the problems he and his wife, Lettice, had, is like nothing so much as reading a click-baity Vice columnist, or a redditships post about polyamory and the problems of compersion.
Misak is an extremely gifted describer of all this. There’s something almost Tolstoy-like about the way she presents her protagonist, quoting again and again from letters describing him, descriptions that hammer home his presence: his great size and massive laugh and niceness: “a large sort of wooly bear” (150), “the least malicious person I’ve ever known” (193), “a large untidy man … with a winning smile” (197), his “round, cheerful face” (199) and “guffaws of a hippopotamus” (251), his “ungainly frame” and “broad Slavonic face always … ready to break into wide smile” (252).
I could continue, but won’t: the point is this multi-angular portrait makes Ramsey vivid in the mind’s eye, which makes all the more poignant the final moments of his life, where he, the man of such presence and laughter, is “behind [a] screen”, his liver mysteriously destroyed, his laughter or soft eloquence replaced by “laboured breathing and” – for some reason this detail gets me – “hiccups” (419).
In addition to being a keen observer, or rather a keen collator of others’ observations, Misak also succeeds greatly in giving us the whole range of Ramsey’s thought. As well as all the philosophy, which Misak, a philosophy professor who specialises in pragmatism, is well-suited to explain, Ramsey made other contributions, and to explain them she calls in help from experts in economics and mathematics and even, modestly, in philosophy. These experts provide page-long explainer boxes that are impressively difficult, giving the reader much to chew on and terms and ideas to Google if they want to dive deeper. In sum, then, both intellectually and personally, Misak gives us a readable Ramsey. Let’s now take a look at one aspect of Ramsey’s thought that was particularly influential and remains so.
IF WE'RE DOING LOGIC, ONE OF THE THINGS WE ARE CONCERNED WITH IS TRUTH: A GOOD LOGICAL ARGUMENT, AFTER ALL, IS "TRUTH-PRESERVING" IN THE SENSE THAT IF ITS PREMISES ARE TRUE ITS CONCLUSION MUST BE
In order to tell our story, a bit of background is necessary. Around the turn of the century first-order logic developed. This was a logic apt for representing symbolically sentences such as “Somebody loves everybody” which, for interesting reasons that would take us too far afield, were thought to have thwarted analysis for millennia.
Out of that logic, sentential logic can be extracted. It is concerned with the representation of, and logical relation between, sentences (and so not with the behaviour of sub-sentential expressions like “Everybody”). It gives us ways of representing, in particular, sentential connectives like negation (it’s not the case that p) and disjunction (p or q), and gives us ways of deriving sentences from others which logically imply them (such as p or q from p).
Most of the details don’t matter, but it’s fair to say that much of what was interesting about the philosophy of the era – its analysis of the foundations of mathematics, Russell’s theory of descriptions – depended on this new logic. Developments in logic lead to developments in deep and old philosophical questions.
One of the questions these developments in logic opened up was to do with truth. If we’re doing logic, one of the things we are concerned with is truth: a good logical argument, after all, is “truth-preserving” in the sense that if its premises are true its conclusion must be. But what is it for one of our now perspicuously represented sentences to be true?
Well, you might think, that’s not so hard. Let’s de-abstract a bit, and consider the sentence “Ume is eating a chewie”. It is true. The sentence “Ume is eating muesli” is false. What is it that makes one true and the other false?
© Nora Grant
“Reality” seems like an obvious answer. I go into the other room, and there’s a canine-shaped bit of reality, and a chewie is in the mix, but muesli isn’t. My first sentence corresponds to a bit of reality; my second doesn’t. Truth is correspondence to reality.
But the devil’s in the details, and the details are far from easy. The Cambridge of the 1920s was much concerned with the question of truth. Misak quotes Ramsey telling us that it’s such a difficult problem that Russell changed his mind about it four times between 1904 and 1925 (384); it was trying to get this right that distracted Wittgenstein in the trenches.
To see this, turn back to our logic. It gives us ways of reasoning from “Ume is eating a chewie” to “Ume is eating a chewie or eating muesli”. But what does the disjunctive sentence “Ume is eating a chewie or Ume is eating muesli” correspond to? Are there, in addition to canine-shaped bits of reality we can point to and see and hear, also disjunctive facts out there in the world? Think about “Ume is not eating muesli”. What does it correspond to? Are there negative facts? Think about “Every dog likes chewies”. What does it correspond to? Not, surely, to some conglomeration of all the caniney bits of reality currently existing – I intend my sentence to apply to all dogs past, present, and future. It goes beyond reality, and so seemingly its truth (were it true) wouldn’t be a question of correspondence to reality.
It seems that our correspondence principle has problems: we can’t find bits of reality apt to correspond to a variety of sentences. This is a serious problem that Ramsey was much concerned with; he thought the failure of the Tractatus to account for this undermined it, and said as much in a critical review written in 1923. Conversations throughout the 1920s, on Misak’s telling, were instrumental in moving Wittgenstein from his early to his late period.
Helping to convince the pig-headed Wittgenstein of anything is an impressive achievement, if a negative one. But tackling these problems also led to hugely influential positive views that reach beyond philosophy to include economics, mathematics, and psychology.
To see this, consider: “It’s somewhat likely that Biden will be elected president”. I believe this. But I also believe that “it’s somewhat likely that Trump will be elected president”. And I know if that Biden is elected, Trump won’t be, and vice versa. Am I not contradicting myself?
It’s clear I’m not, but we need to say why, and to do that we need to present a theory and logic of partial belief: of unsureness, or varying degrees of confidence, of hedging. Ramsey did it, not only providing a beautiful formal theory still more or less accepted today, but also providing a big picture philosophical outlook that motivates the theory.
Let’s return to disjunction. We can look out into the world and look for disjunctive facts. But we can also look to us, to why we have disjunctions, what role they play in our navigating the world. This was Ramsey’s pragmatist move.
To see this, consider another example. Imagine I believe that the First World War ended in 1918, but the only thing I know about when it started was that the year was some multiple of seven in the 20th century (say, because I remember it being an odd fact that most wars began in years that were multiples of seven), and so I know it started either in 1907 or in 1914, and I say “WW1 started in 1907 or WW1 started in 1914”.
I say such things because I’m not sure which is true; I think they are both possible. But maybe I think one is more likely: I think that 11 years seems like a long time for a war, so I think it’s more likely than it began in 1914. I could even quantify it – I might say I’m 70% confident it began in 1914.
This is all, I hope you’ll agree, perfectly sensical everyday talk. But at least two questions arise. First, we can ask again the correspondence question: what in the world does “I am 70% confident the war began in 1914” correspond to? And second, we can ask the logical question: if a set of full beliefs should obey the laws of logic to be consistent (so it should obey the law of non-contradiction, according to which, for any sentence s, either s is true, or s is false), what sort of laws should a set of partial beliefs obey?
Ramsey not only demolished influential extant answers to the first question (as a 19 year old undergraduate!), but also proposed answers to both that, to this day, remain popular. But more than that, in answering these questions he brought to the forefront the pragmatist approach to philosophy, which was to remain very influential throughout the 20th century.
So, first, what are these partial beliefs that our sentences like the above correspond to? Ramsey’s answer is that they are linked to behaviour. To be 70% confident in something is to take a particular practical stance on the world that differs from 40% or from 10% confidence and that manifests in certain types of behaviour. One particularly straightforward such behaviour is betting behaviour.
Getting into all the details is too much, but I hope you agree that if you had a spare £100 and someone offered you odds of 1000-1 that the war began in 1914, and you were 70% confident that it did, you would take the bet. You must! You’re pretty confident that it’s true and could win £100,000! By contrast, if you were less confident, you’d require greater odds, and if you were more confident you’d settle with less good odds. Partial beliefs are attributed to someone if they behave in a certain way: this insight was Ramsey’s (though the relation between behaviour and belief was in the air), and remains very popular today.
Interestingly, the second question, about the laws of partial belief, can also be approached from the angle of betting. There are a set of mathematical laws of probability theory. Ramsey showed, or at least purported to show (others have shown it), that if your beliefs fail to obey these laws, then one can be talked into a series of bets that will invariably lose you money. Again, details are too much: the main point is that the relatively meagre set of constraints furnished by probability theory yield an adequate, behaviour-based logic of partial belief, a theory that remains influential to this day.
PARTIAL BELIEF GOVERNS OUR LIVES, IN WAYS BIG AND SMALL, EVEN IF WE NEVER SET FOOT IN, OR LOG ONTO, A SITE WHERE BETTING HAPPENS.
That’s all very well, you might think, but is it important? Should we care so much about how p or q is true or about the nature of partial belief? It might seem a bit recondite and divorced from everyday concerns.
But in fact this isn’t so. Partial belief governs our lives, in ways big and small, even if we never set foot, in or log on to, a site where betting happens. When we decide that we can’t face another plate of homemade pasta and order takeaway this summer, even though the cook and the delivery driver have of necessity been less socially distanced than us, we deal in partial beliefs. We think it’s unlikely that they’ll have Covid-19 and we really want the pizza, so we make the call. If we thought it more likely they had the virus, we’d boil the kettle and grouchily chop the onions.
For another example, it’s arguably a terrible feature of social media that it doesn’t allow us to express uncertainty. On Twitter, say, we can’t express that we’re “80% sure” that something is true because that eats up valuable characters, so we just say the thing (most people, of course, don’t go around explicitly quantifying their beliefs like that, but they do as much with pausing, gestures, and umms and ahhs that online communication can’t really capture). Nuance gets edited out and false certainty prevails, in ways that don’t seem to be going so great for humanity at the moment.
We are creatures of uncertainty, and Ramsey helped us understand, at the most abstract level, what that means, and thus helped us understand what we are and how we (fail to) navigate the uncertain world of today.
WE ARE CREATURES OF
UNCERTAINTY, AND RAMSEY
HELPED US UNDERSTAND, AT
THE MOST ABSTRACT LEVEL,
WHAT THAT MEANS
But let’s turn our attention back, from pizza and Twitter, to the history of analytic philosophy. Ramsey died, but not before having planted a flag for pragmatism, for suggesting we not scour the world for some fact that p or q might correspond to, but instead attend to the behaviours we exhibit when we doubt which of two options is the right one. The flag was carried by Wittgenstein who went on to be the philosopher at Cambridge until around mid-century, producing a band of acolytes, and his gnomic Philosophical Investigations.
Wittgenstein died, and around the same time there was a revolution in logic secondary to the one ushered in by Frege, Russell and, indeed, Ramsey, spearheaded by Ruth Barcan Marcus and Saul Kripke. Much of later 20th century philosophy has been building on the problems bequeathed to us by that modal (or “intensional”) logic.
But modal logic has correspondence problems of its own. We wanted a fact to correspond to negative beliefs. A related problem is that we want two facts to correspond to two different (for example) mathematical truths. Modal logic doesn’t always give us that: speaking roughly, the facts (the “possible worlds”) that “2+2=4” pick out and the facts that “2+2=4 or snow is blue” pick out are one and the same.
In response, all the rage today is so-called hyperintensional logic and metaphysics, which attempts to get the correspondence facts right for our modal logic. This leads to a sort of philosophy many mock as scholastic and recondite, divorced from our capacity as thinkers and actors.
Misak gives us the tools to imagine an alternative present for philosophy. Imagine Ramsey not tragically dying, ruling the roost at Cambridge, his superior intellect and better personality consigning Wittgenstein to oblivion. When Kripke comes along and makes logical metaphysics respectable again, an aging Ramsey, more than able to go toe-to-toe with the new logical prodigy, turns philosophers’ attention back from the possible worlds to us, to what we do with language.
We can’t say, of course, how this imagined clash of titans would have gone. But it’s one of the many merits of Misak’s thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and highly readable book that we can pose the question of how 20th century philosophy would look had Ramsey’s excess of powers not been so cut short, and think about analytic philosophy’s alternative possible histories.
Matthew McKeever is executive associate editor of Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Philosophy, among other things. His first book, a philosophical novella called Coming From Nothing, was released in 2018. His second, a non-fiction study of US culture in the 1990s, is forthcoming.