Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford University Press), £25/$32.95
Reviewed by Rachel Handley
Philosophers are fond of thinking about counterfactuals. They delight and sometimes dismay in what could have been otherwise, and I am not an exception to this rule. Frank Ramsey’s philosophical, economical, and mathematical work has far reaching threads, even today. Without him, my own research in metaethics would look very different, and so I, like many others, can’t help but wonder what he could have written and accomplished had he not tragically died at the age of 27.
Given his early death, reading Cheryl Misak’s excellent and thoroughly researched biography is bittersweet. His work on truth and meaning shook the philosophical world, and as you read about his life, his death presses on your mind. That is not to say that one is left with a sour taste. On the contrary, this is a richly researched and beautifully written biography of Ramsey both as a philosopher and as a human being. Misak perfectly captures a thinking creature in an unpredictable world who wants to both be happy and to understand reality. Through her approach to biography, Misak’s masterful telling of his story gives us a way to connect his life to our own.
Misak accomplishes the goal all biographers of great thinkers aim for: to tell the story of a life, and to tell it in such a way that a portion of the person – whether intellectual or personal – is not left behind. Misak achieves this aim and more. She weaves a thread of humanity around the arguments, the thoughts, and the ideas that Ramsey explored and championed. The chapters which explore his philosophical, mathematical, and economic ideas in-depth are explained clearly and with just as much wit and skill as the chapters which focus on his romantic and family life.
Where a point about his intellectual work could be supplemented with a more technical overview, one is supplied by a guest philosopher or economist. Simon Blackburn, quasi-realist extraordinaire, who, like myself, was influenced by Ramsey’s work in philosophy, offers a wonderful overview of Ramsey’s thought in the chapter Revolution in Philosophy. This chapter, which explores Ramsey’s distinct move away from Wittgenstein, focuses on his astonishing output during the year 1926. Ramsey, so influenced by Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, starts to move toward pragmatism. His work that year, whether it be on truth, or on probability, is rooted in a puzzle about objectivity. One can see this in both his rejection of Russell and in his criticisms of Keynesian probability, the latter of which assumes objective relations between propositions. Ramsey’s puzzle over objectivity is accompanied by a need to get rid of anything mystifying from philosophy. His need to demystify can be seen in his life more broadly. Upon having had quite enough with sexual anxiety, he follows the trend of Cambridge academics of the time and goes to Vienna to be psychoanalysed. He spends six months uncluttering his mind whilst also living in a city brimming with intellectual energy – a city where he introduced Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers concerned with meaning, truth, and how empirical observation bears on philosophy.
Misak takes you through his personal and intellectual discoveries effortlessly. Reading Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers feels like listening to a good friend’s wickedly knowledgeable story. It is clear that Ramsey wanted to challenge received wisdom. His acquaintance with the Bloomsbury group and his liking for their rejection of Victorian values reveals this as much as his philosophical work.
Misak shows us that his marriage to Lettice Cautley Baker sits well with his approach to life; warm, loving, and not contained by conventional values simply because they are the done thing. Her biography gives you the lasting impression that his personal and academic life came from the same sources and are fired by the same energy.
Readers have the option to go back and forth between in-depth and sometimes technical but still clear overviews and Misak’s wonderful prose. Though one might suspect this to be jarring, it isn’t at all. One can dip into the more technical explanations if needed, but not doing so doesn’t break the flow, nor the sense that a full life is being given breath. Misak’s biography, then, serves readers who may not know much about Frank Ramsey and wish to know more about his work, but it also serves readers who perhaps are aware of his work but wish for a well-rounded exploration of his life.
Equally, Misak’s skilful storytelling makes it clear that the exploration of truth and meaning cannot, for Ramsey, be cut off from living a full human life. To know only his intellectual work, or only his personal life, is to not know the man. Misak does a wonderful job of introducing us to Frank Ramsey, the human being. Her approach of moving between abstract and practical aspects of his life succeeds in giving the reader a sense of the warm, fiercely clever man, who died much too young.