Frank Ramsey: a giant among Titans

The short life of the mathematician and philosopher continues to have a profound impact

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Frank Ramsey (1903-1930)

The saying that “those whom the gods love die young” does not even begin to offer solace for the untimely death of Frank Ramsey in January 1930, before he was 27. In terms of intellectual calibre and attainments, he was that rare “gem of purest ray serene”. To describe him as a genius would be an understatement—arguably he was the greatest genius of the 20th century. In his brief life he illuminated the firmament of at least seven disciplines: philosophy, economics, pure mathematics, mathematical logic, the foundations of mathematics, probability theory and decision theory.

Frank Ramsey was from Cambridge and of Cambridge. His father, Arthur, was a mathematics don at Magdalene College; before being elected to Magdalene, Arthur had been a schoolteacher at Fettes. His mother Agnes (née Wilson) was a suffragette who had studied History at St Hugh’s, Oxford, and had won a hockey blue. As a young girl, she had gone boating with the mathematician, Charles Dodgson (who wrote as Lewis Carroll). Frank’s brother, Michael—Mike to the family—with whom Frank, as an atheist, would have endless arguments about the existence of God, would later go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. The family lived in a large house on Chesterton Road by the river Cam. They entertained guests mostly from the university and conversations during meals tended to be lively. Arthur, a grumpy man, was very proud of and indulgent towards the precociousness of his two sons.

Frank went to Winchester, where he was deeply unhappy. Nothing during his days there quite suggested that he was a genius. He came into his own when he returned to Cambridge as a Senior Scholar to study Mathematics at Trinity in the Michaelmas Term of 1920. At this time, Cambridge was an intellectual powerhouse—not just because of the pioneering scientific research that was being done in the Cavendish laboratory but also because of work in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, mathematical logic and economics. This was the Cambridge of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Maynard Keynes, Piero Sraffa and Arthur Pigou, G. H. Hardy and J.E. Littlewood—to name only the Titans. Frank, as Cheryl Misak writes in Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (Oxford, £25), “came into substantial contact with all of them’’, even while he was not quite out of his teens. It was the presence of such people that prompted Frank’s remark towards the end of his degree that, “We really live in a great time for thinking.”

As as undergraduate, Frank was an obvious choice to be elected to the Apostles, the “secret’” intellectual society at Cambridge. What was truly astonishing—and this is an indicator of his growing stature—was that at the age of 18, he was asked to make an English translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Frank’s critique of the theory of meaning and truth in this work—his views were articulated in writing and in person to Wittgenstein—made the great thinker turn away from the Tractatus and move towards what he wrote in Philosophical Investigations or what has come to be known as the later Wittgenstein—a shift that had a profound impact on the development of Western philosophy.

Frank had read Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics in his final year at Winchester—no mean feat for a 17-year-old. In his undergraduate thesis, he made a critique and revision  of Russell’s  theory of types. In 1921, John Maynard Keynes published his Treatise on Probability to great acclaim. Russell hailed it as “undoubtedly the most important work on probability that has appeared for a long time”. The dissenting voice was that of the undergraduate Frank Ramsey who published a critique in the Cambridge Magazine. He pointed out  problems with Keynes’s theory which he would later expand in his  paper on “Truth and Probability” (1926). Keynes considered Frank’s criticisms were serious and fundamental. Roy Harrod wrote:

The only criticism that disturbed Keynes at this time came from . . . an undergraduate at Trinity, Cambridge, who had recently arrived from Winchester . . . This was Frank Ramsey . . . [whose] . . . criticism carried more weight with Keynes than any other, and it is not clear that he felt that he had a satisfactory answer to it.

Clive Bell, who lived in the same house as Keynes, remarked that Frank had “made a rent” in Keynes’s theory “which caused the stitches to run”. This set the pattern and tone of the relationship between Frank and Keynes: the former remained Keynes’s favourite undergraduate but Keynes would invariably rely on Frank’s judgment in solving or discussing issues of mathematics which were beyond his own competence. He would also use Frank to vet papers for The Economic Journal. Keynes recognised Frank’s genius not only in the field of mathematics but also in economics. When Frank published a paper on the rate of savings, Keynes hailed it as “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics”. Misak notes that Frank’s papers on economics are considered classics and have produced “a sizeable handful of Nobel prize-winning ideas”.

G.E. Moore had been a don at Cambridge long before Frank came up from Winchester but he confessed that when Frank was present at his lectures, he felt nervous because he was “very much cleverer than I was”. After Frank’s death, for many years whenever Moore and Wittgenstein were engaged in a philosophical discussion they would ask each other, “Would Ramsey say this?” or “Would Ramsey think that?” In his notebooks, Moore would continue to ask the questions even as late as 1953. Frank in his twenties had made himself the intellectual compass of some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

Many of Frank’s original contributions were made as notes or were tucked away in papers whose importance were discovered later. In 1999, Donald Davidson, a leading philosopher of the 20th century, coined the term “the Ramsey Effect” which was “the phenomenon of finding out that your exciting and apparently original philosophical discovery has been already presented and presented more elegantly, by Frank Ramsey”. Such discoveries could be exasperating but could also fill one with intellectual awe and not a little envy. The Ramsey Effect contained many subsets: Ramsey sentences, the Ramsey Test for Conditionals, Ramsification, Ramseyan Humility and so on. Most, if not all, of these are beyond the ken of the non-specialist. In mathematics, there is also Ramsey’s Theorem and Ramsey Theory.

Frank’s prodigious and vast mind was contained in a large and lumbering body and was complemented by an equally large heart. He made friends easily, even with Wittgenstein who was a notoriously difficult and moody person. He was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, who as has memorably been remarked, “loved in triangles and lived in squares”.

Frank was angst-ridden by his lack of sexual experience and once asked a female family friend, “. . . will you fuck with me?’’ She replied, “Do you think once would make any difference?” Keynes commented that Frank’s directness and disarming simplicity could be disconcerting at times. He fell in love and married Lettice Baker in 1925, and it was a happy marriage.

One problem with an early and untimely death of a highly talented individual is that posterity tends to exaggerate promise and thrust greatness on the person. But this is clearly not the case for Frank Ramsey who was just born great. The world of learning is still coming to terms with his legacy, with whatever his mind illuminated. When he died after an operation, Lytton Strachey lamenting his passing wrote, “a light has gone out”. Strachey compared Frank to Isaac Newton, who also went to Trinity, Cambridge. “I always thought there was something of Newton about him—the ease and majesty of the thought—the gentleness of the temperament.’’ Without in any way undermining Strachey’s sense of loss and the grandeur of the comparison he made, it needs to be noted that Strachey completely missed the most crucial element. Isaac Newton was an octogenarian when he died, Frank Ramsey was just 26. Even for geniuses, age is important as it leaves lingering the question of what could have been.