The Man Who Thought Too Fast
The greatness of the New Yorker lies not just in writing well researched articles on well known people (eg. Yuval Noah Harari on whom the New Yorker published a brilliant cover story a few months ago) but also in the magazine’s manifest ability to write carefully crafted pieces about important but less celebrated people eg. this piece on the British mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsey who passed away at the age of 26 in 1930.
Ramsey arrived at Cambridge as an undergraduate at the age of 20. His precocity was such that in the next six years not only was he made a lecturer at Cambridge University but the breakthroughs he made in that short span of time still resonate with mathematicians, with economists and with philosophers.
“When Ramsey later published a paper about rates of saving, Keynes called it “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made.” Its most controversial idea was that the well-being of future generations should be given the same weight as that of the present one. Discounting the interests of future people, Ramsey wrote, is “ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” In the wake of the Great Depression, economists had more pressing concerns; only decades later did the paper’s enormous impact arrive. And so it went with most of Ramsey’s work. His contribution to pure mathematics was tucked away inside a paper on something else. It consisted of two theorems that he used to investigate the procedures for determining the validity of logical formulas. More than forty years after they were published, these two tools became the basis of a branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory, which analyzes order and disorder. (As an Oxford mathematician, Martin Gould, has explained, Ramsey theory tells us, for instance, that among any six users of Facebook there will always be either a trio of mutual friends or a trio in which none are friends.)… Economists now study Ramsey pricing; mathematicians ponder Ramsey numbers. Philosophers talk about Ramsey sentences, Ramseyfication, and the Ramsey test. Not a few scholars believe that there are Ramseyan seams still to mine.”
Most of us now use probability to weigh up the relative merits of competing subjective beliefs. In doing so, we are following the theory first laid down by Ramsey nearly a century ago: “In 1926, Ramsey composed a long paper about truth and probability which looked at the effects of what he called “partial beliefs”—that is, of people’s judgments of probability. This may have been his most influential work. It ingeniously used the bets one would make in hypothetical situations to measure how firmly one believes a proposition and how much one wants something, and thus laid the foundations of what are now known as decision theory and the subjective theory of probability.”
In India, we are now accustomed to seeing GST rates for various items being altered with metronomic regularity. We are also addicted to the annual fiddling of our Income Tax rates by the Finance Minister. This practice too traces its origins to Frank Ramsey: “Ramsey hoped to turn his essay about truth and probability into a book, which he worked on in the late twenties, but during this time he also produced two articles for The Economic Journal, which was edited by Keynes. One was the article on savings—Ramsey mentioned to Keynes that it was “much easier to concentrate on than philosophy”—and the other was about tax, and ultimately no less consequential. Its key proposal is that, given certain conditions, the rates of sales taxes should be set in such a way that the production of each taxed commodity falls by the same proportion. The tax article, like the savings one, eventually became the basis of a subfield of economics concerned with “optimal taxation,” and changed the way economists thought about public finance.”
In common with other great minds, Ramsey had an insatiable for reading from a very young age: “Ramsey’s father, Arthur, claimed that Frank, his eldest child, learned to read almost as soon as he could talk…By the last year of Frank’s school days, he was apparently consuming books about economics, politics, physics, logic, and other subjects at a rate of almost one a day. On the holidays, he learned German, so that he could read some volumes of mathematics and philosophy in their original language. In his aptitude for math, he followed his father, a Cambridge mathematician and the author of textbooks in math and physics.”
Frank Ramsey’s father was a Cambridge don and his mother, Agnes, studied history at Oxford and was a feminist and a left-wing activist. As a result young Frank had unfettered access to the intellectual giants of the post-World War I world: “After his first meeting with Keynes, in Cambridge, Ramsey recorded that he found him “very pleasant”; on a walk, they had talked about the history of economics, the lamentable state of probability theory, and the difficulty of writing. Ramsey was seventeen at the time; Keynes was advising the League of Nations and the Bank of England, and lunching with Winston Churchill….Ramsey was also an enthusiastic, though not uncritical, admirer of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”—a book that Wittgenstein, who first arrived in Cambridge to work with Russell in 1911, completed seven years later, as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army interned in an Italian P.O.W. camp. The “Tractatus” argued that philosophical problems are the result of misunderstanding the logic of language. By revealing its real logic, Wittgenstein believed, he had solved them all. His account of logic enthralled Ramsey, who, in 1921, was recruited to translate the book into English. A few months after his graduation, in 1923, Ramsey spent a fortnight in Austria, and grilled Wittgenstein about the “Tractatus.””
More insights on the life and times of this intellectual giant can be found in a new book “Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers” (Oxford), by Cheryl Misak, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto.