Mon May 3, 2004

Conspicuous by his Absence

Still working my way through Robert Skidelsky’s John Maynard Keynes. Frank Ramsey appears only in passing, but the book manages to suggest what a terrible loss it was when Ramsey died, just short of his 27th birthday. His contributions to mathematics, philosophy and economics bring to mind Tom Lehrer’s line, “It’s sobering to reflect that by the time Mozart was my age, he’d already been dead for two years.”

There’s no telling what he’d have done, had he lived. But it seems to me that, sociologically, he would have had a decisive and positive effect on the philosophical community. Although right at the center of Cambridge intellectual life, a member of the apostles, and the translator of the Tractatus, Ramsey never showed any sign of falling under the spell of Wittgenstein. He thought the Tractatus was terribly important, of course, and that Wittgenstein was worth taking a lot of trouble to understand. But he seems to have been immune to the hold Wittgenstein tended to have over other philosophers. Ramsey seems to have been, along with Sraffa, one of the very few people at Cambridge who felt able to tackle Wittgenstein head on and whom Wittgenstein respected. But where Sraffa was withdrawn and a bit solitary, Ramsey was outgoing, likeable and in the thick of things. His character was in sharp contrast also to Wittgenstein, who—when he wasn’t directing monologues at people—was rude and insensitive to an amazing degree. I think it would have done twentieth century philosophy a power of good to have someone like Ramsey around the Cambridge colleges as a counterweight to Wittgenstein, both because he had a mind of the same magnitude but quite different cast, and because he provided an appealing alternative model of what genius can be. It might have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.