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Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: a Sheer Excess of Powers

Pedro Garcia Duarte
p. 833-840
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Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: a Sheer Excess of Powers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, xxxvi + 500 pages, 978-019875535-7

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  • 1 An important disclaimer: Cheryl Misak got in touch with me while she was working on her biography a (...)

1How to write the biography and the history of an exceptional individual (who also lived through some extraordinary times)?1 Geniuses seem to have thick ideas that cannot be ignored, and this is what have attracted economists, mathematicians, and philosophers to the force and weight of brilliant ideas they came to see in Frank Ramsey’s works. It happened that Ramsey was canonized in these fields several decades after his early death in 1930, just before turning twenty seven years old. His premature death, his friendship with leading intellectuals of his time—including Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Maynard Keynes, G. E. Moore, I. A. Richards, C. K. Ogden, Arthur Cecil Pigou, Roy Harrod, Maurice Dobb, Piero Sraffa, Richard Braithwaite, the Bloomsbury Group, some members of the Vienna Circle—, and the unfinished nature of major parts of his work, all contributed to turn Ramsey into a kind of a sphinx, with bits of his work and life being appreciated in parts of the fields with which he engaged. As Cheryl Misak wrote in her preface, it was only in the 1990s that “the full and accurate picture of Ramsey’s thought” became available (xxvi).

2Testifies to this delayed appreciation of Ramsey’s life and work, particularly in philosophy, that D. H. Mellor, a leading Cambridge philosopher who finished his PhD in 1968 (and died very recently, in June 2020), made a radio portrait of Ramsey in 1978 for the BBC Radio 3. Mellor started by stating that although prominent philosophers housed in Cambridge in the early twentieth century such as Russell, Wittgenstein and Moore were “public knowledge,” “the finest of all these Cambridge thinkers, Frank Ramsey, is hardly known to the public at all.” Mellor wanted his program to “try and begin to put that right” (Mellor, 1978).

3In economics Ramsey left in print only four works: a note criticizing Major C. H. Douglas’s social credit theory (published in January 1922, while Ramsey was an undergraduate turning 19 years old), his critical review of Keynes’s 1921 Treatise on Probability (also published in 1922, and developed further in a manuscript of 1926 published posthumously), and his two articles in the Economic Journal—his 1927 article on optimal taxation, and his 1928 article “A Mathematical Theory of Saving”. The latter three works bore fruits over time and made Ramsey a predecessor who economists working from the 1960s onward were happy to acknowledge and praise. This later recognition was fragmentary because his economics was kept separate from his philosophy and his mathematics (and philosophers and mathematicians also tended to study only Ramsey’s contribution to their own field).

4So we have with Ramsey a thinker of the highest caliber, precocious in many ways, who interacted with leading intellectuals, who had just some five years of academic career and died early living behind him a few publications and some unpublished manuscripts which eventually made a significant impact in economics, philosophy, and mathematics. Therefore, it is easy to understand that the historical challenges of placing him and his interests in the context of his time are many and high. Additionally, his canonization in those areas started with people close to him: with Keynes and Braithwaite in the obituaries they wrote, with the first posthumously published collection of Ramsey’s manuscripts edited by Braithwaite containing a preface by Moore, with Mellor’s radio portrait featuring Richards’s and Braithwaite’s memories and views. Nonetheless, later on Ramsey’s ideas made their way to the set of important works in those three areas with the help (and kindness) of strangers as well. Paul Samuelson was the key stranger helping to spread Ramsey’s words in economics (see Duarte, 2017, for an overview of Ramsey’s fate in economics in the postwar period).

5In terms of biographical works on Ramsey we have Mellor’s 1978 radio portrait which used Ramsey’s manuscripts and featured interviews with Ramsey’s wife, Lettice, and brother, Michael, as well as interviews with Richards, Braithwaite, and two renowned philosophers, Richard Jeffrey (then at Princeton) and A. J. Ayer (from Oxford and known as the English upholder of the Vienna Circle’s views). (Mellor’s BBC program, titled “Better than the Stars”, is archived at Cambridge and available at​handle/​1810/​3484.) After this, more than a decade had to elapse for us to see a further contribution to Ramsey’s biography: Nils-Eric Sahlin’s chapter in his 1990 book on Ramsey’s philosophy. To write his chapter, Sahlin used Mellor’s program, consulted Ramsey’s archives, and interviewed one of Ramsey’s daughter, Jane, and his sister, Margaret Paul (Sarah, the other daughter of Ramsey and Lettice, died in 1949 when she was twenty years old). In 1995 Mellor published an article heavily based on his radio program (Mellor, 1995). Then, in 2006 Gabriele Taylor wrote a short biography of Ramsey drawing on Margaret Paul’s then unpublished biography of her brother (Galavotti, 2006, 1-18). But Sahlin and Taylor recognized the difficulties of presenting a full account of Ramsey’s life. It was only in 2012 that Paul’s biography was published. Paul, who was an economist at Oxford, spent several years reconstructing Ramsey’s footsteps and brought many details about Ramsey’s life and work using a much wider set of materials, including family records previously unavailable. While Ramsey’s life looms large in his sister’s memoir, his work is discussed unevenly, with very little economics in the book. In addition, the book had some passages not fully developed or without clear substantiation.

6Almost three decades after we began to get a full picture of Ramsey’s thought, what room was there for a new biography? In fact, there was ample room for a round and detailed appreciation of Ramsey’s life and work, breaking the walls that separated the study of Ramsey’s contributions to philosophy, mathematics, and economics. And Cheryl Misak, University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, delivered it with grace and wit. Misak drew on a wide range of materials: family records and diaries, Ramsey’s archives and manuscripts, institutional archives, the diaries of people close to Ramsey, Lettice’s autobiography, biographies of people with whom Ramsey interacted, and published research on Ramsey and his contemporaries. Misak also had the good fortune of finding new materials: she got to know that Laurie Kahn, a former philosophy student at Oxford and now an accomplished filmmaker, had started a biography of Ramsey and had conducted in the early 1980s a series of interviews with people who knew Ramsey. All these interviews and other materials that Kahn gathered were donated to the University of Toronto and became the “Laurie Kahn Ramsey Collection.” With all these materials, Misak brought bits and pieces about Ramsey into a hall of mirrors aiming to discuss things from different angles and to check whether those bits are, in fact, part of a proper picture of Ramsey.

7The picture that emerges in Misak’s wonderful biography is detailed and full of colors. Ramsey becomes a worldly intellectual, with parents that had great expectations for him, and who was eager to join the postwar freedoms in living and loving. He became an atheist who engaged a wide array of human activities, not just philosophy, mathematics, and economics. These included psychology, psychoanalysis, and socialism, as well as music and sports. His insatiable curiosity was shaped by the context in which he lived, as this biography wonderfully reveals: not only his Cambridge milieu, but also the anti-semitism of the British upper and middle class and the feminist movements of the time (Misak argues against Paul’s, 2012, claim that Ramsey was anti-feminist).

8Ramsey was extremely well-read and attuned to the different trends in mathematics and philosophy. Misak clearly indicates in her biography how Ramsey’s views on mathematics evolved. Although he argued in 1922 against applied mathematics (which his father taught with his own textbooks) as a subject of study in the university, in the preceding year he criticized the pure mathematicians for not engaging the “task of alleviating the suffering of humanity” (his own words). In 1924 he disputed Hilbert’s formalist program and the intuitionism of Brouwer’s and Weyl. Initially under the spell of Russell’s logicism, in the final year of his life he realized it was a dead end as a theory of the foundations for mathematics, and he turned back onto intuitionism. And all of this happened during a period when Ramsey’s interests in mathematics were competing with his interests in socialism, philosophy and economics. At the end of his school days at Winchester and the beginning of his undergraduate years in Trinity College, Cambridge (which he started in the autumn of 1920, aged seventeen), the socialist Ramsey (a “bolshie”) intended to leave mathematics for the real-world discipline of economics. His tutor at Cambridge, Ernest Harrison, discouraged him from doing so, but Ramsey was already following Russell and moving away from mathematics to the study of its foundations and to philosophy. He was actively engaged with socialism (of the guild-socialism kind; he opposed Marxism, communism or functionalism) and economics was present throughout his years as an undergraduate and afterwards. Philosophy, however, took centerstage and became his main subject. Notwithstanding his two papers in the Economic Journal, Ramsey economics was not the play of abstract ideas and mathematics. Rather he believed that it must address the pressing issues of his time: that of a post-war generation in Britain that was not optimistic about economic progress and beset with widespread unemployment, labour unrest and economic instability of the 1920s. As Dobb in 1925 saying that anti-laissez-faire was becoming “quite the fashion now in Camb” (quoted in Misak, 297).

9The fact that this biography reveals Ramsey as a worldly philosopher is also due to Misak’s approach of articulating his mind and heart, as she put it in the preface: his ideas, exploring all he wrote, and his personality of being “genial, open, and modest,” and not “an enigmatic, cult-encouraging eccentric” that is the figure which is typically associated with a genius (xxvii). After a preface that starts with Ramsey’s death, the book goes back in time and proceeds mostly chronologically. It is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Boyhood” (with three chapters), covers Ramsey’s family and his life up to the end of boarding school. Part 2, “The Cambridge Man” (seven chapters), starts with his undergraduate years in Cambridge and goes into his early engagements with leading thinkers of his time: his translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his take on Douglas’s guild socialism, his criticisms of Keynes’s Treatise on Probability, his engagements with Moore, Russell and the Bloomsbury group, his trips to Vienna and his interest in Freud and psychoanalysis. This part covers his appointment as a lecturer and Fellow of King’s College, and closes with Ramsey meeting his wife-to-be, Lettice Baker. Part 3, “An Astonishing Half Decade” (nine chapters), starts in 1925 with Ramsey’s wedding and Wittgenstein’s visit to Cambridge that ended awry. True to form, Wittgenstein refused to speak to Ramsey for four years. It also provides a detailed analysis of Ramsey’s contributions to philosophy, economics, and mathematics, and closes with a moving description of the last days of his last few days, while suffering from jaundice. Misak also discussed carefully the probable cause of his death: a bacterial infection in his liver (Weil’s disease, most likely), in a time when antibiotics were not purified properly and before the advent of life support machines.

10The worldly Ramsey in Misak’s beautiful narrative is a man who learned at school to become an enthusiastic debater and who, as an undergraduate, despite not being a clubbable person, keenly joined a number of Cambridge societies, searching for intellectual friendship. And the list is impressively long (though he attended more the meetings of some societies than others): the Cambridge Union, the Cambridge University Socialist Society, the Decemviri Society, the Trinity Magpie and Stump Debating Society, the Trinity Mathematical Society, the Heretics Society, the Moral Science Club, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Keynes’s Political Economy Club, and the Cambridge Conversazione Society, known as The Apostles. Ramsey and his friends also established in February 1925 a new society in Cambridge to discuss psychoanalysis: the Psych An Society (a group that petered out one year after and which Ramsey attended irregularly).

11Two other aspects of Ramsey’s life come into full colors with Misak’s biography. The first is that Ramsey was usually younger than most of his classmates at school and of his many friends while an undergraduate at Cambridge: Braithwaite (three years older than Ramsey), Lionel Penrose (five years older), Sebastian Sprott (six years older), Kingsley Martin (six years older), Maurice Dobb (three years older), Max Newman (six years older), G. H. Hardy (six years older), Philip Sargant Florence (an American economist who spent most of his life in Britain, and was thirteen years older than Ramsey), Joseph Bentwich (one year older), and Tsemou Hsu (six years older), not to mention the friends he made outside the student body, such as members of the Bloomsbury group (especially Dadie Rylands and Bunny Garnett), and outside Cambridge, such as Roy Harrod (three years older). To this list, after his undergraduate years, in 1927 he added Sraffa (four years older).

12The second aspect is that of Ramsey as a teacher. We finally have a better appreciation of some of his distinguished students: Tom Stonborough (Wittgenstein’s nephew), Richard Kahn (illustrious economist who interacted closely with Keynes), Philip Hall (who became a group theory mathematician), Donald Coxeter (a renowned geometer), Llewellyn Thomas (a specialist in atomic and molecular physics and solid-state physics), Freddie Harmer (economist), Henry Lintott (diplomat), and Alister Watson (a mathematician who got involved in Sraffa’s mathematics, as did Ramsey). In his short academic career Ramsey examined only one PhD thesis in mathematics in 1928, advised by J. E. Littlewood (with Ramsey proposing to fail the thesis), and he was the supervisor for just one PhD thesis, that of Wittgenstein (who was thirteen years older than Ramsey)—obtaining a PhD was the way Wittgenstein found, with the support of Ramsey and Keynes, of receiving a degree after the years he spent in Cambridge before World War I.

13Ramsey was also a pragmatist. He read Charles Peirce in 1923 under the guidance of Ogden, who had recently edited a volume of Peirce’s essays that had appeared in the USA, Chance, Love, and Logic: Philosophical Essays. Ramsey became fascinated with Peirce but, as Misak argues, was less drawn to William James, particular his theory of truth. Misak here builds on her recent book on Cambridge pragmatism (Misak 2016). Ramsey carried his pragmatism over into his views on economics, notwithstanding two article that Keynes would deem contributions to the “pure theory of economics.” For Keynes (1930, 153), Ramsey “lived without effort in a rarer atmosphere than most economists care to breathe, and handled the technical apparatus of our science with the easy grace of one accustomed to something far more difficult.” While Ramsey’s pragmatism was mentioned early on by Braithwaite in his introduction to the volume he edited of Ramsey’s unpublished papers, The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays (1931), and was present in Mellor’s 1978 radio portrait (with references to Peirce), only Misak provides a detailed account of this allegiance in Ramsey’s heart and mind.

14The challenges of writing a biography of Ramsey include anticipating its audience. Philosophers, economists, and mathematicians, each of them, may know about Ramsey’s contributions to their respective own field, but are likely not to be familiar with ideas and concepts of the other fields. Thus, one has to aim at presenting some technical ideas to readers that are not so familiarized with that part of Ramsey’s work, at the risk of sounding not precise enough to the other readers working in that particular field. Misak tries to offer in her book a good overall presentation of Ramsey’s ideas, which she complemented by inviting expert scholars to write short guest boxes aimed at a specialized reader. There are twenty-one guest boxes in total, covering different technical aspects of Ramsey’s works, and are likely only to be properly understood by members of that particular discipline.

15Given this challenge, but also wishing to insure that her book was savoured by a non-specialized reader, the efforts at narrative tended to outweigh the technical analysis. Some digressions strike me as unnecessarily wordy. For instance, the discussion on Wittgenstein’s attempt to publish his manuscript during World War I and immediately afterwards is known in the literature and could have been mentioned more briefly. For an economist reader such as myself, we may find that the discussions about Moore’s and Russell’s works requires some basic knowledge in philosophy that we typically don’t have. Ramsey’s criticisms to Keynes’s Treatise on Probability misses a few bits. And some dissonance between Misak’s text and a guest box arises, such as on Ramsey using time discounting in his 1928 paper for a discussion about the choices of an individual while denying it for an intergenerational decision of a society. Yet one more, a minor annoyance is the way the endnotes are presented. The main text is clear of any endnote markings, and hence the inquisitive reader has to locate in the list at the end of the book the passage she wants to know more about the source or additional information. That said, the dearth of footnotes results in a remarkably fluid narrative. For a scholar wishing to engage the book to the utmost, however, there is an arduous path to be tread in incorporating the material covered by the endnotes.

16Perhaps the main thing that historians of economics may find problematic is when Misak stresses the relevance of Ramsey’s ideas to present-day scholars—which is not the main contribution of the biography. Here the weight of a genius’ ideas, even if a modest and open one, and with a devastating laugh, come into play. One outstanding case is the argument that Ramsey’s 1928 growth model “was a natural starting point for studying welfare economics in the long run” (321). In fact, Ramsey’s paper was not a growth model and it only became one after World War II. And this transformation occurred not only because of Ramsey’s geniality, but mainly because of the help of strangers in the postwar period. It is the trade of historians to explore such transformations. It is certainly understandable that a biography might wish to show that the protagonist speaks to the present, but this inevitably engenders quandaries for historical authenticity.

17It is very interesting that Misak points out that Ramsey became misrepresented in the received views in philosophy and also in (the history of) economics. In philosophy, most scholars in the 1990s had already a settled view of Ramsey coming from “Braithwaite’s hand-picked selection of papers in the The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays” (384) when Ramsey’s manuscripts On Truth were published. As a consequence, this work received little attention despite being the major book Ramsey sought to complete in the last years of his life, containing many novel ideas. In the history of economics, Ramsey is not a regular guest featured in the biographies of Keynes and Pigou, Misak argues (though one may point out that the scholarship on these authors is larger than their biographies). In fact, in economics, Ramsey is typically seen as the father of a mathematical utilitarian approach to intertemporal choice problems. Thus, he is not central to the interests of Keynesian scholars in Cambridge, despite having interacted closely with Keynes and Pigou. Misak’s book nicely presents Ramsey’s views on economics more broadly and his understanding of the role of mathematics in this field. With this, it is certainly true that histories about Cambridge economics can no longer overlook the contributions of Ramsey.

18The story of Ramsey comes to an end in this important and detailed biography, that is a must read, with Ramsey’s own words (by chance the same chosen by D. H. Mellor in his 1978 radio portrait). In his 1925 Apostles paper, Ramsey forcefully stressed that “[h]umanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable.” He was, as he also put, an “enthusiast for the public welfare,” and a great mind that engaged the challenges of his time and place—a beautiful worldly philosopher in Misak’s essential hall of mirrors.

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Duarte, Pedro Garcia. 2017. Frank P. Ramsey (1903-1930). In Robert A. Cord (ed.), The Palgrave Companion to Cambridge Economics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 649-671.

Galavotti, Maria Carla (ed.). 2006. Cambridge and Vienna: Frank P. Ramsey and the Vienna Circle. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Keynes, John Maynard. 1930. F. P. Ramsey. Economic Journal, 40(6): 153-154. Reprinted in Essays in Biography, 1933.

Mellor, D. H. 1978. Frank Ramsey: a Biography [Audio file].

Mellor, D. H. 1995. Cambridge Philosophers I: F. P. Ramsey. Philosophy, 70(272): 243-262.

Misak, Cheryl. 2016. Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul, Margaret. 2012. Frank Ramsey (1903-1930): A Sister’s Memoir. Cambridge: Smith-Gordon.

Sahlin, Nils-Eric. 1990. The Philosophy of F. P. Ramsey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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1 An important disclaimer: Cheryl Misak got in touch with me while she was working on her biography and we interacted closely since then (to the point of writing a paper together, not yet published). She kindly invited me to contribute guest boxes to her book, but I read only small parts of her work. Thus, this is not a review from someone detached from the author.

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Pedro Garcia Duarte, « Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: a Sheer Excess of Powers »Œconomia, 10-4 | 2020, 833-840.

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Pedro Garcia Duarte, « Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: a Sheer Excess of Powers »Œconomia [En ligne], 10-4 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 09 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pedro Garcia Duarte

INSPER Institute, Brazil.

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