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Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

January 18th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (Bloomsbury 2009).

There is a story of a newly minted Ph.D. entering her first position as an assistant professor of philosophy. The department chair assigns her (as one might expect) to teach a basic course in the history of philosophy. “Well,” the new assistant returned with some hesitation “I suppose I could go back to Early Russell.” It is a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a time with the Anglo-American (or Analytic) School of philosophy that it seemed generally assumed that–with the possible exception of David Hume–philosophy, real philosophy, hadn’t really been practiced until the advent of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. Logicomix is a graphic novel of the world of Bertrand Russell.

A graphic novel, a comic book about a philosopher, you ask? Well, why not? First of all, Russell was not only a philosopher and public intellectual, he was an out-sized character. While Logicomix leaves out a fair bit of Russell’s life prior to World War II (and includes nothing thereafter), what it does include of Russell’s personal life will show that a philosopher does not have to be dull.

But why a graphic novel? There may be a number of reasons, let me take a stab at a few. First, analytic philosophy can seem extremely dry. This is in part because it is so formidable, so abstract, and so mathematical and removed from what one would think of as philosophizing that one does not dare approach it, lest one catch the contagion. The graphic novel serves to make the theory of types, set theory, the incompleteness theorem, Hilbert’s Hotel, and (naturally) Russell’s Paradox accessible, almost whimsical.

There is certainly the danger that any such illustrated treatment might serve only to reduce the topic to “Anglo-American Philosophy for Dummies.” Logicomix cleverly avoids any dumbing down so that even those who study philosophy for a living will enjoy themselves. There is also a lot going one in this novel. There Russell narrating his story as an argument for why his, pacifist that he is, will not join the protesters over America’s impending entry into World War II. In it he relates his quest for certainty and complete rationality and why that quest should lead him not to protest but a lecture on the “Role of Logic in Human Affairs.” Along the way we come across almost every major philosopher and mathematician of the first half of the twentieth century—along with Russell’s personal escapades (Both Russell’s time with Whitehead and especially Wittgenstein are well worth reading). This by itself goes back and forth. Add to this that the authors and illustrators appear in the novel to form a running commentary. If that were not enough, an attentive reader will find that the very structure of the book illustrates some of the logical problems that inspired and bedeviled philosophers of those palmy days.

So then, why Russell? To begin with, Russell is both formidable and approachable. He was, as I said, a public intellectual and worked to make his ideas the common coin of the realm. Also, because he was in contact with so many thinkers of the day, Logicomix is able to bring in an entire intellectual milieu.

And if you are not interested in types, universal sets, and the like, Logicomix asks questions about what it is about people (or at least certain people) to go to incredible lengths of abstraction in the pursuit of truth, rationality and certainty? Does such an obsession itself lead to madness, or is it a curious mad genius that impels some of us to pursue truth absolutely? A fair number of people around Russell either become mad or are wildly eccentric. It should also not go without saying that Logicomix makes a point that this ardent pursuit of rationality, truth and certainty came hand in hand with what has been to date one of the maddest centuries in human history. If uncertainty is a given, is the pursuit of truth in vain, or is it necessary for us to grasp what truth we can afford?