Monday, October 19, 2009


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, Art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (New York, Bloomsbury, 2009) pp. 347.

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an excellent graphic novel, Howard Zinn calls it "extraordinary," about the life and times of Bertrand Russell and his search for the foundations of mathematics. Believe it or not, this is a really good read and not a dry and esoteric exercise in the history of mathematics.

In a brief "Overture" we are told this is a real honest to God comic book and it has a real story line about real people and events (although some fictional elements have been added to juice up the story they are minor).

The framework of the book is a lecture given by Bertrand Russell at an American university a few days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. On his way to the lecture hall Russell encounters protesters who want the US to stay o ut of the war and they expect Russell, who was world famous for his opposition to WWI, to join with them. Instead he invites them to his lecture with the idea that his views on the new war will be revealed. They accept and they all go to the lecture hall together.

Russell's topic is "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" but he actually recounts the major episodes in his life and his philosophical search to establish the truth of mathematics as a branch of logic. Actually the comic ends in 1939 and Russell lived another 30 or so years so there is room for a follow up comic.

His "lecture" (it's not an historical lecture just an excuse to introduce Russell as the narrator, is divided into six parts. The first, "Pembroke Lodge," recounts Russell's youth at his Grandfather and Grandmother's estate where he was brought up after the early deaths of his father and mother. In the second part, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Russell goes off to the study mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge, meets his life long friend G.E. Moore, meets the woman who will be his first (of four) wives, and takes classes with Alfred North Whitehead with whom he will later collaborate in writing the three volume "Principia Mathematica" their magnum opus on the foundations of mathematics.

Part Three is called "Wanderjahre". Russell and his bride travel to the continent visiting Germany and France and Russell has fictional encounters with the great mathematicians Frege and Cantor (inventor of set theory). Although fictional these meetings further the plot by introducing some of the mathematical ideas that Russell was working on in the first decade of the 20th Century.

In part four, "Paradoxes," Russell and Whitehead work on Principia Mathematica, Russell's marriage cracks up, he attempts to seduce Whitehead's wife (and fails). The title of this part refers to certain logical paradoxes, especially "Russell's Paradox," which led Russell and Whitehead to conclude that without finding solutions to logical paradoxes they could never prove that the foundations of mathematics rested on logic.

Part five is called "Logico-Philosophical Wars." Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up to study logic with Russell at Cambridge and calls Russell's whole outlook into question. Meanwhile, World War I breaks out. Wittgenstein goes off to fight for Austria (not very enlightened) and Russell ends up in prison (for six months) for anti war activities.

In part six "Incompleteness" we find Russell married again, having a son, and running a progressive school based on his philosophical views on education. His and Whitehead's project for establishing the foundations of mathematics gets a fatal blow from a young mathematician named Kurt Godel who proves his "Incompleteness Theorem" which shows that the goal of the "Principia Mathematica"-- a complete proof that mathematics rests on logic is unattainable.

Russell ends his speech by saying to his American audience that he can't tell them what to do with respect to fighting or not fighting in W.W.II. They will have to logically think this out for themselves.

Anyone with an interest in 20th Century Anglo-American philosophy will really enjoy reading this book. I have only skimmed the surface in this review.

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