Logicomix is—I am not making this up—a graphic novel (that is, what we used to call a comic book) about Bertrand Russell and the writing of Principia Mathematica. Implausibly enough, it succeeds, making rather gripping drama out of the twentieth century crisis in the foundations of mathematics. The technical issues are portrayed clearly and accurately (a novice reader could learn a lot from this book) but never coldly; this is above all a saga about human obsession. I even like the device where the authors themselves appear as characters, trying to figure out how best to present this stuff. It works.
But there’s one part I find almost impossible to believe is accurate; maybe a reader can set me straight. The novel begins in 1939 and proceeds by flashback. In 1939 we see Russell, a lifelong pacifist confronted by the Nazi horror, being shaken to the core by the realization that his beloved Logic does not contain the answers to all of life’s problems. Can there be even a shred of truth to this? Surely the man who devoted his youth and over 300 printed pages to proving that 1+1=2 must always have been well aware that formal logic has its limitations as a practical guide to life.
In the novel, Russell comes to his epiphany—or at least expresses it—during a lecture in September, 1939 to an audience of pacifists at “an American university”. (The September date is important; that’s when the British declared war on Germany.) Was there ever such a talk? Russell spent the early summer of 1939 on an American lecture tour, but according to his autobiography there were only two memorable moments on that tour: First, the discovery that the professors at Louisiana State University all thought well of Huey Long because he had raised their salaries, and second, ten minutes of peace lying in the grass at the top of the dykes along the Mississippi. By September, Russell had begun his first year of teaching at UCLA, where he was preoccupied with preparing classes and presumably hard at work on his Inquiry into Meaning and Truth.
Russell was indeed a lifelong optimist, but he had never, to my knowledge, held the infantile view—attributed to him iin this novel—that the methods of formal logic could solve all the world’s problems.
Indeed he says pretty much the opposite in the postscript to his autobiography, written 30 years after the onset of World War II:
The serious part of my life ever since boyhood has been devoted to two different objects, which for a long time remained separate and have only in recent years united into a single whole. I wanted, on the one hand, to find out whether anything could be known; and on the other hand, to do whatever might be possible toward creating a happier world.
And then, reflecting on the battles of his mental life:
I set out with a more or less religious belief in a Platonic eternal world, in which mathematics shone with a beauty like that of the last Cantos of the Paradiso. I came to the conclusion that the eternal world is trivial, and that mathematics is only the art of saying the same thing in different words. I set out with a belief that love, free and courageous, could conquer the world without fighting. I came to support a bitter and terrible war.
As I read that, he’s maintaining a clear dichotomy between the world of formal logic on the one hand and the world of love and war on the other.
So I think that in this one respect, Logicomix gives us very much a comic book version of Lord Russell. But again—perhaps some reader knows more about this than I do.