Principia Mathematica: The Comic Book

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.


5 Responses to “Principia Mathematica: The Comic Book”

  1. 1 1 Matthew Wampler-Doty

    I thought this was an exciting treatment the history of logic too!

    Anyway, you are right that the authors took some comic license. Russell didn’t feel that logic contained the answers to all of life’s problems, or if he had then he abandoned this view much earlier. As far as I can tell, the romantic idea of logic being able to mechanically resolve any disput has its origins in Leibniz’s writings… Russell writes about this, as well as his skepticism, in his 1918 essay “Mysticism and Logic”:

    “If controversies were to arise,” [Liebniz] says, “there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice to take their pens in their hands, to sit down to their desks, and to say to each other (with a friend as witness, if they liked), ‘Let us calculate.’” This optimism has now appeared to be somewhat excessive; there still are problems whose solution is doubtful, and disputes which calculation cannot decide.

    One can pick up an electronic copy of Russell’s book here:

  2. 2 2 Robin JG

    Although some poetic licence was used, I kind of read it the other way round – it was the protesters were asking Russell for the logical answer.

    He, on the other hand, was shaken to the core NOT that his “beloved logic did not contain the answers to all of life’s problems” but rather that he realised that logic was unable to be proved logically.

    After that I think understandably everything else would be rather shocking and bewildering.

  3. 3 3 ribock

    Russell well knew that logic did contain all truth. He tells how he learned geometry from his brother at an early age. The lessons began with Euclid’s axioms and propositions. Young Russell asked for the proofs for the axioms. His brother told him that if he didn’t accept the axioms then the lessons couldn’t continue. This shock stayed with Russell all his life.

  4. 4 4 Matthew Wampler-Doty


    I’m sorry, but “logic was unable to be proved logically” doesn’t make any sense.

    Perhaps you are thinking of the Godel Incompleteness Theorems. This is not what they say… you might want to check out Torkel Franzen’s “Godel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse”, or a textbook on mathematical logic.

  5. 5 5 Ian Stuart

    Russell was certainly not a believer in the overarching power of logic. Read his book “Power” which pointed out that physical power is the base for all other control. And Principia Mathematica makes exactly the opposite point to ribock’s, it shows that if you accept the axioms you can derive the propositions and that maths and logic converge, except for one theorem.

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