Logicomix is a simply brilliant book written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou and coloured/designed by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. It is about Bertrand Russell‘s quest for the Foundations of Mathematics and the (tenuous and rather loosely interpreted) connections between the study of logic and madness. It also spends a lot of time on Russell’s life. It is not only self-referential, it has layered self-reference: we see the authors talking about the story, in their book, which features Russell giving a lecture where he recounts most of the major scenes in the book. The narrative structure even includes some rather edifying “time-outs” in between where the authors write pages of themselves arguing over the story and how they are presenting it, and also time-outs on the “middle level” where Russell pauses his story to explain some necessary background information or is interrupted by a question. (1) The authors do take a few liberties with the text, as they explain at the end, making up fictional encounters where the characters only corresponded or dramatizing certain elements of their personal lives.
The book is beautifully drawn -more should be said here, but I’m just not the right person to say it- and it’s very impressive how well they give a general idea of all the mathematical discussions going on at that time without actually using any maths, although for my part I would have gladly dealt with a few more symbols and numbers in exchange for some more detail on the substance of their debate. This is, however, a perfectly reasonable level of detail for a popular book and the fact that it deals with logic rather than another aspect of mathematics does mean that it manages to make the central arguments sufficiently clear. When the package first arrived from flipkart I was pleasantly surprised at the heft of it, because I’m not used to graphic novels this size, but it certainly doesn’t go on any longer than it has to, and they manage to end a story that has such an inconclusive-at-best ending in a very pleasantly self-aware way, by picturing and commenting on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oresteia. (It makes sense in context.) Overall, definitely recommended.
PS: This was originally supposed to be part of a much longer post in which I also mixed in where Wittgenstein picked up from Russell, reviewed A.C. Grayling‘s “A Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein” and explained very, very briefly all the little things I jotted down while reading that book, most of which Grayling also uses at the end when he criticises Wittgenstein’s theories. Then I realized that a) the dude wrote a lot of stuff and a lot of it is, quite frankly, meaningless, b) Logicomix is actually not very related to the sort of thing Wittgenstein was primarily concerned with, even though it’s about the Foundations of Mathematics and Wittgenstein ostensibly started off concerned about the Foundations of Mathematics(2) and c) at the end of the book even Grayling says that “the dude wrote a lot of stuff and most of it is, quite frankly, meaningless”.
OK, actually he points out a few fairly fundamental contradictions in Wittgenstein’s work, which for all his assertions and vagueness does contain some sort of positive theses, and says Wittgenstein is important in the sense that a small minority of dedicated “Wittgensteinians” wrote copious amounts of material where they praised Wittgenstein in very enthusiastic terms, but not important in the “perhaps more accurate” sense that his work meaningfully changed the future direction of philosophy, even though it’s too early to predict that at this point. Wittgenstein’s work (both early and late) is certainly quite exciting, in many ways, and it’s easy to see why his later work might be very appealing to some people, especially for rationally inclined people who feel the need to be at ease with their religious impulses. It certainly seemed appealing to me while I was reading it the first time around. I’m also very happy that I didn’t attempt to read Wittgenstein in the original, judging by the quotes in this book, although of course if Grayling had any insidious motives it could easily have been cherry-picking. And now that I’ve said all this, I don’t believe I’ll be doing a separate post either, if only because d) it would be real hubris to try to critique a philosopher’s ideas in just one blog post when the very notion of reading his unabridged work fills you with dread.
Footnotes: (Which wordpress should really provide a better way of using)
- Christos argues with Apostolos on 2 major points, namely the tenuousness of that connection and the extent to which the main quest was a failure and, therefore, the extent to which this book is a tragedy:
Apostolos: “Russell himself called it a failure, and they never really got to the Foundations of Mathematics.”
Christos: “But it provided a framework, and it led to the development of computers!”
And it certainly seems likely that computer science would not have developed in the way that it did without all this as background, so yay! I guess?
- In fact, in the book Wittgenstein really only figures as yet another Giant of Logic who was “eccentric”/maybe the teeniest bit off his rocker, but as I already mentioned they do stretch this link between logic and madness quite a bit.