Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: A Cartoon Epic of Bertrand Russell

By Levi Asher on Sunday, January 27, 2013 12:00 am

I've just thoroughly enjoyed (and learned much from) a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth was written by Apostolis Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitrio, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna and published in 2009. It was recommended to me by a young and voracious reader of comic fantasy/adventure novels who thought the subject matter would appeal to me. He was absolutely right.

This book breaks my pattern of slight prejudice against Bertrand Russell, which was grounded in two things. First, like many enthusiastic Wittgenstenians, I've been all too aware of Bertrand Russell's role as the straight man to the curvy-thinking Ludwig Wittgenstein during the height of the analytic philosophy craze at Cambridge University just before the First World War.

Russell was the hard-headed mentor, according to this well-known narrative, and Wittgenstein was the brash young student who surpassed the teacher, blowing Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's pretentious Principia Mathematica apart by revealing the naturally obvious fact that, all blackboards of incredibly complex scribbled formulas aside, logic is actually not based on deeper foundational truths at all, but simply is. (I'm sure Wittgenstein would have said it better, but it was Wittgenstein's revelation that turned Russell's years of hard work from a live theory into a museum piece.)

My mental image of Bertrand Russell was also harmed by the depiction of the middle-aged philosopher as a lecherous enabler of T. S. Eliot's mentally ill first wife in the excellent biographical film Tom and Viv. Interestingly, in both the Wittgenstein and Eliot narratives, Russell appears as an older rival to an intellectual upstart -- a role that isn't likely to make anyone look good. The fact that Russell's reputation was so great that both Wittgenstein and Eliot would gather around him can easily be forgotten. Logicomix tells Bertrand Russell's life story in its own context, and a much fuller and more sympathetic portrait emerges.

We meet Russell as a curious child in a famous and wealthy British family, living in a fanciful mansion on an idyllic spot of land near bustling London, navigating his gnarled family tree. The promising young man makes it his life's mission to plumb the depths of mathematical and lifelong certainty, exchanging ideas with G. E. Moore, Gottlob Frege and Alfred North Whitehead along the way. The tumultuous arrival of young Wittgenstein on the Cambridge scene is recounted according to familiar legend in Logicomix, with one key difference: here, we find Russell not bitterly opposed to Wittgentein's conclusions, but rather accepting them (and his own failure) with wry resignation. Logicomix emphasizes how exhausted Russell already was by the pursuit of certainty in logic and mathematics at the moment Wittgenstein arrives. He welcomes the shattering of Principia Mathematica not with an old professor's rage with an honest philosophical pilgrim's bemused shudder of relief.

The work of understanding the meaning of logic continued after the First World War. Kurt Godel and John Von Neumann (later, a great pioneer of computer science) make delightful entrances on the scene. Bertrand Russell navigates various romantic entanglements, and turns his intellectual attention to the cause of pacifism and nuclear disarmament. (The fact that Russell spent more decades speaking out against militarism than he spent plumbing the depths of logic certainly should endear me to him, and now it does.) Throughout Logicomix, the artwork is bright and crisp, the texts easily comprehensible, the moral messages firm and clear.

In some of the most appealing scenes in this book, we suddenly cut to the meta level to find four hipster Greek cartoonists in the process of writing and illustrating this book. They argue about how to interpret certain aspects of Russell's life, and occasionally stroll through a public Athenian park where a glimpse of the Parthenon is suddenly revealed. The book itself feels as satisfying as their sudden view of this ancient structure must have been.


This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Kant on Beauty. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Why World Peace Will Happen.


4 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: A Cartoon Epic of Bertrand Russell"

by TKG on

The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, OM, FRS. (jeez, we're supposed to take that seriously?). 

Dross. 

Wikipedia quote:  Dross product is not entirely waste material. 

Emphasis, IMHO, should be on "not entirely". 

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I actually kind of like these cartoon books as introductions to a subject. If done well they can be quite informative. 

by Michael.Norris on

What I remember most about Russell was his opposition to the war in Vietnam, lending a very persuasive voice against US adventurism in Southeast Asia.

by w.j.wiippa on

Logicomix covers Bertrand Russell well. I was very happy to read about his work on math because I only read his Problems of Philosophy and History of Western Philosophy, where the prose flows in both as it does in Logicomix. Hopefully more of these will come along. Icon Books http://www.iconbooks.net/?s=postmodernism has been doing this since the '70s but Logicomix is a story.
If there were more comics like this accessible to elementary kids, the USA would be less of a dumbed-down nation.

I agree with Mr. Wiippa. In fact, I've read Mr. Wiippa's comic book magazine called "Propaganda" and belive it would also interest a lot of young people in reading.

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