December 27, 2016

Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short

In his brief lifetime Frank Ramsey made ground-breaking contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy.

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What’s it about?

Ray Monk pays homage to Frank Ramsey (1903-1930), a man who by age 25 was already recognized as a great intellect. He lived only another year, but in his brief lifetime he made ground-breaking, lasting contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy. A new biography by his sister looks at his life.

Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short:

  1. Ramsey undermined the logic in Luwig Wittgenstein’s Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, which philosophers in both Cambridge and his home city of Vienna called a work of genius.
  2. Wittgenstein had previously been at Cambridge before World War I as a student of Bertrand Russell, but had left believing his work complete. Ramsey’s challenge drew him back.
  3. Wittgenstein concerned himself with the logical relationship between propositions and the world and believed that, by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems.
  4. Ramsey’s paper’s on Economics were also well received. One showed that, on certain assumptions, taxes did the least harm when the production of goods fell in proportion with the tax size.
  5. His second paper set out to discover how much of its income a nation should save each year in order to reach the state where everyone would have as much goods as they wanted.
  6. John Maynard Keynes stated it was “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made.”


Extraordinarily, Ramsey wrote this groundbreaking paper while working on a book (that he never finished) on logic. What for economists and most mere mortals was “terribly difficult” was, for him, a kind of relaxing distraction, “a waste of time.”

Today, economists regard it as one of the founding papers in the branch of their discipline known as “optimal accumulation,” which seeks to calculate the amount of a society’s economy that should be invested rather than consumed so as to maximize utility.

Take Away Points and Context

  • Frank Ramsey’s sister, Paula, died before she completed his biography and it remains incomplete.
  • Ramsey’s achievements remain under-appreciated by the general public.
  • A beautifully intelligent mind existed, cut short by hepatitis.


Full article:

‘One of the Great Intellects of His Time’

Ray Monk

Frank Ramsey (1903–1930): A Sister’s Memoir

by Margaret Paul, with a foreword by Brian McGuinness and an afterword by Gabriele Taylor
Cambridgeshire: Smith-Gordon, 304 pp., £20.00 (paper)
Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short. Your comments welcome below.
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