Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #4: Logicomix by Apostolis Doxiadis

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Logicomix purports to be a comical history of Bertrand Russell, philosophy’s prolific giant, and through him an account of how the logical positivist school of philosophy came to be.

A brief background. At the beginning of the century, philosophy experienced a split. Some philosophers, many of them mathematicians, grew interested in applying mathematical rigor to the field of logic, which at that point hadn’t progressed much further than Aristotelian syllogistic logic (the old “All men are philosophers, Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a philosopher” schtick). If we use logic to argue, and we hope to get anywhere instead of disputing the same problems over and over again (and believe me, this is kind of a Thing in philosophy), then the tools we use must be capable of providing the same kind of clear and obvious answers as mathematics. This is also known as the Anglophonic school of philosophy or the Vienna circle, since anti-Semetic sentiment on the continental side pushed a lot of amazing Jewish mathematical logicians to pursue their project among the English philosophers, and they most often met in the neutral territory of Vienna. This brain drain also explains why Continental philosophy is such dreck. Kidding, sort of. That is the basic prejudice among students who come up in English-speaking philosophy departments, and I for one would take Wittgenstein over Hegel any day.

Since I love comics and philosophy, I was destined to read this comic. It’s pretty well done, but doesn’t offer a whole lot for a philosophy student. The basic genesis and movement of the project is sketched pretty well for the layman and serves as a good entry point for anyone who’s interested in this kind of thing. I would certainly offer it in a 101 course. It also does a great job at illustrating just why this stuff is important– I mean, if you’re going to read Russell’s early articles about logical atomism it can be hard to see why anyone could care about the difference between “all” and “every”– John Searle says the mark of a philosopher is an obsession with things that most people consider trivial and take for granted. What makes the logical positivist project such a compelling adventure and such a tragic failure is that it is an absolutely earnest search for the truth– and Doxiadis gets this. I’d almost call this comic dangerous because it makes philosophy seem so much more exciting than it really is (get ready to debate whether a truth-functional or probabilistic analysis of counterfactuals is best, guys!). Also, the analysis is so simplistic that I think more than one student of the anglophonic tradition would straight up disagree with Doxiadis’s characterization. That being said, it was a very nice history. It was pleasing to see Russell’s interactions with Frege and Whitehead, and seeing Wittgenstein’s brand of crazy is always fun– you don’t even need to be interested in philosophy to find a biography of that guy entertaining. I would most recommend it to computer programmers– for those of you who find philosophy useless, not only can you trace computer coding back to philosophers, you can thank Thales of Miletus for the futures market.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as anything more than candy for the serious philosophy student, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in seeing what philosophy is about now. We’ve gotten past “I think, therefore I am”. And please stop asking me about the meaning of life.

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