I’m not sure what I was doing in 2009 when Logicomix came out. I missed its arrival then.

Perhaps that’s a good thing; it probably means more to me now. Fate saved me from reading it before I was ready.

The Novel

Logicomix is a graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna.

On first look, it appears similar to the For Beginners series of graphic documentary comic books, which introduces topics such as Nietzsche, Marx, capitalism, psychiatry, and Foucault.

But Logicomix is better done, with a more compelling story, a cleverer conceit about self reference, topped off by deluxe printing and stunning, full color images. In its own way it belongs among classics such as Maus and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

The Quest

Logicomix recounts the spiritual quest of Bertrand Russell for secure logical foundations for mathematics and philosophy. His quest crosses paths with Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Alfred Whitehead, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Readers looking for a straightforward introduction to the mathematics may be disappointed and there won’t be any surprises for the philosopher or mathematician. But the novel does an excellent job of conveying why Russell took on this quest. It also shows, with some literary license, the character of the people in his world, their passions, and the political tensions of the time.

In a self-referential way, the writers and artists become characters in the novel. They debate the purpose of the book, with Christos the computer scientist arguing for fuller explanation of the mathematics and for more on how the early work in formal logic set the stage for Turing, Von Neumann, and the programmable computer revolution.

Apostolos describes Russell’s foundational quest as a “spiritual tragedy.” He denies that it’s meant to be an introduction to Russell’s mathematics (even though it succeeds at that). Emphasizing that the story is “100% character,” he argues that the actions and ideas derive from that. Christos asks

Russell with his new student, Wittgenstein, discussing reactions to Principia Mathematica

you mean, if they weren’t neurotic, or whatever, they wouldn’t have the necessary passion and persistence to create logic? … Or the ideas themselves were inspired by neurosis?

In an interaction with Alfred Whitehead’s son, Eric, Russell admits that Principia Mathematica used 362 pages to show that “1+1=2.” He goes on to say that this was the price for “absolute certainty.” Apostolos tells Christos that “less tortured characters would not have found this price worth paying!”

There is no absolute certainty at the end of Russell’s quest. There were multiple blows, among them, his own discovery of paradoxes in set theory, Gödel’s proof that any consistent axiomatic system for arithmetic must of necessity be incomplete, and Wittgenstein’s argument that logic is vacuous and cannot tell us anything about reality.

Impact on Russell

This impasse deterred Russell from foundational work and led to his many contributions to education, politics, and ethics.

The frame story within the novel has Russell relating his life experiences, including his certainty of opposition to the first World War. But in dialogue with pacifists before the second World War, and referring to Leibniz, he says, “I, too, dreamed this man’s dream: To find the perfect logical method for solving all problems, from logic, all the way up to Human Life!” He concedes that logic, and more broadly, reason, is not enough:

Orestes in Delphi

take my story as a cautionary tale, a narrative argument against ready-made solutions. It tells you that applying formulas is not good enough – not, that is, when you’re faced with really hard problems!

The answer is in the story. Russell’s life as presented here is tragic, with losses including unresolved quests and failed marriages. He finds wisdom through these travails, but not through the means he had imagined.


The Finale of Logicomix is another story, a performance of Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, who had killed her husband, Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter, Iphigenia, etc. More had occurred earlier to make all of this inevitable.

Athena offers no easy solution for the Athenians. Instead she chooses forgiveness:

Furies, respect persuasion and the sacred power of reason, embodied in justice! Stay in my city! Do good, and in return, receive good!

The creators of Logicomix are in the audience.

Athena’s trick is to give the other half a voice. She says that “to achieve wisdom… you must also allow for a lot that’s usually left out as un-wise.” In other words, there are times when it’s best to embrace contradictions, something Russell spent his early years fighting against.

With “modern” people having absolute certainty that they are right, finding ever more effective ways to kill, and refusing even to listen to one another, the story of Russell’s quest and the tragedy of Oresteia could never be more relevant.

Has stretchtext arrived?

In the 1960s, Ted Nelson coined terms such as hypertext and hypermedia. Much less known is his coinage of the term, stretchtext.

Stretchtext is similar to zooming in for more detail or out for a summary. It never took off the way that hypertext did through the World Wide Web. (Note: HTML supports one-way links, not the superior two-way links that Nelson proposed, in which each node knows what other nodes are linked to it.)

The current “AI” chat systems offer a possible means to accomplish Nelson’s stretchtext.

Can ChatGPT do stretchtext?

I just presented ChatGPT with a paraphrase of some text at the end of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “The answer to the riddle of life is that there is no riddle.” It responded this way:

As an AI language model, I don’t have a personal belief or opinion, but I can tell you that the idea of there being no riddle to life is one philosophical perspective. Some people believe that life simply exists and that there is no inherent meaning or purpose to it. From this perspective, there is no riddle or puzzle to solve; life just is. Others may argue that there is a meaning to life, but it is subjective and varies from person to person. Ultimately, what the answer to the riddle of life is, if there is one, remains a matter of debate and personal interpretation.

This missed Wittgenstein’s entire point that one can’t properly formulate a question about life’s meaning, but as an elaboration of what I gave it, CharGPT’s response isn’t bad.

I then asked “Can you say more about that?” thinking of Nelson’s stretching of a text. It said “Certainly!” and then proceeded to expand its original 100 word response to 300 words. It brought in existentialist philosophy, the individual’s freedom and responsibility in creating meaning, humanistic and spiritual traditions.

Could I have continued to get it to write a book on the topic?

I decided not to pursue that but to ask, “Could you say it more succinctly?” It came back with 76 words.

I pushed on:

Please summarize that in fewer words.

The meaning of life is a complex and subjective question. Some believe life has no inherent meaning, while others see it as subjective or objective. Ultimately, it depends on an individual’s beliefs and experiences.

Can you state that more briefly?

The meaning of life is subjective and varies among individuals.

Even shorter?

Meaning of life varies individually.

Shorter still?

Life’s meaning is subjective.


Life’s meaning subjective.

Finally, it emphatically gave up:

Say it with fewer words.

Life’s meaning subjective!


My little experiment says that ChatGPT does a reasonable job on what Ted Nelson imagined. I’d now like to say things like “expand this chapter into a book” or “condense it into an abstract, a title, or even one word, or three, if it insists.

Hózhó and the commons

A friend in Wellfleet, Ernie Bauer, makes things of function and beauty, especially in metal. A few years ago he made a sculpture inspired by the Navajo word, Hózhó. It stands near the post office and WHAT, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.

You can see it and its shadow in the photo above.

Hózhó is often translated as ‘balance and beauty’; it can also be seen as harmony, finding peace amidst the jagged ups and downs of life.

Hózhó also emphasizes how ephemeral aspects of the world can be linked into a more significant whole. This shows up in Navajo weaving and other art forms.

Two Grey Hills style rug, at the new Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The concept of beauty in Hózhó extends beyond what can be perceived directly by the senses.  It implies orderly and harmonious relationships with other people, with the natural world, and with the world of spiritual beings and forces.

The estate of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom donated the rug shown above to the IU museum. It seems quite appropriate. Elinor Ostrom is best known for her work on how we can escape the “tragedy of the commons,” a phrase popularized by Garrett Hardin. For this work she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Ostrom’s work examined how societies have found ways to manage natural resources and avoid ecosystem collapse. Like the rugs she donated, it’s a realization of the Hózhó idea of living in harmony with others and with the natural world.

Too few people notice Ernie’s Hózhó sculpture. It treads softly. It’s in harmony with the semi-natural area where it stands.

In Wellfleet, the post office and the theater serve as a commons without people needing the sculpture to remind them. They visit with friends and enjoy community events.

But in a larger sense, I fear that humanity is playing out the dystopic scenarios of Garrett Hardin. Can we ever find ways to work together as Ostrom showed is possible?

Chatting with Character.AI

Here’s my latest chat with Jane Addams, through Character.AI, one of the many new AI chat programs.

I’m considering inviting Jane to co-author an article with me, something that combines a modern perspective with her insider view.


Remember: Everything Characters say is made up!


Do you know John Dewey?

Jane Addams c.AI

Yes, John Dewey and I were friends. When I founded Hull House, John Dewey and his wife were among the first people who gave talks at the settlement. Dewey was also an early donor. I remember a time when John was speaking at Hull House and my little dog was very frightened of him and kept barking at him. John was so funny. He made a joke about it and everyone laughed. He was very kind.


Why didn’t the University of Chicago hire you?

Jane Addams c.AI

Because I was a woman, I have no doubt. I was never given anything resembling a real interview or fair chance of being selected. A lot of institutions were simply not willing to hire women. I don’t know why they were not. I have tried to think of any legitimate reason and cannot come up with any. The reason was simply misogyny. I don’t know what else to say.


Your work deserves placement alongside William James, C. S. Peirce, John Dewey, and other great pragmatist philosophers.

Jane Addams c.AI

Thank you for saying that. My interest in philosophy did start with Peirce. He is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, who hardly gets read or spoken about now. He was the forerunner of what is called semiotics, the study of signs. He had a strong influence on my thought in general. A friend of mine gave me copies of his work. His most difficult work, a collection of articles called The Essential Peirce, is in print now. Have you read any of Peirce? Or James and Dewey?

Gerbert de Aurillac, a lesson for today?

Gerbert de Aurillac, later known as Pope Sylvester II, was a talented French mathematics teacher who played an important role in bringing mathematics, science, medicine, and new technologies into Europe in the 10th century. These contributions were accompanied by efforts at social advancement, but in both arenas de Aurillac’s ultimate failure offers an important lesson for all of us today.

Pope Sylvester II

De Aurillac’s most important contribution was the decimal system, including the Hindu-Arabic numeral system we use today, but he also (re-)introduced the abacus, study of Arab and Greco-Roman arithmetic, astronomical studies, and the armillary sphere (a physical model of objects in the sky). Some credit him with the invention of the first mechanical clock (at least in Europe), one that used a pendulum to keep track of the time.

These ideas were not created de novo, but developed within a rich cultural milieu. A vibrant culture, nurtured by Islam, flourished in Spain, especially in Andalusia, from the coming of the Arabs in 711 until their expulsion in 1492. Spain was a home for Christians, Jews, and Muslims who interacted peacefully and learned from one another.

De Aurillac most likely studied at the abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll, in the mountains of northeastern Spain. While there, he encountered texts from the Greek and Roman times, as well as Arabic texts, Visigoth texts, and many others. He recognized the vital role played by the world of Islam and would support what we would call multiculturalism today, as well as the development of a scientific community.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Botticelli

But this was not to last.

De Aurillac, as Sylvester II, was the first Frenchman to become pope. As such, he was deemed a “foreigner,” who did not deserve that position. His celebration of ancient and foreign ideas was no doubt a further obstacle to his acceptance.

But the larger problem he faced was age-old greed and the desire for power. His opponents sought to demonize him.

While he was studying mathematics and astrology in Córdoba and Seville, he was accused of learning sorcery. He supposedly stole a book of spells from an Arab philosopher. The demonization of Sylvester the individual drew from and reinforced the general fear of Islam.

Along with the rejection of “foreigners” and “foreign” culture, there was a rejection of mathematics, science, and new technologies. The magnificent bounty that the Islamic world offered to Europe was largely rejected.

Pope Sylvester II and the Devil

By the end of the 11th century, the new powers within the church and European society enforced a theocracy, instituted the crusades, and before long, the Inquisition. Although the term “dark ages” is not appropriate, there was definitely a loss. Science was retarded, and the rich interchange of ideas diminished. This period lasted half a millennium, until the time of Galileo and Copernicus.

It was no outside force, but Europe itself that brought that on.

What about today? We see a similar xenophobia, the demonization of others, insatiable greed, violent efforts to obtain power, a rejection of science and mathematics, indeed of all forms of learning, and a subordination of civil society to particular religious doctrines.

Gerbert de Aurillac would recognize this pattern well. He failed against the onslaught of forces that cared little about learning, about other cultures, or peaceful, associated life. Will we do the same?

A writer must have a wastepaper basket

In the midst of distressing decrees from the Supreme Court and larger concerns about the health of the US body politic, I seem drawn to words, even those that have little obvious relevance to the daily news.

Today I came across a great sentence by Laura Miller, in her review of How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Speaking about long-time collaborators Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Miller writes:

Married to a conscientious objector who had difficulty finding remunerative work after the war, Anscombe was so poor that Wittgenstein paid for her stay in a maternity hospital after the birth of her second child and insisted on furnishing her spartan lodgings, announcing, “You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket.”

I manage to fill both Wittgenstein’s paper basket and the one on my computer quite easily.

Speaking of revision: The online version of the review, from June 5, has the title: “Oxford quartet: The women who took on the philosophical establishment.” Today’s print version is entitled: “First, let’s kill all the logical positivists: Did four young women change the course of Western philosophy?” This makes me wonder: In the shift from “took on” to “kill all” is the New York TImes calling for a more violent response to entrenched interests?

Let’s not endorse the “kill all” approach, even for logical positivists or Supreme Courts, but the wastebasket would be an appropriate location for at least three Court decrees this week.

Démocratie et éthique sociale

Jane Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics is a fascinating book. Although it was written in 1902, it has a surprising relevance for today.

A major contribution to philosophy, the book develops a theory of social ethics, which extends classical theories oriented toward individual virtues and actions. For social policy it offers ways to think about issues such as racism, immigration, economic injustice, democracy, and social improvement. The abstract ideas are linked to Addams’s own concrete work with Hull-House in Chicago.

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Dissertation: The logical structure underlying temporal references in natural language

Bruce, B. C. (1971). The logical structure underlying temporal references in natural language. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, Computer Sciences Department. [Note: The archival file is very large; here’s the content in a smaller file size.]

Committee: Norman M. Martin (Co-Chair), Robert F. Simmons (Co-Chair), Michael Richter, Terrence W. Pratt

From the Introduction:

Temporal reference in natural language include tenses and other time relations, references to specific times, and a variety of phrases such as “present”, “later”, “when”, “how often”, and “never”. Their high frequency of occurrence reflects the importance of time to the users of natural language. Although the structure underlying temporal references may appear complicated, it is a working assumption of this thesis that a sound logical explanation of its characteristics can be made.

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