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.

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.