I was reminded of how much I hate snobbism by another biography of a philosopher. Having just finished Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, from which I learned about a man, an era and a creative philosophical method – I hoped to get an analogous mental windfall from Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey, a towering figure, still unfamiliar to me.
Ramsey’s a key player in several adjoining top-of-the-ladder-of-intellect disciplines: mathematics, philosophy and economics, to name three. A number of abstract instruments and moves are named after him: Ramsey Pricing, Ramsey’s Problem, the Keynes-Ramsey Rule, Ramsey Sentences, the Ramsey Test for Conditionals, Ramsification, Ramseyan Humility. He is said by his biographer to have anticipated the work of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing as well as decisively influencing Wittgenstein’s turn from his earlier position in Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus toward the one he still fills in contemporary culture as the author of Philosophical Investigations.
He died in November of 1929, prematurely and unexpectedly, of jaundice. He was 26. The major thinkers of his time and place (England’s Cambridge University) mourned him sincerely. I’m almost as interested in philosophers’ lives as in their thought, since a realized achievement in thought is often intertwined with a life. More than in other disciplines, in philosophy the life sometimes serves as a test of the thought. Can they live their views? If they can, what does that look like?
So what stopped me by the time I finished chapter one? It was Misak, the biographer: a woman, doubtless gifted enough to take on this formidable task — every evidential detail of which she’s hunted down like a well-schooled hound at a foxhunt. Don’t come as you are. Dress for the hunt. Red coats please.
I’ll pause for my personal recollections of English snobbery. Some years ago, an English friend and colleague set up a series of invited lectures for me at various English universities. After one talk, an attendee phoned my friend to report:
“She was wonderful. She hates it here!”
After a different talk, at the informal post-lecture gathering of students and faculty, one student emphatically characterized English society to me as –
“a culture of intimidation.”
Unhappily Misak, Ramsey’s biographer — recounting his start as a child of “the intellectual aristocracy,” including the social ranking details pertaining to his parents – herself affects little literary curls of the lip and tiny clinkings of the silver chains of status that simply chill me to the bone.
As the precocious young Ramsey proves his eligibility for the right sort of prep school (“public school” as it’s called), one is aware that the social ordeals of such a training ground will set a boy’s course in later life. Is he good at sports? Is he the type to be mocked or bullied?
These Darwinian games, that only the fittest survive unscarred, may also be found in American high schools. (Full disclosure: I went to The High School of Music and Art in New York City, where you got points for being sensitive.) Be that as it may, my sense is that at least here you can outlive the rank they stick on you in high school. There by contrast, the youthful jockeyings for place and power adhere pitilessly into adult life.
Frank Ramsey was good at games, good at boyhood friend-forming, good at exuding that air of unassuming triumph that discourages bullies. So I don’t have to suffer for him. He was good at everything – except surviving his twenties. I don’t mind him. It’s his biographer I can’t take.
I’ve met two Russian former princesses, a French count with whom, along with his wife, I enjoyed dinner and their evening at home, and a young roommate who was a French aristocrat. (I forget how I knew that. She wouldn’t have told me.) It doesn’t matter that their respective motherlands no longer admitted castes or hereditary privileges. You could still tell who was what. I’ve read that Ethiopian nobility, imprisoned by an unfriendly regime, drew deference from other prisoners, even behind bars.
None of this offends me. I don’t care who outranks whom.
Everybody outranks somebody.
Rather, it interests me. And one of the features of the continental aristocrats that I’ve met was their simplicity and openness. This unpretentiousness can be misleading, of course. When I told my mother how charmingly the princesses had raved about her “refined Russian,” she nodded and said, without missing a beat,
They used to beat their serfs till the blood ran down.”
So charm is one thing. Character is another. But the continental aristos that I met did show a gentle and tactful manner. At least in my presence, they didn’t try to intimidate. They didn’t keep their snubs all shined up and polished.
What I find stifling and unbearable in the British class system, with its snobberies, is that
it’s rude —