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Logicomix: An epic search for truth Paperback – September 29, 2009
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This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal--to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics--continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
Take a Look Inside
The creators of Logicomix introduce us to Bertrand Russell in 1939 during one of his public lectures. Russell explores the question, "What is logic?" by telling the story of "one of [logic’s] most ardent fans"--himself. The panels that follow (click each image to see the full page) reimagine the life of a brilliant young man with a passion for mathematics.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. An ambitious full-color exploration of the life and ideas of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, the book meticulously interconnects Russell's life, the timelessness of his ideas and the process of creating the book. While a comic about the quest for the foundations of mathematics may seem arduous, it is engrossing on many levels; the story moves, despite heavy philosophical and technical information, as the images, dialogue and narration play off each other. Russell's story is framed within a speech he gave on the brink of America's entry into WWII, in which he expounds his life and philosophical journey. Russell's story is also framed by the creators working in Greece, as they discuss and mold his life into a narrative structure. One of the most prominent themes is the conflict and symbiosis between madness and logic. The fear of madness haunts Russell because of childhood trauma, as he neurotically pushes himself toward what he conceives of as its opposite, a system for certainty. Inventive, with both subtle and overt narrative techniques, the comic form organizes the complex ideas into a simpler system, combining to form a smart and engaging journey through the ambiguity of truth. (Sept.)
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Top customer reviews
"Logicomix" is an ambitious and inventive work that has brought arcane aspects of mathematical logic and intellectual history to a new audience. The work brims with ideas, passion, and drama. I found the graphics skillfully done, the only flaw being the somewhat wooden and repetitious portrayals of people. Imaginative portrayals abound, all in full color, and sometimes with a single scene filling an entire page.
Despite this book's ambitions, as a one-time philosophy major and a long- term admirer of Bertrand Russell, I cannot wholeheartedly share the great enthusiasm of many other readers. (Of more than 140 reviews at Amazon, only three rate it below 3 stars). First, I found the book's dealings with philosophy to be superficial - less than one would get in a freshman- level college lecture. Second, the authors repeatedly interject themselves into the story with cartoon panels full of argumentative dialogue and (oftimes) peripheral trivia. Personally, I found the device distracting and annoying.
Third, contrary to many reviewers, this is not a biography of Russell. Its portrayal of Russell's life is full of outright inventions that bear no relationship to reality. In contrast to the account in "Logicomix", the newly orphaned baby Bertrand Russell was not deposited all alone at his grandparents' house; he moved there along with his older brother. His grandfather was not a spry gentleman who danced in his garden, but a frail, wheelchair bound man of 83. His grandfather did not introduce the boy to his library, leading young Bertie to resolve to return and investigate the locked cabinet of forbidden books - after all, Bertie was only three when he came to live with his grandparents, and his grandfather died when he was six. It was not a tutor who introduced Russell to Euclid's theorems, but his own brother Frank, also living at the estate. And then there's the running theme of the strange howlings that emanate from the attic, disturbing Russell's sleep for years -- these are revealed to emanate from an insane uncle who lives therein. This is a wholesale invention that owes more to Jane Eyre than to reality. There was no uncle in the attic, nor did the young Bertrand ever hear or imagine ghostly howlings. Why the authors felt inclined to invent such stories is hard to imagine. All of the chapters abound with inventions likely to mislead the reader into thinking them factual.
In the afterword to the book, the authors cheerfully admit to having invented "deviations from fact," insisting that their work be regarded as a "graphic novel" rather than a work of history. In their defense, one could argue that the invented encounters between Russell and other historical figures (e.g. Cantor, Frege, and Gödel) reflect actual encounters of the protagonist with their written ideas. One might even stretch the point and argue that the fictional boyhood they invent for Russell represents his later memories of a lonely boyhood and his adult fears of the possibility of insanity. Personally, I wish the book authors had not felt compelled to invent a fictionalized life for the protagonist. Russell is after all one of the 20th century's most interesting historical figures. The version of Russell's life portrayed will undoubtedly mislead the majority of readers (one reader enthusiastically proclaims: "I now have a far greater interest and understanding in the man and his life after reading this book.") For readers interested in the established facts of Bertrand Russell's life, three excellent biographies and Russell's own autobiography are available.
Overall, I am strongly conflicted in judging this work. My disappointment in the historical inaccuracies necessarily costs the book two stars in my rankings. However, the book has its merits, the chief one being that it may introduce to new readers some interesting philosophical questions and the historical figures who have grappled with them.
Personal note: Most likely, some readers who loved this book will be eager to label my review "unhelpful." I respectfully suggest that the "helpful" / "unhelpful" responses to reviews are not intended to measure one's level of agreement. (One can disagree with a point of view but still regard it as a helpful contribution to respectful discourse, especially when it comes to a work as thought- provoking as this one.)
The story elevates Russell's (and Whitehead's) quest for a logical foundation to mathematics to the central tension of both Russell's life and the history of philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. For Russell, it's a search for certainty in a life threatened by madness. For philosophy, it's a turning point not only in the philosophy of mathematics, but in the understanding of the relationship between reason and reality. And it is the link, via Von Neumann and Turing, between logic and the foundations of modern computing.
Virtually all of those themes are debatable -- in what sense Russell and Whitehead were seeking a "foundation" (e.g., an explanation vs. a justification), what role the successes and failures of Principia Mathematica played in the changing status of rationalism, and what debt computing theory owes specifically to the work of Russell and Whitehead and the controversies arising from it. The story places Russell firmly at the center, even putting him on a kind of odyssey, visiting and conversing in person with virtually all the major figures in mathematics and philosophy of the time.
The authors clearly present the work as at least partly fictional, inventing meetings for example between Russell and Frege and between Russell and Cantor, none of which ever happened. And Russell's story is told via an imagined lecture by Russell, attended in part by anti-war (World War II) protesters Russell has encountered on his way into the lecture. The entire story is framed by conversations among the authors, about Russell, Principia, and the story itself, lending a kind of post-modern effect to the whole thing.
If there's a flaw I would pick on, it wouldn't be the details of the biographies, theories, or proofs. This is a graphic novel, after all -- if you want academic precision, you should have gone in a different direction. On the other hand, I didn't find a lot of drama in Russell's message to the protesters. I think I get it -- "There's no royal road to truth", as he says, and you can't expect so much of "the role of logic in human affairs". You can't fall back on the dictates of certainty -- in the end, there is no escaping the responsibility to make judgements -- a profound recognition for sure, but the punch in its depiction here is lacking for me.