Pragmatic philosophers: let's just focus on 'the best we can do'

Is there anything better than “the best we can do”? According to some pragmatic philosophers, it’s not about settling for less but constantly pushing for more, and more. IDEAS presents the case for a particular, ‘moderate’ brand of pragmatism that may be deeply valuable in times of uncertainty.

Pragmatic philosophy steers us away from worrying about what is absolutely perfect

When pragmatist thinker Frank Ramsey entered Cambridge University 100 years ago, he changed the direction of both mathematics and economics. He is considered one of the great minds of the twentieth century (Submitted by Stephen Burch, Frank Ramsey's grandson)

* Originally published on April 7, 2020.

In the 1920's, a young genius showed up at Cambridge University in England and convinced the greatest minds of his time to overhaul their most important ideas. Then he abruptly died at just 26 years of age, leaving scholars wondering ever since what he might have gone on to achieve. 

The genius was Frank Ramsey, a British philosopher, mathematician, and economist who played a pivotal role in all three fields before his untimely death.

"People tested their views on Ramsey all the time. Famous economists, mathematicians, philosophers. If it could get past Ramsey, it was worth something. If not, they had to start again," Canadian philosopher Cheryl Misak tells IDEAS. 

Ramsey's ideas on philosophical pragmatism are what made him an intellectual hero for Misak. 'Pragmatism' in philosophy is an attempt to steer away from worrying about what is absolutely perfect, or absolutely true.

Frank Ramsey was a student of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge and also a member the Apostles, an intellectual secret society. (Submitted by Stephen Burch, Frank Ramsey's grandson)

"Pragmatism says that instead of trying to find pure pristine foundations for all of our knowledge, we need to ask: what is the best that fallible human beings can do? And that's what truth and knowledge amounts to," says Misak.

"There is no bottom underneath the best humans can do. So to search for something pure, untainted by human concepts and nature, is to be misguided in your search. It's to search for the wrong thing. Not only are you bound to be disappointed, but you're taken along the garden path and it's leading you nowhere."

Misak's most recent book, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, is the first biography written about Ramsey's extraordinary life and extensive work. His profound legacy included inventing one branch of mathematics and two branches of economics, laying the foundations for decision theory and game theory.

Miksak tells the story of how economists like John Maynard Keynes and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell reacted to Ramsey's devastating critiques.

"Keynes took it very well," Misak says.

"Clive Bell, a friend of Keynes, said that Ramsey made a rent in Keynes's theory that caused all the stitches to run. So if you picture a garment, Ramsey made a little tear in it and all the stitches ran — and the whole garment fell apart."

The theory in question was Keynes's famous treatise on probability. At the time, Keynes was probably the most influential scholarly voice in Britain, and was so respected at Cambridge that it was suggested the university change its name to 'Keynes-bridge.'

But Ramsey's influence didn't stop with the overturning Keynes' early ideas. Misak argues he also changed Ludwig Wittgenstein's mind on the fundamentals of Wittgenstein's own philosophy. Wittgenstein's about-face on the nature of truth is regarded as perhaps the most dramatic and consequential shift in modern Western philosophy, and the causes for it have always been murky.

Cheryl Misak, a leading historian of philosophy, draws on surprising new material from archives and interviews in her biography about the extraordinary life of Frank Ramsey. (Oxford University Press/Cheryl Misak)

Misak bases her conclusion on diary entries and what she terms other 'scraps' she encountered while researching Ramsey's life. The famously difficult and moody Wittgenstein spent many hours in conversation with the younger scholar, and was at his bedside the night before Frank Ramsey died.

Today, Ramsey's name is well-known to economists and mathematicians, with many important theories and fields of inquiry named after him. 

However, he has generally been seen as a minor figure in philosophy, since he barely published any papers on the subject, and was only part-way through a draft of his first book about truth and probability when he succumbed to a kidney infection.

Guests in this episode:

  • Cheryl Misak is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her new biography is entitled Frank Ramsey: a sheer excess of powers.
  • Chris Voparil teaches philosophy at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He's also a founder of the The Richard Rorty Society.
  • V. Kumar Murty is professor of mathematics and director of Fields Institute at the University of Toronto.
  • Roger Smith is a social worker in Toronto.

The IDEAS episode The Best We Can Do—the pragmatic views of Cheryl Misak and young Frank Ramsey was produced by Tom Howell. Special thanks to Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey professor emeritus of economics at the University of Cambridge.