Ramsey, Frank Plumpton

(1903-1930), mathematician and philosopher

by D. H. Mellor

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Ramsey, Frank Plumpton (1903-1930), mathematician and philosopher, was born on 22 February 1903 at 71 Chesterton Road, Chesterton, Cambridge, the eldest of the two sons and two daughters of Arthur Stanley Ramsey (1867-1954), fellow and later president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and his wife, Agnes Mary Wilson (1875-1927). He was baptized at Horbling church, Horbling, at Easter 1903, but rejected religion in his teens.

As a child Ramsey lived with his parents in Howfield, Buckingham Road, Cambridge. He was educated at Winchester College (1915-20), and at Trinity College, Cambridge (1920-23), where he read mathematics, winning an entrance scholarship, and becoming a senior scholar in 1921 and a wrangler in 1923. In 1924 he became a fellow of King's College, Cambridge (only the second non-Kingsman to do so), and in 1926 a university lecturer in mathematics, a post he held until his death. On 21 August 1925 he married Lettice Cautley Baker (1898-1985), a psychologist, at the St Pancras register office in London. They lived in Cambridge, first in a flat in Hoop Chambers, Bridge Street, and then, from about April 1927, at 4 Mortimer Road. They had two daughters.

Ramsey was tall (6 feet 3 inches), bulky, and short-sighted. He appeared clumsy but was not--he was, for example, a good tennis player. He produced his extraordinary output of major contributions to mathematics, logic, philosophy, and economics by working for about four hours a day, mostly in the mornings, since he found it too exacting to work longer. His afternoons and evenings were often spent walking and listening to records. He listened a lot to classical music, both live and recorded, went to the opera in London, and was a keen hill-walker. He was a quiet, modest man, easy-going and uninhibited. His tolerance and good humour enabled him to disagree strongly without giving or taking offence, for example with his brother Michael Ramsey whose ordination (he went on to become archbishop of Canterbury) Ramsey, as a militant atheist, naturally regretted.

Ramsey's main interest in mathematics was in its foundations. His 'The foundations of mathematics', read to the London Mathematical Society on 12 November 1925, was the culmination of the reduction of mathematics to logic undertaken in Russell's and Whitehead's Principia mathematica (1913). On mathematics itself he published only eight pages, 'On a problem of formal logic' (read to the London Mathematical Society on 13 December 1928), but this has since become the basis of a branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory. He also worked on economics, encouraged by his friend and contemporary John Maynard Keynes, who edited the Economic Journal. His economics papers 'A contribution to the theory of taxation' (1927) and 'A mathematical theory of saving' (1928), which were published there, founded two branches of the subject--optimal taxation and optimal accumulation--which took off in the 1960s and 1970s.

Keynes also helped to persuade King's College to make Ramsey a fellow, despite his attacks on the concept of probability (as an a priori measure of the extent to which evidence supports a hypothesis) developed in Keynes's A Treatise on Probability (1921). After criticizing this concept so effectively that Keynes himself abandoned it, Ramsey worked out his own ideas on the subject in 'Truth and probability', written at the end of 1926. This classic paper, only published after his death, laid the foundations of modern subjective interpretations of probability, and related theories of games and decision making, foundations which were not rediscovered and built on until the 1940s.

Ramsey's real vocation, however, was philosophy, influenced especially by Russell and the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1922), which he was the first to translate into English from the German. He visited Wittgenstein in Austria in 1923 and in 1924 and established a lasting friendship with him. After Wittgenstein's return to Cambridge in January 1929 the two used to meet several times a week for long philosophical discussions. As Wittgenstein later acknowledged in his preface to Philosophical Investigations, Ramsey's criticisms of the Tractatus were a primary influence in bringing him to reject its key doctrines, such as its claim to have shown a relation (of language to the world) which cannot be stated: for, as Ramsey remarked, 'What we can't say we can't say, and we can't whistle it either' (Ramsey, 146)--Wittgenstein was a famous whistler.

Ramsey's own work in philosophy, besides the pieces mentioned above, included published papers--'Universals' (1925) and 'Facts and propositions' (1927)--and notes on 'Universals of law and of fact', written in 1928, as well as 'Theories' and 'Knowledge', written in 1929. Like his work on economics and probability, all these notes and papers were way ahead of their time. 'Universals', for example, challenges the a priori status, still unquestioned by most philosophers, of the distinction between universal properties (such as being wise) and the particular entities (such as Socrates) which have them.

'Universals of law and of fact' has had more, if still belated, success. In it Ramsey advocated a new theory of what distinguishes laws of nature such as 'all men are mortal' from universal statements that are only accidentally true. This theory, which Ramsey himself rejected a year later in 'General propositions and causality', is now widely accepted as the best account of natural laws in the empiricist tradition of David Hume. 'Theories', similarly, has revolutionized our understanding of how scientific theories--identified with what are now called their 'Ramsey sentences'--are related to the laws and observations they explain.

'Facts and propositions' is no less famous for its new and still contested reduction of the analysis of truth to that of belief, via the fact that (in Ramsey's example) 'It is true that Caesar was murdered' means no more than that Caesar was murdered. It also anticipates much later and equally contentious theories of the mind by trying to define our beliefs by how they make us act--just as his fragmentary note 'Knowledge' does by equating knowledge with true beliefs that have been reliably formed, as opposed to ones their holders could justify.

Several of Ramsey's papers were prepared for publication only after his death, in The Foundations of Mathematics (1930), edited by his friend R. B. Braithwaite. All the philosophical works mentioned here are contained in his Philosophical Papers (1990), which also includes his work on the foundations of mathematics and a bibliography of his writings.

The present influence of Ramsey's work in mathematics, logic, economics, and philosophy makes it hard to understand why it took so long to be taken up. There seem to have been several reasons for this. One is that he was no controversialist, and never pressed his own views. Another is the sheer difficulty of the topics he tackled and his original and unorthodox conclusions and arguments. A third is the fact that the very simplicity of his writing tends to conceal its originality and importance. And finally, those in Cambridge who understood his ideas and might have developed them were, for many years after his death, seduced into following the more charismatic character and enigmatic doctrines of Wittgenstein. More recently, however, Ramsey has come into his own, and is recognized as the founder of whole areas of mathematics and economics besides major theories in philosophy.

After a long attack of jaundice, Ramsey died on 19 January 1930 in Guy's Hospital, London, of a combination of the undiagnosed hepatitis that had caused his symptoms and the effects of an operation designed to deal with their supposed cause. He was buried alongside his mother in the St Giles' and St Peter's burial-ground, Cambridge.


D. H. Mellor, 'F. P. Ramsey', Philosophy, 70 (1995), 243-62
F. P. Ramsey, Philosophical papers, ed. D. H. Mellor (1990)
R. B. Braithwaite, 'Introduction', in F. P. Ramsey, The foundations of mathematics and other logical essays, ed. R. B. Braithwaite (1931), ix-xiv
D. H. Mellor, L. Mirsky, T. J. Smiley, and R. Stone, 'Introductions', in F. P. Ramsey, Foundations: essays in philosophy, logic, mathematics and economics, ed. D. H. Mellor (1978), 1-16
private information (2004)

King's AC Cam., corresp. with his wife and parents [copies]
King's AC Cam., diaries and papers
University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania |  King's AC Cam., Keynes MSS
King's AC Cam., letters to W. J. H. Sprott  SOUND  CUL, D. H. Mellor, 'Better than the stars', 1978, a radio biography of Ramsey with contributions by Ramsey's relatives, friends and colleagues, Ua.1.73 (transcript), CT1507 (sound cassette)

L. Ramsey, photograph, U. Cam., faculty of philosophy; repro. in Ramsey, Philosophical papers

Wealth at death  
£1400 9s. 9d.: probate, 10 March 1930, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)