Warwick's Reviews > Logicomix

Logicomix by Apostolos K. Doxiadis
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bookshelves: biography, comics, logic, history, first-world-war, greece, athens, england

‘Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoan, who gives us this assurance.’
—Bertrand Russell

‘Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish! How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’
—EM Forster

Logicomix has the admirable idea of presenting us, in comic form, with the story of the search for the logical underpinnings of mathematics in the early twentieth century, told mostly through the life of Bertrand Russell.

Usually, when this story comes up at all, it seems to be told by way of a prelude to the birth of computing (in, for instance, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which rushes past Russell to get to Turing), so it was nice here to see it placed front and centre. And on the whole, the details of these often quite abstruse theoretical investigations are very well explained here, embedded as they are in the context of the main players' personal lives and professional rivalries.

The set of all sets that do not contain themselves: Russell suddenly realises "Russell's paradox"

I really love Bertrand Russell for the way that his professional logicalism did not impede his towering moral authority – he embodied a pacifistic, anti-authoritarian activism that was awakened during the First World War and that lasted until the end of his life, when he was still being dragged away from protests by police in his eighties. This moral sensibility takes a backseat to the quest for logic in the book, though it's definitely there – a framing story concerns Russell's feelings about pacifism in the 1939 war, and within the main story the authors are careful to show the effects of the first war on all the major characters.

Wittgenstein has an existential epiphany in the trenches

I have to admit, with my ideal image of Russell in mind, it was painful for me to read about the way he behaved towards his first wife and his children, about which I knew nothing before I read this. The authors – as they themselves explain – are very concerned to make sure that this is a story about these mathematicians' and philosophers' private lives as well as their professional investigations. Though I have to admit, the drama in the forbidden relationships and family secrets never seemed quite as engaging to me as the actual nerdy stuff about logic.

Gödel drops the bombshell of his incompleteness theorem

I had lingering doubts as I read this of whether it was really suited to the comics form: somehow, it never really felt like it was playing to the strengths of the medium. I was also not convinced by the choice to include several metanarrational interludes in which the authors and illustrators talk about how best to tell the story; this seemed, on the whole, more of a distraction than anything else, although a final section set during a present-day production of the Oresteia is a tour-de-force.

The comic's authors walk around Athens

There's lots to get out of this book and I'd definitely recommend it, but in the end it's one of those pieces that I admired more for its concept than its execution. Illogical perhaps – but that, as the book demonstrates, is to be expected.
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Reading Progress

May 13, 2017 – Started Reading
May 18, 2017 – Shelved
May 18, 2017 – Shelved as: biography
May 18, 2017 – Shelved as: comics
May 18, 2017 – Shelved as: logic
May 18, 2017 – Shelved as: history
May 19, 2017 – Shelved as: first-world-war
May 19, 2017 – Shelved as: greece
May 19, 2017 – Shelved as: athens
May 19, 2017 – Shelved as: england
May 19, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Matt (new)

Matt In case you haven't seen it. Here's a lecture by Douglas Hofstadter in which he talks about Russel/Whitehead vs Gödel and the "Limits of Logic":

Warwick That's a good one Matt – thanks.

message 3: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Hmm, just from the panels you shared I don't feel this needs the format.

Warwick Yeah that was my feeling as well. Though most other people seem to have liked it a lot more than I did.

message 5: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I've still got the one about Lovelace and the difference engine waiting for when I want an educationally significant graphic novel.

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