Review of Misak: Ramsey’s boyhood

I mentioned in my previous post that I would review Cheryl Misak’s intellectual biography of Frank Ramsey in three parts, beginning with Ramsey’s boyhood years. Although there is no direct evidence that Ramsey was exposed to the rigors of probability theory by his parents Arthur and Agnes Ramsey or during his formal education at Winchester College (a demanding English boarding school for boys), two details from Ramsey’s boyhood, as recounted in Part I of Misak’s beautiful book (pictured below), stood out for me the most. One was the young Ramsey’s voracious reading habits, which Misak describes on pp. 48-49 of her book. Even at such an early age, Ramsey was a boy who loved the world of ideas, for in addition to his regular coursework at his boarding school, Ramsey devoured dozens of advanced works from a wide variety of fields. Among the many extracurricular books the young Ramsey is reported to have read are David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, and G.E. Moore’s Ethics. If one were to create a syllabus with the goal of imparting a well-rounded and liberal arts education, one would be hard-pressed to assemble a better collection of classic works.

The other youthful episode that caught my attention was the young Ramsey’s principled opposition to the brutal system of bullying and hazing at his boarding school. Misak summarizes this savage system on pp. 30-31 of her book. (Here is just one telling excerpt: “Each junior was the personal servant of an older student and had to ‘fag’ or ‘sweat’ for him. That meant cleaning the buttons and boots of his Officers’ Training Corps uniforms as well as his muddy cricket boots so they gleaned white again, as well as countless other tasks. The juniors [also] had to make the prefects’ tea, or afternoon meal, and wash up after ….”) Ramsey detested these regular hazing rituals, and towards the end of his tenure at boarding school, he wrote in his diary that he had “[d]ecided to give up sweating juniors.” According to Misak (p. 49), “He made a bargain with the younger boy assigned to him that he would not be required to do any chores at all for Frank. In return, the boy was to pass on the favour to his own junior when he was a prefect.” In other words, in this episode we see the young Ramsey was a man of principle.

Stay tuned for my next few blog posts. The next chapter in Ramsey’s intellectual life would take place at Cambridge Univiersity, where he would, among other things, study John Maynard Keynes’s Treatise on Probability and challenge Keynes’s approach to probability theory …

Photo credit: Rhodes Trust

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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