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Friday, May 11, 2012

The gnome of logic

David Berlinski has written with gloriously overabundant and rich rhetorical flair on the history of mathematics and logic. Here he introduces Gottlob Frege, whom he calls "the gnome of logic":

His life was bleak. Frege was born in 1848 in Wismar, which lies in the province of Mecklenberg-Schwerin. Bleak enough. This is northern Germany, the land facing the Baltic Sea. Bleaker still. It is a countryside of dark and gloomy forests, hags and elves and goblins and toadish-looking men behind the sombre trees. At night, the horned owls hoot and black-footed wolves trot restlessly along the forest paths and hunchbacks gather in darkened glens to play the clarinet.

Frege spent his entire academic career at the University of Jena, trudging like Peano in Italy up the obligatory steps of the academic ladder: a Privatdozant in 1871, and so authorized to accept students without pay, an ausserordentlicher Professor in 1879, a Professor in 1896, and thereafter a Herr Professor, the open-voweled Herr followed in conversation by the three even beats of Professor.

He was married for many years - happily, so far as I know - die gn├Ądige Frau Frege dying along with Europe during the course of the First World War, and so darkening a personality that was already dark, lonely, crabbed, solitary, and withdrawn.

And he seems to have been - in plain fact, he was - a ferocious anti-Semite, seeing in Germany's sad, doomed, cultured German Jews an alien and unwanted presence, and, no doubt, regarding the turbulent wave of eastern European Jewry, which had washed over Germany early in the century and with outstandingly bad judgement come to rest in Leipzig or Dresden or in Weimar itself, with feelings akin to frank revulsion. Disliking Jews, Frege disliked Catholics as well, the ink of his indignation ecumenical in its nature. He was deeply devoted to the German monarchy, its preposterous and dangerous kaiser receiving from Frege the respectful sentiments that he had nowhere else to discharge. With the exceptions of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, to a certain extent, Edmund Husserl - a not inconsiderable trio, of course - contemporaries could not fathom his work. It was ignored when it appeared, and if philosophers and logicians now agree that Frege was the greatest of mathematical logicians, if only because he was the first, their encomiums came too late to afford him solace. He died in 1925.

And he died alone.


[From The Advent of the Algorithm (Harcourt 2001), pp. 48-49.]