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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Journey to the Edge of Reason

Stephen Budiansky

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To purchase Journey to the Edge of Reason

Title: Journey to the Edge of Reason
Author: Stephen Budiansky
Genre: Biography
Written: 2021
Length: 285 pages
Availability: Journey to the Edge of Reason - US
Journey to the Edge of Reason - UK
Journey to the Edge of Reason - Canada
  • The Life of Kurt Gödel
  • With numerous photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : well-presented introduction to and overview of a fascinating life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 1/6/2021 Nick Spencer
The NY Times A 3/6/2021 Jennifer Szalai
Publishers Weekly . 11/3/2021 .
The Spectator . 29/5/2021 Simon Ings
Wall St. Journal . 15/5/2021 David Edmonds

  From the Reviews:
  • "Journey to the Edge of Reason, Stephen Budiansky's biography, covers all this, engagingly and clearly, which is quite a feat given the difficulty of the material. The author, an American historian, also manages successfully to convey Gödel's naivety, eccentricity and paranoia as well as his genius." - Nick Spencer, Financial Times

  • "(G)ranular knowledge of formal logic isn't essential for anyone's enjoyment of this moving biography. (...) Not only does Budiansky offer a clear discussion of the incompleteness theorem along with the accolades it elicited; he takes care to embed the proof in the life, avoiding the kind of gloomy interpretations that so often made Gödel feel misunderstood. (...) It's this emphasis on the human and humane implications of Gödel's life and work that gives this book its mesmerizing pull." - Jennifer Szalai. The New York Times

  • "Budiansky keeps things accessible (...) and Gödel comes through as a brilliant though tragic figure in Budiansky’s richly descriptive prose. This captivating portrait of a great if neurotic mind hits the mark." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Budiansky is the first to try to give this pile of new information a human shape, and my guess is it hasn't been easy. (...) Budiansky, for all his tremendous efforts and exhaustive interrogations of Gödel's times and places, acquaintances and offices, can only leave us, at the end, with an immeasurably enriched version of Gödel the wise child. It's an undeniably distracting and reductive picture. But -- and this is the trouble -- it's not wrong." - Simon Ings, The Spectator

  • "Mr. Budiansky’s account of this life does little to shift our perspective on Gödel, nor does it tell us much of factual importance about him that has not already been revealed in other books. On the other hand, almost every episode in the life of Gödel’s friend Einstein has been accorded its own monograph; if that degree of biographical scrutiny is justified for the 20th century’s most important scientist, then there is surely room in the world for an enthralling book about its most important logician." - David Edmonds, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) is best-known for his Incompleteness Theorem (or rather, the two of them), among the most significant and consequential modern breakthroughs in mathematics and logic and itself the subject of many books intended for general audiences. The fascinating story of the life of the peculiar genius that was Gödel has also been frequently recounted -- notably in John W. Dawson, Jr.'s Logical Dilemmas (1997) -- and Stephen Budiansky's Journey to the Edge of Reason now offers an accessible life-of, with a focus on Gödel's life and circumstances. Budiansky presents Gödel's major contributions, too -- including in an Appendix laying out 'Gödel's Proof' -- as well as some of the reception of these, but it is the man rather than his thought that is at the forefront here.
       Budiansky is good in establishing setting, especially the formative environments in Gödel's life. Gödel was born in Brünn (now the Czech Brno) in 1906, and Budiansky presents the Vienna-dominated multicultural Habsburg Empire he was born into very well (and in some detail). In 1924 Gödel went to Vienna to pursue his university studies, following his older brother, and if Austria as a whole was much-diminished after the war, Budiansky shows there was still a very vibrant intellectual atmosphere. The academic environment described here is fascinating, from the influential Vienna Circle in which Gödel also participated to the pernicious, deeply-rooted, right-wing (and extremely anti-Semitic) inclination (and its steadily increasing destructive hold) of so much of the University of Vienna.
       Gödel visited the United States several times in the 1930s but did not make as great an effort to make the move permanent as many of his colleagues until very late in the day, by which time things had gotten very complicated; he only left Austria in 1940 -- and had to take the long way to the East Coast, via Moscow, Yokohama, and San Francisco. Among those appreciating his genius was John von Neumann, who did much to facilitate Gödel getting a position at the Institute for Advanced Study -- and getting him out of Austria:

"Gödel is absolutely irreplaceable," he insisted to [IAS founding Director Abraham] Flexner. "He is the only mathematician alive about whom I would dare to make this statement. Salvaging him from the wreck of Europe is one of the great single contributions anyone could make."
       Gödel never returned to Europe -- though his wife visited shortly after the war ended, and his brother and mother visited him in Princeton several times over the years. As Budiansky notes, the isolated IAS position Gödel had was perhaps not ideal, given his personality ("Gödel is too alone; he should be given teaching duties; at least an hour a week", friend Oskar Morgenstern observed). While he took administrative duties -- like most everything else -- very seriously, the lack of interaction with students was probably unhelpful. Hardly socially gregarious, he was arguably left rather too much to his own devices (and demons), especially after the deaths of close friends Albert Einstein (in 1955) and von Neumann (1957); at least Morgenstern remained as a close friend, even if Morgenstern had his issues with Gödel's wife, Adele. Gödel is known for his long walks with Einstein, but it's a shame there isn't more of a sense of what their shared interests and thoughts were.
       Gödel's relationship with his wife is also of particular interest, and Budiansky gives a good sense of it. Adele was seven years older than Gödel -- he seems to have had a thing for older women, along with some mother-issues -- and had been married previously; Gödel was so secretive about the relationship that his brother Rudi only first met her at their wedding, in 1938. Adele did not fit in well among Gödel's colleagues -- and, especially, then among the Princeton crowd. Even Gödel admitted: "Adele seems to be not quite normal in her relationship to other people" -- though very differently from Gödel himself. They seem to have been a very oddly matched pair, and yet there's no question of a deep attachment between her and Gödel, and she was tremendously supportive of him, especially during his repeated psychologically more fragile phases. While it seems to have been, in some respects, a very difficult marriage, it also seems to have had a normalizing effect on two very dysfunctional souls; for better and worse, Gödel clearly relied on Adele (as, presumably, did she on him, as suggested by how poorly she fared after his death).
       Despite his brilliance, Gödel had quite a few personal issues that strike the outsider as surprisingly irrational. His hypochondria might be understandable, but his confidence in his ability to diagnose and treat his supposed ailments was horribly misplaced. As Budiansky recounts:
     Gödel's more serious problem was that his self-diagnoses were becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, as he began to dose himself with a staggering number of laxatives, antibiotics, and other drugs, all surely doing more harm than good and inflaming or even creating the very problems he believed he was treating.
       Already in Europe he had been under occasional psychological care, and he (and Adele, who had issues of her own) long saw psychiatrists and psychoanalysts -- apparently benefitting some from these treatments, but only to a certain extent. Ultimately, of course, Gödel's demons got to him: Budiansky opens his biography with a Prologue describing Gödel's sad end, as he essentially starved himself to death. Gödel's freaky psychological state -- so fascinating in a person whose mind we think of as so centered on the mathematical and logical, so completely rational -- is, of course, a very big can of worms; Budiansky does his best to present it, but really doesn't get much deeper than the outlines; this fascinating case-study offers a great deal more material for examination and discussion.
       Budiansky presents and explains the Incompleteness Theorem(s) well, including the reception and reaction to them at the time, but there is fairly little about Gödel's other contributions. His work on Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is described as: "a mathematical tour de force", but Budiansky does not go very far beyond its basic time-travel implications -- sufficient summary, but certainly a subject that could also be explored more fully. There are also tantalizing mentions of some of Gödel's other interests, such as his fascination with Leibniz -- but, as Budiansky notes, Gödel did not publish on many areas of his interest, so much of the material remains unexplored; as Budiansky quotes Morgenstern: "It's a pity that everything he learns and thinks does not go beyond himself".
       A brief section on Gödel's cultural interests scratches some surface of another side to him, but it would have been interesting to see more attention to this over his entire life. Still, as is there are some great little odds and ends -- not least from a 1962 letter of Gödel's to his mother:
     "Recently I discovered a modern writer previously unknown to me, 'Franz Kafka,'" he ingenuously informed his mother. "He writes quite insanely, but has a curiously vivid way of describing things."
       Journey to the Edge of Reason is a good and very accessible introduction to and overview of Gödel's life, and especially strong on the environments he lived and worked in -- Habsburg Austria, Vienna between the wars, the Institute for Advanced Study --, including their histories and background. Still, it does not seem a great advance over Dawson's Logical Dilemmas -- which is slightly more of an intellectual- (rather than personal) biography, but also covers Gödel's life-story in similar depth. Given the limited material to work with -- for example, as Budiansky notes, Adele destroyed all the letters from Gödel's mother and brother (though fortunately his own letters are preserved), as well her own entire correspondence with him -- and a largely seemingly uneventful life over the last decades of his life, there's only so much a biographer can do. Still, many topics here remain under-explored, from Gödel's fragile psychological state to his research and work in many of the areas of interest to him.
       While Journey to the Edge of Reason is a fine and often fascinating introductory biography (and of very manageable length), the definitive biography of and on this very difficult subject has yet to be written.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 May 2021

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Journey to the Edge of Reason: Reviews: Kurt Gödel: Stephen Budiansky: Other books about Kurt Gödel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Stephen Budiansky was born in 1957.

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© 2021 the complete review

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