image from work

Principia Mathematica: The Choose Your Own Adventure Story

  • by

  • Browser
  • doi:
  •  BEGIN 

Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell's three-volume, 1,992-page Principia Mathematica is a dense book full of cross-references, formal proofs, and technical prose. Most people probably think that reading Principia would be about as fun as reading the dictionary from cover to cover. But who said you had to read Principia (or the dictionary) from cover to cover?

This piece turns the usual linear way of reading Principia on its head by transforming this dense work of formal logic into a playful choose-your-own-adventure story. As readers go along in the book, they trace the logical dependencies between chapters of "Principia." Each page includes a map showing all propositions in a given chapter and any propositions in "Principia" whose proof cites one or more propositions in that same chapter. On any given page, readers pick whichever chapter they wish to jump into next. By design, they can only go back to Chapter 1; this encourages them to get lost in the text's non-sequential chapter structure and adventure through the text along different paths. There is also an introduction that explains "Principia" and its philosophical goals to newcomers.

The formidable appearance of Principia has led readers and even scholars to dismiss the work as baroque, confused, imprecise, and - most damningly - uninspiring to subsequent and current generations of thinkers. Consquently, the lofty goals of Whitehead and Russell in writing Principia have often been overlooked by taking their treatise to be offering the final words on foundational issues in logic and mathematics. But the text itself tells against these first impressions. Indeed, as this digital book shows, Principia is an open work and invites exploration, play, and improvements in the numerous areas of logic and mathematics in which it cleared bushy paths and broke new ground. It was never meant to offer the final word on any subject with which it treated.

Principia's historical use as the de facto English-language textbook in advanced philosophical and mathematical logic from 1910 until 1945 made it an intellectual fixture of the Anglo-American philosophical world for a generation of philosophers and mathematicians, including figures like Hao Wang, Willard Van Orman Quine, Kurt Gödel, and Alonzo Church. With the advent of borderless research programs using interactive theorem-provers in philosophy, mathematics, and computer science to produce formal proofs like those found in Principia, the time is ripe our generation to rediscover Principia as a font of intellectual inspiration and as a book promising at least as much fun as one gets from reading a dictionary the right way.

is Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Western Kentucky University. He currently directs the Principia Rewrite project, which has a Scholarly Editions and Translations Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also has a new textual edition of Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica under contract with Cambridge University Press.