Sunday, June 18, 2006

Feferman Biography of Tarski

Just finished the Fefermans' biography of Tarski. A good read with some surprising information and gossip - but also frustrating.

The surprises: Tarski, it would seem, was high on speed and stimulants most of his adult life. He was also - and here the Fefermans are not as blunt as they could be - a sexual predator. That's not what the Fefermans call him, but it seems to be an accurate description: women seemed more surprised when he didn't proposition them than when he did. I'm not sure there's a single female in the biography that he didn't try to lure into bed.

But that's also one of the frustrating parts. The Fefermans largely, though not entirely, excuse his behavior. They suggest that it was due to his being a European intellectual. They also suggest that his wife (largely) excused his philandering because he was such a genius. But that's bunk. If she did, she deserves pity. And, in any case, there's something wrong about suggesting a connection between his great intellect and his great libido: as if limiting the latter would limit the former.

Combined with the fact that he worked his graduate students like slaves, it's no surprise that Tarski had few female graduate students, especially in the last decades of his career.

I don't think the Fefermans do justice to Tarski's sexual harassment (and I don't think they even use the word) - but that is certainly what it is. And that's odd, to say the least.

In other respects this must have been a very difficult biography to write. The main problem is how to make very abstract, complicated work accessible to the well educated reader. The Fefermans' solution is to intersperse several "interludes" that deal with the logical material, and then focus on names and places in the longer and more numerous biographical chapters. At first I thought this worked quite well. I could move quickly through the biographical material and then go more slowly through the short, discrete chapters on logic. By the end of the book, though, I wasn't so convinced. One problem is that the logical interludes are an order of magnitude more difficult than the biographical chapters - and as a result don't do quite as good a job of explaining Tarski's significance as a logician. We're left to trust that Tarski was a really, really important guy, but we don't have as clear a picture of how he fit into the intellectual/academic community. We hear a little about his work, but this is mostly in the context of where he was traveling, who he was advising, and who he was trying to seduce.

This book made me appreciate Rebecca Goldstein's recent biography of Godel even more. There are places where Goldstein could be accused of dumbing Godel down, or even of engaging in unwarranted psychological speculation, but she does a tremendouse job of weaving together Godel's life and his logic. That's missing from the Tarski book, so it is difficult to see why he attacked the problems he did, and why his work was so significant. The Feferman's biography is good, but not great.

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