On Monday, June 3, 2013 I bought the Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, hardcover in three volumes (Cambridge University, 1950). The PM was originally published in three volumes in 1910, 1912 and 1913 and a famous three volume second edition with amendments was published in 1927. It is not to be confused with Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Latin for “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” which is also commonly called the Principia Mathematica. (Incidentally, I have a Latin copy of that, too.) The more famous work by Newton was written in Latin and is concerned with the novel Theory of Gravitation as an explanation of the planetary motion. The Whitehead-Russell PM was written in English and is concerned, I think, with the verifiability of pure mathematics. When I say “pure” mathematics I mean all mathematics for which the proposition A + B = C is true when all the variables of A, B and C can be empirically verified. Whitehead and Russell took almost 400 pages (in the first edition) to prove the proposition that 1 + 1 = 2 after which they wrote that it was “a very useful proposition.” Now that’s perseverance.
I cannot read the PM because Whitehead and Russell invented their own symbolic script to express their logical propositions in mathematical form, and my mathematical facility does not match their work. Not by a long shot. But because it is such an important modern work I feel happy just to have it on my shelf, along with my facsimile of a King James Bible, my Latin, Greek and German Bibles, and my Hebrew Bible (the famous Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia which is the standard Masoretic text used by scholars when translating into other languages), my various editions of Shakespeare’Complete Works, my Arabic and Arabic-English Qurans, etc.
The PM is among the foundational works of Logical Positivism and it ranks as one of the most important works in modern intellectual history. Other major modern works (which I also have on my shelf) include Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus(1921), Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), and Sean-Paul Sartre’sBeing and Nothingness (1943). I’ve read the Tractatus, but I still have not been able to get through even the first paragraphs of either Being and Time or Being and Nothingness. I know.
The three volume edition I bought cost ¥10,000, or a little over a hundred dollars at the current exchange rate. That’s nowhere close to the most I have spent on a single book, in Japan or elsewhere. I’ve got an English-language single volume encyclopedia of Japan, a Latin copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and a rather expensive Phaidon Press book (illustrated) on the history of books, each one of which cost far more than this used Principia from a bookstore in Tokyo’s Jimbocho Booktown. I checked on Amazon.ca and found that the same edition was selling there for about $1,300, so the used volumes that I bought in Tokyo were a bargain, especially considering their good condition. Some Japanese philosopher or mathematician took good care of them.
I love books. I collect books. Books make the perfect home decoration - better than any kind of furniture, architecture, art, paint or wallpaper devices. And there are some books that are so monumentally important that just to have them in your home is meaningful, even if you never read them. Like the Bible, for example. I imagine most North American homes contain at least one Bible. But at the same time as being history’s number one bestseller, it’s also true that it is one of the least read books. (I read it. I have done and continue to do so still. It’s easier to read the Bible in English than it is to read Charles Dickens.) Physical print books are superior to digital books - either books online or digital“e-books.” First, a physical book is authentic. You hold it in your hand, feel its weight, smell the paper and ink all of which are seminal to the experience of a book. You realize that a book consists of many components, not just ink and paper and language. Print books have greater consistency/reliability and durability than digital material. Taken together - consistency, reliability and durability - invests them with greater authority. Second, digitalization is less durable than physical paper. Silicon chips, discs and other media are terribly susceptible to damage, erasure, and data corruption. They are more susceptible to damage than physical paper if paper is treated properly. Digitalization has spread far and wide, which might make it more powerful as a force for change in history. But there will come a day when Google, Yahoo, Amazon and Facebook don't exist. What then?
When I was a student I read a lot of Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society played big in my life. They inhabited my college years and shared the madness. Or shaped it. Or both. (One of my alma maters, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is the repository of Russell’s personal library. Looking at it when I was a high schooler was neat.) I read his History of Western Philosophy (1945), and I was mainly interested in his ideas on epistemology, ethics, science and religion, and logic. (There were many Allen and Unwin paperbacks on my shelves heavily scored by red pens and highlighters and hence basically unsellable.) His essays were easy to read and appealing to the university students’ frame of mind: spry, mischievous and literate. The Principia has its own appeal among those who are hip.