What the Fictionalized Philosopher Bertrand Russell Teaches in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity


In the 2016 film—The Man Who Knew Infinity (director Matthew Brown), Dev Patel plays mathematician Srinvasa Ramanujan (1887-1920); Jeremy Irons plays G. H. Hardy, professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge; Toby Jones plays mathematician John E. Littlewood; Jeremy Northam plays philosopher Bertrand Russell. The film focuses on Ramanujan’s struggles convincing Cambridge professors that his mathematical formulas were worthy of publication. Ramanujan eventually became famous for his work on partitions, but endured racism and classism: a Hindu clerk from Madras—who seemingly came out of nowhere. He was mostly a self-taught mathematician. After much struggle and help from G.H. Hardy, Ramanujan got elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Ramanujan today, has been recognized in physics as setting the stage for contemporary string theory.

Ramanujan, claimed that in his dreams a Hindu goddess called Namagiri spoke to him.  From these dreams Ramanujan’s work changed the world of mathematics forever. Hardy, an atheist, did not understand Ramanujan because he was a man of science, not dreams, spirituality and intuition. Still, he worked with Ramanujan to see his work through to publication. Ramanujan returned to India, succumbed to illness and died in his early thirties. Hardy was crushed when he got word of Ramanujan’s death and muses that this was the most romantic relation—in a platonic sense– he had ever had. Mathematics was a romance language for G. H. Hardy and Ramanujan spoke that language eloquently, brilliantly, beautifully, mysteriously. Today Ramanujan’s papers are housed at Trinity College, Cambridge library, UK. His papers still baffle and intrigue today.

Proofs Versus Ramanujan’s Goddess

The problem for Ramanujan—Hardy explains—is that he did not work from proofs. Without proofs, nobody knew whether his mathematics meant anything or not. The problem with proofs, for Ramanujan, was that his work came from intuition and dreams, not from a rational process of proofs. Hardy’s role was to help Ramanujan come up with the proofs necessary in order for his mathematics to be published and recognized by other mathematicians. But this became an increasing problem—at least in the film— Ramanujan felt stifled and frustrated; his thinking and creativity seemed squashed. There are certain acceptable ways to do mathematics—via proofs– but Ramanujan did not follow the rules; he felt no need to do so. Strikingly, in the film Hardy asks Ramanujan how mathematics came to him. Hardy asks him: why do you do mathematics? Ramanujan says: “I have to. It is truth. My goddess comes to me in dreams tells me what is true, she tells me what to write.”

Bertrand Russell Fictionalized

The most marginal character—the fictionalized Bertrand Russell—seemingly understands Ramanujan better than Hardy. Proofs hampered and stifled Ramanujan’s work. But in mathematics proofs are necessary. Hardy worked with Ramanujan and in the end Ramanujan’s work in partitions won the day. Nobody in the world of mathematics was like Ramanujan.  But did he really need to do those proofs at all? For me, he central moment in the film is when the fictionalized Bertrand Russell says “let him run, Hardy!”  There are rules of engagement when doing mathematics—via proofs, but Ramanujan did not follow the rules. He uncovered a world of patterns in mathematics beyond anyone’s comprehension at the time.

Similarly, there are rules of engagement in most academic disciplines; many of these rules stifle creativity. It is easier to mimic others—as Michel Serres points out. Diving off the ledge, taking a leap into the unknown—is much more difficult; it takes originality, bravery and even courage to leap. Paul Feyerabend in his well-known book Against Method, 1975, argues similarly.

Intuition and Dreams

In scholarship, intuition—which is considered soft– and dreams—which are considered to be irrelevant—mean little in the academy. Although Freud and Jung wrote about dreams, and though Aristotle appreciated the capacities of intuition, neither dreams nor intuition are recognized or meaningful in university culture.  Colleges of Education– driven by positivism and psychometrics—are perhaps the worst places for creative thinkers. Academic psychology—Freud’s nightmare—with its reliance on the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) has been colonized by psychometrics and categorization, brain studies and cognition. Although cognitive studies can be interesting, it is a far cry from the freely associated writings of Freud. It is unfortunate, too, that the standard English translation of Freud’s complete works by James Strachey has turned poetically written prose–worthy of a Goethe prize –into positivistic, scientistic writings.  For example, Strachey’s editing led to the erasure of Freud’s phrase (attached to) with the substitution of Strachey’s word “cathexis,” which changed the meaning and sense of the text which originally was written in German. One wonders what else was heavily edited out of the German. That is a study in and of itself for another day.

In the academy—at least in the United States–intuition, dreams—thought that is freely associated– and the importance of cinema-as-dream, have dropped somewhere into George Orwell’s “memory hole.” Recall, intuition and dreams were the heart and soul of Ramanujan’s mathematics. However, more and more Bertrand Russell’s call to “let Ramanujan run”—in the film The Man who Knew Infinity— is anathema in higher education—and public schools– in the United States.

Schooling has never been about running with creativity. Schooling—at least on a systematic level– is stuck in standardization, testing and the wretched phrase “classroom management”—the very thing Foucault called discipline and punish. Foucault went so far as to say that exams were a form of torture. What else is the total management of people other than torture? Is that not the root of authoritarianism?

The Insurrection

When we ask what has gone wrong with Americans in light of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol and the failed trial at the Senate, it has much to do—though not entirely– with the inability of people to hone intuition and dreams. We do not let our children “run intellectually”; nor do we allow our scholars to “run” in the publishing world. Authoritarian societies—as Hannah Arendt understood—are built on obedience and fear. At least before the pandemic, schooling was little more than training in obedience and fear. Even at university, the culture of tenure is one of fear. These, of course are not new insights.

Colleges of Education are (at least in my experience)— almost embarrassingly –one of the worst examples of being stuck in 19th century methodologies, positivism, psychometrics and staid reliance on standardizing norms of doing scholarship. Being a curriculum theorist or philosopher of education in a College of Education—at least in the Southern United States—certainly feels like being a fish out of water, or even a creature from outerspace. The conservatism of academe is quite astonishing. The disappearance of the arts and humanities, too, is not only astonishing but quite alarming. At the very time in history when we need the arts and humanities in order to become more humane, administrations and politicians are cutting arts and humanities curriculum.

Authoritarianism and the Rigidity of Method

Authoritarian behavior is learned in schools, in fundamentalist religions, cults and families. This was what the Frankfurt school scholars wrote about in the 1930s. Have we learned nothing from history?  Authoritarian societies do not spring up from nothing, they do not come out of a vacuum. And here, certainly, teachers are not to blame. Teachers are victims of politicians’ rigid, ridiculous mandates and policies coming from those who know nothing about education. Again, nothing new in these thoughts.

The insurrection at the US Capitol, although it should have been no surprise, did shock and horrify most Americans. Afterwards, pundits are looking for someone to blame. But who is to blame? This is a complex question that has many possible answers but none really answer the question of blame.  It is it is easy and typical to blame the victims, the teachers and students. Blaming everything on teachers is in a long-standing patriarchal sickness of misogyny. Teaching is thought to be women’s work.

Kids are illiterate because teachers are not doing their jobs, pundits complain. The people who stormed the capitol are little more than illiterate thugs and so forth, pundits say. But that really isn’t the case. From history we know that the SA and SS weren’t all illiterate thugs. The Third Reich which led to the slaughter of over six million Jews were MDS, scientists, judges, lawyers and so forth.

The parallels in American history today are there. Many who stormed the capitol or who were engaged somehow—whether directly or indirectly—were educated, some co-conspirators are even senators with Ivy League educations.

When sociologists and critical theorists emphasize the importance of studying context, politics and the socio-cultural, there is reason to believe that they are onto something. These insurrectionists didn’t come from nowhere. There is a long history and context for their emergence. The insurrectionists are not newly formed terrorist groups. Holocaust scholars have pointed out for decades that hatreds like anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, are always already there. Depending upon the political climate, these hatreds rise up and then—when political climates change—they go underground until the next turn in the political landscape and leadership turns reactionary. But in the meanwhile, simmering under the soil, hatreds and resentments fester.

I am not a political theorist and have no answers for the why the insurrection happened. But the collisions of the pandemic, the loss of jobs, boredom and white rage all have something to do with it.  The minimum wage economy, what Marx called “alienated labor” and slave wages in the United States does not help. But everything cannot be reduced to economics.

The longing for authoritarianism is deep in history and culture—the ‘tell me what to’ do mentality is nothing new. Walter Benjamin remarked that history is little more than one catastrophe piled up upon another. Unfortunately, that seems to be more the case than not. The tell me what to do mentality—which is a kind of catastrophe intellectually– is tied to the way in which politicians attempt to colonize the schools with testing, testing and more testing, standardizing and destroying minds for generations. By the time kids get to college they can’t think.

Cinema and the Arts

Cinema and the arts are avenues out of the ‘tell me what to do’ mentality because these are forms of free expression and creativity.  Authoritarianism, contrarily, is little more than shutting down expression and creativity.  Total authority, the total control over everything in society—especially schooling and even in public universities—breaks peoples’ spirits and crushes their souls. Internalizing ‘tell me what to do mentality’ becomes so deeply buried in a people that no longer do they even ask why do I need to be told what to do anymore, this becomes embedded in peoples’ psyches. Making things up, whether in the arts through improvisation or even in mathematics, like making up formulas, becomes nearly impossible when one cannot break out of totalitarian psyches.

A fictionalized Bertrand Russell in the film about Ramanujan, teaches that “letting them run” means letting the arts and humanities run, let us out of the “ Iron Cage”–as Max Weber put it– of positivism. Rather, let artists and cinematographers be our teachers. Cinema allows us to travel in our minds—to freely associate even. Ironically, during this dreadful pandemic—when travel is restricted—what better genre than cinema to open spaces for dreams and intuition. The Man Who Knew Infinity is a story about running with thoughts. Running with thoughts frees minds and souls to make for a better, a more democratized world, a more open-ended world.

 Let Them Run: Ramanujan’s Friendship with Integers

The beauty of mathematics and language, the humanities and the arts, are destroyed by authoritarianism of any kind. They have always said authoritarianism could not happen here, in the United States. Well, it almost happened and it still could happen tomorrow. Not that this is the first time we have suffered through dictatorial-like Presidents. Woodrow Wilson was one of the most authoritarian presidents we have had. However, insurrections like the one we witnessed in January 2021 have not happened in this country since the Civil War.

Dictatorial governments seem to be increasing across the globe in recent years. As an American, I cannot imagine growing up in a culture where there are no elections, where there is no constitution and citizens are executed or flogged for being GBTLQ. But places like this exist. Americans—not paying attention to global politics or history—have no idea what terrorist states are really like.  I wonder how close we came to this? I wonder if we had had four more years of Trump (some call his reign the 4th Reich) what our future would have been? I don’t even like to think about it. I keep wondering how this country slipped so easily toward authoritarianism, catastrophe. Perhaps I should not be surprised or shocked, but I am both of these things.

Have we returned to Weimar Germany? The waiting period before the next insurrection? Next time, the insurrectionists just might get it right. Authoritarian-like institutions are created by individuals drawn to authoritarianism. This seems a rather tautological statement. However, the question becomes how to undo the psychological necessity to want to be told what to do. That is part of the problem of authoritarianism.  And these were the kinds of questions the Frankfurt School asked in the 1930s. A culture that is heavily bureaucratized and managed pretty soon becomes problematic. Kafka knew this and felt this in his native Prague. Some Holocaust scholars blamed competing bureaucracies for the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Others suggested that tyrannical fathers were to blame. Some even suggested it was as simple as making choices. The choice to engage in violence is an individual one and those who engaged in violence should be charged with crimes.

Institutionalists looked at the problems of authoritarianism in terms of structures and individualists looked at personal responsibility and choices. Others threw up their hands and said the whole thing in Germany was simply an aberration or the catastrophe was caused by the economy, or Germany’s engagement in WW1 resulting in devastation that war left behind. Some of the wise historians suggest perhaps it is a combination of all of these things and more. Derrida might even suggest that there is something else here that we cannot name that cause horrors like the Holocaust to occur.

A humanitarian future, humanitarian institutions begin with human beings treating one another humanely. Why is this so difficult? Sometimes impossible?

A life of caring and freedom and humane interaction begins one person at a time.  Without freely expressed thought, freely associated ideas and emotions—the freedom to do mathematics as one chooses—letting people run– opening up intuition— responding to those in need, showing gratitude, aiming toward what philosophers used to call the good—and seeking truth in everything we do, letting us run toward the good, toward truth, toward what is ethical and responsible, treating people with kindness and open-heartedness, embracing civility in all that we attempt to accomplish—might be a start. These things seem to be common sense but they are not and need to be continually re-thought and re-grounded in a seemingly groundless and dire world. But these things are not so simple and perhaps too idealistic in a world that seems hopeless and full of horror. Yes, history is continual catastrophe—as Walter Benjamin pointed out. However, can we still do what is right to make this a better world despite catastrophes? Ours is the struggle of Sisyphus, as Camus rightly pointed out. But there is always an unknown, destitute clerk somewhere in the world working on mathematical formulas waiting in the wings to be recognized. Perhaps some day, some one will open the door to a better future; like Elijah we must wait for that day to come, but it not here yet. Democracy, Derrida famously said, is to come. Like Elijah, democracy has not arrived yet.

What does the film The Man Who Knew Infinity teach?  Perhaps it teaches this: that there are infinite ways to live; infinite ways of doing mathematics, infinite ways to seek truth. An open future is an infinite one; the world is a place to dream —despite—continual and ongoing catastrophe.

Freud wrote about seemingly insignificant things that we tend to ignore. To those things we should turn, he argued. Because what seems insignificant could hold the keys to a future that we might not think possible. Global warming is a catastrophe in the making. The pandemic is raging out of control in some parts of the world. Authoritarianism is on the rise everywhere. But we have an infinite number of choices we can make. And yes, we have an infinite number of Iron cages to break open. It seems that the Gods have turned against us.

I am not arguing here for turning tragedy into something that it is not, because ours is a tragic world. But what I am arguing for is the freedom to run. The fictionalized Bertrand Russell had it right: Ramanujan did run and today his work is considered tremendously important mathematics leading to discoveries in physics. Fields are inter-dependent and inter-related. Fields interdependently can become democratized. Democratic fields can democratize culture. Colonizing minds, stifling methods get us nowhere. Stifling thought can kill. Gadamer was right when he basically argued that there is no truth in method.

In Plato’s world, the good, the true and the beautiful still have meaning, at least, for me. But the good, the true and the beautiful become possible only if we can let our psyches run, let the waters flow freely. Dams are not the answer; To dam a thought is the first step toward authoritarianism.  Ramanujan—it is said—made friends with integers. Friendship with integers is a starting place.




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Full Citation Information:
Morris, M. (2021). What the Fictionalized Philosopher Bertrand Russell Teaches in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/what-the-fictionalized-philosopher-bertrand-russell-teaches-in-the-film-the-man-who-knew-infinity/

Marla Morris

Marla is Professor of Curriculum, Foundations & Reading, in the College of Education, Statesboro Campus, Georgia Southern University, GA, USA. She studied philosophy at Tulane University, religious studies at Loyola University, New Orleans and Education at Louisiana State University. Her main interests are postmodern philosophy, psychoanalysis, curriculum studies and systematic theology. She has published papers on Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Simone de Beauvoir,  drawing extensively on the work of Gaston Bachelard and Donna Haraway. Marla has also worked in Holocaust studies, trauma studies, medical humanities and chaplaincy.