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Primer: Adolphe Quetelet, Statistics, and Social Physics June 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of social changes and regularities in social activity remained an intense concern as population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political upheaval captured the attention of scientific and political thinkers throughout Europe and America.  As today, this thought necessarily spanned political, popular, philosophical, and scientific realms of thought as debates ensued concerning what could be said about societies and what could and should be done to affect how they function.

In the early 19th century, keeping and deploying statistics was already widespread, but their use as a tool of political discourse remained novel, and thus a subject of general and heated discussion.  The astronomer and essayist Adolphe Quetelet proved to be one of the century’s most singular and influential thinkers concerning the use of social statistics.  Born in Belgium in 1796 shortly after French annexed Austria’s Belgian provinces in the wars following the Revolution, Quetelet was educated in a French lycée, and as a youth took notice of the place accorded to the sciences in the Napoleonic empire.  After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Quetelet taught mathematics in Ghent, earned a doctorate in the subject, and, after convincing the government to build an observatory in Brussels, he departed to Paris—still the intellectual center of the world—to learn astronomy.  Quetelet took up his post as director of the new Brussels Observatory in 1828, and the observatory began operation in 1832.

By no coincidence, it was in this same period that Quetelet first began writing about statistics and “social physics” (a phrase taken from contemporary “positivist” philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte).  Principles of statistics and probability had been worked out by key figures in the development of the technical methods of astronomy in France who were also interested in social statistics, particularly Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).  And, like many others writing (more…)

Primer: Charles Fourier and the Gravity of the Passions in the Wake of Revolution April 30, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was the son of successful cloth merchant whose fortune was lost in the Revolution. Fourier himself was almost executed in the Terror. Like Maistre, his philosophy was a response to the failure of the revolutionary project as well as an inquiry into the universality of reason and the problem of the good society. Fourier’s solution to the problem of the ‘good society’ was indeed novel: the ideal state would be brought about by the supremacy of the natural passions. This was an inversion of the traditional order between the regulative capacity of reason and the sublimation of sentiment. Society was to be regulated, in Fourier’s view, not through reason, but through the harmony of natural passion and action.

In 1808, Fourier published the Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies, (Cambridge ed.) which presented his vision of the universal history of humanity, the cosmos, and the prospects for a new order. Fourier presented his study as an inquiry into “the General System of Nature.” Such an inquiry was not only prudent but necessary as true happiness was impossible without a complete understanding of the General System. Fourier believed the first branch of the theory, the material, to be “unveiled” by Newton and Leibniz (3.) Fourier cautioned his reader in the preface , “It should be borne in mind that because the discovery announced is more important than all the scientific work done since the human race began, civilized people should concern themselves with one debate only: whether or not I have really discovered the Theory of the Four Movements.” If the answer was in the affirmative then “all economic and moral theories need to be thrown away” and preparations were to begin for the transition “from social chaos to universal harmony” (4.) Fourier’s universal history had thirty-two stages, all ordained by God, which began in savagery and which led, through the phase of civilization, to the subsequent stage of ‘socialism,’ and finally, Harmony. This highest stage would last for 70,000 years, after which humanity would descend back into the savage state and the world would cease to be. (more…)

Primer: Joseph Marie Maistre and the Image of the Machine April 16, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Marie Maistre (1753-1821) , underscored the irredeemable fallenness of mankind, which was rooted in original sin and visible in the seemingly endless wars, conflicts, and revolutions in human history.  The  French modernist poet Baudelaire considered Maistre an antidote against the naive optimism of the eighteenth century.  Like  Chateaubriand in his Genius of Christianity (1802), Maistre was a defender of religious sentiment and its role in politics  (Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, pg. 707.) A staunch defender of the Catholic Church and strong governance, Maistre believed that providence was the active force behind universal history.  Maistre defined human beings in this scheme according to their lust for power.

As Isaiah Berlin notes in his introduction to Maistre’s Considerations on France, Maistre “is painted, always, as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority; proud, bigoted, inflexible…brilliant…vainly seeking to arrest the current of  history….”  Maistre, in Berlin’s view, is all of these things, and all the more interesting for them,  “for although Maistre may have spoken in the language of the past, the content of what he had to say is the absolute substance of anti-democratic talk of our day” (Considerations on France, Introduction, xii, xiii.)

Like Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Schiller, Maistre was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and the Terror.  The experience “turned him into an implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, democratic, high-minded, everything connected with intellectuals, critics, scientists, everything to do with the forces which created the French Revolution” (xiii)  The Revolution and the Terror convinced him that the idea of progress was an illusion.  Instead, Maistre underscored the sacred past, the “virtue, and the necessity, indeed, of complete subjugation.”  In the place of scientific rationality, Maistre offered the alternative of “the primacy of instinct, superstition, and prejudice.”

More charitably, Owen Bradley notes that in Maistre’s critique of science, “his attack on the excesses of technical rationality raises the essentially modern question of the sociopolitical consequences of the scientific organization of (more…)