Condorcet, Marquis de (1743–1794)

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Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, the French mathematician, historian of the sciences, political theorist, and social reformer, was one of the youngest of the Encyclopedists and the only prominent one to participate actively in the French Revolution. He was born in Ribemont in Picardy and was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège de Navarre. Admitted to the Académie des Sciences in 1769 on the basis of his early mathematical writings, he was elected its perpetual secretary in 1776 and ably depicted the progress of the sciences to a wide public in the customary eulogies (Éloges ) of deceased academicians, which he presented in this position.

A protégé of Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, for whom Condorcet's election to the Académie Française in 1782 was regarded as a personal triumph, and of Baron de l'Aulne Turgot, who called him to the directorship of the mint during his abortive reforming ministry, Condorcet was active in the prerevolutionary campaigns for economic freedom, religious toleration, legal reform and the abolition of slavery. After his marriage to Sophie de Grouchy in 1786 their salon became one of the most brilliant and influential of the prerevolutionary period. He took part in the opening debates of the French Revolution as a member of the municipal council of Paris and was a convinced republican by the time he was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791. Prominent in this assembly, he directed his most sustained efforts toward the elaboration of a project for public education that had great influence on the eventual establishment of the French educational system.

In the National Convention, Condorcet's opposition to the death penalty led him to cast his vote against the execution of Louis XVI (he voted for the supreme penalty short of death). He then undertook the task of drawing up a draft constitution for the new republic, but although accepted by the committee on the constitution, his liberal constitutional schemecommonly known as the Girondin constitution of 1793shared the unfortunate fate of the group with which it was associated. In July 1793, Condorcet's indignant defense of his constitution against that prepared by the Jacobins led to his denunciation and flight into hiding. He spent his remaining months of life secluded in Paris, working on the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain ), published posthumously in 1795. He left his asylum in March 1794 and was arrested and imprisoned at Bourg-la-Reine, near Paris. He died during the first night of his imprisonment, either from exhaustion or from a self-administered poison.

Probability and Social Science

It has often been assumed that Condorcet's increasing preoccupation with social and political affairs, if not the result of a sense of frustration with his mathematical investigations, was at least accompanied by a waning interest in them. Quite the reverse is true. Condorcet's experience at the Académie des Sciences fostered a sense of the power of science to elucidate even the realm of social behavior. His mathematical endeavors were intimately bound up with his fundamental intellectual concern. He aimed to bring to social questions the attitudes and methods of the physical sciences, thereby welding the broken elements of the moral and political sciences into a new social science, which he regarded as the necessary condition of a rational political and social order.

Condorcet seized upon the calculus of probabilities as the essential epistemological connection between the physical sciences and the science of man. All the truths of experience are merely probable, he argued. In the social sciences the observation of facts may be more difficult and their order less constant. The results of the social sciences may therefore be less probable than those of the physical sciences. But Condorcet maintained that the probability of all statements of experience can be expressed and evaluated mathematically within probability theory. Thus, while the statements attained by the social sciences may on occasions be less probable than those of the physical sciences, in Condorcet's view the mathematical estimate of their respective probabilities is equally certain. The meteorologist cannot be certain that it will rain tomorrow, for example, but if on the basis of his observations he can estimate the probability of its doing so as x :1, then he can be certain that there is a probability of x :1 that it will rain tomorrow. Similarly, the economist, who cannot be certain that the standard of living will continue to rise, can in theory arrive at a certain mathematical estimate of the probability of its doing so.

The significance of this argument can be best assessed in terms of the earlier epistemological claims to certainty made by René Descartes on behalf of the mathematical and physical sciences. Condorcet accepted the skeptic's evaluation of the physical sciences as being merely probable. But in arguing that probabilities in the physical sciences (like those in the social sciences) can be evaluated with mathematical certainty, he remained in a sense fundamentally Cartesian. Not only did he hold to the idea of certainty as the criterion of acceptable knowledge, but he also accepted mathematics as the paradigm of certain knowledge (although even this certainty is based in the last analysis, he was occasionally prepared to argue, on the observed constancy of the operation of the human mind). Condorcet's argument in this respect ranks with that of Giambattista Vico as one of the major eighteenth-century attempts to establish the validity of social science. But whereas Vico turned away from the mathematical and physical sciences in search of a historical and organic conception of his new science, Condorcet's probabilistic evaluation of the physical sciences served to integrate them with the science of man in an essentially mathematical conception of science. For Condorcet, the mathematician was able, by using the calculus of probabilities, to subject to the certain evaluation of mathematics even those areas of knowledge condemned by Descartes as untrustworthy. The calculus of probabilities provided a sure means of estimating the validity of our opinions and the probability of our expectations; it bound the moral and physical sciences together on a sliding scale of probabilities which could at all stages be evaluated with mathematical certainty.

Condorcet developed this conception in two very different works. In the first, the Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (Essai sur l'application de l'analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix, 1785), he set out to discover by means of the calculus of probabilities under what conditions there will be an adequate guarantee that the majority decision of an assembly or tribunal is true. In one of its applications he envisaged such an analysis as the means of solving a perennial problem of liberal thought, that of reconciling the claims of an elite to exercise special responsibilities in the process of decision making with the general principle of universal or majority consent. But the obscure mathematics of the essay and its inevitable reliance on unverifiable assumptions as to the probable truth or error of the opinions of individuals composing social bodies have left it largely ignored by those interested in Condorcet's political theory. More recently, social mathematicians interested in elucidating the relationship between individual and collective choice (whether political or economic) have been able to disengage from the probabilistic framework of this work a theoretical model of collective decision making that is remarkably modern in its implications and approach. (See Black [1958] and Granger [1954]).

The Essai sur l'application de l'analyse was intended to convince academicians of the validity of Condorcet's contention that the moral and political sciences can be treated mathematically. The unfinished "Tableau général de la science, qui a pour objet l'application du calcul aux sciences morales et politiques" (General View of the Science Comprising the Mathematical Treatment of the Moral and Political Sciences) was meant for a different audience. It appeared in 1793 in a popular journal that sought to initiate citizens of the new French republic into the social science, or the art of the rational conduct of politics. Condorcet saw the new social mathematics (mathématique sociale ) as a common, everyday science of conduct ("une science usuelle et commune," Oeuvres, Vol. I, p. 550) that would provide the essential foundation of a democratic, but rational, politics. He viewed man in all his conduct as a gambler. Each individual automatically and instinctively balances the probability of one opinion against that of another, the desired goal of a proposed action against its probable results. The mathematical science of man was intended not only as an objective description of social behavior but also as a scientific basis for individual conduct that would enable people to substitute for habitual and instinctive modes of thought and action the precise evaluation of reason and calculation. Social mathematics, coupled with an exact language based on precise philosophical analysis of our ideas, would free human beings from instinct and passion and restore the empire of reason in social affairs. It formed the essential link between scientific advance and moral progress, for evil, as Condorcet remarked, was far more often the result of an erroneous calculation of interest than the product of violent passion.

Idea of Progress

In the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet turned to history for a demonstration of the power of reason and calculation in social affairs. The Sketch was only the hastily written introduction to a larger work on the history of science and its impact upon society which Condorcet had been contemplating for many years. Some of the fragments of this unfinished work are of considerable philosophical interest. One outlined a project for a universal, symbolic language of the sciences; another elaborated a decimal system of classification addressed to the much-debated problem of scientific classification. But it is with the Sketch itself that Condorcet's name and influence have been chiefly associated, and it is with that workoften regarded as the philosophical testament of the eighteenth centurythat Condorcet bequeathed to the nineteenth century the fundamental idiom of its social thought, the idea of progress.

The aim of the Sketch was to demonstrate man's progressive emancipation, first from the arbitrary domination of his physical environment and then from the historical bondage of his own making. Condorcet shared with other eighteenth-century theorists a view of progress that depended ultimately upon man's cumulative ability to combine sensations and ideas (in the manner revealed by sensationalist psychology) to his own satisfaction or advantage. This Promethean psychological capacity functioned in the same manner in the human race as in the individual; it proceeded by way of a natural, self-revealing logic or "method," from the fundamental data of sense experience to the most general principles of the moral and physical sciences. Condorcet's main concern, therefore, was less to explain the growth of reason in itselfthis growth was posited as naturalthan to point to the destruction of the obstacles that had inhibited that growth or diverted the historical development of the mind from the natural logic of ideas.

Condorcet's hopes for future progress rested on two conclusions. First, he was convinced that the obstacles which had in the past threatened the advance and dissemination of reasonelitism and tyranny on the one hand; popular prejudice, ignorance, and social and political subjection, on the otherwere finally being destroyed under the joint impact of scientific, technological, and political revolution. Second, he believed that the discoveries of sensationalist psychology had made it possible to articulate the natural and fundamental principles of the social art, or science, and he drew from the doctrine of the rights of mangrounded upon the "facts" of man's sensate naturea comprehensive outline of the principles of liberal democracy that it would be the purpose of the social art to implement.

Although this belief in indefinite future progress was based on the general assertion that observation of past events warrants extrapolation as to the probable future, Condorcet was not a strict historical determinist. Humans are subject to the general laws of physical nature, he maintained in an unpublished introduction to the Sketch, but they have the power to modify these laws and turn them to their own advantage. Although this power is feeble in the individual, when exercised by humankind collectively and over a long period, it can balance the forces of nature and can even be regarded as the work of nature itself. For if nature has endowed humankind collectively with the capacity to learn from experience, to understand its laws, and to modify their effects, the progressive emancipation of humans from nature is itself natural, and the growth of freedom is a natural law. The Sketch not only demonstrated the power of the social art but also made clear that it could succeed only as a communal and democratic art. It is this emphasis upon the collective experience and achievements of humankind, this concern with the "most obscure and neglected chapter of the history of the human race" (Sketch, Barraclough translation, p. 171)namely, the progress of the mass of the people in societythat links Condorcet's view of history with his conception of social science.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Descartes, René; Encyclopédie; Mathematics, Foundations of; Philosophy of History; Progress, The Idea of; Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Baron de L'Aulne; Vico, Giambattista.


The standard edition of Condorcet's works is A. Condorcet-O'Connor and F. Arago, eds., Oeuvres de Condorcet. 12 vols. (Paris, 18471849). The Essai sur l'application de l'analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix (Paris: De l'Imprimerie Royale, 1785) and Condorcet's many other mathematical writings are not included in this edition. For a bibliography of these mathematical works see Charles Henry, "Sur la Vie et les écrits mathématiques de Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat marquis de Condorcet." In Bulletino di bibliografica e di storia delle scienze matematiche e fisiche 16 (1883): 271324. See also Charles Henry, ed., Correspondance inédite de Condorcet et de Turgot (177079) (Paris: Charavay Frères, 1883); Léon Cahen, "Condorcet inédit: Notes pour le Tableau des progrès de l'esprit humain," in La révolution française 75 (1922): 193212; Gilles-Gaston Granger, "Langue universelle et formalisation des sciences: Un Fragment inédit de Condorcet," in Revue d'histoire des sciences 7 (1954): 197219; Alberto Cento, "Dei manoscritti del 'Tableau' di Condorcet," in Rendiconto del Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere: Classe di Lettere e Scienze Morali e Storiche 88 (1955): 311324; K. M. Baker, "An Unpublished Essay of Condorcet on Technical Methods of Classification," in Annals of Science 18 (1962): 99123. For a modern translation of the Esquisse, see Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, translated by June Barraclough, with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955).

For reference see Franck Alengry, Condorcet, guide de la Révolution française, théoricien du droit constitutionnel et précurseur de la science sociale (Paris: V. Giard and E. Brière, 1903); Duncan Black, The Theory of Committees and Elections (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958); Janine Bouissounouse, Condorcet, le Philosophe dans la Révolution (Paris: Hachette, 1962); Léon Cahen, Condorcet et la Révolution française (Paris: Alcan, 1904); Alberto Cento, Condorcet e l'idea di progresso (Florence: Parenti, 1956); Gilles-Gaston Granger, La mathématique sociale du marquis de Condorcet (Paris, 1956); Frank E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962); and J. Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934).

See also Keith M. Baker, Condorcet, From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975); and Edward Goodell, The Noble Philosopher: Condorcet and the Enlightenment (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1994).

Keith Michael Baker (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Condorcet, Marquis de (1743–1794)

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