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Cournot, Antoine Augustin (1801–1877)


Antoine Augustin Cournot, the French mathematician, economist, philosopher, and educator was born in Gray, Haute Saône. He was educated at collèges at Gray (which now bears his name) and Besançon, and at the École Normale Supérieur in Paris. In addition to teaching at the universities of Lyon and Paris, he was head of the Académie at Grenoble and rector of the Académie at Dijon and succeeded André Marie Ampère as inspector general of studies. An able student of mechanics (including astronomy) and of mathematics, he applied probability theory to problems in both the physical and the social sciences. His work in economics early secured his reputation in that field, and he is now generally regarded as a founder of econometrics; as a philosopher he remains much less known.

Cournot is identified by Jean de la Harpe as a critical realist. This designation would be peculiarly appropriate were it not for the fact that this name has been taken by a group of American philosophers whose position is notably unlike that of Cournot in important respects. Since the term critical realist is equivocal, it may be advisable to refer to Cournot as a critical rationalist. Cournot is a realist of sorts in his metaphysics and more rationalist (albeit critically so) than empiricist or positivist in his epistemology. For him knowledge is a function of reason. The senses furnish neither the basis nor the criteria of knowledge, which not only can but does extend beyond their limits. Yet the senses do make important contributions to knowledge, especially by restraining its claims by challenging overextended speculations by confronting them with what William James aptly called "brute facts." Cournot rejects all dogmatic philosophies, whether rationalist or empiricist. Knowledge requires a continuing appraisal of all principles to determine both their grounds and the range of their legitimate applications. Specifically, he examines the established sciences to see whether they have any basic concepts in common. He discovers three such conceptsorder, chance, probability. These three concepts lie at the heart of Cournot's philosophy and suffice to account for his rejection of many earlier and contemporary alternative positions. He rejects the idealistic basis and implications of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, but he accepts the critical intent of the Kantian program.

For Cournot, order is a basic category which, as "objective reason," relates to the nature of things and, as "subjective reason," to the means through which we apprehend that nature. The major function of philosophy is to examine and criticize the efforts of subjective reason to know objective reason, making sure among other things that such closely related and often confused principles as "reason" and "cause," "rational order" and "logical order," are clearly differentiated in both their meaning and their function. We have knowledge when we apprehend the objective reason of things, but such knowledge is rarely complete and certain. Therefore, our knowledge is relative and probable, not absolute and apodictic, but it nonetheless rests on objective grounds, not on forms or categories native to the mind itself.

Cournot's unusual and cogent use of probability draws attention to a fundamental moderating element in his philosophy. His treatment of probability is developed most extensively in his Exposition (1843) and is used ingeniously and productively in his Essai (1851), Traité (1861), and Matérialisme, vitalisme, rationalisme. Long before putting these views to philosophic use, Cournot had applied them to problems in astronomy and in various fields of social studies, notably in economics, where he applied them with lastingly important results.

The calculus of probabilities is related to both order and chance. Both order and probability have plural meanings. Order as a category of the objective reason of things must not be confused either with logical orderthat is, with the order essential to a formal system of ideasor with causal order, by which Cournot means essentially what Aristotle called "efficient cause." The reason for a phenomenon must be distinguished from its cause, from the conditions or circumstances which give rise to it. Cause is related to the particular and unique; reason is related to the universal and abstract aspects of phenomena that are the ground for laws of general and fundamental relations among them, relations that are necessary, but not in themselves sufficient, conditions for the production of specific phenomena. Probability is of two sorts, mathematical and philosophical. Mathematical probability applies to those relatively rare situations in which the number and relative frequency of various possibilities can be numerically determined. Philosophical probabilitywhich may attain practical, but never demonstrable, certaintyapplies to the vastly more numerous cases in which such numerical determination is not possible. It involves an appraisal of evidence in terms of rational cogency where probabilities persuade and win the acquiescence of reasonable persons even though the relevant evidence is neither quantifiably manipulatable nor conclusive. We live continuously and inescapably with such probabilities; philosophical criticism is also largely concerned with them. In either case probability is a function of objective factors and conditions and not solely of our ignorance or other subjective factors, although these do contribute to our need to deal with probabilities of both types.

Of Cournot's three basic ideas, that of chance is least adequately developed. It is unfortunate that there is no specific and clear definition of this concept in its theoretical function, yet what the concept refers to is not at all unclear. Numerous examples leave no doubt about the meaning of the term as Cournot uses it. A chance occurrence is one in which there is an unpredictable conjunction of independent series of events, each series being internally related and having a determinable nature. However complete our knowledge of each independent series, events resulting from unpredictable conjunctions among them are contingent, unpredictable, fortuitous. Such events have causes, but they are not reducible to laws. The absence of reasons for such events is irreducible, chance, like order, being an objective feature of the nature of things. This doctrine is one source of the pluralism in Cournot's philosophy. In it he anticipates Émile Boutroux and suggests certain aspects of the philosophies of C. S. Peirce (for example, his "tychism") and M. R. Cohen (whose general philosophical position is not unlike Cournot's critical rationalism).

Another pluralistic aspect of Cournot's thought is indicated in the title of his last philosophic work, Matérialisme, vitalism, rationalisme. Countering the principles of Darwinian evolution, Cournot holds to the principle that living beings are distinguished from nonliving things by a unity and form suggestive of finality and by a vital principle inexplicable in physical and chemical terms. Here Cournot anticipates both Henri Bergson and the emergent evolutionists, notably Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan.

In his consideration of such concepts as form, unity, simplicity, and symmetry, Cournot moves toward a transrationalismthat is, toward a view in which ideas that go beyond normal rational analysis and use, such as finality, purpose, and God, find a place. This development is consistent with, indeed perhaps it is a consequence of, his pluralism and his implied doctrine of levels and with his rejection of any reductionist view as these are evidenced by his assertion that the phenomena of life involve something not present in nonliving phenomena. Such ideas as simplicity and symmetry are relevant to rational investigation, to the discovery of the order and reason of things, as in the probabilistic assessment and choice between otherwise equally adequate alternative hypotheses. In this sense such concepts are regulative ideas of reason. But Cournot argues that they are more than this, and in his treatment of these concepts he moves from a logic of reason toward an aesthetic of reason, in which the concept of order has a connotation more extensive than reason can explore. What effect does such a transrationalism have on the claimed objective existence of chance, the second concept so fundamental to Cournot's philosophy as a whole? None. Why this is the case is not adequately developed in Cournot's works, although a hint is found in Exposition : God lays out the laws or rational elements of reality and leaves to objective and inexpugnable chance the details of fortuitous occurrences. Therefore, even such a superior intelligence would, like man, be unable to foresee contingent events, although unlike man its assessment of what is contingent would not be complicated by subjective factors of the sort which inescapably limit and affect human judgment.

In developing his philosophy, Cournot deals with the nature of language, ethics, and aesthetics and with various social institutions and factors which contribute to civilization. He also discusses the nature of science, history, and philosophy and considers at some length the irreducible distinctions between them. His Considérations is a peculiarly interesting account of his handling of various historical matters.

See also Alexander, Samuel; Ampère, André Marie; Aristotle; Cohen, Morris Raphael; Critical Realism; Kant, Immanuel; Morgan, C. Lloyd; Peirce, Charles Sanders.


works by cournot

Mémoire sur le mouvement d'un corps rigide soutenu par un plan fixe. Paris, 1829.

Recherches sur les principes mathématiques de la théorie des richesses. Paris: Hachette, 1838. Translated into English by N. I. Bacon as Researches into the Mathematical Principles of the Theory of Wealth. Economic Classics series. London: Macmillan, 1897.

Traité élémentaire de la théorie des fonctions et du calcul infinitesimal. 2 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1841; 2nd ed., revised and corrected, 1857.

Exposition de la théorie des chances et des probabilités. Paris, 1843.

De l'origine et des limites de la correspondance entre l'algèbre et la géometrie. Paris, 1847.

Essai sur les fondements de nos connaissances et sur les caractères de la critique philosophique. 2 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1851; 2nd ed., 1912; 3rd ed., 1 vol., 1922. Translated into English by Merritt H. Moore as An Essay on the Foundations of Our Knowledge. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956.

Traité de l'enchaînement des idées fondamentales dans les sciences et dans l'histoire, 2 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1861; 2nd ed., 1 vol., 1911; 3rd ed., 1 vol., 1922. The 1911 and 1922 editions include a foreword by L. Lévy-Bruhl.

Principes de la théorie des richesses. Paris: Hachette, 1863.

Des institutions d'instruction publique en France. Paris: Hachette, 1864.

Considérations sur la marche des idées et des événements dans les temps modernes. 2 vols. Paris: n.p., 1872; republished with introduction by M. Mentré, 2 vols., Paris: Boivin, 1934.

Matérialisme, vitalisme, rationalisme: Études sur l'emploi des données de la science en philosophie. Paris, 1875; Paris: Hachette, 1923.

Revue sommaire des doctrines économiques. Paris: Hachette, 1877.

Souvenirs: 1760 à 1860. Paris: Hachette, 1913. Written in 1859; published with introduction and notes by E. P. Bottinelli.

works on cournot

Bottinelli, E. P. A. Cournot métaphysicien de la connaissance. Paris: Hachette, 1913.

Darbon, A. Le concept du hasard dans la philosophie de Cournot. Paris: Alcan, 1911.

Harpe, Jean de la. De l'ordre et du hasard: Le Réalisme critique D'Antoine Augustin Cournot. Memoirs of the University of Neuchâtel, Vol. IX. Neuchâtel: Secrétariat de l'Université, 1936.

Lévèque, R. L' "élément historique" dans la connaissance humaine d'après Cournot. Publications of the Faculty of Letters of the University of Strasbourg, No. 82. Paris: La Société d'édition Les Belles lettres, 1938.

Mentré, F. Cournot et la renaissance du probabilisme au XIXe siècle. Paris: Rivière, 1908.

Milhaud, G. Études sur Cournot. Paris: J. Vrin, 1927.

Revue de métaphysique et de morale 13 (3) (1905): 293543. A special number dedicated to A. Cournot, with portrait. Articles by H. Poincaré, G. Milhaud, G. Tarde, C. Bouglé, A. Anpetit, F. Faure, A. Darlu, F. Vial, D. Parodi, R. Audierne, H.-L. Moore.

Ruyer, R. L'humanité de l'avenir d'après Cournot. Paris: F. Alcan, 1930.

Segond, J. Cournot et la psychologie vitaliste. Paris: Alcan, 1911.

Merritt Hadden Moore (1967)

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