Cournot, Antoine Augustine

views updated


Mathematician, economist, educator, and philosopher; b. Gray (Haute-Saône), France, Aug. 28, 1801; d. Paris, March 30, 1877. Cournot taught at the academy of Paris from 1831 to 1834 before joining the faculty of science at Lyons for one year. An educational administrator, he served as inspector general of public instruction from 1835 to 1838, when he was made a member of the Legion of Honor. He was rector of the Academy of Dijon from 1854 to 1862 and wrote many outstanding works in mathematical economics and philosophy of science.

Cournot, the founder of mathematical economics, entered philosophy through the science of mathematics. His original views on economics, many of which are basic to contemporary theory, provided him with a key to a new philosophy of science. He fundamentally opposed the positivism of A. comte and the eclecticism of V. cousin in resolving the antinomies of science and philosophy. An ardent advocate of science and an enthusiastic admirer of I. kant and G. W. leibniz, he proposed his theory of mathematical probabilities as a synthesis of idealism and positivism. Kant despised the non-certain, the logically non-rigorous, whereas science despaired of attaining certitude. The result was skepticism and agnosticism. Cournot answered this by saying that reality could be known with a probability that science progressively clarifies and philosophy progressively penetrates.

To Cournot, science without philosophy is blind; philosophy without science is empty. Philosophical truth is not a matter of positive fact beyond dispute, nor is reality merely reduced to statistical equations. Matter, life, reason, morals, and aesthetics are irreducible levels of developmental reality, which can be known with progressive clarity and depth, though not with certainty, by probability analysis. Order and disorder, law and chance are two unopposed phases of cosmic evolution, and as knowledge progresses, disorder and chance are reduced to law. Cournot applied his vitalistic, teleological evolu tionism and his mathematical methods to every area of science and art in an effort to unify science and philosophy and avoid skepticism and agnosticism.

Cournot contributed much to the 19th-century critical and epistemological idealism in France. He and Claude Bernard initiated the movement known as Critique de la science, which numbered such distinguished men as G. Tarde, H. Poincaré, P. Duhem, G. Milhaud, É. Meyerson, A. Hannequin, and A. Naville. However, his strength proved to be his weakness, for the uncertain knowledge provided by his mathematical probabilities neither attained the full reality of the cosmos nor avoided the skepticism and agnosticism he set out to refute.

Bibliography: j. a. schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, ed. e. b. schumpeter (New York 1954). j. benrubi, Les Sources et les courants de la philosophie contemporaine en France, 2 v. (Paris 1933) v.1. t. v. charpentier, "Philosophes Contemporains: M. Cournot," Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger 11 (1881) 494518. f. barone, Enciclopedia filosofica. (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:130506.

[r. j. nogar]