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Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet


French Mathematician and Social Philosopher

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, better known by his title, marquis de Condorcet, was among the last of the social commentators known as philosophes, a group that had included Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778). A nobleman trained as a mathematician, Condorcet sought to apply mathematical study to social problems, and is considered among the founding fathers of the social sciences.

Born at Ribemont in Picardy on September 17, 1743, de Caritat would later receive the title marquis de Condorcet, which referred to the town of Condorcet in Dauphiné. He studied at the Jesuit college in Reims, and later at the Collège de Navarre in Paris before going on to the Collège Mazarin, also in Paris.

Condorcet published his first significant work, Essai sur le calcul intégral, in 1765, when he was just 22 years old. Four years later, he was elected to the Académie des Sciences. During this time, he produced a number of important works, including a 1772 piece on the integral calculus that Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813) later described as "filled with sublime and fruitful ideas."

In the early 1770s Condorcet became friends with Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), an economist who accepted a series of important administrative positions under the French monarchy. After Louis XVI appointed Turgot comptroller general of finance in 1774, Turgot arranged for his friend to become inspector general of the mint. Two years later, Turgot was dismissed and Condorcet attempted to resign, but the king refused his resignation, and Condorcret retained the post until 1791.

Appointed secretary of the Académie des Sciences in 1777, Condorcet continued to study probability and the philosophy of mathematics, concepts he applied to social problems in Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (1785). Among his breakthrough observations was the Condorcet Paradox, which demonstrated that if the majority prefers option A over option B and option B over option C, it is still possible for a majority to prefer option C over option A—in other words, the statement "majority prefers" is not transitive.

In 1786 Condorcet produced a biography of Turgot, and in 1789 one for Voltaire. From this point forward, however, his attention would increasingly be consumed with politics, and he took an active role among the moderate Girondist faction in the French Revolution. As a Paris representative in the Legislative Assembly, he called for universal male suffrage, proportional representation, and local self-government—liberal ideas for which the radical Jacobin faction had no use.

By 1793 the Reign of Terror was in full swing and Condorcet was on the run. While in hiding from the Jacobins, who then controlled the government, he produced a philosophical work, Esquisse d'un tableau historiques des progrès de l'esprit humain (1795). By the time of its publication, however, Condorcet was dead. Fleeing from a house where he had been hiding in Paris, he was captured and imprisoned on March 27, 1794. Two days later, he was found dead in his prison cell, though it is unclear whether he died of natural causes, suicide, or murder.


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