Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Human Nature to Normal Humanity: Joseph De Maistre, Rousseau, and the Origins of Moral Statistics

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Human Nature to Normal Humanity: Joseph De Maistre, Rousseau, and the Origins of Moral Statistics

Article excerpt

The by now voluminous literature on the rise of statistics as a state science in the early nineteenth century seems to have established two facts decisively: firstly, that the governmental institution of statistics was made socially possible by the collaboration between administrators and mathematicians toward the end of the old regime in France;1 and secondly, that-as Ian Hacking pivotally observed in The Taming of Chance (1990)-this social transformation resulted philosophically in a shift away from the Enlightenment model of human nature, toward a new paradigm of normal people with laws of dispersion. Historians have, quite naturally, traced the fate of the new paradigm in the works of the scientists and bureaucrats who, at the time, were directly involved in the theory and practice of statistics. They have observed how the philosophical speculations that accompanied statistical innovations during the eighteenth century gradually disappeared.2 Nineteenth-century statistics, stripped of metaphysics, would become strictly positivist in its assumption of the simply progressive quality of mathematics itself-and hence oblivious to the truth value of statistical objects like averages and normal observations.

This account, while persuasive in its own right, does not explain why from 1798 onwards the French government abandoned statistical topography in favor of a new, moral statistics, aimed at assessing the degree of civic happiness and the cohesiveness of the social order. Until then the only social mathematics close to moral statistics had been that of Condorcet, who, in the manner of idéologie, aimed at erasing the Cartesian dichotomy between the moral and the physical orders and thus limited his analysis to social phenomena on the boundary between the two-like political opinions.3 Marie-Noëlle Bourguet has described the advent of Napoleonic statistics centered on social order from the perspective of administrative history, and explained it as a result of the need to take stock of the achievements of liberté and égalité.4 But the actual intellectual origins of the new moral science remain obscure.

Yet another fact left unexplained by the decreasing philosophy model is the highly metaphysical character of the statistical reasoning that prevailed in much of nineteenth-century social theory. Emile Durkheim elaborated his moral definition of social normality5 from Auguste Comte, whose religious interests suffused positivism with a metaphysics strongly influenced by Catholic theology.6 Whence, then, the moral/metaphysical roots of early sociological notions of normality and probability? This paper aims at demonstrating the existence of a non-mathematical tradition of statistical reasoning, heir to eighteenth-century sociological and metaphysical concerns, whose in-depth exploration could go very far toward understanding the moral statistics practiced by the Directory and the Empire-as well as the primitive statistical concepts of nineteenth-century French sociology. This is the tradition begun by the early Francophone Conservatives, and best exemplified by Joseph de Maistre in his writings on Rousseau. Indeed if the shift from human nature to normality observed by Hacking was made in any text, it was in Maistre's On the State of Nature. Written sometime between early 1794 and late 1795 but probably not long after Thermidor, this unfinished essay was a wholesale refutation of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755). It constituted, specifically, Maistre's attempt to reverse the logic of the philosophy that he believed to have engendered the Revolution's atrocities, and to refute that philosophy forever. In this task Maistre took on Rousseau point by point, paragraph by paragraph, seeming to write as he read and probably not knowing where his new exercise was leading him. As it turns out, by the time he was done he had laid much of the theoretical groundwork for moral statistics. …

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