Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Statistik and History in the German Enlightenment*

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Statistik and History in the German Enlightenment*

Article excerpt

I.

Although eighteenth-century German Statistik gave its name to the modern term statistics in various languages, it had a very different connotation.1 Statistik was not a mathematical science but a descriptive and empirical discipline of Land und Leute (the land and the people). Based on the critical examination of facts it collected information on population, economic resources, and much else to identify the actual material condition of various European states. This descriptive Statistik became a specifically German phenomenon only after 1750, its heyday being the period from 1770 until shortly after 1800. While much has been written on the establishment and workings of Statistik, hardly anything is known about the exact reasons for its decline. After briefly introducing a few basic features of Statistik as an academic science of the state with its own subject matter and discourse, the present essay focuses on the peculiar method of Statistik as an empirical science whose results, however, defied its self-proclaimed goal to be useful to government. Closely connected to this problem it is argued specifically that its uneasy relationship to historiography burdened Statistik from the outset and was the immediate cause of its slow demise.

Since the sixteenth century, among travelers and diplomats accredited at foreign courts, most famously the Venetian envoys, it had been the general practice to collect information more or less systematically on foreign states. Gottfried Achenwall, professor of law and politics in Göttingen, who put the term Statistik into general circulation after 1750, drew on this tradition when he derived the name from the Italian statista, statesman, and the ragione di stato, reason of state, referring to the knowledge a statesman was required to possess.2 In this sense one could call this early Statistik the key term in another Machiavellian moment, one not based on the statesman's virtù, but on his solid knowledge of a state's strengths and weaknesses.3

In Germany the resulting discipline was closely interwoven with recent history and politics, for in contrast to the studia antiquitatum, which documented similar material for ancient and biblical times, Statistik involved existing European states whose interests were mutually affected by the mechanism of the balance of power. Arnold Heeren, belonging to the last generation of Statistiker, in 1809 defined the European system more culturally as "the union of several contiguous states, resembling each other in their manners, religion, and degree of social improvement, and cemented together by a reciprocity of interests." Yet the system's trademark was still "internal freedom," described as the stability and mutual independence of its members.4 Extensive "historical," that is, empirical knowledge of the state was therefore a precondition for arriving at the suitable political means for its survival. This in turn necessitated a focus on commerce as the most important source of its wealth and the defining element in its relationship with other states. In the context of a Europe-wide debate on the merits of commerce over war, Johann Heinrich Gottlob Justi, the great systematizer of German cameralism, argued around 1760 that states owed their strength to effective management of domestic resources, commerce, and free trade.5 Likewise, for Achenwall the art of peace, meaning the "axioms of political economy" Staatswirtschaft) which consisted in "production and commerce in the widest sense," rather than the art of war, was at the center of his notion of the science of politics Staatskunst).6 And as far as Statistik was concerned with agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce it, too, fitted in the European discourse on political economy as an alternative to war.

One option in the debate was the neo-Epicurean view according to which people's selfish pursuits more or less sufficed to make society work without having to take recourse to religion or government imposing their economic doctrines. …

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