Leave it to Chance

The jacket design of Thomas Kavanagh’s book depicts a naked Fortune led by the goddess Folly, amid a shower of stock certificates. Their chariot is pushed on by besotted investors and crushing others beneath its wheels. It is, in other words, a picture of the Mississippi “bubble” of 1719–1720, the disastrous speculative scheme launched in France by the financier John Law for investment in the colonies. But the picture could perhaps, with a little adjustment, be made to represent the “History of Ideas” led on by the false enchantress “The Enlightenment.” Was there ever such a spreader of chaos as that unfortunate term? One is thinking especially of its “The,” which crept in during the twentieth century (perhaps through a mistranslation of the “Die” in “Die Aufklärung“) and which has a fatal effect, making “The Enlightenment” a thing, a discrete event, a completed process or fully formed Weltanschauung. The phrase was no doubt coined in an effort to copy the dazzling success of Burckhardt’s “The Renaissance”; so it is important to see the basic reason why, unlike Burckhardt’s phrase, it is not acceptable. Eighteenth-century writers played endless intricate games with the term “enlightenment” (lumières, Aufklärung, etc.), games which it is very important for the historian to study. Thus he cannot afford to use this loaded term himself, as a neutral item in his professional vocabulary—any more than phrases like “phlogiston” or “the true church,” or “true nobility.”

I honestly think that it is this phrase which has given a skew to Enlightenment and the Shadows of Chance. It is in a way an attractive and rewarding book, but an extremely odd one. Its thesis is that the representation of chance and gambling in the French eighteenth-century novel is intimately connected with the rise and development of mathematical “probability theory.” One sits up at this intriguing proposition and looks forward with relish to finding it proved. But—here comes the strangeness—the book not only does not really demonstrate it, but addresses itself to proving something quite different.

The mathematics of probability, as is well known, was launched in its modern form by Pascal and Fermat, in the shape of an argument about the odds in gambling. It was then elaborated by Huygens and Jacques Bernoulli, was extended beyond the natural sciences by Laplace, and eventually, in the nineteenth century, it fathered the development of general statistical theory, which now governs so much of our thought and rules so much of our lives. Ian Hacking, whose book The Emergence of Probability is partly what inspired Kavanagh, has spoken of probability theory as the “great philosophical success-story” of the last three centuries. “Other philosophical ideas have waxed and waned and sometimes grown again, but probability has been monotone. It has waxed and waxed, shone and shone. It has been a success in metaphysics, epistemology, and pragmatics, to mention three of the classic philosophical fields.”

That there could be a mathematics of chance was, as even a non-mathematician can see, a momentous discovery. It…

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