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Condorcet, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat de (1743–94)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB019-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Article Summary

The Marquis de Condorcet belongs to the second generation of eighteenth-century French philosophes. He was by training and inclination a mathematician, and his work marks a major stage in the development of what is known today as the social sciences. He was held in high regard by contemporaries for his contributions to probability theory, and he published a number of seminal treatises on the theory and application of probabilism. He is best known today for the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1795), his monumental, secularized historical analysis of the dynamics of man’s progress from the primitive state of nature to modernity.

Condorcet’s principal aim was to establish a science of man that would be as concise and certain in its methods and results as the natural and physical sciences. For Condorcet there could be no true basis to science without the model of mathematics, and there was no branch of human knowledge to which the mathematical approach was not relevant. He called the application of mathematics to human behaviour and organization ‘social arithmetic’.

The central epistemological assumption, upon which his philosophy was based, was that the truths of observation, whether in the context of the physical or the moral and social sciences, were nothing more than probabilities, but that their varying degrees of certainty could be measured by means of the calculus of probabilities. Condorcet was thus able, through mathematical logic, to counteract the negative implications of Pyrrhonic scepticism for the notions of truth and progress, the calculus providing not only the link between the different orders of knowledge but also the way out of the Pyrrhonic trap by demonstrating man’s capacity and freedom to understand and direct the march of progress in a rationally-ordered way.

In his Esquisse Condorcet set out to record not only the history of man’s progress through nine ‘epochs’, from the presocial state of nature to the societies of modern Europe, but in the tenth ‘epoch’ of this work he also held out the promise of continuing progress in the future. He saw the gradual emancipation of human society and the achievement of human happiness as the consequence of man having been endowed by nature with the capacity to learn from experience and of the cumulative, beneficial effects of the growth of knowledge and enlightenment. Condorcet’s Esquisse laid the basis for the positivism of the nineteenth century, and had a particularly significant impact on the work of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte.

Citing this article:
Williams, David. Condorcet, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat de (1743–94), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB019-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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