Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet
Today is the 279th anniversary of the birth of Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet (17 September 1743–29 March 1794), who was born on this day in 1743.
Cordorcet was one of the great Enlightenment philosophers of history. He was a man of this age and fully embodied Enlightenment era philosophy, to which he gave voice in classic statements of progress and the perfectibility of man. He was a royal official, but was deeply involved in the French revolution. When a rival faction in the revolution came into power, Condorcet became a hunted man. While living in a safe house and evading the authorities, he wrote a remarkable work that sets forth a definitive statement of the Enlightenment philosophy of history, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain). Condorcet was eventually captured and thrown into prison, dying under mysterious circumstances. It is now known if he was poisoned by his jailers, took poison himself, or died of natural causes.
Cordorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Piecture of the Progress of the Human Mind anticipates the school of big history in at least two respects: 1) he attempted to tell the whole history of humanity as it was then known, from its earliest beginnings, and 2) he extrapolated his Sketch into the future into what he called the Tenth Epoch (the earlier parts of the book are divided in Epochs One through Nine). For Condorcet, the next age for humanity was to be the Tenth Epoch, while for David Christian the next age for humanity will be the Eighth Threshold of emergent complexity.
Of perfectibility in Cordorcet, Arthur O. Lovejoy wrote:
“The term ‘perfectibility’ to which — though it was apparently invented by Turgot in 1750 — Rousseau probably did more than anyone else to give currency, became the catchword of Condorcet and other subsequent believers in the reality, necessity, and desirability of human progress through a fixed sequence of stages, in both past and future.” (Essays in the History of Ideas, p. 25)
Of progress in Cordorcet, the Bergsonian syndicalist Georges Sorel wrote about Cordorcet at some length in his The Illusions of Progress, and here we get a hostile account of Cordorcet’s approach:
“When Condorcet became an important political figure, he judged that the time had come to have the people participate in the progress of enlightenment. His ideas on public education have considerable importance for us because, in studying them, we can obtain an accurate picture of the nature of the eighteenth-century notion of progress… Condorcet thought it obvious that if one could show the people how to reason in the same way as those who frequented the salons of the ancien régime, world happiness was assured. His plan for secondary education with this end in mind is not regarded by present-day specialists as a very successful one.” (p. 24)
Progress and perfectibility were important touchstones of the Enlightenment, as was the idea of science. M. C. Lemon wrote that Cordorcet’s conception of history was more scientific than philosophical:
“For Condorcet, history should be a ‘science’, essentially like any other science. God and/or ‘providence’ can be removed from the study altogether, and to the extent that ‘the history of man . . . is linked by an uninterrupted chain of facts and observations, [so that] the picture of the march . . . of the human mind becomes truly historical’, then philosophy can also be taken out of the study. As Condorcet put it, ‘Philosophy has nothing more to guess, no more hypothetical surmises to make’. History is a matter of gathering and ordering the facts, and then of showing ‘the useful truths that can be derived from their connections and causality.’ That the latter exercise is surely a form of ‘philosophy’ (if only because, from our point of view, so obviously ‘value-laden’) Condorcet might have accepted — but in apparently relegating ‘philosophy’ in favour of ‘science’ he was primarily objecting to those, like Pascal, who insisted on a sharp distinction between the objects of scientific study (with its mathematical approach) and the objects of moral study (with their historical and philosophical approach). In that sense, for Condorcet, the study of the history of man should be a science rather than require an explicitly non-scientific, ‘philosophical’ approach.” (Philosophy of History: A Guide for Students, p. 188)
In light of this claim of the scientificity of history and the need, following from this, for the gathering and ordering of facts, a highly suggestive comment on Condorcet’s method is to be found in K. M. Baker’s paper, “An unpublished essay of Condorcet on technical methods of classification,” in which we read:
“There arrives a stage in the development of every science where it demands so much of the energy of the scientist to work through the detailed truths accumulated by observation that the discovery of general principles requires superhuman intelligence. At such a stage, Condorcet maintained, the science must await a conceptual revolution in method that will make it possible to reduce the inchoate mass of detail to general truths.”
Today we would read such a suggestion in the light of the possibilities of artificial intelligence to organize this inchoate mass on our behalf, and while this is an attractive speculation for some, it remains true today that the organization of a body of knowledge requires some insight that will make that body of knowledge accessible to us. Presumably this is true of history, which is a vast accumulated mass of facts that calls out for organization that will make it available to the human mind in a comprehensible way.
Condorcet begins his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind with a few paragraphs on epistemology, which is eminently appropriate as Condorcet is seeking to write a history of the human mind:
“This picture, therefore, is historical; since subjected as it will be to perpetual variations, it is formed by the successive observation of human societies at the different eras through which they have passed. It will accordingly exhibit the order in which the changes have taken place, explain the influence of every past period upon that which follows it, and thus show, by the modifications which the human species has experienced, in its incessant renovation through the immensity of ages, the course which it has pursued, and the steps which it has advanced towards knowledge and happiness. From these observations on what man has heretofore been, and what he is at present, we shall be led to the means of securing and of accelerating the still further progress, of which, from his nature, we may indulge the hope.”
Condorcet ends the entire work as follows:
“Such are the questions with which we shall terminate the last division of our work. And how admirably calculated is this view of the human race, emancipated from its chains, released alike from the dominion of chance, as well as from that of the enemies of its progress, and advancing with a firm and indeviate step in the paths of truth, to console the philosopher lamenting the errors, the flagrant acts of injustice, the crimes with which the earth is still polluted? It is the contemplation of this prospect that rewards him for all his efforts to assist the progress of reason and the establishment of liberty. He dares to regard these efforts as a part of the eternal chain of the destiny of mankind; and in this persuasion he finds the true delight of virtue, the pleasure of having performed a durable service, which no vicissitude will ever destroy in a fatal operation calculated to restore the reign of prejudice and slavery. This sentiment is the asylum into which he retires, and to which the memory of his persecutors cannot follow him: he unites himself in imagination with man restored to his rights, delivered from oppression, and proceeding with rapid strides in the path of happiness; he forgets his own misfortunes while his thoughts are thus employed; he lives no longer to adversity, calumny and malice, but becomes the associate of these wiser and more fortunate beings whose enviable condition he so earnestly contributed to produce.”
Here we find again the familiar Enlightenment themes of emancipation, progress, liberty, and happiness, and this from a man who was hiding from the police. One suspects that this treatise was the asylum to which Condorcet himself retired in the midst of the tumult of his time.
Marquis de Condorcet - Wikipedia
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet ( French: [maʁi ʒɑ̃ ɑ̃twan nikɔla də kaʁita maʁki də…
marquis de Condorcet | Biography, Writings, & Facts
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, (born September 17, 1743, Ribemont, France-died March 29…
An unpublished essay of Condorcet on technical methods of classification
(1962). An unpublished essay of Condorcet on technical methods of classification. Annals of Science: Vol. 18, No. 2…
Baker, K. M. (1962). An unpublished essay of Condorcet on technical methods of classification. Annals of Science, 18(2), 99–123. doi:10.1080/00033796200202742