Condorcet was an interesting dude

I knew about him only in relation with the voting paradox.  But he also wrote The Future Progress of the Human Mind (1795), a utopian tract featuring surprsingly modern stuff like this:

No one has ever believed that the human mind could exhaust all the facts of nature, all the refinements of measuring and analyzing these facts, the inter relationship of objects, and all the possible combinations of ideas….

But because, as the number of facts known increases, man learns to classify them, to reduce them to more general terms; because the instruments and the methods of observation and exact measurement are at the same time reaching a new precision; . . . the truths whose discovery has cost the most effort, which at first could be grasped only by men capable of profound thought, are soon carried further and proved by methods that are no longer beyond the reach of ordinary intelligence. If the methods that lead to new combinations are exhausted, if their application to problems not yet solved requires labors that exceed the time or the capacity of scholars, soon more general methods, simpler means, come to open a new avenue for genius….

The organic perfectibility or degeneration of races in plants and animals may be regarded as one of the general laws of nature.

This law extends to the human species; and certainly no one will doubt that progress in medical conservation [of life], in the use of healthier food and housing, a way of living that would develop strength through exercise without impairing it by excess, and finally the destruction of the two most active causes of degradation-misery and too great wealth-will prolong the extent of life and assure people more constant health as well as a more robust constitution. We feel that the progress of preventive medicine as a preservative, made more effective by the progress of reason and social order, will eventually banish communicable or contagious illnesses and those diseases in general that originate in climate, food, and the nature of work. It would not be difficult to prove that this hope should extend to almost all other diseases, whose more remote causes will eventually be recognized. Would it be absurd now to suppose that the improvement of the human race should be regarded as capable of unlimited progress? That a time will come when death would result only from extraordinary accidents or the more and more gradual wearing out of vitality, and that, finally, the duration of the average interval between birth and wearing out has itself no specific limit whatsoever? No doubt man will not become immortal, but cannot the span constantly increase between the moment he begins to live and the time when naturally, without illness or accident, he finds life a burden?

Read a longer excerpt here.

The voting paradoxes are found in Condorcet’s 1785 treatise Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions. But the main body of the book isn’t about voting paradoxes; it’s an attempt to provide mathematical backing for democratic theory.  Condorcet argued that the probability of the majority holding the wrong position was much smaller than the chance that the minority would be in the wrong.  So democracy is justified not only on principle, but because it is more likely to yield true beliefs on the part of the government.  I learned this, and other interesting facts, from Trevor Pateman’s article “Majoritarianism,” which presents Condorcet as a kind of quantitative version of Rousseau.  

Tagged , , , ,

7 thoughts on “Condorcet was an interesting dude

  1. Yes, Condorcet was a very interesting person. Notably, he was one of the very few (and probably the best known) of the great minds of the French enlightenment and revolution to believe that the Rights of Men should extend, indeed, to all human beings.

    In fact, I was just looking for something in the excellent biography that Elisabeth and Robert Badinter wrote of him, and there are quotes that make him sound almost buddhist, trying to avoid killing even insects.

  2. Well, Condorcet was not quite right. In certain set-up, one can rigorously prove that dictatorship is much more efficient than democracy. See

    D. Berend, J. E. Harmse, Expert rule versus majority rule under partial information, Theory and Decision 35 (1993), 179-197,

    and the references therein.

  3. Interesting reference!

    By the way, it is also the case that Condorcet was in favor of a republic (instead of a constitutional monarchy) at a much earlier stage of the French revolution than most révolutionnaires (including Robespierre).

  4. Jenny says:

    I love Condorcet! Where do you stand on Malthus?

  5. JSE says:

    Wherever I can find room, given the space constraints resulting from geometric increase in human population.

  6. Gil Kalai says:

    Indeed Condorcet was quite a remarkable person. His probability argument in favour of democracy is known under the title “Condorcet’s Jury Theorem” and it also, like the paradox, had a strong impact. Condorcet was also a strong feminist.
    Lisening to the lecture http://video.ias.edu/Israel-80th#attachments , The History of Basic Human Rights: The Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789 by Jonathan Israel, one can get an impression of Condorcet’s central role.

  7. Richard Séguin says:

    Gil,

    When I click on this link the download stalls and I get a blank page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: