How Numerical Sociology Began by Counting Suicides: From Medical Pathology to Social Pathology

Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 150)


Those are the familiar words of Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, published in 1897. I am concerned not with the truth of his opinion, but with how it became possible to think those novel thoughts. We here have the idea of laws, acting upon individuals, demonstrated by statistics, and not arising simply from facts about individuals by interaction and composition. These laws are autonomous, holistic, and not merely the summary of the determined choices of members of the population. This idea was unthinkable at the start of the nineteenth century. At that time one had the gaunt universal determinism of a Laplace, or the organic vitalism of a Bichat. The one said that statistical phenomena arise from minute fully deterministic causes. When we cannot rise above probabilities, it is because of our ignorance. The other denied determinism in the biological sphere, but made no space for statistics: the physician and the histologist must understand the vital workings of an individual, who might be typical of the species, but whose functioning could not be summarized by an average. Yet by the end of the century there was a family of conceptions, in numerous fields, akin to Durkheim’s. Durkheim illustrates a phenomenon that I call the taming of chance. Note that Bichat and Laplace were equally frightened by chance!


Suicide Rate Statistical Determinism Statistical Phenomenon Social Pathology Medical Pathology 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TorontoCanada

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