From Quetelet to Maxwell: Social Statistics and the Origins of Statistical Physics

  • Theodore M. Porter
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 150)


The peregrinations of statistics constitute one of the weightiest and most unpredictable chapters in the history of the transmission of ideas between the natural and social sciences. Mathematical statistics has long been idealized as a possible means for capturing the holy grail of the sciences of man, quantification, and probability theory was central to the earliest sustained effort in this direction, Condorcet’s social mathematics. Laplace’s injuction in the Philosophical Essay on Probabilities to “apply to the political and moral sciences the method founded upon observation and upon calculus, the method which has served us so well in the natural sciences,”1 was already a commonplace in 1814, and was frequently invoked throughout the nineteenth century. Yet the migration of mathematics from the hard to the soft sciences is only a part of the career of statistical thinking since the time of Laplace. Equally important, and perhaps more impressive, is the role of that prominent nineteenth-century social science, “statistics”, in facilitating the application of probabilistic mathematics to the biological and physical domains. This aspect of the transmission of ideas is illustrated by James Clerk Maxwell’s observation that “atomists” of his own day had “adopted a method which is, I believe, new in the department of mathematical physics, though it has long been in use in the section of statistics.” The strategy of census-takers, according to Maxwell, had opened a new path in the physical theory of gases.2


Statistical Movement Holy Grail Social Body Statistical Thinking Social Correlate 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theodore M. Porter
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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