The author of The Emergence of Probability (1975) has written another formidable book on the history of probability theory. The first described the development in the 17th and 18th centuries of a new way of legitimating knowledge: a mathematical theory of predictability under uncertainty based on observed frequencies of numbers on thrown dice. From its origins in gambling, probability theory began to meet the demand for a reliable form of authority that would release the Renaissance and the Age of Reason from religious claims to control knowledge. When it had seeped from games and mathematics to marine insurance, and thence moved on to produce what Ian Hacking calls an avalanche of numbers in every kind of public concern, established theories of causality were ready to be toppled. As he said in the earlier book, the world was about to become safe for future Galileos. But the change was slow, and not in time to divert Descartes from his project to establish in reason itself an independent arbiter for truth (and, we can add, not in time to save ourselves from a Cartesian world divided radically between primary and secondary qualities).
LRB 23 May 1991 | PDF Download