No. 3168: CONDORCET

by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3168

Today, science frees the mind. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1793, at the age of fifty, Nicolas de Condorcet was in fear for his life. A philosopher and mathematician, Condorcet had been a leading figure in the French revolution. He was the embodiment of the highest ideals of Enlightenment thinking - not just of reason, but of the fundamental equality of all people regardless of race or sex. He was fervent in his belief that everyone should be educated. He was also against the death penalty. So as the revolution evolved, Condorcet's idealism found itself at odds with increasingly militant revolutionary factions. As the Reign of Terror descended upon France, a warrant was issued for Condorcet's arrest and he went into hiding.

During the next six months he worked on a treatise entitled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. And in the tenth and final chapter, Future Progress of Mankind, he addressed the future of the human mind.

So what are we to make of Condorcet's ruminations from more than two centuries ago? With regard to human knowledge he was remarkably clairvoyant. In Condorcet's vision of the future, students leave school understanding more than the finest scientists of his age. As but one example, consider that the modern model of the atom had yet to be discovered in Condorcet's time. Today, high school students leave school with a basic understanding of chemistry and the periodic table. Condorcet envisioned a world where humankind made vastly more with less. Think of what goes into making even an inexpensive cell phone. Condorcet wrote of "bringing together a large quantity of data in a systematic arrangement making it possible to see ... relationships immediately." He foresaw the analysis of data as essential to both the physical and social sciences of the future. Little could he have even imagined the invention of the computer to aid in this data analysis.


French chemist Antoine Lavoisier explaining the result of an experiment to his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. Lavoisier was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Yet, for his many insights about the future of human knowledge, Condorcet was more interested in how this knowledge influenced the human mind. Deeply embedded in the very heart of his work is the belief that science and reason will lift humankind from a world of fighting and pettiness. Optimistic to a fault, he wrote "[the seeds of pure justice, enlightened benevolence, and generous sensibility] ... have been placed in all our hearts, and they await only the sweet influence of enlightenment and liberty to develop within us." Condorcet wanted to believe that Enlightenment ideals would lead to a utopian future. Perhaps someday they will. Who's to fault such idealism, especially under such trying conditions.


Marianne, the French personification of liberty, leading the people of the French revolution   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

As for the man? Six months after he went into hiding, he attempted to flee Paris but was caught and thrown into prison. Two days later he was found dead, probably from poison. But his legacy remains.


Nicolas de Condorcet   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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The phrases used in the bracketed quotation "the seeds of pure justice, enlightened benevolence, and generous sensibility" were Condorcet's own, but rearranged and edited for clarity.

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind [1795]. From the Online Library of Liberty website: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/condorcet-outlines-of-an-historical-view-of-the-progress-of-the-human-mind. Accessed March 13, 2018.

Marquis de Condorcet. From the Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet. Accessed March 13, 2018.