The Game of Probability: Literature and Calculation from Pascal to Kleist by Rüdiger Campe, Trans. Ellwood H. Wiggins Jr. (review)
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Reviewed by
Rüdiger Campe, The Game of Probability: Literature and Calculation from Pascal to Kleist. Trans. Ellwood H. Wiggins Jr.Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012. 486 pp.

Consider the constellation of issues that come together in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: fascination with games of chance, some of the most powerful mathematical tools ever developed (indeed, the “mathematization” of nature and life), notions of aesthetic play, theories of probability, the rise of the (realistic, probabilistic) novel, de- and revaluation of traditional rhetoric, the changing status of the (rhetorical) example and (scientific) case. And consider some of the great thinkers and writers of this period: Leibniz, Pascal, Huygens, Fermat, Defoe, Bernoulli, Fielding, Wieland, Lambert, Kant, Kleist. Assume the following theses: The “inextricable relationship between what would later be divided into the natural sciences and the humanities made eighteenth-century probability theory revolutionary” (3). “[T]he relation of chance and calculation, contingency and system” was “a fundamental condition of modernity” (11). “Mathematical probability and the aesthetic appearance of truth are connected not merely through their common derivation from the logical-poetological term ‘probability.’ In the eighteenth century, they still belonged to a common space of discussion and thinking” (197–98). Now you have an idea of the focus and breadth of Campe’s study and will forgive the reviewer for not being able to do it complete justice.

A laudable translation of Campe’s 2002 monograph, Spiel der Wahrscheinlichkeit: Literatur und Berechnung zwischen Pascal und Kleist, this book offers a “history of knowledge” (7, 98) and noteither a mere history of the science of probability or a mere literary history of the novel (both of which exist in many varieties and are well referenced). Campe insists that only when calculations of games of chance become “examples for other things” can a full-blown theory of probability emerge and that it was precisely a continuation of the rhetorical tradition and the rise of the novel that offered such examples. Hence, the humanities and mathematical sciences must be seen as engaged in “negotiations of understanding and computation” (98) if the complex origins of modernity are to be fully grasped. Part 1 explores how attempts by the likes of Pascal, Huygens, Leibniz, and Jacob Bernoulli to provide calculations for games of chance intersected with a variety of theological, legal, and logical issues and became models of probability, while part 2 looks especially at the “vocabulary of philosophical argumentation and narrative poetics” that allowed probability to become a “historical force” (98). [End Page 302]

The crux of Campe’s interests is the connection between these two parts. The fact that the German term for both mathematical and rhetorical/poetical verisimilitude, Wahrscheinlichkeit, contains an ambiguity— Scheinas semblance and appearance of truth—allows for a “phenomenologization” of aesthetics (196). That is, “the calculable and construable world can never entirely free itself from perceivable reality” (198). Therefore, the issues of mathematical probability, including the new science of statistics, and problems of representing reality in the novel are fundamentally interrelated. Such a view of reality, Campe tantalizingly implies at one point in passing, “goes beyond the case studies of the eighteenth century presented here” (198). (One might consider turning to book 2 of Hegel’s Wissenschaft der Logik, on “essence,” where he develops a conception of reality as the “Erscheinung des Wesens.”) That is, there is a great deal at stake in looking at probability as it emerged as a mathematical and narrative issue, before it had a full axiomatic and theoretical grounding, because it formed the basis for our understanding of reality and representation.

One great strength of this study is the wide, indeed, astonishing variety of figures and texts Campe explores, ranging from the more familiar (Pascal’s wager, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Wieland’s Agathon, Kant’s third Critique, and Heinrich von Kleist) to the less familiar (Christiaan Huygens, Jacob Bernoulli, Schnabel’s Insel Felsenburg, Geller’s Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G., and Johann Heinrich Lambert). And this is only a very partial listing. Another great strength is the way Campe moves back and forth between close readings and the big picture of Enlightenment thought. As...