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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 708-710

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Book Review

A History of the Modern Fact:
Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society

A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. By Mary Poovey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xxv; 446 pp. Cloth, $49.00; paper, $17.00.

In this book Poovey, a professor of English and director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University, traces the history of the use of numbers in the scientific arguments of propounders of political arithmetic and political economy from William Petty to John Stuart Mill. The title of the book reflects her thesis that “numbers have come to epitomize the modern fact” (xii). There are chapters on double-entry bookkeeping; political arithmetic; David Hume; conjectural history and the political economy of Adam Smith; Dugald Stewart, Thomas Malthus, and J. R. McCulloch; and induction and John Herschel and John Stuart Mill. Poovey opens the volume with the remark that she does not plan to address such interesting questions as “What are the facts? Are they incontrovertible data that simply demonstrate what is true? Or are they bits of evidence marshaled to persuade others of the theory one sets out with? Do facts somehow exist in a world like pebbles, waiting to be picked up? Or are they manufactured and thus informed by all the social and personal factors that go into every act of human creation? Are facts beyond interpretation?” (1). Instead she endeavors to show that those numbers that quickly came to be seen as value-free are actually theory-laden. But since the point of her book is to trace the history of how numbers came to take on epistemological significance, it seems to me that these questions need to be answered and that the book suffers by not addressing them directly. Because space considerations make a systematic approach impossible, I will touch on her exposition on Smith, Malthus, and Mill, who are of particular interest to the economist.

Poovey’s discussion of Smith’s use of numbers (236–49) raises several questions. She argues, for instance, that Adam Smith saw political arithmetic “as an inferior rival to political economy” (xxii), but Smith perceived political arithmetic as an undeveloped tool that could serve the political economist once it was finally refined. After noting Smith’s comments on the unreliability of statistics, Poovey asserts that “the reason Smith considered existing numerical records inadequate was that simple enumerations could not make visible what really counted: the self-regulating market system” (242). Smith, however, clearly believed that statistics were deficient because care was not taken in gathering and interpreting the data, citing, for example, the case of customs entries, where the merchant importers “smuggle as much, and make entry of as little as they can” and the merchant exporters “make entry of more than they export” ([1776] 1976, 883), thus distorting the balance of trade. She also fails to mention that while Smith makes generous use of numbers in his Wealth of Nations, he provides much more factual information in the form of observations and historical facts—all used to illustrate his system and convince the reader that he is not making hasty generalizations. She does not tell us that Smith clearly believes he is using the Newtonian method, which he, however, adapts to social phenomena—perhaps because she does not take into consideration his essay “The History of Astronomy”—or that Smith believes that the aim of the philosopher (i.e., [End Page 708] scientist) is to connect diverse phenomena in a way pleasing to the mind by using the least number of connecting principles.

On Malthus (278–95), Poovey notes rightly that in his revised Essay on the Principle of Population he “used only numbers that constituted evidence for his thesis” (292). I wish, however, that she would have analyzed his less-than-scholarly use of some of those statistics, stirring a...


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