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  • Conjecturing a New World in Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain
  • Hanna Roman (bio)

When put in the context of his well-known mathematical works, the Marquis de Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (published in 1795) seems at first out of place. Why did he write this deeply lyrical, and very conjectural, text? This question give us a perfect entry into an exploration of the meaning of Condorcet’s idiosyncratic idea of conjecture, and the moral, social, and political work he envisioned it could do.

Condorcet composed the Esquisse over the last year of his life, from 1793–1794, during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. A warrant for his arrest had been issued by the National Convention. As Condorcet remained in hiding, pondering his political career and how to justify himself before the Convention, his wife, Sophie de Grouchy, encouraged him to set aside those futile and frustrating efforts and to return to the philosophical attitude he had adopted earlier in the Revolution. This was the spirit in which, for instance, he had written about the importance and methods of public education in 1792, and had proposed a new Constitution in 1793. For Sophie, it is said, he began to write the Esquisse in the summer of the same year. As Elisabeth and Robert Badinter recount the story, “il choisit la seule voie qui lui reste ouverte vers la liberté. Il lève les yeux vers les sommets, l’avenir, les promesses d’une aurore à peine entrevie, [End Page 780] et entreprend de rédiger son Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain” (588–89).

The Esquisse, in ten chapters, or époques, is an outline of Condorcet’s vision of the development of human reason through the centuries, from the earliest formation of societies, through the ages of Western European thought.1 It culminates in the “Dixième époque. Des progrès futurs de l’esprit humain.” In this final chapter, Condorcet argues for the unlimited perfectibility of the human mind (l’esprit), based upon the supposition that Man can call upon his intellectual history as a tool for reflection upon past errors, discovering how to act upon the current state of knowledge and transform it for the future. This idea of history is not uncharacteristic in Enlightenment thought. However, Condorcet’s Esquisse is intriguing as it is shaped by his commitment to mathematics, and especially by his concept of social arithmetic, which allowed him to attribute an increasing degree of probability to the imagined world of the “Dixième époque.”2

Because we tend to think of Condorcet today as a mathematician and analytic thinker, whose discourse is firmly grounded in the material world, observations of which lead to facts and then to what he will define as truths, we risk losing sight of the dimension of his mathematical thought that we would now attribute to imagination and fiction. In the first nine epochs Condorcet uses aspects of this mathematical thought to collect observations from human history in order to indicate the progress of human thought. However, the manner in which he orders and compares this data produces the invented [End Page 781] world of the tenth epoch. So although it is a result of Condorcet’s social arithmetic, the world of the “Dixième époque” is not a depiction of physical reality. It portrays a utopian endpoint of human society illustrated through analytic thought and language, the pinnacle of the progress of the human mind. Condorcet uses the ingredients of the material world as the reagents in a thought experiment whose results, and whose truth, are not immediately perceivable and achievable but instead derived via grammatical and discursive tools. This literary experiment is fundamentally grounded in one eighteenth century meaning of the term “conjecture,” based upon the rules of grammar, or the art of speaking and writing well, that were inherited from seventeenth-century Jansenist thought. Conjecture is the technology that Condorcet uses to mark the progress of his argument and to demonstrate the validity, and increasingly possible attainability, of his utopian world...


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