Augustin Cournot: Modelling Economics

Augustin Cournot: Modelling Economics

The Cournot Centre series

Edited by Jean-Philippe Touffut

From his earliest publications, Cournot broke from tradition with his predecessors in applying mathematical modelling to the social sphere. Consequently, he was the first to affirm the mathematization of social phenomena as an essential principle. The fecundity of Cournot’s works stems not only from this departure, but also from a richness that irrigated the social sciences of the twentieth century. In this collection, the contributors – including two Nobel laureates in economics – highlight Cournot’s profound innovativeness and continued relevance in the areas of industrial economics, mathematical economics, market competition, game theory and epistemology of probability and statistics. Each of the seven authors reminds us of the force and modernity of Cournot’s thought as a mathematician, historian of the sciences, philosopher and, not least, as an economist.

Chapter 1: Cournot as Economist: 200 Years of Relevance

Jean Magnan de Bornier

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, history of economic thought


Jean Magnan de Bornier Augustin Cournot (1801–77) was a singular figure of the nineteenth century: mathematician, economist and philosopher, senior civil servant in education, he produced a considerable body of work covering numerous fields. In this chapter, we shall deal only with Cournot’s special place in economics: having published Recherches sur les principes mathématiques de la théorie des richesses ([1838], 1980) – published in English as Researches into the Mathematical Principles of Wealth (1897) – at a relatively early age, he then devoted himself to other disciplines, only returning to economics towards the end of his life, essentially to reaffirm his earlier positions. The few pages that follow present the most important elements that an economist can learn from Recherches1 and briefly describe the mixed fortunes of his ideas since their first publication. A significant economic legacy A simple enumeration of the concepts Cournot introduced into political economics, still in its infancy in the 1830s, gives a good idea of how much the discipline owes to him today. Some of these innovations are striking and are prominent in any evocation, however superficial, of Cournot’s legacy. Others are more obscure, having not received the necessary subsequent development, not been understood, or quite simply not been given a name. In retrospect, Cournot’s first work on economics, Recherches, was like a thunderbolt, despite the fact that it was largely ignored during the 50 years following its publication. The use of mathematics One of the most important advances made by Cournot was to...

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