Augustin Cournot: Modelling Economics
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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.
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Chapter 7: Comparing the Incomparable: The Sociology of Statistics

Alain Desrosières


7. Comparing the incomparable: the sociology of statistics Alain Desrosières Introduction Augustin Cournot (1801–77) is frequently presented as one of the founding fathers of mathematical modelling in economics. In contemporary terms, mathematical modelling of economic phenomena involves either purely theoretical or hypothetico-deductive constructions, or, more commonly, the testing of theoretical hypotheses against statistical data, using econometric tools. Yet the combination of theory and empirical data in this way is a recent development. Modern econometrics in its unified form took off only in the 1930s (Morgan, 1990; Armatte, 1995). Cournot’s work in economic modelling, by contrast, divided into two separate parts, each represented by a book. His first book, from 1838, concerned the ‘theory of wealth’, whereas the second book treated a different topic, the ‘theory of chance and probability’, and there was no connection between the two. The same dichotomy appeared in the case of other authors, such as Edgeworth and Keynes. Claude Ménard (1977) has examined the ‘resistance to statistics’ of three nineteenth-century economists: Say, Cournot and Walras. In Cournot’s treatise of 1843, which broke new ground in the theory of knowledge, Ménard found ‘an epistemological representation in which the method of investigation and the object of knowledge are perceived as independent’. Cournot, however, did not see in statistics a satisfactory instrument for the support of theoretical hypotheses. Statistics presupposed conventions and comparisons that could not be replicated fully. Paraphrasing Cournot, Ménard remarks: If the exact same experiment can never be repeated, how can...

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