State sciences-statistics

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State sciences – statistics

The eighteenth century and the Enlightenment is the period when modern statistical thinking was born. Yet historical research in recent years has devoted little attention to clarifying the correlations of important eighteenth-century phenomena. In particular, the field of state sciences and its emergence as a discipline has been neglected. The existing difficulties of research are well illustrated by the fact that recent literature – going beyond the early modern antecedents – takes the modern, unified concept of statistics as its starting point when interpreting correlations in the age of Enlightenment and the period that followed. The excerpts published here provide insights into problems specific to the period of the field’s emergence as a discipline. The primary aim of the selection is to bring the reader closer to the diversity that characterised eighteenth-century statistics (Staatenkunde). Based on the above-described tendencies in research, the following question emerges: if we do not take the modern interpretation of statistics as a starting point, how can it be defined as a science, and what other questions does this raise in connection with the available sources?

In terms of the history of science, the emergence of statistics in the eighteenth century certainly implies a multi-level development (encyclopaedism, empiricism, institutionalisation). The following selection of texts can only provide an episodic insight into this complex process. The excerpts capture the image of statistics at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries when it was elevated to the status of science (Wissenschaft). The focus is on the adaptation of German university statistics (Universitätsstatistik), which, despite its standardised form, still showed the signs of being a newly born and newly institutionalised discipline. The sources published here problematize three aspects of the science of statistics: the genre itself highlights the problem of the representativity of the selected texts, while the concept map brings into focus the reflected use of terminology in the texts, as well as their characteristic logical structure. Finally, the relationship between practice and theory and the frontiers of statistics and political science are emphasised. Taken together, the above-listed analytical approaches suggest that, rather than overemphasising their proto-scientific traits and caesurae in the history of science, eighteenth-century state descriptions and statistics are best viewed as reflective mediators of the scientific culture of the Enlightenment.

Regarding the genres of university statistics, it is important to stress that the most common text types were textbooks and lecture notes. The two genres, which in many cases could not be separated, represented an intersection of scholarship and education and the medial spaces of print and manuscript culture. Two of the excerpts published here can be classified as scientific statistics. The lecture notes of Márton Szilágyi (1748–1790), a professor of the natural sciences and mathematics at the Reformed College of Sárospatak written during his peregrination to Basel and Göttingen (1767–1771) carries the traits of a textbook. The fifth edition of Gottfried Achenwall’s textbook on European statistics (Staatsverfassung der heutigen vornehmsten Europäischen Reiche und Völker im Grundriße, 1768) is thus a great tool for interpreting Szilágyi’s text, in the sense that his manuscript retained the numbering of the paragraphs of the textbook throughout the text. A comparison of the two texts reveals a number of similarities and differences between the printed textbook and the lecture material. The anonymous notes dated to the early nineteenth century held in the Scientific Collections of the Reformed College of Sárospatak also belong to the genre of scientific state descriptions. Its first and second sections, in an unusual manner, comprise introductory remarks on the state sciences, enumerating the anthropological characteristics of man under the title “political geography”. This demonstrates the widespread contemporary practice, whereby the foundations of the state sciences at both universities and lower-level institutions were embedded in courses on political geography, a rival field of knowledge.

The third text published here differs in both genre and theme. While the political geography notes reflect general statistical knowledge, the excerpts from Szilágyi’s manuscript on the United Provinces belong to the subgenre of special statistics. The excerpts from the third text, on the other hand, provide an insight into how bureaucracy viewed and discussed the role of statistics when a new department was set up at the University of Vienna. A text from the Vienna University Archive, which conveys the language (curial style) and genres (protocols, formal requests) of the administration, gives an insight into the academic debate that unfolded in 1794 at the meetings of the Faculty of Law of the University of Vienna. In the corpus of sources examined in Adolf Grüneberger’s dissertation (Ignaz de Luca. Sein Leben und Werk, 1953), the argumentation of two former students of Sonnenfels – Heinrich Joseph Watteroth and Ignaz de Luca – can be traced as to whether statistics should be continued to be taught together with or separately from political science (Polizewissenschaft). The third common element of the texts is the use of the German language. While the use of German and its terminology is self-evident in the case of Szilágyi’s notes from Göttingen and the university protocols, in the Hungarian-language political geography notes, the German terms are only included in brackets next to terms of particular importance. This suggests that the source of the political geography notes may also have been a German text not yet identified by the research. The German language has thus determined the terminology used in state descriptions and works on statistics. This is not only remarkable in a period of linguistic patriotism and the development of scientific and literary language in the vernacular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but it also puts the relationship between scientific language, political thought, and higher education in a different context.

As for terminology and conceptual hierarchy, the excerpts provide insights into the problems of the state sciences standardizing within the context of the eighteenth-century concept of the state. What the selected texts have in common is that, moving away from the traditional seventeenth-century formulation based on sovereignty and law (power), they all depart from a concept of the state (statehood) as defined by natural law. In line with the descriptive style of writing of the eighteenth century, these texts, even by their internal structure, conveyed that understanding the state requires knowledge – besides the traditional means of power – of the natural environment (natural resources) and the functioning of civil society (society). This also points to the unity and implicit teleology of statistical description. The description is thus based on a discussion of the external physical and natural factors first, followed by a description of the characteristics of society and the structure of the state. In the political geography notes, this interdependence (sociability) between the natural order of man and the historically changeable organization of citizens and the constituent parts of the state – as thematised by eighteenth-century natural law – emerged as an important organising principle. The short section entitled On Man understood man as a basic unit of social organisation, whose physical and moral qualities (national character) not only preceded civil association, but also influenced its subsequent fate (historical changes). The state, as the highest form of human and civil association, is only given a role in a subchapter of the political geography notes. Following the logic of statistical descriptions, these notes are also the first to introduce the general concepts of political administration (sovereign, the forms of government, the forms of state) after presenting the geographical and political boundaries of the state (in Hungarian terminology, the country). Szilágyi’s manuscript provides a more thorough insight into the methods of statistical description. Here, too, the description begins with an account of the geographical conditions (borders, rivers and waters, crop production, animal husbandry) that can be included in the definition of the state. It then goes on to discuss in detail the main products of the Low Countries, commodities for export, and trade (industry, trade, trading colonies) and in the latter context, the Dutch colonial empire (the Dutch East and West Indies). According to the logic of statistical descriptions, the presentation of the natural, physical environment (flora and fauna) is followed by an enumeration of peoples and societies inhabiting the state. Therefore, similarly to the political geography notes, Szilágyi’s text also reflects on the estimated population of the Low Countries, as well as the physical and moral character of the peoples inhabiting them. An important difference, however, is that the emphasis in the statistical descriptions of the period was placed on the so-called “political constitution” (Staatsverfassung). This approach to the state centred on politics is also clear from a comparison of Achenwall’s textbook and Szilágyi’s notes. In the case of the United Provinces, Achenwall was primarily concerned with the institution of government (government and administration) of the hereditary governorate (Stathoulder, Statthalter). Accordingly, Szilágyi’s notes contain a more detailed description than the textbook of the political, constitutional and provincial, administrative, governmental, fiscal, and representational aspects of this institution. The last text, as the odd one out, does not provide further insights into the tools of statistical description, but points to the – to use a modern term – interdisciplinary nature of its conceptual basis (scholarship). It is important that, although the text departs from statistics and educational policies, it fails to distinguish statistics from the other fields of the state sciences. A particularly important part of the discussion in this context is the interconnection of statistics with the law and the political sciences (the overlap between law and politics, the correlations of politics and statistics), not only in the sense that this provided the main justification for Watteroth to continue to treat statistics as an auxiliary science, but also because it was the argument used to demonstrate that in eighteenth-century Central and Eastern Europe, the academic status of a discipline was fundamentally linked not to conceptual independence, but its status within an institution (the establishment of a department).

The clearest articulation of institutional status and the autonomous cultivation of the discipline was achieved during the eighteenth century at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. Although Göttingen can be regarded as an exception rather than the rule in this sense, the management of science seen there had a major impact on the universities of the Habsburg Monarchy and thus on the history of the state sciences in Hungary. In the case of statistics, Vienna was the model, where emancipatory efforts in this field were confined to the Faculty of Law. This system thus both maintained the primacy of law and political science in education and prevented the establishment of a practice similar to that of Göttingen (political science curriculum). Despite the developments in Germany, however, this “restriction” kept statistics at a level between the status of an independent discipline and that of an auxiliary science throughout the period. Therefore, what we consider to be “statistics” at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depends on factors both in science policy and the morphology of science.

In the context of the morphology of science, the three excerpts credibly support the conclusion that, despite its relative rootlessness and regional differences, statistics functioned in a very similar way in the Habsburg Central and Eastern European region as it did in the Protestant universities of Northern Germany. The most obvious example of this was the lack of confidence in the quality and the possibility of the independent cultivation of the discipline. This was as much a current issue within the walls of the model institution in Göttingen as it was at the central university of the Habsburg Monarchy in Vienna. In this context, statistics represented a form of empirical political knowledge, the general political and civic utility of which was determined by its synthetic character. In the early modern relation between theory and practice, state description thus represented the missing empirical link that connected theoretical state science with political practice (Staatspraxis). Thus, in contrast to natural law (natürliche Staatsrecht) and practical and pragmatic political science (Staatsklugheit, Polizeiwissenschaft), statistics did not produce a coherent philosophy or theory of the state during the eighteenth century, nor did it provide the principles and commonplaces of good government. In terms of its purposes, the task of statistical state description was limited to a pragmatic summary of factual and data-related information on European states. In other words, it was intended to conceive of a fundamental empirical knowledge base that, thanks to the possibility of its constant updating, could be used at any time in the fields of both state theory and practical politics. From a conceptual point of view, however, eighteenth-century statistics was no longer just political science in the traditional sense of the word, since its empirical domain by now encompassed the correlations of nature, society, and the state. Thanks to this shared space of experience with other fields of knowledge, statistics as a discipline was able to remain close to the approaches of state history (Staatsgeschichte, Staatshistorie) and political geography (Erdbeschreibung) throughout the period.