Fachbereich Philosophie

Science and Reason in 19th Century Germany: Probability and Induction in Kant and the Fries School

This habilitation thesis is an essay in the history of philosophy in general and the history of probabilistic thought in particular.
Although the history of philosophy keeps many philosophers busy, the historiography of philosophy does not. Methodological questions of philosophical historiography are generally either not discussed at all or dealt with in passing. Writing myself a historical essay, I found this attitude highly unsatisfactory. This is why the habilitation thesis features a long introductory chapter; actually, it’s rather a first part, on the history and philosophy of historiography of philosophy. Everyone knows about the huge impact Kant had (“Copernican revolution”). But virtually unknown, Kant brought about deep transformations in the historiography of philosophy as well. In the first chapter I defend the thesis that these transformations were a big disservice to historiography. I argue in particular for two claims. First, following Kant’s example many philosophers were successful not only in coining certain labels for polemical purposes but also in promoting them as useful, descriptive historical categories. I argue that these labels (“empiricism,” “rationalism,” “Platonism,” “nominalism,” etc.) do not provide a sound descriptive terminology but result in a distorted view of the history of philosophy. Second, the idea that philosophy deals with perennial problems could develop only in the wake of Kant’s philosophy. I argue that the perennial problem approach leads to a distorted picture of the history of philosophy.
Recent years have witnessed a number of books on the history of probabilistic thought. They are well-written and provide important insights into the slow growth and the maturing of probabilistic thinking and techniques. The majority of them offer whig history, though.
I deal with a chapter in the history of probabilistic thought that has been completely neglected so far; unduly neglected, that is. The major transformations probability theory underwent in the early 20th century are usually ascribed to well-known thinkers like John Keynes or Richard von Mises. I show that these transformations actually have their roots in the neglected history of probabilistic thought in German philosophy from Kant up to von Kries, and I argue that it was this tradition that informed the writings of Keynes and von Mises. The second part of my essay gives, hence, in its first chapter, a detailed account of Kant’s ideas on induction and probability. The second chapter traces Kant’s influence through the 19th century, focussing in particular on members of the Fries School: Fries, Apelt, and Schleiden. The final chapter is devoted to the repercussions of their ideas in the later 19th century and how their ideas set the stage for modern probabilistic thought.