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The dogs that didn’t bark: Marx and Engels and statistical fatalism

Wells, Julian (2006): The dogs that didn’t bark: Marx and Engels and statistical fatalism.

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This paper is about a nineteenth-century debate about causality – but, unusually, we emphasise what was not said, and those who did not take part. We begin by recapitulating the debate on so-called statistical fatalism, precipitated by the discovery of dependable regularities in such social phenomena as suicide and crime, and fuelled by the notorious claim that ‘society ... prepares the crime’ (Quetelet 1832). Our account follows Hacking (1990), but we emphasise the links between the protagonists’ views on statistical fatalism and their positions on other questions in social and economic thought. Next we review the familiar claim that the doctrines of Marx and Engels were determinist in character, a claim which this paper is intended to help refute. We then show that Marx and Engels, taken together, were (a) interested in and familiar with the relevant issues, as well as with Quetelet’s work, (b) had distinctive views on the philosophical issues involved, and (c) would have been motivated to intervene given the wider positions of the actual participants. In the course of this we suggest what their response might have looked like, had they provided one; little space is devoted to the question of why they did not do so.

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