Matthew Rickard, *21

Department of English

Probability: A Literary History, 1479-1700




The following dissertation is a literary history of probability in the northern renaissance. Before the mathematics of probability was discovered in the 1650s, the concept belonged to the arts of discourse [artes disserendi]: rhetoric, dialectic, and the methods of interpretation cultivated throughout the period. Probability, for humanists, referred to the beliefs that literature is supposed to inspire in its readers, from the persuasiveness of arguments advanced for the purpose of moral instruction to the persuasiveness of plots, characters, and entire fictions. These essays show how the various conceptions of probability came together in the renaissance classroom and then, through a series of institutional reforms, how they grew apart.

At the beginning of the period, humanists treated the probability of narrative as a special case of the probability of inferences in general, but as their pedagogy adapted to the reality of classroom instruction, they came to see the former as distinct from the latter. Narratives are probable, humanists began to say, insofar as they are typical: poetry is not a set of inferences that may be true or false with some degree of certainty, but rather a representation of the very worlds in which inferences make sense. Their disentanglement made possible the mathematization of probability in the seventeenth century; it also made possible literary-critical notions like verisimilitude, vraisemblance, and realism. The literary history of probability therefore sheds light on why we have come to think that the beliefs produced by imaginative literature differ in kind from the beliefs produced by the other arts and sciences.

The first chapter shows how poetry was used to teach probability in the renaissance classroom, and the next two chapters show how vernacular literature and literary criticism reacted against the pedagogical imperative. Chapter One explores the conception of probability in Rudolph Agricola’s De inventione dialectica; Chapter Two argues that the recovery of Aristotle’s Poetics compromised Philip Sidney’s rhetorical and dialectical account of poetry; Chapter Three argues that the failure of the republican experiment led to John Milton’s transformative critique of the arts course. The conclusion turns to the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, where the mathematics of probability was discovered, to suggest that they also understood their work as a response to literary culture, albeit of a much different kind.


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