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Marie Jean Antoine de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, a descendant of the ancient family of Caritat, was born on September 17, 1743, at Ribemont, Aisne, in France. His father died early, and Condorcet’s devoutly Catholic mother ensured that he was educated at the Jesuit College of Rheims and at the College of Navarre in Paris. A talented young mathematician, he soon came to the attention of the mathematicians Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783) and Alexis Clairault (1713–1765). In 1765 Condorcet published a work on mathematics entitled Essai sur le calcul intégral (Essay on Integral Calculus), and he was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences four years later. After becoming acquainted with Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1721–1781), who served as controllergeneral of finance under King Louis XV (1710–1774), Condorcet was appointed inspector general of the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint) in 1774. Condorcet later wrote a sympathetic Life of Turgot (1786), which supported Turgot’s economic theories. In 1777 Condorcet was appointed secretary to the Académie des Sciences; in 1782 he became secretary of the Académie Française; and in 1789 he published his Life of Voltaire. Thomas Malthus’s (1766–1834) Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was published partly in response to the optimistic views on the perfectibility of society that Condorcet expressed in his writings.
Condorcet remains influential in the social sciences because he applied mathematical ideas to social and political problems. He became famous for what is now known as Condorcet’s paradox, first presented in his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (1785), which describes the intransitivity of majority preferences in electoral politics. An election can occur even when there is no clear candidate whom the voters prefer to all other candidates. In such a situation, known as a majority rule cycle or circular tie, one majority prefers candidate A over B, another majority B over C, and a final majority C over A. To break such electoral circles, Condorcet invented a method in which voters rank candidates in order of preference; these electoral procedures are known as the Condorcet method, which is designed to secure a definite Condorcet winner.
Condorcet played a leading role in the French Revolution of 1789. In 1791 he was elected to represent Paris in the Legislative Assembly, where he presented plans for the creation of a state education system and drafted a new constitution for France. He also campaigned for the abolition of slavery and advocated female suffrage, publishing a pamphlet titled “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” in 1790. Although he was a revolutionary, he did not support the execution of the French king, and aligned himself with the more moderate Girondist Party. He opposed the so-called Montagnard Constitution, which he thought was too radical and farreaching. As a result, he was regarded as a traitor and a warrant was issued for his arrest. While in hiding, Condorcet wrote his famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, which was published posthumously in 1795. This major text of the French Enlightenment describes the historical connection between the growth of science and the development of human rights.
In March 1794 Condorcet attempted to escape from Paris, but he was arrested and imprisoned, and was later found dead in his cell; the cause of his death has never been determined. Condorcet was interred in 1989 in the Panthéon in Paris in honor of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
McLean, Iain, and Fiona Hewitt, eds. and trans. 1994. Condorcet: Foundations of Social Choice and Political Theory Aldershot, U.K.: Edward Elgar.
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