Thursday, April 16, 2009

The fungibility of hazard: reading forward

As a useful endpoint, I read John Arbuthnot's 1692 book Of the laws of chance. This was the first English publication on probability theory. It is mostly a translation of Huygens (1657), but of course Arbuthnot's introduction is his own.  I think some of the examples are his as well. There are two things that struck me about this piece. The first is the extent to which Arbuthnot claims that mathematical probability applies to the world at large. "All the Politicks in the World," he says  "are nothing else but a kind of Analysis of the Quantity of Probability in casual Events."  The second is the degree to which he employs economics to convey his ideas.  His most basic principle is that ""Ones Hazard or Expectation to gain any thing is worth so much, as, if he had it, he could purchase the like Hazard or Expectation again in a just and equal Game" (B2). This sounds confusing, but he gives an example to make it clear.  If someone has hidden seven shillings in one hand and three in the other and says "choose one hand and I'll give you the contents" Arbuthnot argues that this is equivalent to being given five shillings. This means that chance itself has a value predicated on exchange.  He's not really thinking of commodification as much as fungibility. This is the real epistemological revolution behind the idea of probability.  It's what I need to look for in earlier accounts.

Arbuthnot, John. Of the laws of chance, or, A method of calculation of the hazards of game plainly demonstrated and applied to games at present most in use : which may be easily extended to the most intricate cases of chance imaginable. London 1692.

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