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Title: Probability: A Literary History, 1479–1700
Authors: Rickard, Matthew William
Advisors: DolvenSmith, JeffNigel
Contributors: English Department
Subjects: English literature
Issue Date: 2021
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: 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: 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. I show how the various conceptions of probability were brought together in the renaissance classroom and then, through a series of institutional reforms, how they were disentangled. 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. Such a change cleared the ground for the mathematization of probability in the seventeenth century; it also helped to clarify literary-critical notions like verisimilitude. 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. Chapter One explains how poetry was used to teach probability via 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 probability, and Chapter Three argues that the failure of the republican experiment led to John Milton’s transformative critique of the arts course as a whole. The conclusion turns to the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, where the mathematics of probability was discovered, in order to suggest that they too understood their work as a reaction against the imperatives of literary culture.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:English

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