A central figure in the rise of statistics during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quêtelet (1796-1874) proposed a mathematical analysis of man and society. According to Quêtelet, every human faculty has to be studied statistically and individuals need to be understood in comparison to a larger population. Through the constant application of the probability calculus, he claimed that all human properties followed a universal «law of nature» described by the normal distribution (loi binomiale) (Quêtelet, 1835a). The conclusion of his investigations was the theory of the «average man» (l’homme moyen), for which every nation, race, and historical epoch would be represented by a model of man in every way normal.
Regardless of the controversial statistical validity of his work, for Quêtelet the average man was said to constitute a fundamental concept for the fields of history, race studies, aesthetics, and most importantly, moral philosophy. In historical research, for instance, he claimed that the determination of l’homme moyen allowed historians to understand the «development of humanity in a certain epoch» (Quêtelet, 1835b, p. 287). In racial studies, similarly, the average man could be conceived as the «type for the different human races» (ibid., p. 275). In aesthetics too, the average man was said to represent nothing more than the «type of beauty of a certain specie» (Quêtelet, 1848, p. 38). Despite these declinations of the average man in different fields of knowledge, it is in the domain of moral philosophy where l’homme moyen assumed a central position. According to Quêtelet, in fact, the average man symbolizes the right equilibrium of human faculties equally distant from all the excesses and defects of humankind. The average man was considered a virtuous and noble being who avoided every kinds of abuse. To this point, it should be highlighted how Quêtelet defended over and over the moral integrity of l’homme moyen. He stated, for instance, that: «an individual who summarizes in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man, would represent at once all that is great, beautiful, and good» (Quêtelet, 1835b, p. 289).
Quêtelet promoted a peculiar way of framing social problems. In assuming the possibility of determining a normal type of man for a certain society, he also put forth a strong position regarding what he called «deformities» or «monstrosities» such as the insane, criminals, gamblers, etc (Quêtelet, 1835a, p. 280). Quetelet’s application of the theory of means to society presaged a rigid binary opposition between what he considered the virtuous space of the average as opposed to the miserable range of deviation. Accordingly, with the goodness of the average man, he juxtaposed the vices of those deviants who engaged in crime, gambling, substance abuse, suicide, and so on. In fact, Quêtelet’s project represents an ambitious attempt to provide scientific validity to the assumption that society is to be partitioned between the “good normals” and the “disturbing deviants”. Moreover, while advocating for the perfectibility of humankind, at the same time he urged governments and scientists to take actions against what he considered the monstrosities of society.
More about Quêtelet and Monstrosities at 2018 Binocular Conference (STS York University & IHPST University of Toronto) – May 18-19. In addition, see my paper published on the Journal for the History of the Behavioral Sciences in 2019.
Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1835a). Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale (Tome Premiere). Paris: Bachelier Imprimeur-Libraire.
Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1835b). Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale (Tome Second). Paris: Bachelier Imprimeur-Libraire.
Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1846). Lettres à S.A.R. le duc régnant de Saxe-Coburg et Gotha, sur la théorie des probabilités, appliquée aux sciences morales et politiques. Bruxelles: M. Hayes Imprimeur de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.
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Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1848). Du système social et des lois qui le régissent. Paris: Guillamine et C. Libraire.
Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1853). Théorie des Probabilités. Bruxelles: A. Jamar Editeur.
Quêtelet, L. A. J. (1870). Anthropométrie ou Mesure des différentes facultés de l’homme. Bruxelles: C. Muquardt.