A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society / Edition 1

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How did the fact become modernity's most favored unit of knowledge? How did description come to seem separable from theory in the precursors of economics and the social sciences?

Mary Poovey explores these questions in A History of the Modern Fact, ranging across an astonishing array of texts and ideas from the publication of the first British manual on double-entry bookkeeping in 1588 to the institutionalization of statistics in the 1830s. She shows how the production of systematic knowledge from descriptions of observed particulars influenced government, how numerical representation became the privileged vehicle for generating useful facts, and how belief--whether figured as credit, credibility, or credulity--remained essential to the production of knowledge.

Illuminating the epistemological conditions that have made modern social and economic knowledge possible, A History of the Modern Fact provides important contributions to the history of political thought, economics, science, and philosophy, as well as to literary and cultural criticism.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Poovey (English, New York Univ.) defines the modern fact as systematic knowledge that is derived from the theoretical interpretation of observed particulars, i.e., numbers. This distinction between description (numbers) and interpretation has not always been made, and in this work Poovey is interested in how numbers came to be seen as value-free and impartial while the theories used to interpret them are widely understood to be influenced by social and political factors. From the development of double-entry bookkeeping in the late 16th century to the early use of statistics in the 1830s, Poovey focuses on the history of wealth and economics in Britain. During this period numerical representations became an increasingly important vehicle for producing knowledge and displaying mercantile credibility and virtue and ultimately economic and social prestige. The modern fact is a pioneering epistemological designation, and this book is an important contribution to the history of science and thought as well as literary and cultural criticism. Written mainly for the scholar, this book is recommended for large public libraries with research collections and academic libraries strong in the social sciences.--Jim Woodman, Boston Athenaeum
A retelling of the history of British empiricism from the point of view of political economy and the numerical fact. Poovey (English and history of the production of knowledge, New York U.) examines the question of whether facts are incontrovertible data that simply demonstrates what is true or if they are bits of evidence marshaled to persuade others of the theory that one started out with. She discusses scientific impartiality and objectivity, how political economics rose out of a concern for market economics, and develops a history of abstraction based on universals, generalizations, and aggregates. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226675268
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/1998
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 436
  • Sales rank: 1,209,589
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Poovey is Samuel Rudin University Professor of the Humanities and professor of English at New York University. Her two most recent books, A History of the Modern Fact and Genres of the Credit Economy, examine the emergence of the modern disciplines. Her history of the modern financial model, co-authored with Kevin R. Brine, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents

1 The Modern Fact, the Problem of Induction, and Questions of Method 1
2 Accommodating Merchants: Double-Entry Bookkeeping, Mercantile Expertise, and the Effect of Accuracy 29
3 The Political Anatomy of the Economy: English Science and Irish Land 92
4 Experimental Moral Philosophy and the Problems of Liberal Governmentality 144
5 From Conjectural History to Political Economy 214
6 Reconfiguring Facts and Theory: Vestiges of Providentialism in the New Science of Wealth 264
7 Figures of Arithmetic, Figures of Speech: The Problem of Induction in the 1830s 307
Notes 329
Bibliography 387
Index 409
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