Karl Pearson

Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age

Theodore M. Porter
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 352
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    Karl Pearson
    Book Description:

    Karl Pearson, founder of modern statistics, came to this field by way of passionate early studies of philosophy and cultural history as well as ether physics and graphical geometry. His faith in science grew out of a deeply moral quest, reflected also in his socialism and his efforts to find a new basis for relations between men and women. This biography recounts Pearson's extraordinary intellectual adventure and sheds new light on the inner life of science.

    Theodore Porter's intensely personal portrait of Pearson extends from religious crisis and sexual tensions to metaphysical and even mathematical anxieties. Pearson sought to reconcile reason with enthusiasm and to achieve the impersonal perspective of science without sacrificing complex individuality. Even as he longed to experience nature directly and intimately, he identified science with renunciation and positivistic detachment. Porter finds a turning point in Pearson's career, where his humanistic interests gave way to statistical ones, in his Grammar of Science (1892), in which he attempted to establish scientific method as the moral educational basis for a refashioned culture.

    In this original and engaging book, a leading historian of modern science investigates the interior experience of one man's scientific life while placing it in a rich tapestry of social, political, and intellectual movements.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3570-6
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
    Theodore M. Porter
    (pp. 1-12)

    Beginning in 1892, when he took up statistics as his scientific vocation, Karl Pearson devoted himself relentlessly to a project of almost universal quantification. This work, the invention of a mathematical field of statistics, defined one of the landmark transitions in the history of the sciences, or indeed of public rationality. Until then he had been a thoroughly restless intellectual, as involved in politics, literature, and history as in science. These studies and experiences set up his wide-ranging career as a quantifier, and at the same time created conditions for enduring doubts about this mission, to which he thereafter dedicated...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Lehrjahre of a Poetic Wrangler
    (pp. 13-42)

    If all biography is in part autobiography, then there is much to be learned from Karl Pearson’s reductio ad absurdum of the pious Victorian genre of life and letters, four quarto volumes, copiously illustrated, on his predecessor Francis Galton. It begins with a long chapter on Galton’s ancestry, indispensable background to the life of the father of eugenics. The modern reader, at least, finds these pages to be full of ingenuous just-so stories: a quantitative disposition reflecting the hereditary business sense of the Quaker Galtons; a wanderlust—over scientific as well as terrestrial continents—inherited from two other branches of...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Apostle of Renunciation: A NEW WERTHER
    (pp. 43-68)

    “Twenty-three and nothing done for immortality,” complained the immortal Schiller. Karl Pearson, in the same spirit, returned from his Wanderjahre in Germany and composed his fictionalized autobiography, The New Werther, looking within to define the plight of his generation. It was a self-conscious work of romantic effusion, of longing to embrace the world, to get behind its masks, and to find for himself a purpose. That is, it laid out some of the enduring issues of his scientific life. As he would write later of Francis Galton: “The five years which follow most men’s University careers are the most developmental...

    (pp. 69-90)

    By late 1880, Pearson had found a doctrine to express his political discontent and began calling himself a socialist. He assumed at almost the same time a deep commitment to history as a mode of scientific understanding and of literary expression, of knowledge and passion. Under this sign he conceived in 1881 two failed schemes of social prophecy. One was his proposal to translate Marx’s Capital, which the author declined. The other was to write a passion play for the nineteenth century, which he did in fact complete, only to see it fall stillborn from the press. Like the New...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Cultural Historian in a Political Age
    (pp. 91-124)

    Late in life, in his study of Galton, Pearson would claim that biography was the richest form of history. But he also was drawn to history as biography, the development of Germanic peoples as the formation of his own culture. The progress of any people possesses a logic of its own, a continuity that could rarely be broken by forces from outside, and its possibilities for the future were contained within its own past. In the German Middle Ages he found a background of popular socialism, sustained by folk rituals and linked to the Catholic faith, which stood in many...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Intellectual Love and the Woman Question
    (pp. 125-177)

    A growing interest in women’s issues and curiosity about women’s feelings and perceptions led Pearson in 1885 to take the initiative in establishing a “Men and Women’s Club,” devoted to research and frank discussion on issues concerning women and relations between the sexes. Although he was by this time a professor of applied mathematics, with a heavy load of teaching obligations, he had begun working intensely on historical issues involving the changing status of women, structures of family and child rearing, prostitution, and sexual desire and activity. As late as 1890, on the threshold of his conversion to statistics, he...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Ether Squirts and the Inaccessibility of Nature
    (pp. 178-214)

    Pearson may have been the first to call metaphysics a species of poetry, and as philosopher of science he is generally remembered as a follower of Ernst Mach’s doctrine that we can never get at any underlying reality. In truth his views were far more interesting and contradictory, an unstable combination of positivism that owed only a little to Mach with radical idealism. Metaphysics he found tantalizing, sometimes irresistible, and he longed to turn metaphysical intuitions into objects of sensory experience. Unlike Mach, Pearson took seriously the “thing in itself” as something infinitely remote, rather like Spinoza’s God, who could...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Scientific Education and Graphical Statistics
    (pp. 215-248)

    At the final meeting of the Men and Women’s Club, on 11 March 1889, Pearson reported on Francis Galton’s new book, Natural Inheritance. He thought it important but saw “considerable danger in applying the methods of exact science to problems in descriptive science, whether they be problems of heredity or political economy.” Pearson feared that mathematics might seduce sociologists with its “logical accuracy,” and distract them from the wide-ranging complexity of real human life. Galton’s quantitative analogies of genetic processes to cookery books and political elections seemed odd and profitless. But at least he kept clear of the “metaphysical regions...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Statistical Reformation
    (pp. 249-296)

    Pearson’s new faith in the world-historical role of statistics, arising gradually from about 1891 to 1894, gave him at last the mission he had been seeking for fifteen years. Statistics was close to coextensive with what he called scientific method. It was as wide ranging, and hence as glorious, as his previous enthusiasms: German philosophy and literature, scientific history and socialism, the woman question, the physics of ether and of four-dimensional geometry, and graphical statics. It had the further merit of subsuming important aspects of each of these, reaffirming the continuity of his interests and of the self that cultivated...

    (pp. 297-314)

    Karl Pearson’s was a literary life of devotion to truth. From youth he had understood his development as a bildungsroman, a character formed through diverse experiences who is yet never dominated by external circumstances. He composed his life self-consciously as akin to a novel and more than once portrayed it in writing as an actual work of literature. In his later years he may have felt the justness of Shaw’s dramatic title: “Karl Pearson: A Tragedy.” He felt this tragic dimension most acutely during those periods of depression provoked by the deaths and other losses that punctuate human existence. What...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 315-328)
  15. Index
    (pp. 329-342)