In The Counter Enlightenment Isaiah Berlin describes an intellectual movement that unfolds as a reaction against Enlightenment ideals promoting science, rationalism and a common template for humanity. The Counter Enlightenment strand begins with romanticism, swells into nationalism and ends tragically with Nazism and Fascism in the twentieth century. It favours the particular over the universal, the traditions and customs of a specific place over the attempt by humanists to fit humanity to one mould and, in way that completely surprised me, links the romantic archetype of the destructive genius to small ‘c’ conservatism.

It is a very convincing argument and it made me think about how, if at all, these two movements affected the development of statistical thought.

I don’t have any strong opinions on this yet, but my first thoughts are that Quetelet with his social physics seems part of the continuation of the Enlightenment tradition, while Galton and his successors seem part of the strand that leads into scientific racism and thereby part of the Counter Enlightenment. But this is probably oversimplifying things: Pearson was a Neo-Kantian and you don’t get more Enlightenment than Kant. Perhaps there is something in the fact that, for Quetelet, the average man was a sort of Platonic form of man, very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment, whereas for Galton it was the extremes, the particular outlier geniuses that mattered.