Keynes: Probability Preface

Keynes worked on the theory of probability and submitted a dissertation on that topic for a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge in March 1908. William Ernest Johnson and Alfred North Whitehead were appointed to assess the dissertation. He was not successful but he revised the work taking the assessors' comments into account and also comment by Bertrand Russell. He resubmitted it and was awarded a fellowship in March 1909. Although he intended to publish his dissertation, he could not do so during World War I while working for the Treasury. After the end of the war Keynes prepared his dissertation for publication and it was published in 1921. We present a version of the Preface to the book below.

See Keynes Intro Ch I for the first introductory chapter where Keynes looks at The meaning of probability.
See Keynes Intro Ch II for the first introductory chapter where Keynes looks at Probability in relation to the theory of knowledge.




Fellow of King's College, Cambridge



The subject matter of this book was first broached in the brain of Leibniz, who, in the dissertation, written in his twenty-third year, on the mode of electing the kings of Poland, conceived of Probability as a branch of Logic. A few years before, "un problème," in the words of Poisson, "proposé à un austère janséniste par un homme du monde, a été l'origine du calcul des probabilités." In the intervening centuries the algebraical exercises, in which the Chevalier de la Méré interested Pascal, have so far predominated in the learned world over the profounder enquiries of the philosopher into those processes of human faculty which, by determining reasonable preference, guide our choice, that Probability is oftener reckoned with Mathematics than with Logic. There is much here, therefore, which is novel, and, being novel, unsifted, inaccurate, or deficient. I propound my systematic conception of this subject for criticism and enlargement at the hand of others, doubtful whether I myself am likely to get much further, by waiting longer, with a work, which, beginning as a Fellowship Dissertation, and interrupted by the war, has already extended over many years.

It may be perceived that I have been much influenced by W E Johnson, G E Moore, and Bertrand Russell, that is to say by Cambridge, which, with great debts to the writers of Continental Europe, yet continues in direct succession the English tradition of Locke and Berkeley and Hume, of Mill and Sidgwick, who, in spite of their divergences of doctrine are united in a preference for what is matter of fact, and have conceived their subject as a branch rather of science than of the creative imagination, prose writers, hoping to be understood.


1 May 1920

JOC/EFR August 2007

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