J. Puskar : « Conceptions of Chance »


Jason Puskar, « Conceptions of Chance » in Réseau ALEA / ALEA Network [online], 2020 <https://hasard.hypotheses.org/3543>

I’m finding it hard to keep track of so many definitions of chance operating in tandem, so for my own benefit I started this list of different common conceptions. I came up with a dozen with not much effort so far. I’m sure there are more (I notice I left out any reference to “error”.) Some of these could be sub-divided much further (especially Chance 3). In literary accounts, multiple conceptions are often intermingled.

The list progresses from the denial of chance at the start to the acknowledgement of chance as an active force of nature at the end. Or, to use Mark Currie’s terms, from an epistemological problem to an ontological fact. In the middle the list sorts through various other options associated with mathematics, narrative, institutions, subjective states.

Chance 1: No chance: What seems to be chance is concealed cause; chance is a marker of ignorance. Laplace.

Chance 2: As providence: what cannot be attributed to discrete causes or general laws comes from God; chance as fortune or luck. Augustine.

Chance 3: As mathematical probability: chance as ratio of incidence among total cases; especially when used as predictor of the future. Quetelet, et al.

Chance 4: As mechanical randomizer: related to Chance 3, but actively generates outcomes from a limited set of possibilities; dice or drawing differently colored balls from a bag.

Chance 5: As narrative effect: chance derives from stories; verb tenses, ambiguity, open-endedness, deferral of closure. Related to Chance 4, but uses words along with or instead of things. Mallarme.

Chance 6: As institutional effect: a social and political category of action; often legal.

Chance 7: As interaction of independent chains of causation. Aristotle, Cournot, etc.

Chance 8: As interaction of independent chains of causation but with acknowledgement of subjective expectations inflecting the result: nobody calls it chance when a leaf falls on this paving stone rather than the one next to it, but they do call it chance when a piano falls on this pedestrian rather than the one next to him.

Chance 9: As non-calculative subjective expectation of future events; general likelihood; “I have a good chance at getting this job.”

Chance 10: As manifestation of the unconscious, or its outer correlate; surrealist chance. Breton.

Chance 11: As freedom or openness, conceived as opposite of law and necessity; contingency; sometimes a violent breakdown of order. William James, Marinetti.

Chance 12: Ontological chance: Chance as a natural and material randomizer, de-rationalizer, active source of novelty and change; a permanent law in itself; “clinamen” or “absolute chance.” Lucretius, Peirce.


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