The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability

Images of Leibniz, Voltaire, Darwin and Dostoevsky.

This class considers works from ancient Greece to contemporary authors, including (clockwise from top left) Leibniz, Voltaire, Darwin and Dostoevsky. (Images courtesy of Wikipedia.)


MIT Course Number


As Taught In

Spring 2008



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Course Description

Course Features

Course Description

"The Art of the Probable" addresses the history of scientific ideas, in particular the emergence and development of mathematical probability. But it is neither meant to be a history of the exact sciences per se nor an annex to, say, the Course 6 curriculum in probability and statistics. Rather, our objective is to focus on the formal, thematic, and rhetorical features that imaginative literature shares with texts in the history of probability. These shared issues include (but are not limited to): the attempt to quantify or otherwise explain the presence of chance, risk, and contingency in everyday life; the deduction of causes for phenomena that are knowable only in their effects; and, above all, the question of what it means to think and act rationally in an uncertain world.

Our course therefore aims to broaden students' appreciation for and understanding of how literature interacts with – both reflecting upon and contributing to – the scientific understanding of the world. We are just as centrally committed to encouraging students to regard imaginative literature as a unique contribution to knowledge in its own right, and to see literary works of art as objects that demand and richly repay close critical analysis. It is our hope that the course will serve students well if they elect to pursue further work in Literature or other discipline in SHASS, and also enrich or complement their understanding of probability and statistics in other scientific and engineering subjects they elect to take.

Related Content

Noel Jackson, Shankar Raman, and Alvin Kibel. 21L.017 The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability. Spring 2008. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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