Staatenkunde and Statistics
By the middle of the 18th century, "statistics" or Staatenkunde had been a subject of study in German-speaking countries of over fifty years. Its object was comparative description of the resources of different states; its aim was to assess their political strength. The purely verbal descriptions neither employed numbers nor aspired to generalization or to the formulation of general laws. This early Staatenkunde , which lacked both a quantitative method and a connection with the natural sciences, grew into a university discipline of great prestige equipped with an increasingly refined methodology. The descriptions it generated served as a bank of knowledge from which facts could be drawn by government officials as they drafted domestic and foreign policy. University statistics thus came to be known as "the right eye of the politician," whose duty it was to watch out for the nation's resources and prosperity.
To the German statisticians, schooled in Aristotelian philosophy, the welfare of the state was not merely a question of quantities and materials; their concerns also encompassed intangibles like national character, satisfaction of the citizenry, and realization of the aims of the state. From an enormous mass of information, the statistician had to extract the facts pertaining to the happiness of the masses. In his Theorie der Statistik , August von Schlözer identified the task of his discipline: "to measure the happiness of peoples, and whether this is increasing or declining." This meant "power and strength, to be sure! But these are only part of the happiness of a people. And not always these: for are there no states which are outwardly all-powerful but whose citizens live in wretchedness?" Von Schlözer's words capture a basic ideology. A country's strength is not to be measured only in the superficial and the visible. Such assessments miss crucial factors like character, quality, and depth, which serve to distinguish the nations of the earth.
The statistical net hauled in unmanageable quantities of information. Toward the end of the 18th century some statisticians began systematically to use the table as a means of organizing this information. The tabular form, with its columns of countries and rows of categories, facilitated comparative analysis and offered new perspectives. At first, the tables mixed verbal and numerical information, but the use of columns soon favored facts in the form of figures. Numerical language, uniform and efficient, produced compact tables. The instrument of the table in turn created a corps of advocates, with clear preference for just those categories that could be most easily quantified. Such "tabular statistics," as its detractors dubbed it, differed markedly from the qualitative discipline of university statistics.
Although they wielded a numerical sword, the advocates of tabular statistics did not fight under the banner of quantitative social
analysis. The purpose of their tables remained description, albeit with the aid of numbers. Such descriptive quantification should be distinguished from analysis of a society believed to be the real product of individual, quantifiable constituents. Nonetheless, tabular statistics was seen as a real threat by the proponents of the older, university statistics. As supposed materialists and social mechanics bent on dismantling a beautiful and intricate reality, the tabular statisticians came under steadily heavier fire.
To the university statisticians, the word was the medium of statistics. Numbers might occasionally prove useful as an auxiliary instrument to give concrete form to particular descriptions or to express relationships. But numbers can never pierce the surface, they argued, or explain more than material circumstance. The influential review close to the professoriate of the University of Göttingen dismissed the new "table hacks" and "table fabricators" as common journeymen, whose reliance on the instrument rendered their work both shallow and coarse and reduced a beautiful art to a soulless technology. Only the nobility of university statistics grasped the idealistic factors inherent in the state. "The tabular method [seeks to] reduce everything to figures. . . . If one has a few columns giving the figures for square miles, revenue, population and our dear livestock, one has a summary of the strength of the state; for national spirit, love of freedom, genius and character. . .there are no columns. . .and yet it is much less the body than the spirit that determines the strength of the state." The metaphor of the body recurred: "Has not. . .the whole science of statistics—one of the noblest—been debased to a skeleton, to a veritable corpse, on which one cannot look without loathing?. . . . The state is something nobler than a machine. . .it forms a moral body."
The note of desperation in these words reflects a profound transformation in the nature of the dispute. A quarrel that appeared to concern the form in which statistical data should appear came to represent rival philosophies. The quantitative approach, regarded as
reducing reality to the material and excising the spiritual, stood as a challenge to the basic ideology of Romanticism, with its idealism, organic concept of the state, and emphasis on individuality. How naive to see the state as machine! How could anything so multifaceted as a state aspiring to fulfillment be expressed in mere numbers? The university statisticians instead saw the state as a "being" (Wesen ), people as Volk , imbued with Volkgeist . The collective presupposed a social code based on spiritual and traditional values. People should not, could not be reduced to a factor of production; they were not the means to prosperity but its purpose.
As this colorful rhetoric may suggest, the university statisticians felt their position slipping out from under them. Deprived of more and more content as new specialties (political economy, geography, ethnology, and so on) broke away, university statistics began to wither away. As a political science it would be ruthlessly discredited by events during and after the French Revolution. University statistics, in failing to identify the popular discontent that found its voice and program in the Revolution, or to foresee that mighty Prussia would be trampled like a sand castle under the feet of Napoleon's troops, sounded its own death knell: "Nothing, nothing at all was achieved by the higher [university] statisticians."