Elspeth Green responds to Anna Henchman

The final question in Anna Henchman’s reflection is a provocative one: “what is it about our own moment in time that is inspiring scholars to ask, why this turn of events rather than that turn of events, why this reality, or ‘why always Dorothea?’” She notes earlier that the novelty of Tondre’s work, when compared with other scholars of Victorian probability, lies in his interest in proliferating possibilities rather than the cementation of “norms.” His emphasis on outliers and alternatives seems manifestly of “our own moment,” in which we embrace stories located outside traditional societal “norms” while enduring political fracture that disrupts the stability of facts.

Henchman mentions other scholarship in this mode, including—as did David Coombs—Catherine Gallagher’s Telling it Like it Wasn’t. That book begins with Leibniz, suggesting a relationship—complicated, for Leibniz, by a concurrent deterministic streak—between alternative histories and probability theory as far back as the 17th century. Tondre shows that revolutions in mathematical probability provided something between sanction and comfort: new probabilities enabled new novelistic representations of possibility, while simultaneously suggesting that mathematics could help manage, or at least explain, overwhelming proliferation. I wonder if yet another consequence of our “disciplinary” world—as opposed to the “pre-disciplinary,” pre-Cavendish world Tondre describes—is the retreat of serious mathematics from the general consciousness, leaving us without some key tools to understand our proliferating world.

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