Antoine Augustin Cournot Biography

Antoine Augustin Cournot Biography (1801-1877)

Antoine-Augustin Cournot, one of the most original minds ever to attack economic theory, led a life filled with tragedy and disappointment. Born in 1801 in Haute Saone, France, Cournot received his initial training at local schools before entering the Ecole Normale in Paris at the age of twenty, where he continued mathematical studies. Throughout his youth, Cournot indulged an insatiable appetite for books (sci­entific and otherwise) in spite of an ominous (and ultimately fulfilled) presentiment of impending blindness. When the Ecole Normale disbanded, Cournot remained in Paris, where, after a period of relative poverty, he obtained work as the secretary to one of Napoleon's generals, Marshall Gouvion Saint-Cyr. He completed his doctorate (at the University of Paris) during this period (1823 to 1833) and came into contact with leading intellectuals of the day, many of them physical scientists and engineers. During his tenure as a university student, Cournot published several mathematical articles as well as the military memoirs of his employer.

Cournot's papers on mathematics attracted the attention of the great physicist and statistician Poisson, who helped him secure a position as professor of mathematics at Lyons in 1834. Here Cournot taught differential calculus and completed the ini­tial work on his book on probability (Exposition de la theorie des chances etdesprob-abilites). The next year Cournot was appointed school superintendent of Grenoble, and within a few months he assumed additional responsibilities as Inspector Gen­eral of Education (succeeding Ampere, who is known to all students of electrical sci­ence). In 1838, Cournot married and also published his seminal work on microeco­nomics, Recherches sur les principes mathematiques de la theorie des richesses (Researches into the Mathematical Principles of the Theory of Wealth). He was also made a traveling inspector general of education, based in Paris.

Trouble with his vision forced Cournot to spend a leave of absence in Italy in 1844. He became superintendent of the Dijon Academy in 1854, where he remained until his retirement in 1862. Throughout this period and during his retirement in Paris, Cournot continued to publish books on social philosophy and on economic questions. Probably as a result of his piecemeal loss of sight, the character of his work altered. His two later books on economics, Principles de la theorie des richesses and Revue sommaire des doctrines economiques, published in 1863 and 1877, respectively, do not employ mathematics to treat economic questions, and they do not add signifi­cantly to Cournot's original work on economic theory (Recherches). Cournot died suddenly in 1877, but, sadly, almost no one had yet noticed his work on economic theory, with a few important exceptions such as Leon Walras. He would probably be more than a little surprised and pleased at the course of microeconomic analysis in the post-1877 period because his impact and influence permeate to the very core of modern economic theory.