Gabriel Tarde nurtured a special relationship with the work of Antoine Augustin Cournot. Tarde's writings testify not only to his detailed knowledge and profound admiration for the work of the philosopher, but also to his interest in Cournot's mathematical writings and economic research.
When he published Les lois de l'imitation in 1890, Tarde dedicated the book to Cournot, specifying that he was not his pupil, nor even his disciple. As a matter of fact, he never actually met him. Observing that Cournot was little known during his lifetime—and hardly any better known after his death—he explained his dedication by describing Cournot as “this Sainte-Beuve of the philosophical critique, this mind that was as original as it was judicious, as encyclopaedic and comprehensive as it was perceptive, this profound geometrician, this outstanding logician, this avant-garde economist, little-known precursor of the new economists; in a word, this clear-cut, concentrated, refined version of Auguste Comte” (Tarde 1890, XXIV). This is, of course, a condensed expression of Tarde's opinion of Cournot, but the apparently excessive nature of the phrase and the eulogistic style are nevertheless astonishing. And it may seem equally surprising, at first glance, that Tarde should pay such emphatic homage to Cournot and refer so constantly to his thinking, given the distance between them. Not only does the sociologist from Sarlat often choose different subjects of study to the philosopher from Franche-Comté, but above all, the orientations of their thinking are fundamentally divergent.
On the other hand, however laudatory Tarde's different appraisals of Cournot's work may be, they are clearly not the product of blind admiration; they are accompanied by reservations and criticisms, which give them more precision and depth.
The problem then arises of understanding the foundation of Tarde's admiration for the philosophy of Cournot, not with regard to any one particular aspect of his doctrine, but his philosophy as a whole, in its principles and approach. And at the same time, we must endeavor to reveal the basis of Tarde's reservations and criticisms.
In seeking to comprehend Tarde's relation to Cournot in this way, not as Jean Milet or Amédée Matagrin have done in the fields of the philosophy of history (Milet 1970, ch.2) and social psychology (Matagrin 1910), respectively, but from a global perspective, we can draw on a particularly appropriate resource.