I address the philosophical debate over whether the mathematical theory of probability arose on the basis of empirical observations or of purely theoretical speculations. The debate tends to pose a strict dichotomy between empirical problem-solving and pure theorizing. I alternatively suggest that, in the case of mathematical probability, an empirical problem-context acted as an enabling condition for the possibility of mathematical innovation, but that the activity of the early mathematical probabilists gradually became the study of a theoretical system of ideas. This case has some implications for a more general philosophical view on the context of mathematical discovery.

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