Statistical thermodynamics has a universal appeal that extends beyond molecular systems, and yet, as its tools are being transplanted to fields outside physics, the fundamental question, what is thermodynamics, has remained unanswered. We answer this question here. Generalized statistical thermodynamics is a variational calculus of probability distributions. It is independent of physical hypotheses but provides the means to incorporate our knowledge, assumptions and physical models about a stochastic processes that gives rise to the probability in question. We derive the familiar calculus of thermodynamics via a probabilistic argument that makes no reference to physics. At the heart of the theory is a space of distributions and a special functional that assigns probabilities to this space. The maximization of this functional generates the mathematical network of thermodynamic relationship. We obtain statistical mechanics as a special case and make contact with Information Theory and Bayesian inference.
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