Proverbs

William Ian Miller

  • Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions by Jon Elster
    Cambridge, 450 pp, £14.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 521 64487 9

Suppose that 16 years ago you had written not one but two superlative books. Would you suffer from anxiety of influence with regard to early versions of yourself, as if, to twist Harold Bloom, your early self now played an insurmountably glorious Milton to your later romantic phases? Did Shakespeare say to himself: ‘No way I can beat Hamlet, so why write again?’ Jon Elster wrote two gems in the 1970s and 1980s, Ulysses and the Sirens and Sour Grapes. Not that they have deterred him from publishing at a stupendous rate since, though he has never recaptured that earlier refulgence. In Alchemies of the Mind, he explicitly means to revisit Sour Grapes, to add emotions to the more unabashed rational-choice style of the earlier work. What he gains in nuance he loses in freshness and surprise, but not all that much. If Sour Grapes was his Hamlet, Alchemies is his Cymbeline; the book is too long, but it gives much pleasure and instruction.

Alchemies is a collection of five substantial essays, almost five books in one. All but the first feature the role the emotions play in behaviour and mental life, and all of them develop a multitude of related themes rather than hammer home a single thesis. The essays delve into the perversities of human motivation and desire – wishful thinking, counter-wishful thinking (‘if I bury the treasure here someone is sure to discover it’), sour grapes, forbidden fruit, the grass is greener – especially as they play havoc with rationality. One even detects a certain grim delight (or am I projecting?) that experimental psychology has finally proved what we already suspected: that the depressed see the world as it really is; self-esteem is mostly delusional. Truth and happiness are like pygmies and cranes, incessantly at war with each other.

Unusual for a theorist of any stripe these days, Elster has read books, especially by those writers whose most telling virtue is their eye for human foolishness and knavery. Nothing as strong as Swift, but he is addicted to those exposers of knavery, La Rochefoucauld and Stendhal, and those exposers of foolishness, Jane Austen and Montaigne; all have major speaking parts in Elster’s play. In fact, his usual audience of economists, political scientists and psychologists are liable to take exception to his overt pleas for belletrism. In disciplines that frown on any citation that is older than a decade, Montaigne stands no better chance than Erving Goffman. Wheels are reinvented with astounding regularity – if we’re lucky; just as often we lose the skills and talents to reinvent them or reinvent them looking more like triangles and squares.

Elster’s first essay – ‘A Plea for Mechanisms’ – concedes, given the perversities and complexities of human motivation, the impossibility of lawlike generalisations in the social sciences and instead argues for a more modest means of explaining human behaviour short of admitting total defeat by settling for ‘mere description’. I’ve never understood what this bugbear of ‘mere description’ is. If only a few illustrious theorists in the social sciences and especially the humanities would go in for it a little more, for clarity’s sake or to prove to us that they actually know something before they begin to theorise.

Elster tries to construct a middle position which history, some anthropology and good social theory has always occupied. He takes his best examples of mechanisms from Tocqueville. A mechanism is a causal pattern, a causal story, that cannot predict like a law but can supply sense after the fact. Many mechanisms have the form of proverbs and it is to Elster’s credit that, rather than take that as a cause for dismissing his observations as so much folk psychology, he celebrates, within limits, proverbial psychological wisdom. No trite social constructionist mantras about there being no such thing as common sense, the presence of so many of the same proverbs across time and space gives the mantra the lie. Proverbial expressions – sour grapes, forbidden fruit, out of sight out of mind and so on – give accounts of behaviour that let us answer the question ‘why did he do that?

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