Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams

  • Logic and Society by Jon Elster
    Wiley, 244 pp, £12.65, March 1978, ISBN 0 471 99549 5
  • Ulysses and the Sirens by Jon Elster
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 240 pp, £9.75, May 1979, ISBN 0 521 22388 1

There are some pieces of logical or theoretical jargon which are marks of ideological allegiance – intellectual windsocks to display which way the wind is blowing the author. While linguistic philosophers, at least of the older sort, ‘analyse’ some intellectual object, structuralists and their neighbours ‘deconstruct’ it. For Marxists, a set of interrelated problems is usually ‘problematic’; and what gives rise to their problematic, is involved in it, and needs to be overcome, is, standardly, ‘a contradiction’, where that is not something in their or someone else’s discourse, but an objective state of the world.

Logicians characteristically hate this use of the word ‘contradiction’, something which, they will insist, applies only to words or to thought: not, certainly, to the world. Even when the term is applied to actions or social states, items which at least embody or express thought, they will prefer to say something else, and speak of ‘conflict’, for instance, or practical impossibility.

The idea of contradiction which is not just an affliction of thought but is something real in the world, and which has to be overcome by progress or in thought or action, is due to Hegel, a fact which itself does not recommend it to the logicians. Great lengths of Hegel’s work indeed go under the title ‘Logic’, but little of it belongs to that science which was developed by Aristotle, the Scholastics, Frege, Russell and many hundreds of current practitioners who work in Schools of Philosophy, Linguistics, Mathematics or Economics. Among the many things that Hegel understood, logic in that sense – that is to say, the real sense – was not one. His unwieldy, slithering notions of contradiction and negation were included in his legacy to dialectical materialism, and some very dreadful and obfuscatory rot by Engels or Plekhanov, in which the corn negates the seed and so on, is owed directly or indirectly to him.

All that may be thrown away, and only the demands of religious observance could want it kept. But along with it, logicians and their natural philosophical allies characteristically throw out an entire dimension of social, political and psychological thought: a dimension which was among the many things Hegel understood, and which, indeed – so far as such a thing can ever be true of anyone – he invented. ‘Contradiction’ is a property of thought, and the attempts to apply it to the cornfield can be forgotten. But it does not follow from that that it is an affliction only of descriptive thought: it can apply also to social or individual projects or attitudes. It is not very helpful to extend it to any kind of conflict whatsoever. Conflicts of interest between peasants and workers do not in themselves constitute a contradiction: though some political project may involve genuinely a contradiction if it essentially involves having to satisfy both of two sets of interests which are essentially opposed to one another.

A policy, a social situation, a frame of mind, can involve contradiction in this way if it necessarily involves objective or other kinds of thought which are necessarily irreconcilable. Thus, in Hegel’s most famous and influential example, the master wants from the slave something he necessarily cannot have – ‘unilateral recognition’, as Elster puts it in Logic and Society, a recognition freely accorded to him by someone who is a chattel, who cannot freely recognise anyone. This state of consciousness is essential to the master, and implicit in the historical forms that his institution takes.

There is nothing in all this inconsistent with real logic. In fact, however, the philosophers who live most intimately with real logic have not had much interest in these ideas, as Sartre’s existentialism did, or some forms of phenomenology, or, of course, Marxism. There are many reasons for this: most superficially, the dubious associations I have already mentioned of the profligate use of ‘contradiction’; more seriously, genuine difficulties, which indeed need investigation, as to the ways in which a particular thought form (a ‘consciousness’, as Hegel put it), or again a self-defeating project, can be necessarily involved in or presupposed by a social relationship or other historically-given development. Hegel had one big dark answer to that question; Marxists have lots of active answers, but they tend to scurry off when disturbed. That fact – together, of course, with the mere fact that the whole business has anything to do with Marxism at all – tends to keep the logicians away. A similar neglect is shown by the economic or social scientific theorists of rational behaviour. They are concerned with some kinds of logical difficulty which strategic thought can encounter: but their formal theories are characteristically too tied to simple conceptions of Utilitarian rationality, and their range of psychological and social reference is too narrow, for them to make much contact with this range of problem, grounded as it usually is in complex historical and psychological materials.

Jon Elster, in his brilliant, inventive, mercurial books of essays (as they both are, though only the second professes it), encourages these various parties to come and look at each other, and generates enough quick-fire excitement to make some of them surely want to do so. His versatility suits the needs of the case. He is a Norwegian, and, by affiliation, a Professor of History. He is a totally idiomatic writer, further, in both English and French and perhaps other languages as well. He obviously knows a lot of mathematical logic, economics, political science and formal decision theory. He quotes in an unforced and relevant way from Donne, Stendhal, Emily Dickinson and Groucho Marx, to name a few; about the last he remarks that his famous dictum, ‘I would not dream of belonging to a club which would have me as a member,’ is a reversal of the Master-Slave paradox, and that it was indeed he who stood Hegel on his head.

Elster can overdo it, and a section of Ulysses about the paradoxes of love betrays, in a memorable phrase of Professor John Findlay, the rattle of machinery. He is also systematically infuriating, because his method in both books is to start questions and not to answer them; to throw out one or two good ideas, not to develop a thesis or sustain an argument for very long. He is interested in the vocabulary of discussions and the ways in which concepts can be put to use in various directions, rather than in solving any given problem. The effect is rather bad for the nerves: in terms which might be appropriate to his own style of paradox, it is like a brisk meditation. Yet it is very clever and inventive, and wonderfully clear; and brings the powerful instruments of modern logic to a rich range of social and psychological issues.

The issue of social contradiction and self-defeating projects occurs in both the books. Logic and Society considers more generally the application of logical notion to social description: the logic of possibility, for instance, as applied to politics, or the logic of ‘counterfactual history’, the activity of considering, for instance, how the USA might have developed without the railway, or the South without slavery (both actual projects of Robert Fogel), a style of thought which seems bafflingly indeterminate yet at the same time is closely associated with causal claims in history which most people want to be able to make. These topics both get pretty short treatment compared with the central topic of ‘counter-finality’, the phenomenon of projects which are doomed to defeat themselves, as Marx believed the processes of capitalist development were bound to do. Elster is good both about the logical structure of such processes and about the various ways in which they have been related to historical development.

Ulysses and the Sirens mainly concerns the rich subject of rational strategies to deal with partial irrationality. The paradigm, revealed in the title, is that of binding oneself so that one will not be able to do things which one foresees oneself doing for bad reasons. Although Elster proceeds, as always, at a cracking pace, there is a lot of insight as well as brilliance in his discussions of this and related subjects. He is particularly good about the phenomenon of ‘time preference’ – that is to say, the fact that we characteristically attach more value to the sooner than to the later: a fact which is nervously repudiated by many philosophers, decision theorists, and (in so far as they are not the same people) evangelists of capitalist accumulation.

Besides his formal skills and his vast reading. Elster can bring to these subjects flashes of a distinct historical and political shrewdness. Logic and Society contains, in the middle of a fairly formal discussion of political possibility, some very suggestive remarks about Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and the theory of the ‘necessary failure’, in the sense of a failure which is indispensable to the success of the cause.

At three or four points in these books, there are hints of an extremely important idea: that directed and rational practical thought, whether in politics or in individual life – the rehearsing of possibilities, calculation of probabilities, devising alternatives – must for theoretical as well as practical reasons have a limit. This is not just because time or information runs out, but because there are necessary ambivalences of reason which can only be resolved by action rather than by further thought. To the extent that it is indeed a theoretical necessity, this will be a further point at which logical structure and social reality meet one another at some depth. It is one of several which Elster’s plumb-line has touched in his rapid voyage. Let us hope that he will slow down his ship and survey in greater detail these underwater structures of social thought and action.