Happiness and Joe Higgins

Brian Barry

  • Explaining Technical Change: A Case-Study in the Philosophy of Science by Jon Elster
    Cambridge, 273 pp, £22.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 521 27072 3
  • Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality by Jon Elster
    Cambridge, 177 pp, £17.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 521 25230 X

Jon Elster needs, as they say, no introduction to regular readers of the London Review, who will be familiar not only with his name but also with the cast of his mind and the breadth of his interests. What makes him distinctive is a combination of philosophical acuity and detailed attention to contemporary work in history, the social sciences and cognitive psychology. He sets out his own credo in the ‘General Introduction’ to Explaining Technical Change:

I am not out to tell economists or historians how to do their work. I believe, however, that philosophers of science can be of help in distinguishing true from spurious foci of disagreement within the empirical disciplines. Empirical work conducted in isolation from the philosophy of science may be no worse for that, whereas the philosophy of science atrophies if it is not in close and constant touch with the development of current thinking on empirical matters. Yet the asymmetry is not so radical as to make philosophy of science totally parasitic.

Perhaps this sounds pretty anodyne. But until recently philosophers who dabbled in history or social science usually started with the assumption that they already knew what constituted a valid form of explanation (drawn from some crude approximation to the practice of physics) and did not relate their ideas to the actual work of historians or social scientists. Either they made up simple examples that fitted the theory but bore little relation to what went on in the subject as practised, or some example, once introduced from the literature, was passed along from one philosopher to another, becoming increasingly stylised in the process. (‘If I hear about witchcraft among the bloody Azande one more time I shall scream,’ a sorely-tried Oxford colleague said to me some years ago.) Elster avoids these pitfalls. He has done his homework on the original sources and then thought a lot about what he has learned.

This is not to say that he is a paragon of all the authorial virtues. Both books are, I think, made harder going than they need be by Elster’s habit of laying down a dense barrage of distinctions and cross-classifications before doing anything much with any of them, and even then not doing anything with a great many of them. Explaining Technical Change consists of two parts of roughly equal length, one entitled ‘Modes of Scientific Explanation’ and the other ‘Theories of Technical Change’. The first part is a synoptic essay which can be read on its own and which brings together views about explanation that Elster has developed separately in a number of other places (including Sour Grapes). It is organised around the question of the subject areas (physical, biological and social) to which three modes of explanation (causal, functional and intentional) are appropriate, and contains in compressed form statements of all of Elster’s characteristic positions.

The most controversial of these (though not with me) is that functional explanation (roughly speaking, explaining the existence of something by pointing to its beneficial or survival-enhancing consequences) is, as it stands, no explanation at all. It can become one against an appropriate background, so that we can see how the consequences somehow feed back to produce the outcome. (The natural selection of genotypes on the basis of ‘inclusive fitness’ is, of course, the paradigm.) But the more the story is filled in, and the tighter the explanation gets, the more it becomes clear that a functional explanation, if successful as an explanation, is a kind of causal explanation. To the extent that a proposed functional explanation does not have the causal loop in place, it is simply a promissory note drawn on a causal account.

It might perhaps be thought that this dismissal of functional explanation (if we understand by that explanations that cite good consequences without supplying a feedback loop) smacks too much of the old-style philosophical police force, and Elster himself talks of ‘my argument – or should I say diatribe – against functional explanation of the more unreflective kind’. But I doubt whether anyone would ever have believed that anything could be explained by pointing to its consequences except as a result of having already swallowed some half-baked theory: either Hegelian teleology (or the aspect of Marx’s theory of history that unfortunately rests on Hegel) or the misinterpreted lessons of biology. So it seems legitimate for the philosophical cops to arrest the philosophical robbers who (as is the nature of functional explanation) seek to enjoy the advantages of theft over honest toil.

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