Let’s have your story

Adam Phillips

  • Why?: What Happens When People Give Reasons . . . and Why by Charles Tilly
    Princeton, 202 pp, £15.95, March 2006, ISBN 0 691 12521 X

This is a book about the reasons we give and the reason we give them; a book about our behaviour rather than the mysteries of human existence or technology or the universe. For Charles Tilly, people give reasons not ‘because of some universal craving for truth or coherence’ but because they want to confirm, negotiate or repair their relationships. The whole business of giving reasons for what we do and for what happens is basically a pretext for another get-together. It’s not that we don’t know what we and the world are really like that troubles us but our sociability. Getting on rather than getting it right is what matters, and getting it right – giving accurate accounts – is one of the best things we have come up with to do together. ‘Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons,’ Tilly writes in this persuasive book, ‘people are clearly negotiating their social lives. They are saying something about relations between themselves and those who hear their reasons.’ Having acknowledged the ‘whatever else they are doing’, a nod to the more philosophically or psychologically-minded reader, Tilly can go his own way through the perplexing forms our reasons tend to take. His way is sociological, which means in this case a good mixture of the anecdotal and the schematic; there are riveting stories by survivors of 9/11, people who have been told by doctors that they have cancer, jilted lovers, and scientists interested in the ecology of common land, and rather less riveting but clearly useful attempts to formulate and formalise what Tilly calls ‘the relational side of reason-giving’.

Tilly’s previous work as a social scientist has been the analysis of what he calls ‘large-scale political processes such as revolutions and democratisation’, but this book was prompted by misgivings about the social sciences and what he took to be their complicity with a more pervasive cultural narrow-mindedness. He was struck by the fact that the mass media, students and ‘my fellow social scientists’, in their explanations of complex social phenomena, tended to focus ‘so regularly on the decision-making of a few influential actors while neglecting unanticipated consequences, incremental effects, and the incessant, subtle negotiation of social interaction’. Given that ‘people rarely accomplish exactly what they consciously plan, and constantly find events unrolling differently from what they anticipated’, it is, as Tilly says, strange that when they come to describe or explain what he calls ‘social processes’ they ‘overwhelmingly emphasise conscious deliberation’. That was the point Tolstoy made in War and Peace – that you can’t have a theory of accidents, that if contingency rules nothing rules that a method could account for – but as Tilly sees it, this isn’t something the social sciences want to recognise. If you don’t, as part of your descriptions of the social world, talk about agents with conscious intentions, or ersatz agents like the structure of language, or unconscious desire or kinship structures, then what are you going to talk about? Whether you privilege structure over agency, or prefer to think of agents informed but not utterly determined by structures, you are still wanting to get some inevitability into the story.

So the other thing that prompted Tilly’s book, though he doesn’t put it quite like this, was a wish to purge the social sciences of the last vestiges of providentialism. His own ‘plaintive claim’ was that ‘most social processes more often resemble intense conversation than, say, soliloquies or a grand master’s planning of chess moves,’ and that for some reason his preferred analogy ‘rarely persuaded anyone’. Monologues and grand masters, of one sort or another, were what was wanted, even, it seems, in nominally democratic societies. And just as more and other things happen than those we intend, and no one person, or power or force or structure, is in charge of us, so Tilly’s book is itself about far more than he – or perhaps even it – wants it to be about. The ‘Why?’ of his title asks and shows with great lucidity ‘what happens when people give reasons . . . and why’; but it also asks, among other things, why the language of sociology is so marginal to the general culture, and by implication to the language of so many other academic disciplines; and why Tilly himself might have become the social scientist he became. There is, that is to say, a fascinating account in this very various book, of how the best popular science writing works, and works on its readers; and there are intriguing autobiographical moments, when Tilly lets us know something about his own life without any of the modern jargon of self-exposure.

Tracing what he calls his ‘line of argument’ back through American pragmatism, Why? shows the very real advantages of not talking psychologically when one is most tempted to do so. Tilly’s shorthand for this approach is to quote the great Kenneth Burke’s insistence that what words for motives describe are situations not inner states. Which is all you need to know if you want to drop the whole idea of inwardness, and talk instead of social dramas. Tilly is eager to equate ‘avowal and attribution of motives to the giving of reasons’: to say, in other words, that what we are likely to call motives only ever turn up in the form of reasons given. And he wants to add, in this pragmatic vein, that the reasons we give ‘always accomplish the social work of justification, rationalisation and repair’.

When we give our reasons we are doing things to each other with aims in mind; and what we are doing is always to some extent indeterminate, and aims in mind are not the same as aims in reality. It is important not to miss, despite disclaimers to the contrary, that there is in this pragmatic account a distinctive picture of human nature, of people as the animals who need endlessly to justify themselves, give plausible accounts, and repair what they might have damaged. The consensus among these animals is that it is consensus that matters most; and there is the persistent intimation that these animals, despite or perhaps because of their determined sociability, do a lot of damage to each other. Indeed, it would be easy to feel after reading Tilly’s book that giving reasons is primarily a matter of damage limitation, but the kind of damage limitation that always does further damage. Our reasons don’t believe in each other, don’t even like each other. The content and tone of Tilly’s book could not be more congenial, but you sense – as you do in much of the most compelling American pragmatism – a profound apprehension of the asocial nature of human beings, of just how good they are at not getting on. There is more resignation than relief when he says at the end ‘we might as well understand how reasons work’ given that we ‘will continue giving and receiving reasons every day of our lives’; if we can’t make a virtue of our necessities we can at least understand them. But by the time you finish this book you may think that reason giving and receiving sounds more compulsive (and compulsory) than anything else, more of a symptom than a godsend.

Why it is that the giving and receiving of reasons is essential to our sociability – why this is one of the forms our sociability takes – is not really the point of Tilly’s inquiry. He wants us to take it for granted that this is what we do, and indeed what we will go on doing, and that therefore we need to understand it. Tilly never, or never in so many words, suggests how understanding our reason-giving and receiving will make our lives better. The ‘social work’ that giving reasons does, in his view, ‘always includes shaping the relationship between giver and receiver of reasons’, but what shape our relationships should take is not explicitly set out. Tilly clearly prefers democracy to bullying – that is, he sees them as ideally at odds with each other – but as a social scientist he wants description to do the work of prescription. He doesn’t, as Auden said our critics always should, tell us what his Eden is.

He does, though, have a handy way of dividing up our reasons to make them more intelligible. ‘Commonly given reasons,’ he writes, ‘fall into four overlapping categories.’ It matters of course that the categories overlap, and that the common rather than the supposedly universal is being proposed; this is not, Tilly is saying, French Structuralism, or German Metaphysics, this is not claiming for itself an elitist rigour. There is no glamorous group to join. The four categories – conventions, stories, codes and technical accounts – couldn’t be less technical. There is no new language here: merely a familiar one that is being slightly recast. Conventions are ‘conventionally accepted reasons’ (‘my train was late,’ ‘he’s just a lucky guy,’ ‘she has class’ and so on), the clichés and banalities that preclude (or pre-empt) further questioning. Stories, which are the kind of reason-giving that Tilly prefers and writes most intently about, are ‘explanatory narratives incorporating cause-effect accounts of unfamiliar phenomena or of exceptional events’. Reasons given according to codes are reasons given in ‘legal judgments, religious penance or awarding of medals’; codes prescribe and proscribe what constitutes a legitimate reason, and are therefore tightly ‘context dependent’. Technical accounts are what specialists give in their specialist language, mostly to each other. Each reason, whatever the category it belongs to, differs in content depending on the social relations between giver and receiver (my lover will get a more elaborate account of why I am late than my secretary). But all of them, most importantly for Tilly, exert ‘effects on those social relations, confirming an existing relation, repairing that relation, claiming a new relation, or denying a relational claim’. We are not so much doing things with words as doing things to relationships with words. The kinds of reason I give for my actions say something about my relationship with the person to whom I’m giving them, but the reasons I give are also work done on the relationship. So what I say tells me more about what I imagine is between us than about what has happened; how I account for my lateness will be dictated less by what happened than by what we are to each other, or want to be. As what sociologists often call ‘actors’ we are more interested in relationship, in what goes on between us, than in reality; indeed, in Tilly’s view, relationship is our reality. It is obvious that the cancer specialist talks differently to his colleagues from the way he talks to his patients: exactly what he might be doing in talking differently is Tilly’s concern.

Stories are Tilly’s most ample category, in part because they can subsume the other three. They ‘rework and simplify social processes so that the processes become available for the telling’. Telling stories makes events shareable – that is the best thing about giving reasons for Tilly. In stories complexity is reduced, and something is made to be heard (or read) that has to convince and in some sense to please. Singular experiences are added to the stock of available fiction. As Tilly sees them, stories also tend to impute responsibility to identifiable agents and so lend themselves to moral evaluation, another of the things we enjoy doing together. And stories, more obviously than the other kinds of reason, are embedded in relationships. But it is above all the economy of stories that appeals to Tilly; that they are made to sound plausible because their makers have such a sure sense of what is relevant. A good story, in other words, is always a triumph of censorship. Stories, Tilly writes, ‘typically call up a limited number of actors whose dispositions and actions cause everything that happens within a delimited time and space . . . stories inevitably minimise or ignore the causal roles of errors, unanticipated consequences, indirect effects, incremental effects, simultaneous effects, feedback effects and environmental effects.’ It is easy to see what Tilly means by this, and it’s broadly speaking true of the stories we tell every day. At the same time his list of what stories inevitably minimise or ignore is as good an account as any of what came to be known as Modernist writing: Woolf, Joyce, Stein among many others were interested in virtually nothing else. But perhaps the more telling point is how little the techniques of Modernist storytelling have impinged on our more common giving of reasons. There is certainly no journalism now, no political rhetoric or popular science writing, no history writing, popular or otherwise, that shows any signs of the innovations and experiments of Modernist aesthetics. And what Tilly calls the ‘superior stories’ that he wants to promote – ‘they adopt story form in their simplification of causal processes, but in general tell their stories by means of entities and cause-effect relationships corresponding to those appearing in defensible, full-fledged technical accounts’ – are committed, in the best and the worst sense, to accessibility.

Tilly compares three books that use evolutionary theory – Charles Pasternak’s Quest: The Essence of Humanity, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s Genes, Peoples and Languages and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – to illustrate how superior stories work; and work here seems to mean something like ‘make difficult forms of knowledge and inquiry satisfyingly shareable’. The ‘rule’ for superior stories – not itself, perhaps, the best name for these stories – should you want to write one is, Tilly tells us, ‘simplify the space in which your explanation operates,’ minimise references to all the effects and contingencies he mentioned in the passage I quoted, restrict your causal accounts to ‘explicit, defensible equivalents’ and, ‘finally, remember your audience: you will have to tell your superior story differently depending on the knowledge and motivation your listeners will bring to it.’ The good sense in which these superior stories are accessible is that they are written or told in a spirit of inclusiveness: the inner superiority of the teller to his audience is not assumed. They are accessible in the worst sense in so far as – potentially at least – they patronise their audience, and refuse to acknowledge the resistance in their medium; language is never as effectively instrumental as we might want it to be. Tilly’s account of a superior story might be more applicable to an advertisement or a porn film.

But the ambiguities in that account are themselves instructive, the problems posed more illuminating than the suggested solutions. In the final chapter, ‘Reconciling Reasons’, Tilly lays his cards on the table by telling us what seems to be really bothering him, and why it might matter. It is at once a confession, and a kind of confrontation. Social scientists, he writes, who ‘carry on a complex courtship with stories, conventions and codes’ also ‘face a distinctive problem’:

They claim to describe and explain the same social processes that non-specialists habitually treat by means of conventions and stories. Hence a bundle of problems for social scientists: they are commonly proposing explanations of the very same behaviours and outcomes for which people learn early in life to give accounts in the modes of conventions, stories and codes.

Social scientists may have plenty to say but have they got anything to add? What use is technical redescription compared with so-called ordinary language? As Tilly says, the evidence social scientists use ‘often consists of reasons that people give for their actions’ and yet the social scientific explanations then produced ‘frequently contradict conventions, widely available stories, and/ or prevailing codes for actions’. If a group of people, in this case a group of specialists called social scientists, gives reasons for and explanations of people’s behaviour that these people would not be inclined (or even tempted) to give themselves; and if, as a consequence, they ‘find themselves causing offence and cultivating disbelief’ and, to add insult to injury, ‘they rarely reach general audiences with their technical accounts’ then what are they up to? Social processes – though not many people would even use that phrase – are complex and so ‘their explanation requires full-fledged technical accounts.’ And yet social scientists, as Tilly says, have ‘trouble making their accounts credible’. In what sense can we be understood by people whose understanding we can’t understand? If you believe that people resist the truths that matter most to them you can console (and aggrandise) yourself with the complementary belief that the more truthful you are the more you will be rejected; that your exclusion is a sign of your honesty. If you believe that people acknowledge the truths that matter most to them you are upset by disagreement: your exclusion is a sign of your unpleasantness. The great thing about the notion of resistance is that it makes disagreement desirable. For social scientists who want their work to be acceptable enough to be useful – not to feel that they are commentators on a game that no one is playing – the right stories have to be found. And in Tilly’s pragmatist view we should therefore drop the idea of being in search of truth and realise that we are in search of sociability, of better ways of being together. If the social sciences cannot tell stories that are in search of an audience, they are a contradiction in terms: there is nothing social about them.

Tilly’s preference among the relations we are so busily shaping is for mutual respect, as befits a democratic sociologist, but mutual respect is easier said than done, or indeed described. The word ‘mutual’ has always had a good press, and we have always been given good reasons why it is good to believe in it; but there are no compelling accounts of what it might really involve. ‘The reasons we give shape our relations with the people who receive them,’ Tilly proposes, and this doesn’t seem controversial; then he adds: ‘we can also read this book’s teachings in the opposite direction. The reasons people give you reflect their approaches to relations with you.’ As givers of reasons we shape other people, as receivers of reasons we are getting a clue about other people’s relations with us. We are placing and being placed. Tilly’s assumption here is that our sociability in some way depends on our being intelligible to each other, that understanding people is integral to getting on with them. And if that were true, reasons would be an important currency, and credibility and credulity, our capacity to believe and believe in each other, would be the key to social life. Tilly wants to encourage specialists to write their own superior stories because the very act of popularising, or plain speaking, their expertise ‘has the virtue of making you think about the relevance of your daily work to humanity at large, or at least the humanity with which you make contact outside of your study, laboratory or conference hall.’ The ‘you’ addressed here suggests that Tilly’s book is written for fellow specialists, despite the largely successful attempt it makes to be a popular book about the problems of popularisation. Academics need to sell books now because publishers need to, and this cuts both ways; more good things are available, and more bad, opportunistic things are written. Opportunism sometimes brings out the best in people, but thinking about ‘relevance’, or indeed ‘humanity’, does not. Every ‘why?’ question begs another. It is the very real virtue of Tilly’s troubled book to show us the reason this should be so.