Abstracts of reviews of Elster

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Engerman, Stanley L. (1980), Counterfactuals and the New Economic History (Review of Logic and Society), Inquiry [23 (2):157-172]

Engerman: Counterfactuals and the New Economic History


In discussing Elster's views on the use of counterfactuals and on the nature of contradictions in society, it is contended that, in general, these will not seem especially controversial to those trained in neoclassical economics. Similarly, there is little disagreement in principle between the views of many 'new economic historians' and Elster on the use of counterfactuals in the study of historical problems. In evaluating Elster's critique of several applications of counterfactuals in the 'new economic history', it is argued that the concentration on broad philosophical questions may obscure the point that much recent controversy is based upon disagreements concerning factual issues and the nature of empirical relationships and magnitudes.

Lukes, Steven (1980), Elster on counterfactuals (Review of Logic and Society), Inquiry [23 (2):144-155]

Lukes: Elster on counterfactuals


It is argued that, despite its considerable virtues, Jon Elster's approach to counterfactual reasoning in history misfires in a number of ways. First, his classification of the various approaches to the problem among logicians and philosophers is inadequate and confusing: he claims to follow the meta-linguistic approach, uses the idiom of the possible worlds approach but would be better advised, given his own intuitions and purposes, to adopt the condensed argument approach. This would not only make his argument clearer and less confusing: it would also improve it. It is argued, secondly, that Elster makes exaggerated claims for his own 'branching worlds' theory, which he does not show to be the 'correct' account of counterfactuals; this only serves to relocate the central problem, since everything hinges on the identification of branching points. Thirdly, it is argued that Elster is therefore led into a mistaken account of when counterfactuals are illegitimate: he does not prove that historical counterfactuals must be about real possibilities in the past, and that we are not permitted to suppose, in contravention of our actual beliefs, that the laws we accept are suspended in some specified sphere but otherwise applicable.

Markl, Karl-Peter (1980), Logic and truth finding in society and sociology (Review of Logic and Society), Inquiry [23 (2):173-185]

Markl: Logic and Truth-finding in Society and Sociology


The question of sociological truth-finding is posed in the light of the view that logical formalizations, along with other arguments, only acquire relevance in illocutionary contexts, where it is not so much the abstract correctness of a sentence as the stating of it that counts. In order to become a counterfactual an argument requires its antecedent to be recognized as being contrary to the 'facts'. To this extent there is a clear link with 'reality' or with a view of the world that is taken as factually given. Social science develops on the basis not only of generalizations but also of historical facts and political requirements. The question arises: in terms of what world-view or purpose can we unambiguously declare a conditional to be a counterfactual - and a significant or non-trivial one at that? Further, can Elster's clarifications help identify political agents and the proper entities within and through which political action is performed? Finally, the problem-solving capacity of the concept of closeness of one possible world to another or to the actual world, especially with regard to counterfactuals and causality, is questioned.

Meikle, Scott (1986), Making Nonsense of Marx, Inquiry [29 (1):29-43]

Meikle: Making Nonsense of Marx


Elster's understanding of Marx is reviewed in three areas: the theory of value, the theory of history, and dialectics. In each area Elster goes astray in quite superficial ways, not instructive ones. There is a simple underlying reason in almost every case, viz. that Elster fails to confront the distinction in the philosophy of science between the methods of atomism and essentialism. Since Marx was an essentialist, Elster's attempt to assimilate Marx to the atomist tradition has as much serious interest as attempts to show that Kant was a utilitarian, Hegel a classical empiricist, or whales fishes. The conclusions are that the book is an unsympathetic treatment of Marx, that it is lacking in scholarship and balance, and that the standard of argument is unusually poor.

North, Douglas C. (1986), Is it worth Making Sense of Marx?, Inquiry [29 (1):57-63]

North: Is it worth Making Sense of Marx?


This essay explores Elster's analysis of Marx's theory of historical evolution. The meaning of the terms 'productive forces' and the 'relations of production' are examined both as specified by Marx and interpreted by Elster. The essay then goes on to demonstrate how the modern literature on transaction costs can provide a more precise and useful framework within which to explore the ongoing tension between productive forces and relations of production.

Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg (1980), Akrasia and conflict (Review of Logic and Society), Inquiry [23 (2):193-212]

Rorty: Akrasia and Conflict


As Elster suggests in his chapter 'Contradictions of the Mind', in Logic and Society, akrasia and self-deception represent the most common psychological functions for a person in conflict and contradiction. This article develops the theme of akrasia and conflict. Section I says what akrasia is not. Section II describes the character of the akrates, analyzing the sorts of conflicts to which he is subject and describing the sources of his debilities. A brief account is then given of the attractions of the akratic alternative: its power to focus or dominate the agent's attention; its being strongly habitual; its having the pull of social streaming: following the charismatic leader, the mechanisms of sympathetic or antipathetic infection, the models of role casting. Following these strategies is by no means pathological: these are relatively automatic (though still voluntary) psychological functions. That is precisely their power and attraction: they provide the conflicted akrates with an action solution, though not one that accords with his preferred judgment.

Sandven, Tore (1995), Intentional Action and Pure Causality: A Critical Discussion of Some Central Conceptual Distinctions in the Work of Jon Elster, Philosophy of the Social Sciences [25 (3):286-317]

Sandven: Intentional Action and Pure Causality


This article discusses fundamental problems in "rational choice theory," as outlined by Jon Elster. Elster's discussion of why institutions may not be said to act shows his fundamental presupposition that only "monolithic," unitary entities are capable of action. This is, for him, a reason why only individual human beings may be said to act. Furthermore, human beings may be said to act only insofar as they "maximize" (their "utility") on the basis of a unitary, complete, consistent "preference structure." All action that is not maximization in these senses is for Elster not really human action, but rather instances of "pure causality." Elster distinguishes between the "'real," intentional person, who "maximizes," and "purely causal forces" within the person. This article tries to show that this radical, sharp dichotomy between "intentionality," in this narrow sense, and "pure causality" is inadequate as a basis for understanding human action. This radical dichotomy is central to important arguments made by Elster more generally.

Slaughter, Cliff (1986), Making Sense of Elster (Review of Making Sense of Marx), Inquiry [29 (1):45-56]

Slaughter: Making Sense of Elster


Elster contends that much of Marx's most important work was characterized by methodological individualism. I argue that this is untrue, and that to assert it results, at least in part, from a misunderstanding of Marx's writings on the individual's relation to his society. Central to Marx's writings is the rejection of an abstract 'society'. Instead we find analysis of a particular social formation, with a historically specific relation between individual and society, and between ends and means. This is demonstrated from Capital and from earlier writings by Marx. In Elster's critique of Marx's political economy, the same essentially historical content of Marx's categories is not seen. The natural (or general) and the historical are confused in Elster's argument on the theory of value. Elster's reconstruction of Marx's concepts of class and class struggle is critically examined, from the standpoint that class is a relation of exploitation, resting on property in the means of production. In supposing that Marx was in some sense a functionalist, Elster must once again be ignoring the historical core of Marx's thinking.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. (1980), Is the prisoner's dilemma all of sociology? (Review of Logic and Society), Inquiry [23 (2):187-192]

Stinchcombe: Is the Prisoners' Dilemma all of Sociology?


If social relations often require the choice of a cooperative solution to a prisoners' dilemma, we must ask how people generally solve the games. Three possible devices are that those who choose non-cooperative strategies get a bad reputation and so learn to be cooperative, that people are taught by parents that non-cooperators have unhappy lives, or that an official can be paid a salary to make the cooperative choice. By analyzing erotic love and marriage, and why people try to do their jobs, it is suggested that these devices result in people often solving prisoners' dilemma games without being conscious of them. How then do these structures that 'have the function' of solving prisoners' dilemmas get created and maintain themselves? It is suggested that Deweyan consciousness, existing only when structural strains or unsolved games create personal problems, is adequate to explain many such functional structures.

Taylor, Michael (1986), Elster's Marx, Inquiry [29 (1):3-10]

Taylor: Elster's Marx


A central aim of Elster's Making Sense of Marx is to recover Marx for methodological individualism, to show that Marx, unlike many of his followers, sought to provide his explanations of macro-phenomena with micro-foundations. Though I largely share Elster's methodological commitments and his view that Marx also (intermittently) adhered to them, I question whether this makes Marx a methodological individualist. In my view, Marx practised in his best work both individualist and structuralist explanation simultaneously. In three briefer remarks I also comment on Marx's and Elster's treatment of the differences between workers' and peasants' propensities for collective action; the primacy in Marx's theories of dynamics internal to a society and his failure to recognize the importance for domestic developments of interactions with other societies and states; and finally Marx's 'progressive' values, which Elster seems to share.

Wilson, Thomas P. (1982), Social theory and modern logic: reflections on Elster's Logic and Society, Acta Sociologica [25 (4):431-441]

Wilson: Social Theory and Modern Logic


This essay selectively reviews some major issues implicit in Elster's Logic and Society. In particular, Elster's reliance on the utilitarian model of the actor as the basis for general social theory, his assumption that modal concepts can be reduced to extensional ones, and his adoption of the natural science model raise fundamental problems for his general approach. Consequently, despite the fact that many of Elster's discussions of particular examples are instructive and provocative, the work overall is disappointing.

Wood, Allen (1986), Historical Materialism and Functional Explanation, Inquiry [29 (1):11-27]

Wood: historical Materialism and Functional Explanation


This paper is a critical examination of one central theme in Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx: Elster's defense of 'methodological individualism' in social science and his related critique of Marx's use of 'functional explanation'. The paper does not quarrel with Elster's claim that the particular instances of functional explanation advanced by Marx are defective; what it criticizes is Elster's attempt to raise principled, philosophical objections to this type of explanation in the social sciences. It is argued that Elster's philosophical critique of functional explanation rests on a caricature of this kind of explanation, just as his critique of Marx's use of teleology in the philosophy of history rests on a caricature of the kinds of teleological claims Marx is concerned to make. The paper ends with a brief discussion of a recently published passage from Marx's notebooks of 1861-1863, where Elster claims to have found Marx explicitly criticizing capitalist exploitation as an injustice to the workers.

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