Ulysses Unbound
Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints

Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Ulysses Revisited: How and Why People Bind Themselves
Introduction: Constraint Theory
Passion as a Reason for Self-Binding
Time-Inconsistency and Discounting
Time-Inconsistency and Strategic Behavior
Passion as a Device for Self-Binding
Variations on a Russian Nobleman
Addiction and Precommitment
Obstacles, Objections, and Alternatives

Ulysses Unbound: Constitutions as Constraints
Disanalogies with Individual Precommitment
The Nature and Structure of Constitutions
Constraints on Constitution-Making
Two Levels of Constitutional Precommitment
Self-Binding in Athenian Politics
Interest and Passion in Philadelphia and Paris
Time-Inconsistency, Discounting, and Delays
Omnipotence, Strategic Behavior, and Separation of Powers
Obstacles and Objections
Ulysses Unbound

Less Is More: Creativity and Constraints in the Arts
Daydreaming: Creativity Without Constraints
Constraints and Conventions in the Arts
Constraints, Value, and Creativity
Originality, Authenticity, and Creativity
The Hays Code
Lucien Leuwen as an Empty Set
Randomization in the Arts
Creativity and Constraints in Jazz
Obstacles and Objections



Addiction : Entries and Exits

by Jon Elster (Editor)


Table of Contents




Introduction Jon Elster

1 Disordered Appetites: Addiction, Compulsion, and Dependence  (Gary Watson)
2 Freedom of the Will and Addiction (Olav Gjelsvik)

3 The Neurobiology and Genetics of Addiction: Implications of the "Reward Deficiency Syndrome" for Therapeutic Strategies in Chemical Dependency  (Eliot L. Gardner )
4 Addiction as Impeded Rationality (Helge Waal and Jorg Mørland)

5 Hyperbolic Discounting, Willpower, and Addiction  (Ole-Jorgen Skog)
6 Addiction and Self-Control (Ted O'Donoghue and Matthew Rabin )

7 The Intuitive Explanation of Passionate Mistakes and Why It's Not Adequate (George Ainslie )
8 Emotion and Addiction: Neurobiology, Culture, and Choice (Jon Elster )

9 Addicts as Objects of Study: Clinical Encounters in the 1920s (Caroline Jean Acker )



Strong Feelings
Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior

Emotion and addiction lie on a continuum between simple visceral drives such as hunger, thirst, and sexual desire at one end and calm, rational decision making at the other. Although emotion and addiction involve visceral motivation, they are also closely linked to cognition and culture. They thus provide the ideal vehicle for Jon Elster's study of the interrelation between three explanatory approaches to behavior: neurobiology, culture, and choice.


Series Foreword
Preface and Acknowledgments

1 Introduction

2 Emotion
2.1 How Do We Know What We Know about Emotion?
2.2 What Emotions There Are
2.3 What Emotions Are: Phenomenological Analysis
2.4 What Emotions Are: Causal Analysis

3 Addiction
3.1 How Do We Know What We Know about Addiction?
3.2 What Addictions There Are
3.3 What Addictions Are: Phenomenological Analysis
3.4 What Addictions Are: Causal Analysis

4 Culture, Emotion, and Addiction
4.1 The Concept of Culture
4.2 Culture and Emotion
4.3 Culture and Addiction

5 Choice, Emotion, and Addiction
5.1 The Concept of Choice
5.2 Choice and Emotion
5.3 Choice and Addiction

6 Conclusion


Alchemies of the Mind
Rationality and the emotions

Jon Elster has written a comprehensive, wide-ranging book on the emotions in which he considers the full range of theoretical approaches. Drawing on history, literature, philosophy and psychology Elster presents a complete account of the role of the emotions in human behavior. While acknowledging the importance of neurophysiology and laboratory experiment for the study of emotions Elster argues that the serious student of the emotions can learn more from the great thinkers and writers of the past, from Aristotle to Jane Austen. He attaches particular importance to the work of the French moralists, notably La Rochefoucauld, who demonstrated the way esteem and self-esteem shape human motivation. The book also maintains a running dialogue with economists and rational-choice theorists. Combining methodological and theoretical arguments with empirical case-studies and written with Elster's customary verve and economy, this book has great cross-disciplinary appeal.


Preface and acknowledgments

Part I. A Plea for Mechanisms
1. Introduction
2. Explaining by mechanisms
3. Proverbial mechanisms
4. Mechanisms in Montaigne
5. Mechanisms in Tocqueville
6. Some elementary mechanisms
7. Molecular mechanisms
8. From mechanisms to laws
9. A plea for disaggregation

Part II. Emotions Before Psychology
1. Introduction
2. Aristotle on the emotions
3. The French moralists
4. Emotion in literature

Part III. Social Emotions in Historical Context
1. Introduction
2. Shame and social norms
3. Envy in social life
4. Honor, duels, and feuds

Part IV. Rationality and the Emotions
1. Introduction
2. The nature of emotion
3. Rationality and the emotions

Part V. Alchemies of the Mind
1. Introduction
2. Transmutation
3. Misrepresentation

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


Logic and Society


Introduction 1

1. Formal Logic - An informal exposition 10
Appendix: Relational logic and social relations 20

2. Possibilistic reasoning in the social sciences 28
Social mobility 28
Finite-state grammars 30
Kinship systems and structuralist thought 33
The evaluation of real national income 35
Endogenous change of tastes 39
Appendix: An impossibility result for context-free grammars 42

3. Political possibility 48

4. Contradictions of the mind 65
Hegel's theory of contradictions 67
Contradictory desires: master and slave 70
Contradictory desires: the economics of irrationality 77
Contradictory beliefs: Hintikka 81
Contradictory beliefs: Festinger 86

5. Contradictions of society 96
The fallacy of composition 97
Counterfinality 106
Suboptimality 122
A dual theory of social change 134
Appendix 1: Some notions and problems in game theory 150
Appendix 2: Causality and intentionality: Three models of man 157

6. Counterfactuals and the New Economic History 175
Three chapters from the history of the notion 176
The problem of historical counterfactuals 181
Imperialism and colonialism 192
Optimism and pessimism [British industrialization] 196
The Navigation Acts 201
Railroads and American economic growth 204
American slaves and their history 208

References 221
Index 233

Barry, Brian (1980), Superfox, Political Studies 28:136-143
Engerman, Stanley L. (1980), Counterfactuals and the new economic theory, Inquiry 23 (2):157-172
Lukes, Steven (1980), Elster on counterfactuals, Inquiry 23 (2):144-155
Markl, Karl-Peter (1980), Logic and truth finding in society and sociology, Inquiry 23 (2):173-185
Moore, Omar K. (1980), Review of Logic and Society, Contemporary Sociology 9 (1):92-92
Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg (1980), Akrasia and conflict, Inquiry 23 (2):193-212
Stinchcombe, Arthur L. (1980), Is the prisoner's dilemma all of sociology, Inquiry 23 (2):187-192
Taylor, Charles (1980), Formal theory in social science, Inquiry 23 (2):139-144 (text)
van Parijs, Philippe (1981), Sociology as General Economics, European Journal of Sociology/Archives Europeennes de Sociologie 22 (2), 299-324
Williams, Bernard (1980), Jon Elster's Brisk Meditations, London Review of Books 2 (8):11-12
Wilson, Thomas P. (1982), Social theory and modern logic, Acta Sociologica 25 (4):431-441

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Explaining Technical Change

This book is a 'case study in the philosophy of science'. It first sets out the main varieties of scientific explanation: causal, functional and intentional (including rational-choice explanations). In a second part four sets of theories of technical change are discussed from the vantage point provided by the first part. These are the neoclassical theory, the theory of Joseph Schumpeter, a variety of evolutionary theories (including the theory of animal tool behaviour), and Marxist theories.

The importance of the book is to provide a more detailed empirical material than is usually done in works on the philosophy of science. It aims at persuading economists that the philosophy of science can have something useful to say on their topic - and at suggesting to philosophers the need for rich empirical material.


Preface and acknowledgements 7
General introduction 9

Part I: Modes of Scientific Explanation
Introduction to part I 15

1. Causal Explanation 25
a. Causal explanation: in general 25
b. Causal explanation: in the social sciences 32

2. Functional Explanation 49
a. Functional explanation: in biology 49
b. Functional explanation: in the social sciences 55

3. Intentional Explanation 69
a. Intentionality 70
b. Intentionality and rationality 72
c. Rationality and optimality 74
d. Intentionality and causality 83

PART II: Modes of Theories of Technical Change

Introduction to Part II 91

4. Neoclassical theories 96
a. The production function 96
b. Explaining the factor-bias of technical change 101
c. Explaining the rate of technical change 105

5. Schumpeter's theory 112
a. The Theory of Capitalist Development (1911) 113
b. Business Cycles (1939) 120
c. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) 125

6. Evolutionary theories 131
a. Animal tool behaviour 131
b. Eilert Sundt 135
c. Nelson and Winter 138
d. Paul David 150

7. Marxist theories 158
a. Did Marx believe in fixed coefficients of production? 159
b. The rate and direction of technical change 166
c. The falling rate of profit 178
d. The development of the productive forces 181

Appendix 1: Risk, Uncertainty and Nuclear power 185
Appendix 2: The Contradiction between the forces and relations of production
With a Mathematical Note by Aanund Hylland 209

Notes 237
References 259
Index 271

Explaining Technical Change
Preface and acknowledgements

The occasion for writing this book was provided by Bernt Schiller of the University of Linköping (Sweden), who asked me to write a textbook in the philosophy of science that could be suitable for their doctoral programme 'Technology and social change'. I am grateful for the suggestions and comments offered by him and his colleagues along the way, I should also like to thank the following for their comments on an earlier draft: G. A. Cohen, Aanund Hylland, Michael MacPherson, Nathan Rosenberg, and an anonymous referee of Cambridge University Press. Acknowledgements for comments on the Appendices are given at the appropriate places. Appendix 1 was originally published in Social Science Information 18 (1979).

Part I of the work can be read as an introduction to the philosophy of scientific explanation. The Achilles heel of this part, clearly, is the chapter on causal explanation. My competence in these intricate matters is not high, but since the chapter was required by the overall architectonics of the book I felt I should state my views even when they are not strongly grounded. I hope I have avoided saying too much that is obviously wrong, but the reader may justifiably feel that some of what I say is not very interesting or not as tightly argued as he might wish.

Part II is not to be read as an introduction to the theory of technical change. It is subordinated to the epistemological purpose of showing how the distinctions and propositions of Part I can be applied to a specific set of empirical problems. Here the danger is that my exposition of the theories may be too compact for the non-specialist and too sloppy for the specialist. To the first, I can only offer the advice to look up the original works. To the second I make a plea that ambiguous statements be taken in their most plausible sense. Even so, there will probably remain some statements that are plainly wrong, of which the reader can justly complain.

J. E.

Barry, Brian (1983), Happiness and Joe Higgins, London Review of Books, 20 Oct.-2 Nov., 5 (9):8-9
Cohen, A. J. (1985), Review of Explaining Technical Change, Journal of Economic Issues 19 (1):263- 265
Nelson, R. R. (1986), Review of Explaining Technical Change, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 7 (3):336-339
Stinchcombe, Arthur L. (1985), Can the philosophy of science help science?, Contemporary Sociology 14 (2):164-166 (text)
Schick, Frederic (1985), Review of Explaining Technical Change, American Journal of Sociology 90 (6):1360-1362
Walt, S. (1984), Review of Explaining Technical Change and Sour Grapes, Ethics, 94 (4):680-700

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Ulysses and the Sirens
revised edition

'Many philosophers and social scientists at some time in their lives have wanted to write fiction or poetry, only to find that they didn't have what it takes. Others have chosen philosophy or social science as a second choice when they decided that their first choice of doing mathematics really was not within their abilities.

The present work is at the intersection of these two failures. But to fail is always to fail at something, and it leaves you with a knowledge of the kind of thing you unsuccessfully tried to do. In the essays collected here I have tried to exploit this knowledge for an analysis of rational and irrational behaviour.'(Preface, p.viii)

Dr Elster arranges his studies in a descending sequence from perfect rationality, through imperfect and problematical rationality, to irrationality. He first characterizes specifically human rationality by its capacity to relate strategically to the future, in contrast to the myopic 'gradient climbing' of natural selection. He trenchantly analyses some of the parallels proposed in this connection between the biological and the social sciences. In the chapter on imperfect rationality the crucial notion is that of 'binding oneself', as Ulysses did before setting out towards the Sirens, when weakness of will may prevent us from using our capacity for perfect rationality. The second half of the book deals with rational-actor theory, comparing its logical power and success to rival approaches, and with the varieties of irrationality expressed in contradictory beliefs and desires.

Dr Elster here draws on, and has things of importance to say to, a very wide range of disciplines: analytical philosophy, political science, sociology, economic theory and animal behaviour studies. He displays a corresponding versatility in the techniques of exposition and argument he deploys from the more formal analyses of decision-theory to imaginative insights from literature and common experience. He writes throughout with admirable lucidity, directness and economy.


Preface to the revised edition page vii
Preface and acknowedgements viii

I Perfect Rationality: Beyond gradient-climbing 1
1 Introduction 1
2 The locally maximizing machine 4
3 The globally maximizing machine 9
4 Strategic behaviour in animals and men 18
5 Functionalist explanation in sociology 28

II Imperfect Rationality: Ulysses and the Sirens 36
1 Introduction 36
2 Towards a definition 37
3 Pascal 47
4 Descartes 54
5 Inconsistent time preferences 65
6 Endogenous change of preferences 77
7 Precommitment in animal behaviour 86
8 Abdication from power 88
9 Some conclusions and further questions 103

III Problematic Rationality: Some unresolved problems in the theory of rational behaviour 112
1 Introduction 112
2 Games without solutions 117
3 Lexicographic preferences 124
4 Subjective probability 128
5 Maximizing, satisficing and natural selection 133
6 Traditional behaviour and random behaviour 137
7 Explaining altruism 141
8 Inconstancy 147
9 Paradox 150
10 And so what? 153

IV Irrationality: Contradictions of the mind 157
1 Introduction 157
2 Hate 161
3 Love 165
4 Self-deception 172

References 180
Index 191

Ulysses and the Sirens
Preface to the Revised Edition

The only (but major) change in the present edition is that most of chapter II.5 on inconsistent time preferences has been completely rewritten. My friend Aanund Hylland of the Economics Department of the University of Oslo pointed out a gross mathematical error in the English edition, thus leaving what I thought to be a profound philosophical conclusion without a leg to stand on. Moreover, in a note dated 26 October 1982 he provided a detailed analysis of the correct mathematical structure of the problem. The results are given below. My conclusions have been reformulated accordingly. I should add that as usual his contribution goes much beyond the technical aspect of the problem; in fact the main conceptual arguments below are also due to his suggestions.

I would like to point out to the reader an article by Rebecca Dresser, 'Ulysses and the psychiatrists: A legal and policy analysis of the voluntary commitment contract', Harvard Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Review 16 (1982), pp. 777-854. The article cites my brief discussion of this issue (in II.2 below) and then goes on to provide a rich empirical material. Also, Thomas Schelling has discussed the problem of precommitment and strategic behaviour toward self in several recent articles, notably 'The intimate contest for self-command', The Public Interest 60 (1980), pp. 94-118.
J. E.

Preface, First edition
[start of page vii]

Preface and acknowledgements

Many philosophers and social scientists at some time in their lives have wanted to write fiction or poetry, only to find that they didn't have what it takes. Others have chosen philosophy or social science as a second choice when they decided that their first choice of doing mathematics really was not within their abilities. The present work is at the intersection of these two failures. But to fail is always to fail at something, and it leaves you with a knowledge of the kind of thing you unsuccessfully tried to do. In the essays collected here I have tried to exploit this knowledge for an analysis of rational and irrational behaviour.

The essays were written independently of each other, but have been rewritten to avoid redundancies and to incorporate further reflection. It may be useful to explain here how their topics relate to each other. Chapter 1 sets out the paradigm of individually rational behaviour, which is distinguished both from biological adaptation and from functional adaptation in societies. The main idea defended here is that the specifically human rationality is characterized by the capacity to relate to the future, in contradistinction to the myopic gradient-climbing in natural selection. Chapter II then introduces the notion of imperfectly rational behaviour, the need for which arises because weakness of will may prevent us from using our capacity for perfectly rational behaviour. The notion of binding oneself, as did Ulysses before setting out towards the Sirens, is the crucial concept of the chapter, though the alternative strategy of 'private side bets' is also explored. Chapter III is essentially a list of problems in rational-actor theory, with a view to evaluating the power of this theory compared to norm-oriented or structuralist approaches. I conclude that the rational-actor theory is logically prior to its

[end of page vii, start of page ix]

competitors, though not necessarily more successful in each particular case. In chapter IV some of the problems discussed in chapter III are singled out for more intensive discussion. In particular I try to explain how contradictory beliefs and contradictory desires can be understood as meaningful even if irrational. There is, in other words, a descending sequence of perfect rationality, imperfect rationality, problematic rationality and irrationality which, in spite of the very diverse material included, lends a conceptual unity to the essays that justifies their being collected in book form.

Underlying all the essays is a particular view of the philosophy of science which I hope to be able to set out more fully elsewhere. A brief outline may prepare the reader for some of the ideas explored below.

(i) There are basically three modes of explanation in science: the causal, the functional and the intentional.
(ii) All sciences use causal explanation.
(iii) The physical sciences use only causal explanation, least-time principles and other variational formulations being merely ana- lytical artifacts without explanatory power.
(iv) There is no place for intentional explanation in biology. This statement is defended in chapter I below.
(v) There is no place for functional explanation in the social sciences. This statement is defended (and qualified) in I.5 and II.8.
(vi) In biology a distinction can be made between sub-functional causality (mutations, senescence) and supra-functional causality (beneficial or harmful spill-over effects of individual adaptations). This distinction is briefly touched upon in chapter I.
(vii) In the social sciences a similar distinction can be made between sub-intentional causality and supra-intentional causality. The former refers to causal processes taking place within the individual, forming or perverting his intentions. This is the subject of much of chapters II and III. The latter refers to causal interaction between individuals. In my Logic and Society, which is in a sense a twin volume to the present book, I discuss this subject at some length.
(viii) Animal and human behaviour should be studied with the notions of function and of intention as regulative ideas. Not all

[end of page ix, start of page x]

animal behaviour is functional, and not all human behaviour is rational or intentional, but there is a well-grounded presumption that this will typically be the case.

Chapter I was originally presented at the Fourth International Congress of the International Organization for the Study of Human Development, Paris, 1977. The present version has benefited from the comments of Roger Masters, Arthur Stinchcombe and George Williams. A very much shorter version of chapter II was first presented at the ECPR Workshop on Political Theory, Louvain, 1976. Finn Tschudi then helped me by pointing out the closely related work of George Ainslie, from whom I later received comments and access to unpublished manuscripts that proved very important for the development of my ideas. I also would like to thank Francis Sejersted, Sissel Reichelt, Dagfinn Føllesdal, John Perry, Michael Bratman, Amélie Rorty, Peter Hammond, Arthur Stinchcombe and Robert Goodin for criticism and advice. Chapter III was presented at the Seminaire International sur l'Economie Sociologique, Paris, 1977. I would like to thank John Harsanyi for stimulating discussion during the gestation period of the paper, and Robert Goodin for constructive criticism. Chapter IV partly overlaps with chapter 4 of my Logic end Society, but there are large differences both in the material itself and in the way in which it is organized. Among those I am in debt to here are Amelie Rorty, Eugene Genovese and Paul Watzlawick, the first for important suggestions and the latter two for confirming that I had indeed understood them aright.

[end of page x]

Brennan, G. (1981), Review of Ulysses and the Sirens, Journal of Economic Literature 19 (1):99-100
Brennan, Timothy J. (1994), Talking to One's Selves: The Social Science of Jon Elster, Journal of Communication 44 (1):73-81 (text)
Derksen, A. A. (1984), Elster, Rationality and the Rational Choice Approach in the Social Sciences, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 14 (4):553-558
Gauthier, D. (1983), Review of Ulysses and the Sirens, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 13 (1):133-140
Hubin, Donald C. (1986), Of Bindings and By-products: Elster on Rationality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 15 (1):82-95 (text)
Mongin, Philippe (1991), Rational Choice Theory Considered as Psychology and Moral Philosophy, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 21 (1):5-37 (text)

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Sour Grapes



Preface and Acknowledgements vii

I Rationality 1
1 Introduction1
2 Individual rationality: the thin theory 2
3 Individual rationality: the broad theory 15
4 Collective rationality: the thin theory 26
5 Collective rationality: the broad theory 33

II States that are essentiallly by-products 43
1 Introduction 43
2 Willing what cannot be willed 44
3 Technoloqies for self-management 53
4 Commands 60
5 Trying to impress 66
6 Faking 71
7 Choice and intention in art 77
8 The impotence of power 86
9 Self-defeating political theories 91
10 The obsessional search for meaning 101

III Sour grapes 109
1 Introduction 109
2 A conceptual map 111
3 Power, freedom and welfare 125
4 Sour grapes and social choice 133

IV Belief, bias and ideology 141
1 Introduction 141
2 Situation-induced beliefs 143
3 Interest-induced beliefs 148
4 The benefits of bias 157

References 167
Index 176

Sour Grapes
[start of page vii]

Preface and acknowledgements

An action is the outcome of a choice within constraints. The choice, according to the orthodox view, embodies an element of freedom, the constraints one of necessity. In non-standard cases, however, these equations do not hold. The title of an earlier book on rational and irrational behaviour, Ulysses and the Sirens, is a reminder that men sometimes are free to choose their own constraints. Sour Grapes conversely reflects the idea that the preferences underlying a choice may be shaped by the constraints. Considered together, these two non-standard phenomena are sufficiently important to suggest that the orthodox theory is due for fundamental revision.

The present book, then, supplements my earlier work. To some extent it also corrects what I now see as an overly enthusiastic application of the idea that men can choose their own character. The chapter on states that are essentially by-products suggests that there are limits to what may be achieved by character planning. There is hubris in the view that one can be the master of one's soul - just as there is an intellectual fallacy in the view that everything that comes about by action can also be brought about by action.

The book is also an attempt to spell out some strands in the complex notions of rationality, intentionality and optimality. Some of the issues raised in this connection are more fully discussed in my Explaining Technical Change. This holds in particular for the analysis of functional explanation.

My first acknowledgement is to G. A. Cohen, who has commented extensively and intensively on successive drafts of Chs. II, III and lV. Without his ability to force me out of a congenital intellectual laziness, the level of argument would have been much lower. Next, I want to

[end of page vii, start of page viii]

thank the members of a Working Group on Rationality, set up under the auspices of the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme', for helpful discussion and constant inspiration. In particular my gratitude goes to Brian Barry, Donald Davidson, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Robert Goodin, Serge Kolm, Amélie Rorty, Amos Tversky and Bernard Williams. Finally I should mention what will be obvious to any reader - my immense intellectual debt to the outstanding work by Paul Veyne, Le Pain et le Cirque. In addition I want to make the following acknowledgements with regard to individual chapters. My ideas about collective rationality in Ch. I have been shaped in numerous discussions with Aanund Hylland, Rune Slagstad and the other participants in the project 'Democracy and Social Planning' set up by the Norwegian Research Council for the Humanities. An earlier, much briefer and somewhat confused version of Ch. II first appeared in Social Sciences Information, 1981. I am qrateful to Elina Almasy for her editorial help, and to Wolf Lepenies for his useful comments. A slightly different version of Ch. III appeared in A. Sen and B. Williams (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1982). I received valuable comments on drafts of that version from the editors of the volume; also from Herman van Gunsteren, Martin Hollis, John Roemer and Arthur Stinchcombe. Ch. IV appeared - also in a somewhat different form - in M. Hollis and S. Lukes (eds.), Rationality and Relativism (Blackwell, Oxford, 1982). I am grateful to Martin Hollis for his editorial suggestions.

The University of Oslo, The Norwegian Research Council for the Humanities, the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme and All Souls College, Oxford, have also contributed materially to the writing of the book.

[end of page viii]

Brennan, Timothy J., 1994, Talking to One's Selves: The Social Science of Jon Elster, Journal of Communication, 44 (1), 73-81 (text)
Farmer, M. K. (1984), Review of Sour Grapes, Economic Journal, 94 (373):201-203
Hubin, Donald C. (1986), Of Bindings and By-products: Elster on Rationality, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 15 (1): 82-95 (text)
Larmore, R. (1986), Review of Sour Grapes, American Political Science Review 80 (2):645-647
Mongin, Philippe (1991), Rational Choice Theory Considered as Psychology and Moral Philosophy, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 21 (1): 5-37 (text)
Padgett, John F. (1986), Rationally Inaccessible Rationality, Contemporary Sociology 15 (1):26-28 (text)
Ryan, Alan (1983), Reasoning with the unreasonable, The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4202 Oct. 14:1112-1112 (text)

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Making Sense of Marx



Preface and acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1
1 Explanation and dialectics 3
1.1. Methodological individualism 5
1.2. Intentional explanation 8
1.3. Two varieties of causal analysis 18
1.4. Functional explanation in Marx 27
1.5. Dialectics 37

Part I: Philosophy and economics 49
2 Philosophical anthropology 53
2.1. Man and nature 55
2.2. Human nature 61
2.3. Social relations 92
2.4. Philosophy of history 107

3 Economics 119
3,1. Methodology 120
3.2. The labour theory of value 127
3.3. Accumulation and technical change 142
3.4. Theories of capitalist crises 154

4 Exploitation, freedom and justice 166
4.1. The nature and causes of exploitation 167
4.2. Freedom, coercion and force 204
4.3. Is exploitation unjust? 216

Part II: Theory of history 235
5 Modes of production 241
5.1. The general theory of modes of production 243
5.2. The historical modes of production 272
5.3. Marx's periodization of history 301

6 Classes 318
6.1. Defining classes 319
6.2. Class consciousness 344
6.3. Class struggle 371

7 Politics and the state 398
7.1. The nature and explanation of the state 399
7.2. The theory of revolution 428
7.3. Communism 446

8 Ideologies 459
8.1. Stating the problem 461
8.2. Mechanisms 476
8.3. Applications 493

Conclusion 511
9 Capitalism, communism and revolution 513
Capitalism 513
Communism 521
Revolution 528

References 533
Index of names 549
Index of subjects 552

Making Sense of Marx
[start of page xiii]

Preface and acknowledgments

This book has a long history. Some of it may be worthwhile recounting here. I began serious work on Marx in 1968, when I went to Paris to study with Jean Hyppolite, who had helped me earlier with my Master's thesis (on Hegel). He died a week before I was to meet him. At the time I was pensionnaire étranger at the Ecole Normale Supérieure; but I did not feel at home among the Althusserian Marxists who set the tone there. Instead, with Gaston Fessard as an intermediary, I turned to Raymond Aron who agreed to be my thesis supervisor. The three years I frequented his seminar were immensely stimulating. When I arrived, I did not know there existed such a discipline as historical sociology. Thanks to Aron and some of the other members of the seminar, notably Kostas Papaioannou, I learned to see Marx in a historical context and in the context of historical problems. At the same time I was discovering Marxist economic theory, in the wake of the "capital controversy". I was excited at these rigorous formulations of Marx's theory, and then depressed when it turned out that their main use was to prove rigorously that it was wrong.

I completed my thesis in 1971. For a while I looked for a publisher, but ceased looking when it occurred to me that there would probably not be any public for the kind of book I had written. As with the present book, the emphasis was on rational-choice theory, micro-foundations, and the philosophy of explanation. In France at the time, and to some extent still today, my methodological commitments automatically would lead readers to place me on the political right. Somehow methodological individualism and political individualism (or libertarianism) had become associated with one another. Hence I could not expect an interested Marxist readership. As for the non-Marxists, they would probably find the residual Marxism in my own views too much for them. So I left Marx and went on to other work, mostly but not wholly unrelated to what I had been doing. Over the following decade I completed five books that are cited extensively in the present work. Leibniz et la Formation de I'Espirit Capitaliste (1975) was a study in historical sociology, an attempt to understand the preoccupations of this polymath in the light of transformations that the European economy was undergoing at the time.

[end of page xiii, start of page xiv]

Logic and Society (1978) applied modal logic to sociological theories and problems. This helped me, among other things, to get a grip on the elusive notion of "social contradictions". Ulysses and the Sirens (1979) and Sour Grapes (1983) are studies in rationality and irrationality, with the main emphasis falling on preference formation and the scope and limits of character planning. Explaining Technical Change (1983) is an exposition of some themes in the philosophy of explanation, including a case study on the problem of innovation, When I finally returned to Marx, I found that I had been greatly helped by what I had been doing in the meantime. Whatever the merits and demerits of the present work, it has better foundations than the version I wrote thirteen years ago.

I returned to Marx because I became aware that the intellectual atmosphere was changing. Above all, the publication of G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History came as a revelation Overnight it changed the standards of rigour and clarity that were required to write on Marx and Marxism. Also I discovered that other colleagues in various countries were engaged in similar work. A small group formed and met in 1979, and has later met annually. The discussions in this group, including extensive comments on successive drafts, have been decisive for the shaping of this book. In particular, the contributions of John Roemer (now stated in his path-breaking A General Theory of Exploitation and Class) turned out to be crucial. An interesting outcome of these discussions is that the sense in which we felt able to call ourselves Marxists has undergone a change over the years. I do not feel that I can speak for others than myself, except to say that there is probably not a single tenet of classical Marxism which has not been the object of insistent criticism at these meetings. Yet some kind of unstated consensus has emerged, even though I feel neither called upon nor competent to explain it here. Perhaps it will emerge implicitly from the other books to be published in the series in which this work appears.

I wish to thank many institutions and persons for their assistance. The Norwegian Research Council for the Humanities has supported my work on Marx on a generous scale, from 1968 to 1971, and then again from 1979 to 1982. The University of Oslo gave me a leave of absence at a crucial time in 1982, which I spent in the stimulating atmosphere of All Souls College, Oxford. The Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (Paris) has helped in many ways, notably by supporting the meetings of the research group mentioned above. Also I want to thank my students in the Political Science Department of the University of Chicago, to whom, on three

[end of page xiv, start of page xv]

occasions, I taught the material that turned into this book. Their incisive questioning forced me to rethink many issues. Cambridge University Press has proved consistently helpful, patient and encouraging. In an act of pure friendship, Stephen Holmes read the whole manuscript with great care to weed out infelicities of style.

G. A. Cohen read drafts of all chapters and made detailed comments that necessitated extensive revisions. I have also learned more from discussions with him than I am able to state, since I am sure there are many ideas that I believe to be my own and that actually originated with him. John Roemer has been equally involved, by his comments, by his own work and by his contributions in discussion. Their intellectual comradeship has been invaluable. Arthur Stinchcombe also read the whole manuscript, and provided a healthy dose of sociological scepticism. Individual chapters have been read by Pranab Bardhan, Robert Brenner, Bernard Chavance, Aanund Hylland, the late Leif Johansen, Serge Kolm, Margaret Levi, Claus Offe, Gunnar Opeide, Adam Przeworski, Rune Slagstad, Ian Steedman, Robert van der Veen, Philippe van Parijs, Michael Wallerstein and Erik Wright. The attention with which they read the work is attested by the fact that they all detected a mistake in an earlier version of chapter 4, when I made Wilt Chamberlain out to be a baseball player. Chamberlain, of course, played basketball. They also helped me to avoid a number of more consequential errors. I want to thank them all for their involvement in what almost amounts to a collective work. Almost, but not quite: although they bear some of the responsibility for some of the remaining mistakes, I must take most of them on myself.

Oslo, January 1984
J. E.

Ball, M. (1986), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Economic Journal 96 (382):576-578
Burawoy, Michael (1986), Making Nonsense of Marx, Contemporary Sociology 15 (5):704-707
Carling, A. (1985), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Science & Society, 49 (4):497-501
Foley, D. K. (1987), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Journal of Economic Literature 25 (2):749-750
Harvey, David (1986), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Political Theory 14 (4):686-690
Hindess, B. (1986), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Sociological Review 34 (2):440-442
Horowitz, G. M. (1989), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 19 (2): 232-235
Levine, Andrew (1986), Review of Making Sense of Marx, The Journal of Philosophy, 721-728 (text)
Louden, R. B. (1989) Review of Making Sense of Marx, Studies in Soviet Thought, 37 (3):250-253
Mandel, Ernest (1986), How to make no sense of Marx, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15 (Supp.):135-161
Meikle, Scott (1986), Making Nonsense of Marx, Inquiry, 29 (1):29-43
Mobasser, Nilou (1987), Marx and Self-Realization, New Left Review, Iss. 161:119-128
North, Douglas C. (1986), Is it Worth Making Sense of Marx?, Inquiry 29 (1):57-63
Ryan, Alan (1986), The Marx problem book, The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4334 Apr. 25:437- 437 (text)
Ryan, Alan, 1987, Can Marxism be rescued?, London Review of Books, 17 Sep., 9 (16): 8-10
Schweickart, D. (1989), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Review of Radical Political Economics 21 (1-2):201-204
Slaughter, Cliff (1986), Making Sense of Elster, Inquiry 29 (1):45-56
Smiley, M. (1988), Review of Making Sense of Marx, Polity, 20 (4):734-744
Taylor, Michael (1986), Elster's Marx, Inquiry 29 (1): 3-10
Walzer, Michael (1985), What's Left of Marx?, New York Review of Books, Nov. 21, 32 (18):43-46
Wood, Allen (1986), Historical Materialism and Functional Explanation, Inquiry 29 (1):11-27

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

An Introduction to Karl Marx

A concise and comprehensive introduction to Marx's social, political, and economic thought for the beginning student. Jon Elster surveys in turn each of the main themes of Marxist thought: methodology, alienation, economics, exploitation, historical materialism, classes, politics and ideology; in a final chapter he assesses "what is living and what is dead in the philosophy of Marx." The emphasis throughout is on the analytical structure of Marx's arguments and the approach is at once sympathetic, undogmatic, and rigorous.

This book draws on Jon Elster's larger and more advanced work, Making Sense of Marx (C.U. P., 1985), which has already taken its place as the most sophisticated and systematic modern study available. An Introduction to Karl Marx is designed for use in undergraduate courses in social and political science, history, economics, and philosophy, and is published in conjunction with Karl Marx: A Reader, which contains a selection of Marx's most important writings, edited and introduced by Jon Elster.


Preface vii

1. Overview 1
Introduction 1
Marx: Life and Writings 5
Marx and Engels 11
Marxism after Marx 12
Editions of Marx's Writings 17
Bibliography 19

2. Marxist Methodology 21
Introduction 21
Methodological Individualism 22
Marxism and Rational Choice 25
Functional Explanation in Marxism 31
Dialectics 34
Bibliography 39

3. Alienation 41
Introduction 41
Alienation: Lack of Self-realization 43
Alienation: Lack of Autonomy 49
Alienation: The Rule of Capital over Labor 54
Fetishism 56
Bibliography 58

4. Marxian Economics 60
Introduction 60
The Labor Theory of Value 63
Reproduction, Accumulation, and Technical Change 70
Crisis Theory 74
Bibliography 78

5. Exploitation 79
Introduction 79
Exploitation, Freedom, and Force 81
Exploitation in History 84
Exploitation and Justice 92
Bibliography 101

6. Historical Materialism 103
Introduction 103
The Development of the Productive Forces 105
Base and Superstructure 112
The Stages of Historical Development 117
Bibliography 121

7. Class Consciousness and Class Struggle 122
Introduction 122
The Concept of Class 123
Class Consciousness 129
Class Struggle 134
Bibliography 139

8. Marx's Theory of Politics 141
Introduction 141
The Capitalist State 143
Politics in the Transition to Capitalism 153
Politics in the Transition to Communism 159
Bibliography 166

9. The Marxist Critique of Ideology 168
Introduction 168
Political Ideologies 173
Economic Thought as Ideology 176
Religion as Ideology 180
Bibliography 184

10. What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Philosophy of Marx? 186
Introduction 186
What Is Dead? 188
What Is Living? 194

An Introduction to Karl Marx
In 1985 I published a lengthy book on Marx, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press). The present book is much shorter about 25 percent of the first. It has virtually no exegetical discussions of the texts or of the views of other Marxist scholars. The main intention is simply to state Marx's views and engage in an argument with them. With two exceptions, there is little here that is not found, in some place and some form, in the first book. In Chapter 1, I provide a brief bio-bibliographic survey that is no included in Making Sense of Marx. In Chapter 3, I offer a discussion of alienation that goes substantially beyond what was found in the earlier book. A fuller development of the ideas sketched there is found in my "Self-realization in work and politics," Social Philosophy and Policy (1986).

A companion volume of selected texts by Marx, organized along thematic lines corresponding to Chapters 2-9, is published simultaneously with this book.

Denemark, D. (1989), Review of An Introduction to Karl Marx, Political Science 40 (2):125-127
Gold, Michael (1988), Review of An Introduction to Karl Marx, Kyklos 41 (2):329-332 (text)
Ryan, Alan (1987), Can Marxism be rescued?, London Review of Books, 17 Sep., 9 (16): 8-10

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences

This book is intended as an introductory survey of the philosophy of the social sciences. It is essentially a work of exposition which offers a toolbox of mechanisms - nuts and bolts, cogs and wheels - that can be used to explain complex social phenomena.

Within a brief compass Jon Elster covers a vast range of topics. Its point of departure is the conflict we all face between our desires and our opportunities. How can rational-choice theory help us understand our motivation and behaviour? More significantly, what happens when the theory breaks down but we still cleave to a belief in the power of the rational? Elster describes the fascinating range of forms of irrationality - wishful thinking, the phenomenon of sour grapes, discounting the future in noncooperative behaviour. He shows how these issues bear very directly upon our lives in such concrete situations as wage bargaining, economic cartels, political strikes, voting in elections, and court decisions involving child custody.

This is a remarkably lucid and comprehensive introduction to the social sciences for students of political science, philosophy, sociology, and economics. It will also prove fascinating to any nonacademic readers who want to understand a little better the forces governing human behaviour in its social context.


Preface and Acknowledgments page vii

Part One Introduction
I Mechanisms 3

Part Two Human Action
II Desires and Opportunities 12
III Rational Choice 22
IV When Rationality Fails 30
V Myopia and Foresight 42
VI Selfishness and Altruism 52
VII Emotions 61
VIII Natural and Social Selection 71
IX Reinforcement 82

Part Three Interaction
X Unintended Consequences 91
XI Equilibrium 101
XII Social Norms 113
XIII Collective Action 124
XIV Bargaining 135
XV Social Institutions 147
XVI Social Change 159

Bibliographical Essay 173
Index 183

Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences
[start of page vii]

Preface and Acknowledgment

MANY years ago I read about a book by a nineteenth-century German mathematician, Felix Klein, called Elementary Mathematics from an Advanced Standpoint. I never read it, but the title stuck in my mind. The present book could perhaps be subtitled Elementary Social Science from an Advanced Standpoint.

Or should it be the other way around - advanced social science from an elementary standpoint? In that case, my model would be a short and wonderful book by Richard Feynman, QED, an introduction to quantum electrodynamics for the general public. The comparison is not as presumptuous as one might think. On the one hand, Feynman's ability to go to the core of a subject, without technicalities but also without loss of rigor, may be unsurpassed in the history of science and is in any case beyond mine. On the other, quantum electrodynamics is more arcane than any of the topics discussed here. On balance therefore, the reader may find my exposition just as intelligible.

The purpose of the book is reflected in its title: to introduce the reader to causal mechanisms that serve as the basic units of the social sciences. Though not a do-it-yourself kit, it migh serve as a read-it-yourself kit for further study. The reader should be wary of the chapter on reinforcement, a topic about which I know little but which is too important to be neglected. I hope what I say is correct, but people who know more about it may find it superficial.

A word about style. I have tried to avoid flogging dead horses or belaboring the obvious; to be honest about the inevitable simplifications; to write simply and without jargon; to respect the reader's intelligence as well as his ignorance. I rely on exam-

[end of page vii, start of page viii]

ples, diagrams and nontechnical expositions, since, with one exception, I don't think more is needed. The exception is the chapter on bargaining, which stands in the same relation to current research as a child's drawing to a photograph. My hope is that the other chapters are like impressionistic paintings, in which light and shade make up for lack of focus.

The many footnotes serve several functions. Mainly, they are reminders that things are more complicated than the main text might suggest. They point to links between chapters that might otherwise not be noticed. Or they discuss paradoxes and curiosa of the sort that social scientists love, often to excess.

"Elster" in German is "magpie, " someone who steals other people's silver. Since there are no references to or mention of other people's work in the book, it may read as if all the ideas in it are my own. The Bibliographical Essay is intended partly to dispel that impression, partly to serve as a guide to further studies.

Like some of my other books, this one began as lectures at the University of Chicago. I am indebted to my students for pushing me to the wall whenever they got the air of an ambiguity, inconsistency or downright error. I also thank George Ainslie, Ingrid Creppell, Stephen Holmes, Arthur Stinchcombe and Cass Sunstein for their comments on an earlier version.

[end of page viii]

Gould, Mark (1991), Review of Nuts and Bolts, American Journal of Sociology 96 (6):1546-1548 (text)
Humphrey, Paul (1991), Book Reviews, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 21 (1):114-121 (text)
MacFadyen, Alan J. (1991), Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, Book Reviews 15 (1): 167-169 (text)
Winston, G. C. (1991), Nuts and Bolts, BR, Economics and Philosophy 7 (2):315-322
Urry, John (1990), Book Reviews, Sociological Review 38 (4):785-788
Rosenberg, Alexander (1990), Book Review, Economic Journal 100 (403):1334-1337
Weirich, Paul (1992), The Social Sciences on Rationality, Philosophical Books 33 (1):1-9

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Solomonic Judgements


Preface and acknowledgements page vii

I When rationality fails 1
I.1 Introduction 1
I.2 Rational action 3
I.3 Indeterminacy 7
I.4 Irrationality 17
I.5 Alternatives to rationality 26

II Taming chance: Randomization in individual and social decisions 36
II.1 Introduction 36
II.2 Varieties of randomness 39
II.3 Randomization in individual decisions 53
II.4 Social lotteries: an overview 62
II.5 Scarce goods and necessary burdens 67
II.6 Political lotteries 78
II.7 Legal lotteries 93
II.8 Why lotteries? 103

III Solomonic judgements: Agains the best interests of the child 123
III.1 Introduction 123
III.2 Towards the best interests of the child 130
III.3 Against the best interests of the child 134
III.4 Circumventing the best interests of the child 151
III.5 Alternatives to the best interests of the child 155
III.6 Conclusion 173

IV The possibility of rational politics 175
IV.1 Introduction 175
IV.2 Individual and social choice 176
IV.3 Political indeterminacy 181
IV.4 Political irrationality 194
IV.5 Alternatives to rationalism in politics 202

References 217
Index 231

Solomonic Judgements

[start of page vii]

Preface and acknowledgements

The essays collected here form a sequel to Ulysses and the Sirens (1979) and Sour Grapes (1983). As in these earlier books, the topic is rationality: its scope, limits and failures. A common premise of all three books is the normative privilege of rationality in the study of human behaviour. Chapter I of Ulysses and the Sirens and chapter I of Sour Grapes attempted to define and defend this ideal of rationality. In the first chapter of this volume I discuss how the ideal breaks down when it fails to tell people what to do or when people fail to do what it tells them to do. The latter failure, that of irrational behaviour, was extensively examined in both earlier works and is more briefy discussed here, in I.4 and IV.4. The former failure, which arises when the notion of rationality is indeterminate, is the main topic of the present volume. The central argument is that rationality itself requires us to recognize this limitation of our rational powers, and that the belief in the omnipotence of reason is just another form of irrationality. To illustrate this proposition I consider both individual choice (mainly in chapter's I and III) and social decisions (mainly in chapters II and IV).

The book is bound to convey a certain disillusionment with instrumental rationality. The emphasis is not wholly negative, however. On the more constructive side, I consider several non-instrumental grounds for action. With respect to political choices, I argue in chapter IV that justice offers a guide to reform which is more robust than outcome-oriented considerations could ever be. With respect to individual choice, I mention briefy in chapter I that social norms can supplement or replace rationality in the explanation of action. I develop the latter argument at much greater length in The Cement of Society, a companion volume to the present

[end of page vii, start of page viii]

book in which I attempt to fill in some of the blanks left by the partial self-immolation of rationality.

Chapter I has not been previously published. Chapter II is a revised and much expanded version of the Tanner Lectures given at Brasenose College, Oxford, in May 1987. Chapter III first appeared, in largely the same form, in the University of Chicago Law Review, 1987. Chapter IV is an extensively rewritten version of an article that appeared in Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 1987.

The common origin of chapters II and III was a seminar at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo when, in a discussion of child custody legislation, Karl Ove Moene suggested that custody disputes might be resolved by the flip of a coin. The proposal seemed intriguing, not only as a way of resolving custody disputes but as a way of making up one's mind in many different contexts. In collecting examples and thinking about about them, I was constantly helped and prompted by Fredrik Engelstad and Aanund Hylland. Together with Akhil Amar, Robert Bartlett John Broome, G. A. Cohen, Jonathan Cole, J. Gregory Dees, Gerald Dworkin, Torstein Eckhoff, Ed Green, Stephen Holmes, Mark Kishlansky, William Kruskal, Isaac Levi, Karl Ove Moene, Maurice Pope, Kirsten Sandberg, Stephen Stigler and Cass Sunstein, they also gave extremely valuable suggestions and comments on earlier drafts of chapter II. I am also grateful for comments by the participants in seminars at the University of California, Davis, Yale Law School, and the University of Miami Law School.

Chapter III is part of a project on distributive justice in child custody and child placement, financed by the Norwegian Social Science Research Council. I am indebted to my colleague in this project, Kirsten Sandberg, for useful discussions and invaluable guidance, and to Robert Mnookin for helpful advice and criticism. I am aIso grateful for comments by Kirsti Strøm Bull, G. A. Cohen, Tove Stang Dahl, Torstein Eckhoff, Fredrik Engelstad, Helga Hernes, Aanund Hylland, Karl Ove Moene, Lucy Smith and Cass Sunstein, as well as the participants in the Seminar on Ethics and Public Policy at the University of Chicago and in the Legal Theory Workshop at Columbia University.

Several chapters, especially II and III, make ventures into legal theory, a field about which I knew nothing and still know next to

[end of page viii, start of page ix]

nothing. Most of what I have learned, especially about American law, I owe to Cass Sunstein. Over the past years he has been an unfailing source of guidance, criticism and constructive suggestions. I could not have done without his help. I am also grateful to Tove Stang Dahl and Kirsten Sandberg for helping me to understand that the concerns of legal scholars are much closer to those of philosophers and social scientists than I used to think.

Hawthorn, G. (1990), Review of Solomonic Judgements and Nuts and Bolts, New Republic, 202 (6), 34, 38
Hollis, Martin (1991), Why Elster is stuck and needs to recover his faith, London Review of Books, 13 (2) (24. Jan.), 13-13 (text)
Ostrom, Elinor (1991), Rational choice theory and institutional analysis: Toward complementarity, American Political Science Review 85 (1):239-242
Rosenberg, Alexander (1990), Review of Solomonic Judgements, Economic Journal 100 (403):1334-1337
Ryan, Alan (1991), When It's Rational to be Irrational, New York Review of Books, Oct. 10, 38 (16): 19-22 (text)
Urry, John (1990), Book Reviews, Sociological Review 38 (4): 785-788
Weirich, Paul (1992), The Social Sciences on Rationality, Philosophical Books 33 (1):1-9

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

The Cement of Society


Preface and acknowledgements page vii

Introduction: the two problems of social order 1

1. Collective action 17
Introduction 17
Defining collective action 24
The technology of collective action 27
Rational cooperation 34
Rational, selfish, outcome-oriented motivation 37
Rational, selfish, process-oriented motivations 44
Rational, nonselfish, outcome-oriented motivations 46

2. Bargaining 50
Introduction 50
Cooperative models of bargaining 54
Noncooperative bargaining theory 68
Bargaining power 75
Uncertainty, manipulation, inefficiency 82
Uncertainty and the role of information 82
Strategic manipulation of bargaining parameters 86
The inefficiency of bargaining 95

3. Social norms 97
Introduction 97
Examples 107
- Consumption norms 107
- Norms against behaviour 'contrary to nature' 108
- Norms regulating the use of money 110
- Norms of reciprocity 111
- Medical ethics 114
- Codes of honour 116
- Norms of retribution 118
- Work norms 121
- Norms of cooperation 123
- Norms of distribution 123
The reality and autonomy of norms 125
- Consumption norms 140
- Norms against behaviour 'contrary to nature' 141
- Norms regulating the use of money 142
- Norms of reciprocity 143
- Medical ethics 143
- Codes of honour 144
- Norms of retribution 144
- Work norms 145
- Norms of cooperation and distribution 146

4. Bargaining and collective action 152
Collective bargaining in Sweden 155
Labour - capital bargaining 165
Capital - capital bargaining 173
Labour - labour bargaining 178

5. Collective action and social norms 186
Introduction 186
Norms of cooperation 187
Mixed motives 202

6. Bargaining and social norms 215
Introduction 215
Norms in capital - labour bargaining 221
Norms in labour - labour bargaining 224
Norms versus self-interest in bargaining 231
Norm conflicts in bargaining 244

Conclusion: the cement of society 248
Introduction 248
Envy 252
Opportunism 263
Credibility 272

References 288
Index 309

The Cement of Society
[start of page vii]

Preface and acknowledgements

This book has a complicated genesis. For many years, I have been interested in the problem of collective action. Discussions with Brian Barry and Russell Hardin helped me to see roughly where the main problems where located, but I never seemed to get them fully into focus. Concurrently with this preoccupation, and spurred largely by proddings from Amos Tversky and Fredrik Engelstad, I became increasingly puzzled by the relation between rational choice and social norms. I discussed this problemn with Pierre Bourdieu, and together we organized a conference on the topic. Once again, I seemed to make progress up to a point, and then confusion descended on me. Clearly, I was going against the grain.

The catalyst for further progress came in 1985, when Nils Elvander of the Swedish Council for Management and Work Life Issues (FA-Rådet) asked me to write a report on bargaining and collective action in the context of their project on collective wage bargaining in Sweden. I accepted in the belief, mistaken as it turned out, that my earlier work on rational choice theory might help me explain the strategies, stratagems and outcomes of collective bargaining. It soon became clear that the complexity of bargaining problems defies explicit modelling. My analytical skills, in any case, were not sufficient to reduce the moving, fuid process of collective bargaining to manageable proportions. In the Swedish system of collective bargaining, as I try to explain in Chapters 4 and 6, everything is up for grabs: the identity of the actors, the rules of the game, the set of payoffs, the range of acceptable arguments. The more I understood what was going on, the lower I had to set my sights. The initial aim of expla- nation was gradually transformed into one of 'thick' phenomenological description. Yet I came to see that here was a set of problems that lent themselves ideally to an exploration of the relation between individual and collective rationality, and between self-intetest and social norms. Things that had been out of focus suddenly came together.

More or less simultaneously with this work I completed two other books that complement the present one. Each of them reflects an increasing dis-

[end of page vii, start of page viii]

illusionment with the power of reason, be it at the level of social actors or at the level of the social scientist who is observing them. In Solomonic Judgements I argue that rational-choice theory yields indeterminate prescriptions and predictions in more cases than most social scientists and decision makers would like to think. In Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, written for a more general audience, I argue that the basic concept in the social sciences should be that of a mechanism rather than of a theory. In my opinion, the social sciences are light years away from the stage at which it will be possible to formulate general-law-like regularities about human behaviour. Instead, we should concentrate on specifying small and medium-sized mechanisms for human action and interaction - plausible, frequently observed ways in which things happen. If this sounds vague (and it does), I have to refer the reader to the substance of the three books for proof of the pudding.

The level of discussion may puzzle some readers. It may be too technical for some and insufficiently rigorous for others. Martin Heidegger is reported to have dismissed an argument by saying, 'Nicht tief genug gefragt'. On the other side of the Atlantic or the Channel, dismissal often takes the form of asserting, 'Not clear enough to be wrong'. Many of my arguments will be dismissed on both counts. I can only hope that what is lost in depth and clarity is partially compensated by variety and diversity.

I have benefited greatly from comments I received when presenting parts of this material at the European University Institute (Florence), at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris), at Gary Becker and James Coleman's Rational Choice Seminar at the University of Chicago, at the Philosophy Department of the University of California at San Diego and to the annual meet- ing of the 'September Group' in London. I am grateful to Jens Andvig, Kenneth Amow, Lars Calmfors, G. A. Cohen, Michael Dennis, Nils Elvander, Fredrik Engelstad, Aanund Hylland, John Padgett, Philippe van Parijs, Adam Przeworski, Ariel Rubinstein and Michael Wallerstein for comments on earlier drafts of several chapters. Special thanks are due to Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein for making detailed written comments in the whole manuscript, to Karl Ove Moene for unfailing patience in lecturing me the basics of noncooperative bargaining theory and to Aanund Hylland for doing his best to keep me intellectually honest. Steve Laymon's skilful and imaginative research assistance has been invaluable. A final acknowledgement is owed to Thomas Schelling, whose work on bargaining and collective action serves as a model and inspiration for all who work in this area.

[end of page viii]

Giddens, Anthony (1990), Review of The Cement of Society, American Journal of Sociology 96 (1):223-225 (text)
Hampton, Jean (1991), Review of The Cement of Society, The Journal of Philosophy 88:728-738
Hollis, Martin (1991), Why Elster is stuck and needs to recover his faith, London Review of Books, 13 (2) (24. Jan.): 13-13 (text)
Ostrom, Elinor (1991), Rational choice theory and institutional analysis: Toward complementarity, American Political Science Review 85 (1):239-242
Rosenberg, Alexander (1990), Book Review, Economic Journal 100 (403):1334-1337
Ryan, Alan, 1991, When It's Rational to be Irrational, New York Review of Books, Oct. 10, 38 (16):19-22 (text)
Schmidtz, D. (1991), Review of The Cement of Society, Ethics 101 (3): 653-655
Sugden, Robert (1990), Review of The Cement of Society, Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization 14 (3):439-441
Weirich, Paul (1992), The Social Sciences on Rationality, Philosophical Books 33 (1):1-9

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]

Local Justice

The well-being of individuals routinely depends on their success in obtaining goods and avoiding burdens distributed by society. Local Justice offers the first systematic analysis of the principles and procedures used in dispensing "local justice" in situations as varied as the admission of students to college, the choice of patients for organ transplants, tlie selection of workers for layoffs, and the induction of men into the army. A prominent theorist in the field of rational choice and decision making, Jon Elster develops a rich selection of empirical examples and case studies to demonstrate the diversity of procedures used by institutions that mete out local justice. From this revealing material Elster fashions a conceptual framework for understanding why institutions make these crucial allocations in the ways they do.

Elster's investigation discloses the many complex and varied approaches of such decision- making bodies as selective service and adoption agencies, employers and universities, prison and immigration authorities. What are the conflicting demands placed on these institutions by the needs of applicants, the recommendations of external agencies, and their own organizational imperatives? Often, as Elster shows, methods of allocation may actually aggravate social problems. For instance, the likelihood that handicapped or minority infants will be adopted is further decreased when agencies apply the same stringent screening criteria - exclusion of people over forty, single parents, working wives, and low-income families - that they use for more sought after babies.

Elster proposes a classification of the main principles and procedures used to match goods with individuals, charts the interactions among these mechanisms of local justice, and evaluates them in terms of fairness and efficiency. From his empirical groundwork, Elster builds an innovative analysis of the historical processes by which, at given times and under given circumstances, preferences become principles and principles become procedurcs.

Local Justice concludes with a comparison of local justice systems with major contemporary theories of social justice - utilitarianism, John Rawl s's A Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia - and discusses the "common-sense conception of justice" held by professional decision makers such as lawyers, economists, and politicians. The difference between what we say about justice and how we actually dispense it is the illuminating principle behind Elster's latest work.


Preface and acknowledgments vii

1 Introduction 1

2 Problems of Local Justice 18
Conceptual preliminaries 19
Some examples 28

3 Principles of Local Justice 62
Conceptual preliminaries 62
A classification of principles 67
Egalitarian principles 70
Time-related principles 73
Principles defined by status 76
Principles defined by other properties84
Mechanisms based on power 100
Mixed systems 103

4 Consequences of Local Justice 113
Secondary effects 114
Incentive effects 124
Local justice - global injustice? 132

5 Explaining Local Justice 135
Methodological preliminaries135
Preference formation 143
Preference aggregation 172

6 Local and Global Justice 184
The scope and depth of justice 185
The empirical foundations of justice 189
Ethical individualism and presentism 195
Equality as the baseline for justice 200
Veils of ignorance 204
Consequentialism and welfarism 208
Utilitarianism 211
John Rawl's theory of justice 223
Robert Nozick's theory 230
The Commonsense conception of justice 236

7 Conclusion: Some Unexplored Issues 246

References 251
Index 263

Local Justice
[start of page vii]

Preface and acknowledgments

This work has two main flaws, and one possible virtue. I am acutely aware of the fact that I am stretching my competence thinly over a large number of areas. It is not just that my treatment of the issues is selective: my knowledge is based on what may well be, in some cases, idiosyncratically chosen, unrepresentative, or dated sources. Although I could have gathered more, and more accurate, information, this would not have made much of a difference for the main purpose of the book, which is to sketch a framework for the study of the in-kind allocation of goods and burdens.

Unfortunately, that framework turned out to be messy and ugly. I have been unable to respect the standards of simplicity and parsimony that many readers will feel they have a right to expect. It may be that I just lack the ability or the inclination to cut through the bewildering surface variety of local justice phenomena and find the underlying principles that would bestow intelligibility on them all. Or it might be that there are no such principles to be found, and that the messiness is inherent in the object. Most probably, there is some truth in both hypotheses.

I hope that some readers, nevertheless, will share my delight

[end of page vii, start of page viii]

and exhilaration in observing the endless variety and inventiveness of human institutions. The details are not incidental to the story I am telling: they are its essence. I am sure I could have told the story better, and perhaps a better sort of story could have been told; but I hope there may still be some instruction and entertainment in what follows.

My main intellectual debts are to my collaborators in the Local Justice Project at the University of Chicago: Patricia Conley, Michael Dennis, Steve Laymon, and Stuart Romm. Through our exchanges over the last few years they have provided me with invaluable factual information as well as conceptual arguments and innovative explanatory suggestions. In the present book I have drawn extensively on their working papers on transplantation, layoffs, and college admission. I have also benefited greatly from their detailed written comments on the present manuscript and its various antecedents. The extent of their contributions will become clear in subsequent publications from the Local Justice Project. I want to emphasize, however, that their share in the project goes well beyond that of research assistance as usually conceived. If I had been able to pin down exactly which of the ideas developed below originated in their suggestions, scores of references would have been required. Since it is hard to identify the origin of ideas that arise in the give and take of discussion, this collective and nonspecific acknowledgment will have to do.

I have also benefited enormously from my collaboration with Fredrik Engelstad, Nicolas Herpin, and Volker Schmidt, who are responsible for the Local Justice Projects in Norway, France, and Germany, respectively. With them, too, I experienced the exciting interplay between information-gathering on the one hand, and conceptual and causal analysis on the other.

On the several occasions that I taught courses on the empirical study of distributive justice at the University of Chicago I have ended up getting as much as I was giving. I am especially grateful to Karen Lembcke, Gerry Mackie, David McIntyre, and Monica Toft for what I learned from their papers on prison crowding, immigration, and adoption.

For comments on various working papers that eventually turned into this book I am indebted to G. A. Cohen, Hans Fredrik Dahl, Torstein Eckhoff, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Miriam Golden, Aan-

[end of page viii, start of page ix]

und Hylland, Raino Malnes, and Cass Sunstein. Craig Calhoun, Willem Hofstee, David Laitin, Claus Offe, and John Roemer made detailed comments on the whole manuscript, which resulted in substantial changes and, I hope, improvements.

I am grateful to the Russell Sage Foundation for financial support of the project. Additional support has been provided by the Spencer Foundation, the College Board, the Center for Ethics, Rationality, and Society at the University of Chicago, and the Norwegian Research Council. A fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 1989 provided me with time to read and think when I needed it most. I wish to thank them all.

A final acknowledgment is due to Steven Laymon and Sven Linblad for competent and imaginative bibliographical assistance.

I dedicate this book to Kathy Anderson, Lorraine Dwelle, and Minnie Seahom in the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago, for their invariable helpfulness and competence.

[end of page ix]

Bulpitt, Jim (1993), Review of Local Justice, Journal of Public Policy 12:409-410
Cornford, J. (1992), Review of Local Justice, New Statesman & Society, 5 (220):38-39
Dryzek, John S. (1993), Review of Local Justice, American Political Science Review 87 (1):199-199
Grafstein, R. (1994), Review of Local Justice, Annales of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 533:215-215
Heimer, Carol A. (1993), Review of Local Justice, American Journal of Sociology 99 (2):492- 494
Lewis, David (1993), Review of Local Justice, Acta Sociologica 36 (3):300-303
McPherson, M. (1995), Review of Local Justice, Economics and Philosophy 11 (1):177-182
Miller, David (1993), Stuck with second best, The Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 8, no. 4684, 22-22 (text)
Moon, J. Donald (1994), Review of Local Justice, Political Theory 22 (1):179-181 (text)
Paul, Ellen Frankel (1993), Review of Local Justice, Journal of Politics 55 (4):1196-1198
Roth, Alvin E. (1993), Review of Local Justice, Journal of Economic Literature 31 (3):1445-1446
Weale, Albert (1993), Review of Local Justice, Journal of Social Policy 22:563-565

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Political Psychology

This provocative new book takes up and develps the themes of rationality and irrationality in Jon Elster's earlier work. Its purposes are threefold. First, Elster shows how belief and preference formation in the realm of politics are shaped by social and political institutions. Second, he argues for an important distinction in the social sciences between mechanisms and theories. Third, he illustrates those general principles of political psychology through readings of three outstanding political psychologists: the French classical historian Paul Veyre, the Soviet dissident writer Alexander Zinoviev, the great French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville.

As with all Elster books, the style is succinct and readable ensuring that it will be fully accessible to graduate students and teachers in philosophy, political science, and the history of ideas


Abbreviations page vi
Preface vii

Introduction: Why Political Psychology 1
Theories versus mechanisms 1
Methodological individualism 7
The formation of belifs and desires 11
The political psychology of revoltions 15
The political psychology of constitution making 24

1. A Historian and the Irrational: A Reading of Bread and Circuses 35
Three stages of euergetism 37
Authority in the ancient world 43
Comparative sociology 46
Veyne's theory of choice 50
Veyne as a critic and victim of functionalism 57
Ideology 60
The struggle for recognition 66

2. Internal and External Negation: An Essay in Ibanskian Sociology 70
The logic of negation 73
Some historical ancestors 78
Fundamentals of Ibanskian sociology 82
Opposition at home and abroad 88
Power and impotence 97

3. Tocqueville's Psychology I 101
A specimen of Tocqueville's reasoning 103
Tocqueville's prejudices 107
Tocqueville's contradictions 112

4. Tocqueville's Psychology II 136
Tocqueville's anatomy of the mind 139
Desires and opportunities 162
Spillover, Compensation, and Crowding-out effects 180

References 192
Index 199

Political Psychology
[start of page vii]


Ten years ago I published earlier versions of Chapters 1 and 2 of this book, in the form of a study of Paul Veyne in Informations sur les Sciences Sociales (1980) and a critical note on Alexander Zinoviev in Archives Européennes de Sociologie (1980). In the first article I showed that Veyne had been profoundly influenced by Hegel and Tocqueville, and went on to say that:

To these two intemal reference points within the book there is to be added a third, which both illumiates it and is illuminated by it: Alexander Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights. The affinities and contrasts between authoritarian, democratic and totalitarian societies will enable us to rebuild political sociology on new and solid foundations with Veyne, Tocqueville, and Zinoviev as permanent references.

In the introductory note to the second article I said much the same:

By a happy coincidence, I read Zinoviev's work at the same time as Bread and Circuses, when I was also rereading Democracy in America. From time to time I shall have the opportunity of pointing out some of the many points at which the three books converge, a subject to which I hope to be able to devote a separate study later.

I often thought of carrying out the project, but it was not until 1989 that I had the chance to do so. With my colleague Stephen Holmes, of the University of Chicago, I was invited by the CREA of the Ecole Polytechnique (Paris) and the Institut Raymond Aron to give a series of lectures on Tocqueville. I chose as my topic "Tocqueville's psychology," which is the subject of Chapters 3 and 4 of this book. I then had the idea of taking

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up the articles on Veyne and Zinoviev, to see whether they had worn well enough to merit inclusion, along with the more recent text on Tocqueville, in a small text in political psychology. On rereading them, I found some obscure passages and an occasionally grandiloquent style that set my teeth on edge but there were also sounder elements on which, I thought, something could be built. It needed many revisions before I finally felt that they were acceptable. I added an introductory chapter, in which I try to explain why political psychology, long neglected and to all intents and purposes nonexistent as an intellectual discipline, offers an especially fruitful means of understanding the great historical events and movements of both the past and the present.

The book has been quite extensively revised for the English translation, mainly for the same reasons that led me to revise the original articles. It turned out that various arguments, which to my imperfect pitch sounded plausible and even compelling when stated in French, did not survive the translation into sober English. While not exactly flaky, they owed too much to my desire to be terse and elegant in a language that I did not fully master. In addition, I made extensive changes to reduce the overlap with my other English books. I apologize for the overlap that remains. It could not, I felt, be eliminated without upsetting the balance of the book.

[end of page viii]

Lakoff, S. (1994), Review of Political Psychology, American Political Science Review 88 (1):212-214
Macintyre, Alasdair (1994), Review of Political Psychology, Ethics 105 (1):183-185
Roberts, M. (1994), Review of Political Psychology, Radical Philosophy, Iss. 68:42-45

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