Elster Quotations

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On the purpose of social science
"A largely ignored but very significant phenomenon for the study of political life is that of beliefs arising from a need for meaning ... First, there is the need to find a purpose - an end, a function - even in the tiniest things ... Second, there is the need to find justice in the universe ... Thirdly, human beings seem to have a deep need to have sufficient reasons for what they do ... It ought to be an important task for the social sciences to to examine this need for meaning and its consequences. Instead, they have to a large extent served as tools for realizing this need." (e.g. functionalism and psychoanalysis)
- Jon Elster, Political Psychology (1993), p. 14.

"The basic postulate from which I start is that the goal of the social sciences is the liberation of man."
- Jon Elster, Logic and Society (1978), p. 158.

Elster on general theories of society
"These processes [cognitive dissonance, adaptive preference formation ...] suggest the idea of a general sociological theory, in which preferences and desires are explained endogenously as a product of the social states to the generation of which they also make make a contribution ... [cognitive dissonance, adaptive preference formation ...] This theory - which, needless to say, in the present state of the arts appears to be light-years away - would include (i) the explanation of individual action in terms of individual desires and beliefs, (ii) the explanation of macro-states in terms of individual actions, and (iii) the explanation of desires and beliefs in terms of macro-states."
- Jon Elster, Explaining Technical Change (1983), p. 86.

"In my view they should stick to a causal-cum-intentional language that (i) explains the desire and beliefs of agents in terms of the causal process of socialization by, and adaptation to, the environment, (ii) explains their actions in terms of these beliefs and desires, and (iii) explains the macro-environment as the aggregate effect of these actions."
- Jon Elster, A Paradigm for the social sciences? Review of Philippe van Parijs (1981), Evolutionary explanation in the social sciences, Inquiry (September 1982) vol. 25, p. 178.

Elster on the dangers facing social scientists
"The social sciences today are in a serious crisis which gets less attention than it should. It is threatened on several fronts. One danger is that it becomes trivial and mechanical. ... An opposite (although related) danger lies in the purposeless sophistication one finds within parts of mathematical economics ... However, the most serious danger for the social sciences is is tendency to become pretentious and uncontrolled. The abstractions start living their own lives; one rewards "exciting" intentions instead of looking at the results; one allows contradictions in a theory because a contradictory world can be described in no other way; halfdigested thoughts from biology, physics and mathematics are uncritically recycled."
- Jon Elster, Vitenskap og politikk (Science and Politics) (1989), pp. 11-12. (imperfectly translated from Norwegian by H. O. Melberg)

Elster on Economics
"... neoclassical economics will be dethroned if and when satisficing theory and psychology join forces to produce a simple and robust explanation of aspiration levels, or sociological theory comes up with a simple and robust theory of the relation between social norms and instrumental rationality. Until this happens, the continued dominance of neoclassical theory is ensured by the fact that one can't beat something with nothing."
- Jon Elster, Rational Choice (1986), pp. 26-27.

Elster on Reductionism
"The social sciences, like other empirical sciences, try to explain two sorts of phenomena: events and facts ... To explain an event is to give an account of why it happened. Usually, and always ultimately, this takes the form of citing an earlier event as the cause of the event we want to explain, together with some account of the causal mechanism connecting the two events."
- Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts (1989), p. 3.

"Reduction is at the heart of progress in science."
- Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts (1989), p. 74.

Elster on rationality
"Rational choice theory is far more than a technical tool for explaining behaviour. It is also, and very importantly, a way of coming to grips with ourselves - not only what we should do, but even what we should be."
- Jon Elster, Some uresolved problems in the theory of rational behaviour, Acta Sociologica (1993), vol 36, p 179.

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