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A Political Thinker on an Uninterrupted Odyssey: read the English translation of the Prize announcement article

2016-05-27
As per custom, the winner of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science is announced on the pages of a Swedish daily newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, penned by the sitting Johan Skytte Professor in Political Science. While the text is usually featured in Swedish, we now offer you an English translation.

Philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper believed that the growth of science is equally dependent upon bold ideas and austere refutation. The courage to speculate is as important as the ambition to disprove the speculation. Scientific method is a unique combination of imagination and public accounting.


Political theorist Jon Elster, the recipient of this year’s Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, puts Popper’s ideals into practice. The Norwegian-born Elster, who went to Paris to earn his PhD at the Sorbonne with a dissertation on Karl Marx, has during his 50 years in the service of research boldly developed – only to later reexamine, refine, and even reject – grand theories of Marxism and rationality. In a uniquely inquiring way, Elster’s prolific output has thus meandered through the decades. He has deeply influenced and often convinced his readers, but not himself. Thus, incisive objections to that he has written in the past could be the star turn of his next work.

Jon Elster was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago, the Robert K. Merton professor at Columbia University in New York City, and is now professeur honoraire at the Collège de France.

The Johan Skytte Prize has been awarded since 1994 for outstanding contributions to political science. The prize is given by the Johan Skytte Foundation and has since its endowment become the most prestigious prize in political science in the world. The prize winner is recognized at a ceremony at Uppsala University, which will be held on the first of October this year. Jon Elster has devoted himself above all to political philosophy. Over the years, he has published pioneering, mainly theoretical, contributions to understanding the roles of rationality, irrationality, social norms, and emotions in human behavior.

The Prize Committee is now recognizing him for his “incisive, penetrating, and unceasing drive to examine and reexamine that which explains human behavior.”

In common with many other young academics of the day, Elster’s intellectual compass took him to Karl Marx early on. But by the time Making Sense of Marx was published in 1985, Marx was passé. Elster explained in an interview that after 10 or 15 years in the company of Marx, he realized that, no, Marxism was not enough to explain the world. Although Marx himself fell by the wayside, the leftist wave of the 1960s continued to influence social research and theories of justice and equity became the major philosophical questions of political science, including for Elster. These questions interested not only Marxists, but also libertarians, and the Red Sixties were thus tied to the Blue Eighties. John Rawls (standard-bearer of the Left) and his interpretation of justice, original position and “veil of ignorance” as a means of rescuing equality versus (neo-liberal household god) Robert Nozick’s considerably more hard-boiled libertarianism was a recurring theme when I was a doctoral student in the 1980s.
What role does rationality play in human behavior and how do people act to avoid irrationality? Ulysses and the Sirens (1979) and Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (1983) are books that mark the beginning of Elster’s fascination with cognitive explanations for human behavior, an interest that has never left him. Thus, sour grapes is the metaphor that designates an action in which people disdain that which they cannot get anyway. Irrational perhaps, but it nevertheless suggests both self-understanding and realism. Ulysses knows that the Sirens’ song will overpower him and that he will not be able to resist the temptation through reason. He chooses to tie himself to the mast so that he literally cannot swim to meet them. People also use similar strategies in everyday situations. The “candy commitment” is common among children, for instance; they promise themselves (and their parents) to not eat candy for a year (and often then are promised something in return). Political scientist Leif Lewin refers to Torbjörn Fälldin’s promise, once upon a time, to never take office in a government that charged the Barsebäck nuclear power plant, as precisely this sort of commitment. But the compulsion to compromise overpowered Fälldin and cost the Center Party dearly. For Elster, both the sour grapes strategy and commitment denote departures from the utility-driven rationality that he is interested in.
In the influential The Cement of Society (1989), Elster delves further into what shapes human behavior. Rationality and utilitarianism are not the entire answer; the question is whether they are an answer at all. In the even later Explaining Social Behavior (2007), rational choice is definitely in peril; Elster expresses this as that people often behave both irrationally and against their own self-interests and that the assumptions made in rational choice theory are “pure science fiction.” But in Cement of Society, how social norms shape human behavior both with regard to a fundamental level of predictability and to understanding how spontaneous cooperation arises is what captures Elster’s imagination. Certainly it has been said before, not least by great thinkers including de Toqueville, Durkheim, Max Weber, James Coleman, and Pierre Bourdieu. But Elster is one of the foremost scholars to bring this into political science, which is so strongly oriented towards utilitarianism. Social norms, the informal rules for “how we do things and “what is acceptable” are the “cement of society”; they are our collective way of keeping track and maintaining order.
Social norms may conflict with that which is in the individual’s self-interest at a particular time and when such collisions occur, political scientists nowadays talk about the social dilemma or social traps; individually rational actions become disastrous for the collective. In Sweden, it is (still) a social norm to pay tax, but it may be in my own utilitarian interest to pay as little as possible (or nothing at all). If most people act that way, however, there is no reason to pursue a common policy. A state of affairs like this has actually arisen in Greece, where a social norm of not paying tax has evolved and yet – utterly irrationally – the same people who are not paying their taxes are outraged that the government’s pockets are to let.
In Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999), Elster introduces emotions into political scientific theory to understand the mechanisms behind human behavior, thus moving in an analytical “funnel.” Starting in a narrow understanding to see how far rationality can take us in our understanding, the funnel widens to include irrationality, the self-regulating social norms of the collective and the impact of emotions.
Jon Elster’s empirical counterparts when it comes to the interest in human cognition and behavior are psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the human mind works. Only in exceptional circumstances are we Econs, rational, means-end calculating beings. A more adequate designation is Humans, controlled by fast impulses, practiced habits, and reliant upon shortcuts, rules of thumb, and clues. The rational, the circumspect, who prefer to remain hidden, laze about at the far end of Elster’s funnel. Why? Because circumspection and “rationality” are effortful, demand energy, leave room for the doubt we Humans want to avoid as far as possible. On the edge, nearest the actions, there is the feelings-controlled and the impulsive, who often intuitively do the right thing. But far from always. In a peculiar way, Elster, Kahneman and Tversky have been moving along the same lines for decades, the one based on reasoning, the others based on experimentation and empirical trials.
Elster’s research temperament is rigorous, towards himself and others. In recent years, he has, entirely correctly in my view, attacked the “hard and soft obscurantism” in the social sciences. Far-reaching mathematical exercises and formalization that abstract beyond the point of reason belong to the hard category; the dissolution of the concept of knowledge, the relativization of truth that the worst interpreters of post-modernism, post-colonialism, and the like are inclined to spend their time on, belong to the soft. Wasted talent and harmful to our collective understanding of society, is Elster’s unequivocal judgment.
Jon Elster is an unusually multifaceted thinker and scholar. Theoretically, he has approached fundamental questions about humanity with no preconditions and has used these insights empirically in certain works. He has also contributed to the self-examination of the social sciences through several works, such as Nuts and Bolts of the Social Sciences (1989). He emphasizes mechanisms as compatible with the methodological individualism he represents. Explanations in the human sciences should proceed from intentions based on what people want, their ideas and desires, and not abstract determinism or functional explanations that proceed from evolutionary selection. The mechanisms connect the intentions with the actions.

Through his erudition and intellectual curiosity, Jon Elster has introduced the considerably narrower field of political science to economic, sociological, and psychological theories that have since had profound influence on the field. Elster’s own intellectual odyssey has thus made an eminent contribution to the collective growth and evolution of our discipline.