It is puzzling and thought-provoking that certain paradoxical instruction appear both on the road to wisdom and as the agency of madness.--Elster, Sour Grapes (66)
Conceptual art may impress as a freak of nature can, or a woman preaching according to Dr. Johnson.--Elster, Sour Grapes (82)
There are some vocal philosophy professors that express contempt for English literature professors (hereafter: ELPs). I have never understood this contempt (and not just because my interest in philosophy was nurtured by a wonderful Miltonist--Michael Fixler [recall]). Perhaps it's envy because ELPs get to read much better prose on an average work-day. More likely it's professional philosophers's abhorrence of multiplicity of meaning (which we understand as equivocation) (PPAMOM) which makes too many of us recoil from the ELPs's craft. Anyway, I am always astounded by ELPs's ability to discern meaningful structural features in a text, and especially the telling trope or set of metaphors that help disclose a text's significance or conceptual commitments. One good trick that I apply in my own scholarship I learned from ELPs: it is important to pay attention to the minor seeming discordant words/concepts/paragraphs/chapters that do not seem necessary to the main argument in a text. This is especially useful in influential works that have already accumulated commentary/scholarship. (It's also a survival trick: all the low-hanging scholarly fruit tends to picked already.)
Elster's (1983) Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality is deservedly a recent classic.* (As I write this it has over 2000 citations.) It is very much a cold-war product and it brilliantly exploits evidence of behavior from differing institutional contexts (culturally and temporally apart) : Imperial Rome (by way of Veyne's Le Pain et le Cirque) and Soviet Russia (by way of Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights, which I have ordered). Its main claim is that "preferences underlying a choice may be shaped by the [given] constraints" (vii). The book elegantly weaves conceptual analysis, decision theory, and political theory; it subtly draws on literature, social psychology, and history in ways that are far too uncommon within analytical philosophy. At its best it reminds me of its great historical contemporary, Dennett's Elbow Room (recall). It also represents an important episode in the history of philosophical Marxism: Elster embraces "methodological individualism" in order to combat the "stagnant state" of "Marxist theory." (142) Elster also non-subtly rejects the marriage of Marxism and Freudianism that was (is?) common. In fact, its rejection of Freudian unconscious as a "theoretical entity" ("a highly desirable goal" (152)) is so dogmatic that Elster ties himself in knots over the phenomenon of self-deception, which he takes to be incoherent (despite "massive clinical, fictional and everyday experience attesting to the reality of the phenomenon." (149)) This aim also helps him produce some of his best insights on wishful thinking.
The discordant section in Sour Grapes is Elster's long paragraph on art with its jeremiad against conceptual art. Now in part because of PPAMOM and a moralizing impulse, most philosophers look foolish when we talk about art or novels. Elster, by contrast, makes very good use of novels to illustrate many of his best points. Yet, as the second epigraph to this post reveals, when it comes to conceptual art Elster recycles, in passing, Johnson's misogyny--the most embarrassing moment in the book.+ Elster's theory of artistic creation "involves maximazation under constraints, and that good works of art are local maxima of whatever it is that artists are maximizing." (78) For, an artist's activity "can be understood only on the assumption that there is something which they are trying to maximize, by 'getting it right' (78; emphasis added--ES). Perhaps this is true of Leibniz's Divine Artist (and on some readings Goethe), but it is peculiar understanding of much other art (although I grant that it gives Elster a means toward explaining the nature of a 'minor masterpiece' (81)). Given his theory it is no surprise that Elster has no conceptual room for conceptual art.
Elster's official theory of rejecting conceptual art is, however, instructive: it "certainly violates the principle that the aesthetic value of the work of art should not depend on the time at which is offered to the public." (82; emphasis added) This is a manifestly silly claim because it cannot even begin to do justice to the difference in aesthetic value between an original (prior in time) and a copy (subsequently),--a difference which even the most metaphysically robust account of aesthetic value ought to embrace. As Hume notes, knowledge of the context of production and the intended ways of experiencing a work of art, contributes to aesthetic appreciation and is a condition for the possibility of aesthetic value (Of the Standard Taste).
What can account for the oddity of Elster's position? The problem is that his account of aesthetic value is (subtly) modelled on a certain semantics (which is appropriate for eternal nature of truth in, say, mathematics). And it turns out that commitments similar to this semantics operate in the background in his very polemical remarks of Foucault's Discipline and Punish.
Elster (pp. 104ff) dislikes a number of things about Foucault's approach: first, he cannot stand Foucault's rhetoric and "eloquence" (including the use of rhetorical questions, the cascade of verbs, etc.); second he dislikes (without explanation) privileging the question Cui bono? (that is "to whose benefit?"--It is ironic to see a Marxist reject such privilege.) More important, he treats Foucault as offering a consequence-explanation. In fact, Elster treats Foucault (and Bourdieu) as offering especially bad consequence explanations--ones that lack a mechanism, a feedback mechanism, and even an intentional agent. Now, indeed, on a certain conception of social science such oversights may well be devestating. (To be sure, Elster refuses even to interpret Foucault more charitably as sketching the constraints/outlines of an explanation that can subsequent guide a seach for mechanism (etc.) by lesser, worker-bee social scientists. In fact, Foucault offers many how-possible mechanisms throughout his book, so Elster is cherry-picking his evidence.)
But even Elster explicitly notes that in the passage he focuses on, Foucault does not state a consequence-explanation (or says he wishes to offer one). It is more sensible (and charitable) to interpret Foucault as primarily offering an analysis of the (possible) meaning of certain (historically contingent, but) enduring social phenomena in terms of their functions and benefits (that is also compatible with the explanation-sketch that can guide further research). After all, one key (transcendental) claim that Foucault makes about punishment (prison, etc.) is that it is taxonomic--it makes a certain form of knowledge possible.
Now, while Elster is not really attentive to the transcendental (in the Kantian sense) dimension of Foucault, he, too, recognizes that Foucault is interested in meaning (106). Yet, because the "search for meaning" (on Elster's account) "dispenses with mechanisms" it "fails dishonourably." Now, it's true that if Foucault were exclusively in the business of offering causal explanations then indeed the absence of mechanism would be pretty serious charge. But, Elster rejects the search for meaning (both in terms of finding of creating meaning); he thinks it is a moral and intellectual fallacy (101ff). It is sort of clear why Elster thinks that a lack of interest in a mechanism is an intellectual fallacy. Why he thinks it is a moral fallacy is less obvious, although he seems to think it (and the embrace of social by-products more generally) instantiates a "misplaced or self-defeating form of instrumental rationality. It is the fallacy of striving, seeking and searching for the things that recede before the hand that reaches out for them. In many cases it takes the form of trying to get something for nothing." (107)**
In fact, while Elster has quite a bit to say about the moral problems with by-products, we are never really told what's wrong with either the search for meaning as such (so without the aim of offering explanation) or viewing social analysis as an expression or the creation of meaning. That is, if we understand Foucault as understanding himself as part of the world he describes and, in fact, aiming to destabilize it, in part, with the narratives he offers there is nothing mysterious about what's going on. Elster repeatedly insists not just that Foucault's practice and the search for meaning is immoral but also that is dangerous (44). But unless one embraces a very strong status quo bias or has very high risk aversion, that immorality and danger can only be established if we are willing to evaluate Foucault's aims and means on their (foreseeable, consequentialist?) merits (case by case, as it were).
That is to say, if one is in the grip of a certain positivist understanding of social science and a kind of verificationist theory of meaning, a search for and the creation of meaning is very misguided. It is also misguided if one has a semantics in which social facts are univocal truthmakers of (social) meaning simply waiting out there to be discovered. But if we overcome PPAMOM we can learn from ELPs that often social meaning is, in part, constituted and reconstituted by our utterances and other practices.
That is to say, if we want to understand, say, ideology (including our own) -- one of Elster's main aims, and presumably one of the sources of his book's popularity --, we can't just rely on the reality/fiction distinction alongside a set of psychological mechanisms, we also have to make ourselves feel (by way of sympathetic imagination) the significance of a certain set of commitments and, while this should not be opposed to truth it is, in a way, orthogonal to truth.++ After all, even true statements of present social reality can be instances of ideology ((recall) because of status quo bias or unwillingness to question existing background institutions and norms).
* I thank Jacob T. Levy for inviting me to re-read Elster's book and for offering the chance to write about it in a forthcoming edited volume, Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory.
+ To the best of my knowledge Johnson is misreported (or misremembered) by Elster. Johnson is reported to have said: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs." (July 31; 1763) The inference to a freak of nature is easily made; but it is also possible to see Johnson making the claim that it's like a circus/show act (not so much a freak of nature, but a trained/forced performance), which seems better supported by further context. There is still misogyny, of course, but in Johnson's version the remark also draws attention to the institution (the circus-master) that permits the preaching (i.e., Quackerism).
**In a revealing analogy, Elster links the fallacy to the "disastrous practice" of scientists who aim to secure "fertile disagreement in science." (107-8)
++On the social scientific nature of verstehen, I warmly recommend Fred Beiser's The German Historicist Tradition.