No, Jane Austen was not a game theorist

Jane Austen, from a drawing by sister Cassandra

Proust was a neuroscientist. Jane Austen was a game theorist. Dickens was a gastroenterologist. That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity – which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.

There is only one problem with this approach: it is intellectually bankrupt. Actually, there are a lot of problems, as Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s abominable volume shows. If this is the sort of thing that we have to look forward to, as science undertakes to tutor the humanities, the prospect isn’t bright. Game theory is a method for modeling decisions, especially in contexts that involve a multiplicity of actors, in mathematical terms. One would think, given its title, that Chwe’s book offers an in-depth game-theoretical analysis of the ways that Austen’s characters (specifically, her heroines and heroes) work through their choices (specifically, the ones they make in relation to one another) – why Elizabeth Bennet, to take the most obvious example, rejects Mr Darcy the first time he proposes but accepts him on the next go-round.

No such luck. What we really get, once we fight through Chwe’s meandering, ponderous, frequently self-contradictory argument, is only the claim that Austen wants her characters to think in game-theoretic ways: to reflect upon the likely consequences of their choices, to plan out how to reach their goals, to try to intuit what the people around them are thinking and how they in turn are likely to act. But this is hardly news. Austen describes a world in which young ladies have to navigate their perilous way to happiness (that is, a rich husband they can get along with, or, more charitably, a man they love who happens to be wealthy) by controlling their impulses and thinking coolly and deliberately. Act otherwise and you end up like Lydia Bennet, yoked forever to the feckless Mr Wickham. That Austen is no D H Lawrence – that she believed that reason should govern our conduct – is pretty much the most obvious thing about her work.

But Chwe himself is not content with being reasonable. When he says that Austen was a game theorist, he means for us to take him at his word. Never mind the fact that game theory did not emerge until the middle of the twentieth century. Austen, he claims, was a “social theorist” who “carefully establishes game theory’s core concepts” and “systematically explored” them in her novels, which are “game theory textbooks.” This is a perfectly valid statement, as long as we ignore the accepted meaning of most of the words it contains. Chwe apparently saw the title of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and took it literally. Jonah Lehrer, to give him what little credit he deserves, does not actually believe that the author of the Recherche conducted experiments with rats and prions. But Chwe insists that Austen’s novels do not just adumbrate some social-scientific concepts, they represent a pioneering “research program” into game theory (which, again, did not exist) that constituted her essential purpose in creating them. This, apparently, is how you achieve consilience: by pretending that artists are scientists in disguise.

We’ll get to the category errors in a minute. For now, let’s recognise that Chwe, a professor of political science with a PhD in economics, is making two rather large and improbable claims: that Austen programmatically developed such concepts as “choice (a person takes an action because she chooses to do so), preferences (a person chooses the action with the highest payoff), and strategic thinking (before taking an action, a person thinks about how others will act)” – thundering ideas, to be sure – and that she was the very first to show an interest in them.

Chwe falls down the moment he begins to make the case. “The most specific ‘smoking gun’ evidence that Austen is centrally concerned with strategic thinking is how she employs children: when a child appears, it is almost always in a strategic context,” as a pawn or bit player “in an adult’s strategic actions.” Really, that’s the best you can do? First of all, when a child appears in Austen, it isn’t almost always in a strategic context. She also often uses them – Emma’s nieces and nephews, for example, whom we see her love and care for – to certify the goodness of her heroine’s heart. More importantly, what would it prove if she did always use them in a strategic context? Children are not a privileged category of representation; in Austen, in fact, they are a very minor one, never more than incidental to the action. Yes, they are sometimes used strategically – but so are pianos and snowstorms and horses. So what?

The balance of Chwe’s evidence is comparably trivial. As a clincher, he cites the moment where Jane and Elizabeth Bennet find their comically pedantic sister Mary “deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature.” Thorough-bass, he reasons, is a mathematical approach to music. By having Mary study music and human nature the same way, Austen suggests the possibility of a mathematical approach to the latter – that is, game theory. Don’t worry, I don’t get it either. No one said that Mary studies them the same way, only at the same time. Besides, as everyone but Chwe can see, the character is being held up as a figure of fun, not an intellectual role model. As hard as it is to believe that Austen undertook to construct a systematic approach to human behavior along game-theoretical lines, the notion that she did so within the kind of quantitative framework that exists today – decision trees, decision matrices, numerical inputs and outcomes – is truly idiotic.

As for the question of Austen’s priority as a “game theorist,” there is a grain of truth to the idea. She did depict strategic thinking in everyday social situations with a new depth, a new detail, and a number of new techniques – literary techniques, such as free indirect discourse, not mathematical ones. But she was hardly the first in the field. As even Chwe acknowledges (as quickly as he can), literature has been exploring the mind, and strategic thinking in particular, for as long as it has existed. The Odyssey, the story of a master strategist, is the most obvious early example. But the whole history of stage comedy, with its tricky servants and maneuvering lovers, as well as of dramatic tragedy – Hamlet, Iago, Richard III, Edmund in King Lear (as well as Lear himself, as a failed example), not to mention Marlowe’s Barabas and Jonson’s Volpone – is replete with schemers. The ways that people try to use each other to achieve their ends, and the grief they often come to in the process, is a central subject of classical theater, as well as of a giant chunk of the other narrative genres.

But neither Homer, nor Shakespeare, nor Austen, nor any other writer worth their salt believed that people think only strategically. You see, it is not enough for game theory to analyse strategic thought; at least in Chwe’s account, it regards such thinking as the exclusive explanation of human behavior. Chwe runs through a series of alternatives – emotions, instincts, habits, rules, social factors, ideology, intoxication (not being in your right mind), the constraints of circumstance – claiming to show that Austen rejects them as possible sources of action. But Austen wasn’t dumb enough to think that people never act out of habit or instinct or sudden emotion. All Chwe really shows is that she thought they shouldn’t.

Austen knew, in other words, that human motivation is enormously complex. Reducing it to any single factor – well, for that you need a social scientist. Great literature has the power, through painstaking art, to fashion a convincing representation of human behavior in all its inextricable, mysterious, and endlessly ramifying mixture of sources. That is why it never becomes obsolete. What does become obsolete are the monocausal theories of people such as Chwe. Literature puts back everything the social sciences – by way of methodological simplification, or disciplinary ideology, or just plain foolishness – take out. That is why the finest literature responds to every monocausal theory you can throw at it. Shakespeare was a game theorist, too – and a neuroscientist, and a political scientist, and a Freudian, and a Marxist, and a Lacanian, and a Foucauldian, and all the -ists and -ians that we haven’t yet devised.

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