|Awards||John von Neumann Award (2002)|
Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science (2016)
|School or tradition||September Group|
Jon Elster (//; born 22 February 1940, Oslo) is a Norwegian philosopher and political theorist who holds the Robert K. Merton professorship of Social Science at Columbia University.
He received his PhD in social science from the École Normale Superieure in 1972. He has previously taught at the University of Paris, the University of Oslo, and the University of Chicago, where he became professor of political science in 1984. Since 1995, he has held the Robert K. Merton professorship of Social Science at Columbia University, as well as being professor of social science at the Collège de France since 2005.
Elster has authored works in the philosophy of social science and rational choice theory. He is also a notable proponent of analytical Marxism, and a critic of neoclassical economics and public choice theory, largely on behavioral and psychological grounds. In 2016, he was awarded the 22nd Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science for his contributions to political science.
Elster is the son of journalist/author and CEO of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation Torolf Elster, and poet Magli Elster. He earned his PhD in 1972 from the École Normale Superieure in Paris with a dissertation on Karl Marx under the direction of Raymond Aron. Elster was a member of the September Group for many years but left in the early 1990s. Elster previously taught at the University of Oslo in the department of history and held an endowed chair at the University of Chicago, teaching in the departments of philosophy and political science. He is now Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Sciences with appointments in Political Science and Philosophy at Columbia University and professeur honoraire at the Collège de France. He was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize in 1997 and the Skytte Prize in Political Science in 2016.
He is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the American Philosophical Society, of the Academia Europaea, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.
Elster is doctor honoris causa at the universities of Valencia, Stockholm, Oslo, Trondheim (NTNU), Louvain-la-Neuve, Torcuato di Tella, and the National University of Colombia. He is honorary professor at the University of Chongqing.
Much of Elster's writing is characterized by attempts to use analytical theories, especially rational choice theory, as a springboard for philosophical and ethical analysis, with numerous examples from literature and history. "Elster has made important contributions to several fields," Daniel Little wrote in a review essay. "The breadth and depth of his writings are striking in a time of high specialisation; he is read and discussed by political scientists, legal scholars, economists and philosophers. His work is difficult to summarise in a slogan, but ... it is generally informed by a broad and deep acquaintance with relevant literature in economics, political science, history, philosophy, and psychology."
A student of the philosophy of social science (a topic he investigated through case studies in Explaining Technical Change), Elster strongly argued that social scientific explanations had to be built on top of methodological individualism (the belief that only individuals, not larger entities like "organizations" or "societies", can actually do things) and microfoundations (explaining big societal changes in terms of individual actions). He criticized Marxists and other social scientists for believing in functionalism (the belief that institutions exist because of their effect on society) and instead tried to give Marxism a foundation in game theory (the economic notion that people make choices based on the expected benefits and the choices others are likely to make).
Elster wrote numerous books attempting to use rational choice theory for a wide variety of social explanations. "Rational choice theory is far more than a technical tool for explaining behaviour," he once wrote. "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." He attempted to apply it to topics as varied as politics (Political Psychology), bias and constrained preferences (Sour Grapes), emotions (Alchemies of the Mind), self-restraint (Ulysses and the Sirens, which was selected for the Norwegian Sociology Canon), Marxism (Making Sense of Marx), and more.
In doing so, he elucidated many issues with simplistic notions of rational choice: endogenous preference formation (certain actions today can change preferences tomorrow, so how does one decide which preferences one prefers?), framing (people express different preferences when the same question is asked different ways), imperfect rationality (weakness of the will, emotion, impulsiveness, habit, self-deception) and our adjustments for it, and time preferences, among others.
As time went on Elster began to sour on rational choice. A 1991 review in the London Review of Books noted "Elster has lost his bearings, or at least his faith. [His latest books], he says, 'reflects an increasing disillusion with the power of reason'." His magisterial 500-page book Explaining Social Behavior includes something of a recantation:
I now believe that rational-choice theory has less explanatory power than I used to think. Do real people act on the calculations that make up many pages of mathematical appendixes in leading journals? I do not think so. ... There is no general nonintentional mechanism that can simulate or mimic rationality. ... At the same time, the empirical support ... tends to be quite weak. This is of course a sweeping statement. ... let me simply point out the high level of disagreement among competent scholars ... fundamental, persistent disagreements among 'schools.' We never observe the kind of many-decimal-points precision that would put controversy to rest.
The book discusses both rational behavior, but also irrational behavior, which Elster says is "widespread and frequent [but] not inevitable ... we want to be rational". A more recent book, Le désintéressement (part of a two-volume Traité critique de l’homme économique), explores the ramifications of these insights for the possibility of disinterested action.