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20 January 2014

No, Jane Austen was not a game theorist

Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both, and is intellectually bankrupt to boot.

By william Deresiewicz

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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.

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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?