Jon Elster

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Jon Elster in 2010 Jon Elster 12.2.10 (6100470902).jpg
Jon Elster in 2010

Jon Elster ( /ˈɛlstər/ ; born 22 February 1940, Oslo) is a Norwegian social and political theorist who 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 earned his PhD in 1972 from the Paris Descartes University in Paris with a dissertation on Karl Marx [1] 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. [2] 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.

He is the son of journalist/author and CEO of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation Torolf Elster and poet Magli Elster.

Elster is doctor honoris causa at the universities of Valencia, Stockholm, Oslo, Trondheim (NTNU), [3] Louvain-la-Neuve, Torcuato di Tella, and the National University of Colombia. He is honorary professor at the University of Chongqing.

Philosophical work

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." [4]

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." [5] 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'." [6] 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. [7]

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". [8] 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. [9]

Selected writings

See also

Related Research Articles

Rational choice theory refers to a set of guidelines that help understand economic and social behaviour. The theory postulates that an individual will perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether an option is right for them. It also suggests that an individual's self-driven rational actions will help better the overall economy. Rational choice theory looks at three concepts: rational actors, self interest and the invisible hand.

Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, and of one's actions with one's reasons for action. "Rationality" has different specialized meanings in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, game theory and political science.

Bounded rationality is the idea that rationality is limited when individuals make decisions. In other words, humans' "...preferences are determined by changes in outcomes relative to a certain reference level..." as stated by Esther-Mirjam Sent (2018) Limitations include the difficulty of the problem requiring a decision, the cognitive capability of the mind, and the time available to make the decision. Decision-makers, in this view, act as satisficers, seeking a satisfactory solution, rather than an optimal solution. Therefore, humans do not undertake a full cost-benefit analysis to determine the optimal decision, but rather, choose an option that fulfils their adequacy criteria.

The term Homo economicus, or economic man, is the portrayal of humans as agents who are consistently rational and narrowly self-interested, and who pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally. It is a word play on Homo sapiens, used in some economic theories and in pedagogy.

Evolutionary economics is part of mainstream economics as well as a heterodox school of economic thought that is inspired by evolutionary biology. Much like mainstream economics, it stresses complex interdependencies, competition, growth, structural change, and resource constraints but differs in the approaches which are used to analyze these phenomena.

Frankfurt School School of social theory and critical philosophy

The Frankfurt School was a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt in 1929. Founded in the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), during the European interwar period (1918–1939), the Frankfurt School comprised intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents dissatisfied with the contemporary socio-economic systems of the 1930s. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics occurring in 20th century liberal capitalist societies. Critical of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organization, the School's critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realizing the social development of a society and a nation.

Social theories are analytical frameworks, or paradigms, that are used to study and interpret social phenomena. A tool used by social scientists, social theories relate to historical debates over the validity and reliability of different methodologies, the primacy of either structure or agency, as well as the relationship between contingency and necessity. Social theory in an informal nature, or authorship based outside of academic social and political science, may be referred to as "social criticism" or "social commentary", or "cultural criticism" and may be associated both with formal cultural and literary scholarship, as well as other non-academic or journalistic forms of writing.

Normative generally means relating to an evaluative standard. Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes. Normative is sometimes also used, somewhat confusingly, to mean relating to a descriptive standard: doing what is normally done or what most others are expected to do in practice. In this sense a norm is not evaluative, a basis for judging behavior or outcomes; it is simply a fact or observation about behavior or outcomes, without judgment. Many researchers in science, law, and philosophy try to restrict the use of the term normative to the evaluative sense and refer to the description of behavior and outcomes as positive, descriptive, predictive, or empirical.

Marxism Economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that uses a materialist interpretation of historical development, better known as historical materialism, to understand class relations and social conflict as well as a dialectical perspective to view social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As Marxism has developed over time into various branches and schools of thought, there is currently no single definitive Marxist theory.

In philosophy of science, idealization is the process by which scientific models assume facts about the phenomenon being modeled that are strictly false but make models easier to understand or solve. That is, it is determined whether the phenomenon approximates an "ideal case," then the model is applied to make a prediction based on that ideal case.

Social movement theory is an interdisciplinary study within the social sciences that generally seeks to explain why social mobilization occurs, the forms under which it manifests, as well as potential social, cultural, and political consequences.

Kenneth Binmore English mathematician and game theorist

Kenneth George "Ken" Binmore, is an English mathematician, economist, and game theorist, a Professor Emeritus of Economics at University College London (UCL) and a Visiting Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol. As a founder of the modern economic theory of bargaining, and has made important contributions to the foundations of game theory, experimental economics, and evolutionary game theory, and to analytical philosophy. Binmore took up economics after a career in mathematics, in which he held the Chair of Mathematics at the London School of Economics. Since his switch he has been at the forefront of developments in game theory. His other research interests include political and moral philosophy, decision theory, and statistics. He is the author of over 100 scholarly papers and 14 books.

Rational choice theory (criminology) Utilitarian theory of crime that human beings are reasoning actors who weighs means and ends, costs and benefits, and makes a rational choice

In criminology, rational choice theory adopts a utilitarian belief that humans are reasoning actors who weigh means and ends, costs and benefits, in order to make a rational choice. This method was designed by Cornish and Clarke to assist in thinking about situational crime prevention.

In psychology, precommitment refers to a strategy or a method of self-control that an agent may use to restrict the number of choices available to him or her at a future time. The strategy may also involve the imposition of obstacles or additional costs to certain courses of action in advance. As theorized by the social scientist Jon Elster, agents may precommit themselves when they predict that their preferences will change but wish to ensure that their future actions will align with their current preferences.

Cristina Bicchieri Italian–American philosopher

Cristina Bicchieri is an Italian–American philosopher. She is the S.J.P. Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the Philosophy and Psychology Departments at the University of Pennsylvania, professor of Legal Studies in the Wharton School, and director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program. She has worked on problems in the philosophy of social science, rational choice and game theory. More recently, her work has focused on the nature and evolution of social norms, and the design of behavioral experiments to test under which conditions norms will be followed. She is a leader in the field of behavioral ethics and is the director of the Behavioral Ethics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Diego Gambetta is an Italian-born social scientist. He is a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence, a Carlo Alberto Chair at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He is well known for his vivid and unconventional applications of economic theory and a rational choice theory approach to understanding a variety of social phenomena. He has made important analytical contributions to the concept of trust by using game theory and signalling theory.

Rational Choice Institutionalism (RCI) is a theoretical approach to the study of institutions arguing that actors use institutions to maximize their utility, and that institutions affect rational individual behavior. Rational Choice Institutionalism arose initially from the study of congressional behaviour in the U.S. in the late 1970s. It employs analytical tools borrowed from neo-classical economics to explain how institutions are created, the behaviour of political actors within it, and the outcome of strategic interaction.

Analytical Marxism

Analytical Marxism is an approach to Marxist theory that was prominent amongst English-speaking philosophers and social scientists during the 1980s. It was mainly associated with the September Group of academics, so called because of their biennial September meetings to discuss common interests. Described by G. A. Cohen as "non-bullshit Marxism", the group was characterized, in the words of David Miller, by "clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog." Members of this school seek to apply the techniques of analytic philosophy, along with tools of modern social science such as rational choice theory, to the elucidation of the theories of Karl Marx and his successors.

Dialectical materialism Philosophy derived from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of science, history, and nature developed in Europe and based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist dialectics, as a materialist philosophy, emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions and the presence of contradictions within things, in relation to but not limited to class, labor, and socioeconomic interactions. This is in contrast to the idealist Hegelian dialectic, which emphasizes the observation that contradictions in material phenomena could be resolved by analyzing them and synthesizing a solution whilst retaining their essence. Marx supposed that the most effective solution to the problems caused by said contradictory phenomena was to address and rearrange the systems of social organization at the root of the problems.

Emotional choice theory is a social scientific action model to explain human decision-making. Its foundation was laid in Robin Markwica’s monograph Emotional Choices published by Oxford University Press in 2018. It is considered an alternative model to rational choice theory and constructivist perspectives.


  1. Yeghiayan, Eddie. "JON ELSTER A Selected Bibliography". UCI Department of Philosophy. Archived from the original on 2000-08-16. Retrieved 2008-04-18.
  2. "Gruppe 3: Idéfag" (in Norwegian). Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 28 October 2009.
  3. "Honorary Doctors". Retrieved 2018-12-06.
  4. Chapter on Jon Elster by Daniel Little in New Horizons in Economic Thought: Appraisals of Leading Economists, edited by Warren Samuels (Edward Elgar Publishing, 1992) ISBN   1-85278-379-6. Also available as download
  5. Elster, Jon (1993). "Some unresolved problems in the theory of rational behaviour". Acta Sociologica . 36 (3): 179–189 [p. 179]. doi:10.1177/000169939303600303.
  6. Hollis, Martin, Why Elster is stuck and needs to recover his faith, London Review of Books, 13 January 1991
  7. Explaining Social Behaviour, pp. 5, 25ff
  8. Explaining Social Behaviour, p. 232
  9. Review of Le désintéressement, by Gloria Origgi, The Possibility of Disinterested Action, The Berlin Review of Books, 8 January 2010.