Values, directions, and action

 
 

Several earlier posts have raised the question of rational life planning. What is involved in orchestrating one’s goals and activities in such a way as to rationally create a good life in the fullness of time?

We have seen that there is something wildly unlikely about the idea of a developed, calculated life plan. Here is a different way of thinking about this question, framed about directionality and values rather than goals and outcomes. We might think of life planning in these terms:

  • The actor frames a high-level life conception — how he/she wants to live, what to achieve, what activities are most valued, what kind of person he/she wants to be. It is a work in progress.
  • The actor confronts the normal developmental issues of life through limited moments in time: choice of education, choice of spouse, choice of career, strategies within the career space, involvement with family, level of involvement in civic and religious institutions, time and activities spent with friends, … These are week-to-week and year-to-year choices, some more deliberate than others.
  • The actor reviews, assesses, and updates the life conception. Some goals are reformulated; some are adjusted in terms of priority; others are abandoned.

This picture looks quite a bit different from more architectural schemes for creating and implementing a life plan considered in earlier posts, including the view that Rawls offers for conceiving of a rational plan of life. Instead of modeling life planning after a vacation trip assisted by an AAA TripTik (turn-by-turn instructions for how to reach your goal), this scheme looks more like the preparation and planning that might have guided a great voyage of exploration in the sixteenth century. There were no maps, the destination was unknown, the hazards along the way could only be imagined. But there were a few guiding principles of navigation — “Keep making your way west,” “Sail around the biggest storms,” “Strive to keep reserves for unanticipated disasters,” “Maintain humane relations with the crew.” And, with a modicum of good fortune, these maxims might be enough to lead to discovery.

This scheme is organized around directionality and regular course correction, rather than a blueprint for arriving at a specific destination. And it appears to be all around a more genuine understanding of what is involved in making reflective life choices. Fundamentally this conception involves having in the present a vision of the dimensions of an extended life that is specifically one’s own — a philosophy, a scheme of values, a direction-setting self understanding, and the basics needed for making near-term decisions chosen for their compatibility with the guiding life philosophy. And it incorporates the idea of continual correction and emendation of the plan, as life experience brings new values and directions into prominence.

 
The advantage of this conception of rational life planning is that it is not heroic in its assumptions about the scope of planning and anticipation. It is a scheme that makes sense of the situation of the person in the limited circumstances of a particular point in time. It doesn’t require that the individual have a comprehensive grasp of the whole — the many contingencies that will arise, the balancing of goods that need to be adjusted in thought over the whole of the journey, the tradeoffs that are demanded across multiple activities and outcomes, and the specifics of the destination. And yet it permits the person to travel through life by making choices that conform in important ways to the high-level conception that guides him or her. And somehow, it brings to mind the philosophy of life offered by those great philosophers of life, Montaigne and Lucretius.

Deliberation, rationality, and reasoning

 

Recent posts have raised questions about formulating a rational plan of life. This way of putting the question highlights “rationality,” which has the connotation of short-term, one-off decision making. And this implication plainly does not fit the problem of life planning very well — as noted in the two prior posts on this topic. Living a life is more like the making of a great sculpture than it is planning a Napoleonic military campaign. But what if we shifted the terms of the question and asked instead, what is involved in being deliberative and reflective about the direction of one’s life? Does this give more room for bringing the idea of rationality into the idea of a life plan?

Being deliberative invokes the idea of considering one’s goals reflectively and in comparison, considering strategies and actions that might serve to bring about the realization of these goals, and an ongoing consideration of the continuing validity of one’s goals and strategies. Instrumental rationality takes a set of goals as being fixed; deliberative rationality works on the assumption that it is possible to reason reflectively about one’s goals themselves. This is the thrust of Socrates’ “unexamined life” — the good life requires reflection and deliberation about the things one seeks to achieve in life. Here is how Aristotle describes deliberation in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 3:

We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done; and these are in fact what is left. For nature, necessity, and chance are thought to be causes, and also reason and everything that depends on man. Now every class of men deliberates about the things that can be done by their own efforts. And in the case of exact and self-contained sciences there is no deliberation, e.g. about the letters of the alphabet (for we have no doubt how they should be written); but the things that are brought about by our own efforts, but not always in the same way, are the things about which we deliberate, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making. And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics, inasmuch as it has been less exactly worked out, and again about other things in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt about the former. Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate. We call in others to aid us in deliberation on important questions, distrusting ourselves as not being equal to deciding. (Nicomachean Ethics, book 3)

What Aristotle focuses on here is choice under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. Deliberation is relevant when algorithms fail — when there is no mechanical way of calculating the absolutely best way of doing something. And this seems to fit the circumstance of planning for a life or career.

How does “deliberation” come into the question of life plans? It is essential.

(1) The goals a person pursues in life cannot be specified exogenously; rather, the individual needs to consider and reflect on his or her goals in an ongoing way. Aristotle was one of the first to reveal that often the goals and goods we pursue are, upon reflection, derivative from some more fundamental good. But Kant too had a position here, favoring autonomy over heteronomy. Reflection allows us to gain clarity about those more fundamental goods that we value.

(2) The strategies and means that we choose may have only a superficial correspondence to our goods and values which is undercut by more rigorous examination. We may find that a given mode of action, a strategy, may indeed lead to good X, but may also defeat the achievement of Y, which we also value. So deliberative reflection about the strategies and actions we choose can allow us to more fully reconcile our short-term strategies with our long-term goals and goods.

Economists and philosophers have sometimes maintained that values and goals do not admit of rational consideration. But this is plainly untrue. At the very least it is possible to discover positive and negative interactions among our goals and desires — the desire to remain healthy and the desire to eat ice cream at every meal are plainly in conflict. Less trivially, the goal of living life in a way that is respectful of the dignity of others is inconsistent with the goal of rising to power within a patriarchal or racist organization. It is possible that there are values that are both fundamental and incommensurable — so that rational deliberation and reflection cannot choose between them. But it is hard to think of examples in which this kind of incommensurability arises as a practical problem.

Consider Bruce, Jorge, and Filippo. Bruce believes that being wealthy by the age of 60 is the most important thing in his life. Jorge believes that attaining a state of spiritual fulfillment by the age of 60 is most important. And Filippo believes that having circumstances of life by age 60 in which he is involved in satisfying work, has successful family relationships and friendships, and has enough income and wealth to support a decent middle-class life is most important. Are there reasonable considerations that any one of these individuals could bring to bear against another to suggest that the other’s goals are incomplete or defective?

Aristotle addresses Bruce directly by asking how wealth could possible be a fundamental good. What does Bruce want to gain by achieving great wealth? Aren’t these activities and goods more fundamental than the wealth itself? This line of argument perhaps succeeds in persuading Bruce to give more thought to what he wants out of life — not wealth, but the things that wealth permits him to do.

Jorge may seem to be just like Bruce except he values spiritual fulfillment rather than money. Indeed, they are similar in that there is only one dimension to their life goals. But Jorge can at least maintain against Bruce that his goal is good in itself, not because of its ability to bring about some other desirable thing.

Finally, Filippo. Filippo has a more complex set of life goals, none of which reduces to a combination of the others. It is true that these goals require tradeoffs in behavior and effort; strategies that enhance friendships may depress the attainment of wealth, for example. But I think it is Filippo that we think of when we imagine a person with a reflective and deliberative life plan: a person who has identified a small but plural set of longterm goals, and who recognizes that it is necessary in the moment to find ways of balancing the attainment of one with what it takes to attain more of the other.

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

(The reference to Napoleon in Jena in the graphics above is pertinent because of the implications that Hegel drew from his experience of Napoleon as a “world historical figure”. Hegel was clear that, even with a brilliant commander and a great general staff, Napoleon’s ambitions in Europe were based on an unavoidably incomplete knowledge of the terrain of history. “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.)

A fresh approach to life plans

There isn’t a clear philosophy of life-planning in the literature. So let’s start from scratch. What do we need in order to make a plan for any temporally extended project?

  • An assessment of the outcomes we want to bring about
  • An assessment of the likely workings of the natural and social environment in which action will occur
  • A theory about how to achieve those outcomes — strategy and tactics
  • An assessment of the likelihood of negative interactions among various aspects of the plan
  • An assessment of the riskiness of the environment
  • A backup plan if things go off the rails — plan B!

We would like to arrive at a plan that has a high probability of success, and one for which there are soft landings available when future expectations are not fulfilled. If my goal is to become a symphony conductor but I also know that the qualifications needed would equally qualify me to be a performer, and if performing itself is an agreeable outcome, then aiming at conductor is less risky.

We know what it is to be rational about limited choices like choosing a new car, picking a vacation destination, or investing retirement savings. Each of these decisions falls within a broad degree of certainty of assumptions for us: we know that we enjoy the beach more than the opera, that we want a fair degree of security in our retirement accounts, or that we need a car that is good in wet weather. That is to say, we know a lot about our tastes, our future needs, and our current circumstances. So small-gauge choices like these depend fairly simply on locating a solution that serves our tastes and preferences in our current and near-future circumstances. With these conditions fixed, we can then go about the information gathering that allows us to assess how well the available sets of alternatives serve our tastes, needs, and circumstances.

Sometimes we can even reduce our choice situations to a simple set of cost-benefit tradeoffs: I’ll get a 20% improvement in crash-worthiness by paying an additional $10,000 for the car I choose; I’ll have a chance on a 10% annual return on an investment if I accept a greater degree of risk; etc. And I might find that I like the tradeoff for one set of costs but not for another — more safety is worth $10,000 to me but not $50,000. Or I will accept the greater investment risk when it means moving from 1% chance of losing everything to a 3% chance, but not to a 10% chance.

A life plan isn’t like this, however. Consider the space of choices that confronts the 20-year old college student Miguel: what kind of work will satisfy me over the long term? How much importance will I attribute to higher income in twenty years? Do I want to have a spouse and children? How much time do I want to devote to family? Do I want to live in a city or the countryside? How important to me is integrity and consistency with my own values over time? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer in part because they don’t yet have answers. Miguel will become a person with a set of important values and commitments; but right now he is somewhat plastic. It is possible for him to change his preferences, tastes, values, and concerns over time. So perhaps his plan needs to take these kinds of interventions into account.

Another source of uncertainty has to do with the future of the world itself. Will the economy continue to provide decent opportunities for young people, or will income stratification continue to increase? Will climate change make some parts of the world much more difficult for survival? Will religious strife worsen so that safety is very difficult to achieve? Is Mary Poppins or William Gibson the better prognosticator of what the world will look like in thirty years? A plan that looks good in a Mary Poppins world may look much worse in the Sprawl (Gibson’s anti-utopian city of the future).

And then there is the difficult question of akrasia — weakness of the will. Can I successfully carry out my long term plans? Or will short term temptations make it impossible for me to sustain the discipline required to achieve my long term goals? (Somewhere Jon Elster looks at this problem as a collective action problem across stages of the self. Is this a reasonable approach?) For that matter, how much should future goods matter to me in the present?

It is worth asking whether life plans actually exist for anyone. Perhaps most people’s lives take shape in a more contingent and event-driven way. Perhaps guided opportunism is the best we are likely to do: look at available opportunities at a given moment, pursue the opportunity that seems best or most pleasing at that point, and enjoy the journey. Or perhaps there are some higher-level directional rules of thumb — “choose current options that will contribute in the long run to a higher level of X”. In this scenario there is no overriding plan, just a series of local choices. This alternative is pretty convincing as a way of thinking about the full duration of a person’s life, as any biographer is likely to attest.

Consider an analogy with the life of a city or state: decisions and policies are established at various points in time. These decisions contribute to the life course of the city; monuments established in 200 BCE continued to inform Roman life in 300 AD. But Rome was indeed not built in a day, and its eventual course was not envisaged or planned by any of its founders and leaders. A city’s “life” is the complex resultant of deliberation at many points in time, struggle, and contingency. And perhaps this describes a person’s life as well.

This point of view has a lot in common with Herbert Simon’s 1957 concept of bounded rationality and satisficing rather than maximizing as a rule of rational decision-making (Models of Man). Instead of heroically attempting to plan for all contingencies over the full of one’s life, a bounded approach would be to consider short periods and make choices over the opportunity sets available during those periods. And if we superimpose on these choices a higher-level set of goals to be achieved — having time with family, living in conformity to one’s moral or religious values, gaining a set of desired character traits — then we might argue that this decision-making process will be biased towards outcomes that favor one’s deeper values as well as one’s short-term needs and interests.

This approach will not optimize choices over the full lifetime; but it may be the only approach that is feasible given the costs of information gathering and scenario assessment.

So what about a rational life plan? At this point the phrase seems inapropos to the situation of a person’s relationship to his or her longterm “life”. A life is more of a concatenation of a series of experiences, projects, accidents, contingencies — not a planned artifact or painting or building. A life is not a novel, a television series, or a mural with an underlying storyboard in which each element has its place. And therefore it seems inapt to ask for a rational plan of life. Individuals make situated and bounded deliberative decisions about specific issues. But they don’t plot out their lives in detail. 

 

What seems more credible is to ask for a framework of navigation, a set of compass points, and a general set of values and purposes which get invested through projects and activities. The idea of the bildungsroman seems more illuminating — the idea of a young person taking shape through a series of challenging undertakings over time. Development, formation, values clarification, and the formation of character seem more true to what we might like to see in a good life than achieving a particular set of outcomes.

 

Where, then, do thinking and reasoning come into the picture? This is where Socrates and Montaigne seem to be relevant. They look at living as an opportunity for deepening self-knowledge and articulation of values and character. “To philosophize is to learn how to die” (Montaigne) and “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). The upshot of these aphorisms seems to be this: reasoning and philosophizing allow us to probe, question, and extend our values and the things we strive for. And having examined and probed, we are also in a position to assess and judge the actions and goals that are presented to us at various stages of life. How does a college major, a first job, a marriage, or a parenting challenge frame the future into which the young person develops? And how can practical reflection about one’s current values help to give direction to the future choices he or she makes later in life?
Practical rationality perhaps amounts to little more than this when it comes to constructing a life: to consider one’s best understanding of the goods he or she cares most about, and acting in the present in ways that shape the journey towards a future that better embodies those goods for the person and his or her concerns.

How to do cephalapod philosophy

How should researchers attempt to investigate non-human intelligence? The image above raises difficult questions. The octopus is manipulating (tenticlating?) the Rubik’s cube. But there are a raft of questions that are difficult to resolve on the basis of simple inductive observation. And some of those questions are as much conceptual as they are empirical. Is the octopus “attempting to solve the cube”? Does it understand the goal of the puzzle? Does it have a mental representation of a problem which it is undertaking to solve? Does it have temporally extended intentionality? How does octopus consciousness compare to human consciousness? (Here is a nice website by several biologists at Reed College on the subject of octopus cognition; link.)

An octopus-consciousness theorist might offer a few hypotheses:

  1. The organism possesses a cognitive representation of its environment (including the object we refer to as “Rubik’s cube”).
  2. The organism possesses curiosity — a behavioral disposition to manipulate the environment and observe the effects of manipulation.
  3. The organism has a cognitive framework encompassing the idea of cause and effect.
  4. The organism has desires and intentions.
  5. The organism has beliefs about the environment.
  6. The organism is conscious of itself within the environment.

How would any of these hypotheses be evaluated?

One resource that the cephalapod behavior theorist has is the ability to observe octopi in their ordinary life environments and in laboratory conditions. These observations constitute a rich body of data about behavioral capacities and dispositions. For example:

Here we seem to see the organism conveying a tool (coconut shell) to be used for an important purpose later (concealment) (link). This behavior seems to imply several cognitive states: recognition of the physical characteristics of the shell; recognition of the utility those characteristics may have in another setting; and a plan for concealment. The behavior also seems to imply a capacity for learning — adapting behavior by incorporating knowledge learned at an earlier time.

Another tool available to the cephalapod theorist is controlled experimentation. It is possible to test the perceptual, cognitive, and motor capacities of the organism by designing simple experimental setups inviting various kinds of behavior. The researcher can ask “what-if” questions and frame experiments that serve to answer them — for example, what if the organism is separated from the shell but it remains in view; will the organism reaquire the shell?

A third tool available to the cephalapod researcher is the accumulated neuro-physiology that is available for the species. How does the perceptual system work? What can we determine about the cognitive system embodied in the organism’s central nervous system?

Finally, the researcher might consult with philosophers working on the mind-body problem for human beings, to canvass whether there are useful frameworks in that discipline that might contribute to octopus-mind-body studies. (Thomas Nagel’s famous article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”, comes to mind, in which he walks through the difficulty of imagining the consciousness of a bat whose sensory world depends on echo-location; link.)

In short, it seems that cephalapod cognition is a research field that necessarily combines detailed empirical research with conceptual and theoretical framing; and the latter efforts require as much rigor as the former.

Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices “rationally.”

These are all “one-off” choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for “greatest expected utility” or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don’t fit into the “preferences and beliefs” framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one’s life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one’s purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is “rationality in action”, but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes — not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I’m thinking of larger subjects for deliberation — for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I’m focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:

  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?

What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person’s journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath’s raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called “goal deliberation”. These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey — “keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon”. The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances– “attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession”. This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions — plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage — formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I’ve invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of “rational action”; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, “what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?”.

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe’s recent festschrift on Bratman’s work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Strategic action fields

Sometimes a rethinking of ontology and social categories results in an important step forward in social theory. This appears to be the case in some recent reflections on the relationships that exist between social movements theory and the sociology of organizations.  The presumption of existing writings on these fields is that they refer to separate but related phenomena.  One is more about social actors and the other is more about stable social structures.  What happens when we consider the possibility that they actually refer to the same kinds of social phenomena?

This is the perspective taken by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam in a recent contribution to Sociological Theory, “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields”(link). (They develop these ideas more fully in A Theory of Fields.) In the Sociological Theory article they write:

We assert that scholars of organizations and social movements — and for that matter, students of any institutional actor in modern society — are interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action. (2)

Fligstein and McAdam formulate their novel approach in terms of the idea of “strategic action fields.” They put it forward that “strategic action fields … are the fundamental units of collective action in society” (3). Power and advantage play key roles in their construction: “We too see SAFs as socially constructed arenas within which actors with varying resource endowments vie for advantage. Membership in these fields is based far more on subjective ‘standing’ than objective criteria” (3).

Here are types of social items they include in this theory:

  1. strategic action fields 
  2. incumbents, challengers, and governance units 
  3. social skill 
  4. the broader field environment 
  5. exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention 
  6. episodes of contention 
  7. settlement (2) 

This approach is importantly couched at the level of social ontology: what sorts of things should we identify and analyze as explanatory factors in our theories? The move to SAFs is a move against the idea of the fixity of social “structures,” institutions, and organizations. For example, they write against the ontology of new institutionalism: “The general image for most new institutionalists is one of routine social order and reproduction” — or in other words, a static set of rules and constraints within which action takes place. Their ontology, on the other hand, emphasizes the fluidity of the constraints and circumstances of action from the actors’ points of view; so the field shifts as actors undertake one set of strategies or another. “This leaves great latitude for the possibility of piecemeal change in the positions that actors occupy” (5).

So both stability and change are incorporated into a single framework of analysis: actors react strategically to the field of constraints and positions within which they act, with results that sometimes reinforce current positions and other times disrupt those positions.

They account for what looks like institutional rigidity by calling out the power of some actors to maintain their positions in the social order: “Most incumbents are generally well positioned and fortified to withstand these change pressures. For starters they typically enjoy significant resource advantages over field challengers” (9). But institutions should not be expected to maintain their structures indefinitely: “The expectation is that when even a single member of the field begins to act in innovative ways in violation of field rules, others will respond in kind, precipitating an episode of contention” (9).

So what is intended by the idea of “strategic action” in this theory? Here is what they have to say on that subject:

We define strategic action as the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context. The creation of identities, political coalitions, and interests serves to promote the control of actors vis-a-vis other actors. (7)

Here is one other interesting ontological feature of this approach. Their language suggests some parallels with assemblage theory (link), in the sense that social constructs fit upwards and downwards into strategic action fields at a range of fields. “We conceive of all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” (8). This set of ideas seems to suggest an unexpected affinity to “actor-network theory” and the sociological ideas of Bruno Latour (ANT) (link). But at the other end of some obscure spectrum of theory differentiation, their account also seems to rub shoulders with rational-choice theory, where both actions and rules are subject to deliberation and change by prudential actors.

 

There are several features of this approach that seem promising to me. One is the fact that it directly challenges the tendency towards reification that sometimes blocks sociological thinking — the idea that social “things” like states persist largely independently from the individuals who make them up. This new approach leads to a way of thinking about the social world that emphasizes contingency and plasticity (linklink) rather than rigid and homogeneous social structures. It also seems consistent with the thinking that leads to the idea of “methodological localism” — the idea that social phenomena rest upon “molecules” of socially constructed, socially situated individuals (link). I also like the fact that their analysis is explicitly couched at the meso level — neither macro nor micro.

One concern this approach raises, however, is suggested by the point mentioned above about its apparent proximity to some versions of rational choice theory — the view that all social outcomes and processes are ultimately the consequence of prudential actors pursuing their interests. But this assumption — which McAdam certainly does not share elsewhere in his writing (e.g. Dynamics of Contention) — threatens to push out of consideration social realities like normative systems, social identities, and distributed systems of power that somehow or other seem to demand inclusion in our understanding of social processes.

Finally, we can ask whether this innovation provides a basis for more fruitful empirical research into concrete phenomena like how corporations and revolutionary parties function, how demonstrations against Islamophobia take shape, and how resistance to racial discrimination emerges.  If the theoretical innovation doesn’t lead to richer empirical research, then it is reasonable to be skeptical about why we should adopt the new theoretical tools.

Value-free economics?

 

A recent volume by Vivian Walsh and Hilary Putnam,  The End of Value-Free Economics, brings to a fine point a line of argument that has been brewing for fifteen years: is the logical positivist insistence on separating “fact-based” science from “value-based” ethics any longer a tenable one? Most particularly, are there now compelling reasons for declaring that mainstream economics needs to recognize that the distinction is wholly untenable? Is the zeal for insisting on “positive” economics now unsupportable? Should economists at last recognize that Lionel Robbins’ strong exclusion of normative language from the science of economics both unjustified and unwise?  Walsh and Putnam argue that the answers to each of these questions is definitive: the strict dichotomy between fact and value in economics can no longer be supported.

The issue of facts and values has a number of sources within the empiricist tradition.  There is Hume’s view that we can’t derive “ought” from “is”; or in other words, that moral judgments are logically independent from empirical beliefs.  There is the positivists’ criterion of significance, according to which the meaning of an utterance reduces to the empirical experiences that would demonstrate its truth or falsity.  (The two propositions together imply that moral sentences are meaningless or “non-cognitive”, since the first proposition concedes that no empirical experience can demonstrate the truth or falsity of a normative statement.) And there is the positivists’ idea that science is exclusively concerned with “facts”; but the first two propositions consign moral statements to the category of “value” rather than “fact”, so science cannot contain normative vocabulary.  Another source was internal to debates within neoclassical economics itself: Lionel Robbins’s arguments against interpersonal comparisons of utilities, based on the idea that making such comparisons unavoidably involves taking an evaluative stance towards the individuals in question.

The key idea advanced in The End of Value-Free Economics is that none of these philosophical ideas have survived the critique of positivism that was offered within philosophy of science and philosophy of language over the past fifty years.  The attempt to draw a sharp line between “fact” and “value” turns out to be impossible.  And this is equally so in economics.

Consider an example.  The concept of Pareto efficiency is defined in value-neutral terms: a distribution is Pareto-efficient if there is no other distribution that improves some individuals without harming at least one individual.  The concept of distributive justice is not value-neutral; it invokes the idea that some distributions are better because they are more fair or more just than others.  The positive economist holds that the latter set of distinctions are legitimate to make — in some other arena.  But within economics, the language of justice and equity has no place.  The economist, according to this view, can work out the technical characteristics of various economic arrangements; but it is up to the political process or the policy decision-maker to arrive at a governing set of normative standards.  Walsh and Putnam (as well as Amartya Sen) dispute this view on logical grounds; and this leaves the discipline free to have a rational and reasoned discussion of the pros and cons of various principles of distributive justice.

Raising the issue of value-neutrality for economics is a frontal assault on the uncritical positivism that neoclassical economics incorporated from the 1930s and forward. But it is also an attack on something else–the no-longer acceptable idea that economists can only tell us how things are, not how they should be. Is famine worse than food sufficiency? Is literacy better than illiteracy? Is good health an improvement in wellbeing? If we take the view that “positive economics” cannot contain normative judgments, then none of these questions could be answered by an economist. “It depends on what you value.” What Walsh, Putnam, Sen, and other contributors to this volume want to say is that this response is idiotic, and there is no basis in logic, science, or methodology that would support it. Of course economics, and economists, can find that starvation is a bad thing. Instead, they maintain that the best philosophy of language and philosophy of science supports the idea that value concepts and descriptive concepts are intermingled or “entangled”, and that we can offer good reasons and evidence for evaluating claims involving both.

Why, some readers will ask, has Hilary Putnam become a central figure in this emerging debate? Putnam is known as a technically astute philosopher of mathematics, logic, and physics, and a philosopher of language; he is known for a sometimes wavering adherence to several versions of scientific realism; and he has made contributions of the greatest importance to each of these fields. But how did he come to get deeply immersed in the issue of the role of values in economics?

Vivian Walsh is one important part of the answer. Walsh undertook a series of articles in the 1980s and 1990s that were critical of the logical positivist assumptions that have lingered within the methodology of neoclassical economics. He took encouragement from the writings of Amartya Sen on welfare economics that confidently dismissed these positivist assumptions — for example, the idea that science could not incorporate values or that statements about values were meaningless. (Lionel Robbins is offered as a particularly clear advocate of these views.) And Putnam worked up his reactions to these ideas into a novel book in 2002, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays.

A key construct in the collaborative thinking that Putnam and Walsh have done together is the idea of the “second phase of classical theory.” (Harvey Gram discusses this construction in detail in his contribution.) Walsh introduces the idea and Putnam follows up in his essay. What this refers to is the fact that classical political economy, as expressed by Smith and Ricardo, underwent a major intellectual revival in the 1960s when thinkers like Pierro Sraffa proposed reappropriating some of their key analytical ideas. Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities : Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theorywas a key product of this rethinking. The rethinking itself came about because of an uneasiness about the premises of neoclassical economics, and it stayed close to the core logical ideas. The first revival focused on Ricardo, but the second phase, Walsh argues, has given a much more nuanced interpretation of Smith himself.  Walsh finds that this reconsideration has been led by Amartya Sen and is more wide-ranging. Here is why Walsh thinks this reconsideration of Smith is important:

This is because Smith embedded a remarkable understanding of the core concepts of a political economy whose implications for moral philosophy he understood and explored.  The Smith texts as a whole offer a rich tapestry, interweaving threads of classical analysis, moral philosophy, jurisprudence, and history. (7)

And here is how Putnam summarizes Sen’s contribution to this reconsideration of classical political economy:

If we are to understand Sen’s place in history, the reintroduction of ethical concerns and concepts into economic discourse must not be thought of as an abandonment of “classical economics”; rather it is a reintroduction of something that was everywhere present in the writings of Adam Smith, and that went hand-inhand with Smith’s technical analyses. This is something that Sen himself stresses. (quoted by Walsh, 29)

Amartya Sen has argued throughout his career for the robust possibility of reasoning about value issues — in economics and elsewhere. (A very early place where Sen takes up this topic is in “The Nature and Classes of Prescriptive Judgements”; link.) Much of what Sen brings to this debate within economics, according to Walsh and Putnam, is found in his capabilities theory as a foundation for a theory of welfare or wellbeing. This theory is based on the idea of human functionings; and there is a plain intermingling of factual and evaluative ideas associated with this notion.  We need to know what human beings can and want to do, before we can say how well off they are. And this means bringing in orienting human values at the foundations. Putnam draws attention to Martha Nussbaum’s list of core human capabilities. Anyone reading these descriptions would agree that they presuppose human values. And Nussbaum (as well as Sen and Putnam) believes that we can rationally discuss and evaluate these. But if welfare economics is to incorporate a substantive notion of human wellbeing, then it plainly cannot be maintained that it is “value-free”.

Another important locus for Sen’s reintroduction of ethical concepts into economics is his critique of the narrow conception of individual economic rationality.  As Sen puts the point in “Rational Fools” (link),

A person thus described may be “rational”in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (336)

Sen introduces the idea of “commitments” directly into the concept of economic rationality.  Individuals choose among preference rankings based on their commitments — to each other, to political ideas, to groups with whom they have decided to affiliate.  And this brings normative ideas directly into economic decision-making — and therefore into the domain of economics.

Walsh and Putnam insist on a point that seems very important to me as well: it is the dichotomy between facts and values, or between positive and normative analysis, that they reject. They do not reject the idea that there are facts and there are values. But they believe in important respects these categories are intertwined and inseparable. They argue for “entanglement” and “rich description.” They believe that it is fully possible and acceptable to engage in rational debates over the best theory of justice, or human nature, or human freedom; and to do so within economics as well as outside of economics.  And they believe that science can handle its goals without this sharp dichotomy.

Theories of the actor

I’m attracted to an approach to sociological thinking that can be described as “actor-centered.”  The basic idea is that social phenomena are constituted by the actions of individuals, oriented by their own subjectivities and mental frameworks.  It is recognized, of course, that the subjectivity of the actor doesn’t come full-blown into his or her mind at adulthood; rather, we recognize that individuals are “socialized”; their thought processes and mental frameworks are developed through myriad social relationships and institutions. So the actor is a socially constituted individual.

If we take the approach to social explanation that demands that we understand how complex social processes and assemblages supervene on the actions and thoughts of individuals, then it is logical that we would want to develop a theory of the actor.  We would like to have a justifiable set of ideas about how individuals perceive the social world, how they think about their own lives and commitments, and how they move from thought to action.  But we have many alternatives available as we attempt to grapple with this task.

We might begin by asking, what work should a theory of the actor do?  Here are a set of questions that a theory of the actor ought to consider:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

Aristotle guides much philosophical thinking on these questions by offering an orderly theory of the practical agent (The Nicomachean Ethics).  His theory is centered on the idea of deliberative rationality, but he leaves a place for the emotions in action as well (to be controlled by the faculty of reason).  Deliberation, in Aristotle’s view, amounts to reflecting on one’s goals and arranging them into a hierarchy; then choosing actions that permit the achievement of one’s highest goals.

Formal rational choice theory provides a set of answers to several of these questions.  Actors have preferences and beliefs; their preferences are well ordered; they assign probabilities and utilities to outcomes (the results of actions); and they choose a given action to maximize the satisfaction of their preferences.

Ethnographic thinkers such as Clifford Geertz or Irving Goffman take a different tack altogether; they give a lot of attention to questions 1 and 2; they provide “thick” descriptions of the motives and meanings of the actors (3); and they indicate a diverse set of answers to question 5.  (Geertz and Goffman are discussed in other posts.)

Other anthropologists have favored a “performative” understanding of agency.  The actor is understood as carrying out a culturally prescribed script in response to stereotyped social settings.  Victor Turner’s anthropology is a leading example of this approach to action (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society).

Mayer Zald recommends the work of Karl Weick on the first question (Sensemaking in Organizations (Foundations for Organizational Science)).  Here is how Weick explains sensemaking:

The concept of sensemaking is well named because, literally, it means the making of sense. Active agents construct sensible, sensable events. They “structure the unknown”. How they construct what they construct, why, and with what effects are the central questions for people interested in sensemaking.  Investigators who sensemaking define it in quite different ways. Many investigators imply what Starbuck and Milliken make explicit, namely, that sensemaking involves placing stimuli into some kind of framework. The well-known phrase “frame of reference” has traditionally meant a generalized point of view that directs interpretations. (4) (references omitted)

It’s worthwhile addressing this topic, because it would appear that we don’t yet have a particularly good vocabulary for formulating questions about agency.  As indicated above, Aristotle’s theory of the mind has been dominant in western philosophy; and yet it feels as though his approach is just one among many starting points that could have been chosen.  Here is an earlier treatment of this question (link).

I’m reminded by my friends that not all sociologists accept the actor-centered approach.  Some (like Andrew Abbott and Peggy Somers) prefer what they refer to as a “relational” understanding of the basis of social activity.  It is not so much the actor as the action; it is not the internal state of the individual agent so much as the swirl of interactions with others that determine the course of a social activity.  This is part of Abbott’s objection to the idea that sociology should aim to uncover social mechanisms (link).

Esser’s sociology

Sociology in Germany seems to be particularly prolific today, and this extends to the contributions that German sociologists are making to the sub-discipline of analytic sociology. One of the leaders who has played a key role in this active field is Hartmut Esser. Esser’s Soziologie. Spezielle Grundlagen 3. Soziales Handeln (2002) is particularly important, but it hasn’t been translated into English yet. (Here is a link to the second volume of this work on Google Books, and here is a link to Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen (1993).) So Esser’s contributions are not yet as widely known in the US sociology world as they ought to be. (Here is a short Wikipedia entry on Esser in German (link).)

One of Esser’s primary areas of empirical research is on the general topic of immigration and ethnicity. Here are a couple of relevant articles in English: “Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration” (link) and “How Far Reaches the “Middle Range” of a Theory? A Reply to the Comments” link). His goal generally is to consider the theories of ethnicity and assimilation that have been developed since the Chicago School and Robert Parks, and to attempt to reconcile the empirical experience of assimilation with a synthetic theory.

Several things seem fairly clear. First, Esser was an early and influential contributor to analytical sociology in two important ways. He advocates for social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanation. And he highlights rational individual actions as the heart of most (all?) social mechanisms. His work appears to be comparable in importance and impact to that of Raymond Boudon, James Coleman, and Jon Elster: rationality, microfoundations, mechanisms. (Here is a contribution by Esser on the topic of “Theories of the Middle Range” in a very interesting volume by Renate Mayntz available online; link.)

Second, Esser is especially interested in topics within the philosophy of science in connection to sociology. He is interested in the logic of explanation, the development of theory, and the role of models in scientific explanation. He is influenced by Karl Popper and Carl Hempel, and there are occasional references to other philosophers of science from the 1950s and 1960s. There are no references to Thomas Kuhn, W. V. O. Quine, or Hilary Putnam in Soziologie Allgemeine Grundlagen.

Another thing seems evident: that Esser is a sociologist in the tradition of Max Weber and interpretive sociology, with particular affinity to the “rational actor” Weber. Along with other German sociologists today, Esser appears to be helping to constitute a “Weber 2.0”, more attuned to issues of contemporary interest such as immigration and assimilation, but with a strong sense of the importance of appropriate use of social theory in arriving at explanations of complicated contemporary social processes. (Here is a link to a book chapter by Esser on “The Rationality of Value”.)

Here is an example of his use of rational choice theory in his theory of ethnic assimilation (“Assimilation, Ethnic Stratification, or Selective Acculturation? Recent Theories of the Integration of Immigrants and the Model of Intergenerational Integration”):

At the heart of the model are the options for those immigrants who are currently present within a receiving context. Options include activities which are related to the receiving country (receiving context option, in short: rc-option) and those which are related to the ethnic context (ethnic context option, in short: ec-option). Examples are changing or maintaining habits, relationships, or orientations. In order to explain when and why a certain activity occurs, we need a general rule for the selection between options that can be applied to, in principle, all empirical constellations. The model uses the rule of the expected utility theory as such a general selection rule. For each of the possible options a so-called EU weight is computed. The EU weight is the sum of both the negative and positive returns that can be achieved with the selection of a particular option, weighted with the corresponding expectation that the return actually occur with the selected option. Individuals would then select the option with the highest expected value [cfr. Esser 2004, 1135 ff.; Esser 2006, 39 ff. on details of the expected utility theory and also with reference to the model.

Esser has also attempted to find affinities between rationality theory and micro-sociology, including especially the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schütz. Here is the abstract of “The Rationality of Everyday Behavior: A Rational Choice Reconstruction of the Theory of Action by Alfred Schütz” (link):

This article argues that Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretative paradigm in sociology, developed a theory of action whose basic structure is compatible with subjective expected utility theory (i.e., a specific variant of rational choice theory). Alfred Schütz’s view with respect to the characteristics of everyday action—the individual orientation toward routines and structures of relevance—is modeled in terms of subjective expected utility theory. In this perspective, these characteristics appear as the result of an action-preceding rational choice in the process of the cognition of situations, under the conditions of bounded rationality.

Esser is the object of quite a bit of discussion and reflection by other German sociologists. One whose name shows up frequently in these discussions is Rainer Greshoff (Die Transintentionalität des Sozialen. and Integrative Sozialtheorie: Esser, Luhmann, Weber (Rainer Greshoff and Uwe Schinank, eds.)).

(For those of us whose German reading knowledge is limited, I’m finding Google Translate to be a helpful source of assistance as I struggle with some of these texts; it helps with vocabulary even though the translations of complete sentences are not ready for prime time.)

Herbert Simon’s satisficing life

Herbert Simon was a remarkably fertile thinker in the social and “artificial” sciences (The Sciences of the Artificial – 3rd Edition (1969, first edition)).  His most celebrated idea was the notion of “satisficing” rather than “optimizing” or “maximizing” in decision-making; he put forward a theory of ordinary decision-making that conformed more closely to the ways that actual people reason rather than the heroic abstractions of expected utility theory.

Essentially the concept of satisficing takes the cost of collecting additional information into account as a decision maker searches for a solution to a problem — where to eat for dinner, which university to attend, which product to emphasize in a company’s short-term strategy.  And the theory commends the idea that we are best served overall by accepting the “good-enough” solution rather than searching indefinitely for the best solution.  Rather than attempting to inventory all possible choices available at a given point in time and assigning them utilities and probabilities, the satisficing theory recommends setting parameters for a problem of choice, and then selecting the first solution that comes along that satisfies these parameters.  It means searching for a solution that is “good enough” rather than optimal.

And why not go for the optimal solution?  Because the cost of collecting the additional information associated with a broader choice set may well exceed the total benefit of the current decision.  This is obvious in the case of the decision of which restaurant to go to; slightly less obvious in the case of the decision of which university to attend; and perhaps flatly unpersuasive in the case of decisions where the outcome can influence life and death.

I’ve described the theory of satisficing in a little detail here for an unexpected reason: Simon took some interest in the art of autobiography, and it turns out that he interprets his own life as a series of satisficing decisions.  His autobiography Models of My Life appeared in 1996, and it’s an interesting narrative of the intellectual and personal choices that led Simon from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh and beyond.

The idea is particularly apt for Simon’s view about how a life unfolds.  He rejects the idea that one’s life has an overriding theme.  He discusses the fact that the title of the book is a plural noun — “Models of My Life”.

There is a further reason for using the plural [models].  It is a denial — a denial that a life, at least my life, has a central theme, a unifying thread running through it. True, there are themes (again the plural), some of the threads brighter or thicker or stronger than others.  Perhaps clearest is the theme of the scientist and teacher, carrying on his persistent heuristic search, seeking the Holy Grail of truth about human decision making.  In my case, even that thread is woven of finer strands: the political scientist, the organization theorist, the economist, the management scientist, the computer scientist, the psychologist, the philosopher of science. (xviii)

Rather than one underlying theme that underlies a person’s biography and career, there are multiple choices, directions, and emphases — that add up to a woven lifetime of contribution when the choices work out well.

Simon accepts the implication that this vision of a life presents: that there is no single “self” underlying all these changes and choices:

Which of the wanderers through these different mazes will step forward at the call for the real Herbert Simon?  All of them; for the “real” self is an illusion.  We live each hour in context, different contexts for different hours…. We act out our lives within the mazes in which Nature and society place us. (xviii-xix)

The analogy between daily decision-making and living a life is a direct one: instead of setting upon a course with very specific goals and objectives, and then taking the steps necessary to bring about the achievement of that system of goals, Simon is recommending a more local form of life decision-making. Build capacities, recognize opportunities, take risks, and build a life as a result of a series of local choices.  It is a form of bounded rationality for living rather than an expression of a fully developed life plan.  So we might say that Simon’s “philosophy of living” is entirely consistent with his theory of bounded rationality.

There are a few real surprises in the book — for example, a conversation between Simon and Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina in 1970.  Simon was fascinated by Borges’ use of the idea of a labyrinth in his novels, and wanted to find out from Borges how he was led to this family of metaphors.  Simon himself was drawn to the idea of a series of choices as a maze — incorporating the insight that there are always unexplored outcomes behind the avenues not taken.  So a labyrinth is a good metaphor for choice within uncertainty and risk.

I have encountered many branches in the maze of my life’s path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right.  The metaphor of the maze is irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding human choice. (xvii)

Here is a snippet of the conversation between Simon and Borges as quoted in the book:

SIMON: I want to know how it was that the labyrinth entered into your field of vision, into your concepts, so that you incorporated in your stories.

BORGES: I remember having seen an engraving of the labyrinth in a French book — when I was a boy. It was a circular building without doors but with many windows. I used to gaze at this engraving and think that if I brought a loupe close to it, it would reveal the Minotaur.

SIMON: Did you see it?

BORGES: Actually my eyesight was never good enough.  Soon I discovered something of the complexity of life, as if it were a game. In this I am not referring to chess.

SIMON: What is the connection between the labyrinth of the Minotaur and your labyrinth, which calls for continual choice? Does the analogy go beyond the general concept?

BORGES: When I write, I don’t think in terms of teaching. I think that my stories, in some way, are given to me, and my task is to narrate them. I neither search for implicit connotations nor start out with abstract ideas; I am not one who plays with symbols. But if there is some transcendental explanation of one of my stories, it is not for me to discover it, that is the task of the critics and the readers.

And a final surprise — it emerges from the conversation that Borges had read “a very interesting book” early in his life, Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy — not exactly the most predictable influence on the creator of magical realism.  And Russell’s mathematical logic was likewise a formative influence for Simon, at a comparably early age.

There is an interesting short section where Simon discusses one of the directions he did not take in his own personal career maze — the step of trying to become a college president at Carnegie Mellon or elsewhere (262 ff.).  Simon writes briefly about the reasons why this might have been a realistic aspiration for him — a history of administrative competence at the department level and a stellar academic record.  But he decided not to pursue the presidency at CMU:

However that may be, I did not seriously consider taking on the context. … I have never regretted the decision, especially in view of Dick’s stellar performance on the job, a performance made possible by a “deviousness” that our colleague Leland Hazard admiringly attributed to him, and that I surely did not possess. (263)

He adds that he didn’t have the personality needed to cultivate the community of wealthy businessmen whose support would be essential to Carnegie: “In fact, the close association with the business community that is essential for effective performance as president of a university such as Carnegie Mellon would have been uncomfortable for me” (263).

But here is the way this discussion strikes me (as a person whose career did take him in that direction): Simon gives no evidence here of understanding even the most basic facts about this domain of choice: what the job of president actually is; what the qualities of personality and leadership are that would lead to success; and what the intellectual satisfactions might be in the event that he became a university president. He seems to be working from a very shallow stereotyped view of the job of university president. In other words, Simon had none of the information that would be needed to make an informed career choice about this option. And this suggests that his decision-making on this issue was narrowly bounded indeed — driven by a few stereotyped assumptions that were probably a poor guide to the reality.

(Here is a lecture by Herbert Simon on organizations, public administration, and markets:)

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