Intentional action and pure causality: A critical discussion of some central conceptual distinctions in the work of Jon Elster

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25 (3):286-317 (1995)

Abstract

This article discusses fundamental problems in "rational choice theory," as outlined by Jon Elster. Elster's discussion of why institutions may not be said to act shows his fundamental presupposition that only "monolithic," unitary entities are capable of action. This is, for him, a reason why only individual human beings may be said to act. Furthermore, human beings may be said to act only insofar as they "maximize" on the basis of a unitary, complete, consistent "preference structure." All action that is not maximization in this sense is for Elster not really human action, but rather instances of "pure causality." Elster distinguishes between the "real," intentional person, who "maximizes," and "purely causal forces" within the person. This article tries to show that this radical, sharp dichotomy between "intentionality," in this narrow sense, and "pure causality" is inadequate as a basis for understanding human action. This radical dichotomy is central to important arguments made by Elster more generally.

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