Jane Austen, Game Theorist? Ha

Claiming famous artists operated under the auspices of modern scientific thought ignores what art is all about.

“Art does not have winners.” This is the argument William Deresiewicz makes as he skewers political scientist Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s latest book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist in The New Republic. In the vein of Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Chwe’s book stakes a claim that Jane Austen, the 19th-century novelist who brought us Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma, was a pioneer in exploring the 20th-century mathematical concept of game theory, the study of the way people make decisions.


“There is only one problem with this approach: it is intellectually bankrupt,” Deresiewicz declares. When we think of art only narrowly in terms of scientific concepts, especially those that would have been foreign to the artist herself, both art and science lose.

Science and data, of course, can be beautiful. But the reason work like Austen’s endures isn’t about the precise data or perfect logic underlying an elegant research design. It’s that it manages to encapsulate the nuances of the human experience, as irrational as they can be, in a way that people across generations identify with.

Image: Chess board via Shutterstock

Books like Chwe’s or Lehrer’s laud artists for being “right” because the ideas of modern science can be applied to their work, albeit roughly. But Deresiewicz points out these arguments miss what’s actually visionary about the work, because they’re looking at entirely the wrong criteria:

At best, they tell us things we already know–and know immensely better–through humanistic means. They are almost always either crushingly banal or desperately wrongheaded. Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest: killing Claudius and usurping his throne (but the latter never crosses his mind) or letting Gertrude furnish him with siblings (though since Hamlet is already thirty, that isn’t all too probable). Interpretive questions are not responsive to scientific methods. It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope. The instrument is not too crude; it is the wrong kind altogether.

Science can explain how and why the world works as it does, but art explains how it feels to live in that world. A fair point, but please let it be known that “Dickens Was a Gastroenterologist” is a book I would read in a heartbeat.

Read the rest here.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.