In recent years, several studies have examined the links between literature and science, a relationship known as “consilience”. Most prominent of these is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, which quickly became a bestseller after its release in 2012.
More recently, Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s argues in Jane Austen, Game Theorist, that “game theory” – the “scientific” study of how individuals make choices in their dealings with one another – became popular in the 1950s and was frequently employed by Cold War strategists in the United States. Chwe, a professor of political science, insists that Jane Austen was an unwitting practitioner of Game Theory, particularly in her notion of “cluelessness”, which is otherwise explained as a temporary inability to think strategically.
In The New Republic, William Deresiewicz argues that in describing a world “in which young ladies have to navigate their perilous way to happiness”, Austen could indeed be seen as having anticipated the game theorists. “She did depict strategic thinking in everyday social situations with a new depth, a new detail, and a number of new techniques – literary techniques, such as free indirect discourse…” But, contrary to what Chwe seems to think, she was hardly the first in the field. As “even Chwe acknowledges”, literature has been “exploring the mind, and strategic thinking in particular, as long as it has existed”. Take The Odyssey, the story of a master strategist, or the schemers who scheme their way through Shakespeare’s plays.
Besides, and also contrary to what Chwe suggests, Austen’s concept of human motivation went way beyond any simple programmatic theory. She did not believe that people “think only strategically”. People, she knew, often act “out of habit or instinct or sudden emotion”; human behaviour is mysterious and often defies rational explanation. Indeed fiction like Austen’s “puts back everything the social sciences – by way of methodical simplification, or disciplinary ideology, or just plain foolishness – take out”. That’s why great literature responds to every fancy theory you throw at it. “Shakespeare was a game theorist, too – and a neuro-scientist, and a political scientist, and a Freudian, and a Marxist, and a Lancanian, and a Foucauldian, and all the –ists and –ians that we haven’t yet devised.”
No scientific theory can explain art. Science addresses external reality; art addresses our experience of the world. It “tells us what reality feels like”. That’s why Lehrer and Chwe are talking nonsense. But then, says Deresiewicz, quoting H.L. Mencken: “There is no idea so stupid that you can’t find a professor who will believe it.”