Analytic Narratives and the Semantics of Formal Decision Theories

Analytic Narratives and the Semantics of Formal Decision Theories

Philippe Mongin

The expression "analytic narratives" refers to a small group of studies that have developed at the intersection of history, political science and economics. These studies purport to explain specific historical events by combining the narrative mode of standard history with tools borrowed from formal rational choice theories, especially game theory. Their originality stems from the fact that they call upon those theories, not rational choice theory loosely understood, since much of traditional history already depends on attributing rationality to its actors. In earlier work, Philippe Mongin tried to categorize this new genre and assess its explanatory performances with respect to standard narratives. In the present work, he responds to an objection left unresolved and moves from there to more general comments regarding what formal theories can contribute to social explanation.

As the objection goes, analytic narratives are not semantically unified, because they need to use action terms both for their formal and narrative parts, and these terms are not understood identically in the two parts ("strategy" is one example). To respond to this objection, Philippe Mongin proposed sketching an interpretation of how the semantics of formal rational choice theories relates to that of ordinary language. He discarded the position (attributable to Lewis) that decision- and game-theoretic terms are simply synonymous of terms from the ordinary language. While impressed by the position (attributable to Davidson) that the meanings of decision- and game-theoretic terms refine on the meanings of their ordinary analogs, Mongin argued that they do not overcome the opaqueness and equivocity of the latter. Philippe Mongin inclined towards the position that the meanings of decision- and game-theoretic terms remove some basic equivocations of ordinary meanings. In particular, against Davidson, he argued that it is possible, under certain circumstances, to separate an individual’s beliefs and desires empirically, and that this is made possible precisely by the more advanced semantics introduced by decision theory.

If this general argument succeeds, it will not only secure a better foundation for analytic narratives, but also delineate a role for formal rational choice theories in the shaping of social explanations.