Was Jane Austen The Original Game Theorist?

A UCLA prof posits that the novelist was also a master strategist.

Jane Austen has been called many things: feminist, social critic, love-troubled depressive. Now, add game theorist to the list.

That’s right: As Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times writes, Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, claims that the 18th-century novelist practiced game theory long before John von Neumann, the mathematician and all-around big brain, introduced it in 1944. "In 230 diagram-heavy pages," Schuessler writes, "Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself." Among her philosophical breakthroughs, Chwe says, is "cluelessness," a scenario in which a powerful player grossly underestimates the "lesser" opponent’s cunning and therefore doesn’t think strategically herself. Schuessler writes:

Take the scene in "Pride and "Prejudice" where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence—not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.

It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. "Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth—her social inferior—"could be manipulating her," he said.

Is Chwe’s reading a stretch? Should classic texts mined for hidden modern theories, or simply appreciated for the literary monuments they are? We’ll let the academics duke it out. Suffice to say, if given the choice between Henry Kissinger and Jane Austen, we’d go with the lady of letters.

Read more here.

[Image: Jane Austen, Ben Sutherland via Flickr]

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