Was Abraham, in offering his son for sacrifice, engaging in rational choice? Was Catch-22’s Yossarian, trapped in a conflict in which common sense had no role, a practitioner of game theory?
New York University’s Steven Brams thinks so. His newest book, Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds (MIT Press, 2011), posits that game theory can illuminate the rational choices made by characters in texts ranging from the Bible to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and can explicate strategic questions in law, history, and philosophy.
Game theory models are common in the sciences and social sciences, but they have been only sporadically applied to the humanities, with mathematical calculations of strategic choice seen as irrelevant to the worlds of literature, history, and philosophy.
Brams’ analysis helps the reader relate characters’ goals to their choices and the consequences of those choices. Much of his analysis is based on the theory of moves (TOM), which is grounded in game theory, and which he develops gradually and applies systematically in the work. TOM illuminates the dynamics of player choices, including their misperceptions, deceptions, and uses of different kinds of power.
Brams, a professor in New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics, examines such topics as the outcome and payoff matrix of Pascal’s wager on the existence of God; the strategic games played by presidents and Supreme Court justices; frustration games, as illustrated by the strategic use of sexual abstinence in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata; and how information was slowly uncovered in the game played by Hamlet and Claudius.
Brams is the author of Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures (2008), among other works.
For review copies, contact Megan Waldram at 617.258.0676 or David Weininger at 617.253.2079 at MIT Press.