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Shackle’s Enquiry Into Choice

L’analyse du choix chez Shackle
Marina Bianchi et Sergio Nisticò
p. 739-762


Malgré de nombreuses tentatives pour retravailler ses idées au sein d’approches non-orthodoxes, George L. Shackle est resté un outsider des sciences économiques. Shackle, cependant, n’est pas un auteur isolé, du moins, si on prend au sérieux ce qu’il pensait des sciences économiques, en tant que discipline dont l’objet n’est pas auto-suffisant mais ouvert et changeant. Nous proposons d’abord une lecture de Shackle, centrée sur sa compréhension du choix, comme acte créatif et créateur ; sur cette base, notre article propose une manière de sauver Shackle du rôle de nihiliste, auquel il est souvent relégué. Dans cette perspective, on peut identifier le caractère original et précurseur de la contribution de Shackle par une analyse des développements récents de plusieurs disciplines « voisines », comme la psychologie des motivations et des actions d’auto-récompense, les narratives comme « science » du possible ou le rôle du temps calendaire dans la théorie du choix. En réalité, tous ces nouveaux développements intellectuels peuvent contribuer à la compréhension de l’argument principal soulevé par Shackle, à savoir, que les agents humains (et donc, économiques) sont actifs et créatifs, et qu’ils rompent tout fil déterministe pour introduire de la nouveauté dans l’histoire à venir, et que cela fait une différence dans le déroulement futur de l’action.

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1“G.L.S. Shackle has always seemed a man alone.” These are the opening words of a paper that Stephen Littlechild wrote in 1979 commenting on Shackle’s article “Imagination, Formalism, and Choice” (Littlechild, 1979, 32). Littlechild added that it was not that Shackle lacked admirers and followers (ibid.). For example a collection of papers in Metroeconomica published in 1959 (Åkerman et al., 1959) scrutinized Shackle’s economic ideas and also did the volume in his honor edited by Carter and Ford (1972). Additional publications followed after his death, such as the collection of essays in his honor edited by Frowen (1990), the 1993 commemorative issue in the Review of Political Economy (Carter et al, 1993), the volume edited by Earl and Frowen (2000) and more recently the book by Earl and Littleboy (2014).

2Nor was Shackle without predecessors or inspirational teachers. As he recounts in “A Student Pilgrimage”, his first encounter with the works of Hayek, Keynes and Myrdal at the LSE in 1935 sparked his already prepared mind, generating new insights on the roles that knowledge, the lapse of time, expectations, and choice as pursuit of possibilities, play in economics (Shackle, 1988, 236-237).

3“But”, asks Littlechild, “to what school of thought does Shackle belong? In other words whose footsteps does he follow and who follows in his? How far has he influenced, or been influenced by, the thoughts and writings of his professional colleagues? Is he not a man alone in his apparent independence of any conventional tradition?” (Littlechild, 1979, 32).

  • 1 In the concluding remarks of his Introduction to Imagination and the Nature of Choice, Shackle asks (...)

4Should the same questions be asked today, we too would be compelled to answer that Shackle was not only, but has remained an outsider in the discipline of economics. Several attempts have been made to rework Shackle’s ideas in the light of: a Keynesian framework (Harcourt, 1981; Davidson, 1991; Rotheim, 1993; Harcourt and Sardoni, 2000; Cantillo, 2014), an evolutionary and institutional approach, often with an Austrian bent (Lachmann, 1976; Parsons, 1990; Koppl, 2001; Hodgson, 2000) or, as in the work of Zappia (2014), a non-Bayesian decision theories approach. But, as Littlechild suggested, Shackle’s position—often defined as radical subjectivism—is more one of radical subversion, that is ill-suited and unadaptable to any school.1

5On the one hand, the economic world described by Shackle is a world that is far from the received view of economics. It is a world in which the passing of time is vital and choice represents a break with the past and the creation of something new. Uncertainty in this world is not about predetermined futures, but an opportunity for change where feelings of hope, fear, surprise, and disbelief, allow us to compare and determine a realm of possible futures.

6On the other hand, if we take seriously what Shackle thought about economics, he is not a man alone. Economics for him is a discipline concerned with a subject that is not self-contained but open-ended and impermanent, where the economist is a trespasser, one who is not afraid to examine other disciplines to help uncover the mysteries of a complex economic world.

7Given this enlarged view of economics, Shackle’s independence of any conventional tradition becomes his strength. His work continues to shed light on, and to provide answers to, some foundational issues left unquestioned by traditional economics, such as: the nature of choice and motivations, the role of uncertainty and prediction, and the place of calendar time in choice behavior.

8And, as a trespasser, Shackle finds a strong congeniality with several “friendly” disciplines whose recent developments, we shall argue, provide additional support and new arguments to Shackle’s anticipatory analysis. In particular we shall analyze the contributions coming from:

  1. The role of calendar time in choice theory.

  2. The psychology of motivations and of self-rewarding actions;

  3. Narrative as the ’science’ of the possible as envisaged by recent theories of the mind.

9All these three approaches are part of the larger topic of creativity, and of the literature that identifies the problem of change as a specific feature of the human condition.

10All these novel rethinkings, we will argue, can contribute to rescuing Shackle from the role of a nihilist where he is often relegated and to understanding Shackle’s main point that human (and therefore economic) agents are active, creative enterprisers, who cut the deterministic thread by injecting the new into the history to come, thus making a difference in the future courses of action.

1. The Irreducible Complexity of Choice

  • 2 For an appraisal of Shackle’s notion of potential surprise, see Zappia (2014) and Derbyshire (2017)

11Understanding how people choose is no easy task, especially if one is dissatisfied, as Shackle was, with the traditional economic approach, where the complexity of any choice is simply dissolved by reducing it to a constrained maximization problem, either deterministic or probabilistic, whose solution is somehow forced, through the appropriate axioms, to be unique. Actually, Shackle had nothing against axioms. In his Appendix to Expectation in Economics (Shackle, 1952 [1949]), he used axioms to define his notion of ‘potential surprise’.2 However, Shackle’s attitude was that of an ‘enquirer’, as he thought of himself (Shackle, 1979a, 21) aiming at handling complexity, rather than getting rid of it. He adopted a philosophical stance wherein choice should be understood as a version of ‘creative destruction’ à la Schumpeter, that breaks with the past and injects the new in the future. Shackle’s world is characterized by uncertainty where the chooser can anticipate and creatively produce future sequences of actions.

1.1 Choice as A (Creative) Beginning

  • 3 “If we knew in an exploitable degree what we should find we should not need to find it. If we do no (...)
  • 4 “If choice is real”, Lawson argues, “any agent could always have done otherwise; each agent could a (...)

12The first step of Shackle’s line of argument rests on the rejection of any representation of choice as a mere reaction to a given and known set of circumstances, a view that, if accepted, reduces choice to a simple recognition of necessity (Shackle, 1979a, vi).3 Genuine, effective choice for Shackle is instead the genesis of outcomes not entirely implicit in antecedents, the disclosure of events whose future paths cannot be known in advance but only imagined.4

13Yet, this alternative view seems to create a choice paradox (Shackle, 1966a, 71-72). If, as Shackle argues, choice generates outcomes that cannot be foreknown, it may become impossible to discriminate among the sequence of future events making thus choice inscrutable. If, on the other hand, we move in a totally pre-known setting, choice is simply non-existent, illusory (Shackle, 1979a, 19). To paraphrase Popper’s distinction, choice seems to be caught either in the impregnable necessity of clocks or in the elusive freedom of clouds (Popper, 1966; Shackle, 1966b, 760).

14For Shackle the solution to the conundrum rests on a crucial distinction. Genuine choice does face uncertainty but it is an uncertainty that is bounded (Shackle, 1959, 293). These bounds are determined partly by previous choices and partly by the chooser on the basis of his capabilities and knowledge of the problem. They represent what Shackle calls the limits of the possible (Shackle, 1979a, 10).

15It is only within these epistemic bounds that the chooser is then free to determine the “choosable entities”, the mutually rival actions and their respective conceivable sequels; because choice for Shackle always involves rivalries, each claiming the desired history to come. Yet, when the moment of choosing arrives, the process of imagining further variants of possible sequels must come to a stop and the chooser is left with a list of possibilities that remains incomplete and incompletable (Shackle, 1979a, viii).

16What choice then does to the chooser (ibid., 14) is that it shifts the bounds of rival imagined sequels, closing some future evolution of affairs while at the same time opening new ones. This process of imagination and discrimination is not only intellectual. Choice implies also commitment and resolution. “Choice erects a structure of intentions, any abandonment of which will be hurtful to the chooser in some degree” (ibid., 15). “A choice that did not commit the chooser in some respect would be no choice” (Shackle, 1961, 21).

17In sum, genuine choice makes the possible possible, commits the chooser to it and, through imagination, allows him the enjoyment (or the fear) of anticipation.

18The setting in which genuine choice operates then for Shackle is one where the outcome is neither already written and unique nor beyond the realm of the possible, but one whose features must be discovered and created. In this setting, choosers do not passively react to the set of given circumstances but actively intervene to introduce novel responses and to affect the outcome; the same notion of best choice disappears and equilibrium is, for Shackle, a good state of mind “a poising of thought” (ibid., 14) that involves present resolution to future actions and satisfies the need to fill “the calendar axis of time” (Shackle, 1979b, 24).

  • 5 On this point we refer to Lewis (2017), who extensively and persuasively discusses the creative rol (...)

19In this process, language plays a crucial role.5 It allows people to acquire a framework through which they can classify and conceptualize the “reports” that come from the surrounding material and social world, in ways that are shared and communicable. It is “the outward shape of thought, the form that is inseparable from the content” (Shackle, 1972, 185). Its elements—symbols, words and sentences, syntax—are given by convention and work as classificatory boxes that provide practical instructions and recipes for responses (Shackle, 1972, 51). Yet language is not a fixed structure. Its elements, even if canonical, are capable of infinite combinations, symbols freely composable like the tesserae of a mosaic (Shackle, 1979a, 21, 24).

20Language then has both stability and flexibility. The capability of choosers to combine and recombine creatively the symbols of language is what allows them to imagine and produce novel responses and to inject novelty into the confines of its shared, stable rules.

21This “linguistic creativity” (Lewis, 2017, 18) that allows sensory experiences to be decomposed and recomposed in varied forms and orders, is also emotionally charged however.

  • 6 And Shackle is a master of language. The way he bends, breaks and blends words, phrases and sentenc (...)

22In producing creatively new future sequels choosers are able to create also new meanings, emotional values, and to compare the desire and counter-desire, the anticipatory enjoyment or apprehension that identify each sequence of rival actions (Shackle, 1979a, 21).6

1.2 The Possible and the Probable

23The rational economic calculus under uncertainty requires a list of potential outcomes together with the probabilities of occurrence assigned to each of them. But these are not available in the uncertain world of Shackle where choice is a new beginning and creative.

24This marked distance with the received view brings us to one of the themes of Shackle’s writings about choice that has been most debated: that involving the difference between the possible and the probable. Though Shackle accords imagination the freedom to envisage the sequels of future actions, this freedom, as we have seen in addressing the paradox of choice, cannot be unbound, with no connections between action and consequences; it works only within the limits of the possible. Untrammeled freedom to imagine whatever course of action would make choice powerless and pointless (Shackle, 1979b, 21): “The anarchy of Nature is as fatal as the determinacy of Nature to the notion of choice as a source of history” (ibid., 20 and, again, Popper, 1966).

25Imagination then should be subject to the constraints of the possible in the now and then. The possible is a body of suppositions that reflects the chooser’s subjective knowledge, tempered by natural and social constraints. Only when so constrained, when imagination is not simply unlimited fantasy and daydream, can it create the subjective sequence of action schemes that are called expectations. And only when, of all the courses of action, the individual has chosen one and has committed to it, does imagination become anticipation (Shackle, 1959, 288).

  • 7 The implications and suggestions of a non-distributional uncertainty variable was addressed in his (...)

26But the possible is not the probable. This is a point constantly repeated by Shackle and one that makes his views irreconcilable with the received view of economic choice. Probabilities can be assigned only to classes of events taken to be exhaustive and known to include the true class. They are mutually exclusive and consist of fractions summing up to one. This means that when a new conjecture appears and has to be added to the existing ones, these have to be adjusted downwards (Shackle, 1955). But, Shackle insists, there is no reason why a new conjecture should affect the likelihood of the existing ones.7

27Instead, according to Shackle, no list of hypotheses can be certain: they are a stream of imagined sequences of outcomes, endlessly augmentable, and constrained only by their adjudged relative possibleness. This means that the ultimate comparison in Shackle is not numerical but subjective and different not only among individuals but also for the same individual at different times. Possibleness therefore is not a category of degree, but a matter of yes or no (Shackle, 1988, 2-4).

  • 8 On Shackle’s notion of potential surprise, see Earl and Littleboy (2014, 84-108).
  • 9 “The act of decision is the fusing of judgments of different kinds, and these judgments in effect a (...)

28Still, for Shackle, possibleness can be treated as a variable by defining the natural bounds of the entire possible and non-possible realms on the basis of some memory of previous sequels of events (what he calls the epistemic interval). They are made comparable because they reflect an emotion, the intensity of which allows a judgment of comparative possibleness. The emotion that responds to epistemic circumstances is the feeling of surprise (ibid., 5).8 Choice thus is both a matter of taste, of a comparison between desire and counter desire, and of possibleness, of the intensity of the feeling of surprise that is associated with the best hope and the worst threat offered by the skein of rival envisaged sequels (Shackle, 1979b, 26).9

2. Shackle on Time

29Shackle’s view of individual choice is strictly connected with his conception of time in economics and with his rejection of “the thesis of the predictability of the economic world” which he attacks because "it denies the humanity of man” (Shackle, 1958, 103). For Shackle the “predictability of the world’s future history implies predictability of decisions” but “the notion of decision as a creative departure from what has gone before … destroys the logical possibility of prediction”. Alternatively, Shackle adds, “we shall have to talk of the world as a machine and of human beings as passive components of it” (ibid., 104).

2.1 The Inside vs the Outside View of Time

30In his book Time in Economics (1958) and in the paper Time and Thought (1959) Shackle makes clear that in order to understand the nature of choice, time is essential and must be taken into account from the inside view of the individual chooser, when “we think, imagine and decide” under the “fleshly pressure” of the present (Shackle, 1959, 286). For the inside view of time is not commensurable with the past or with the future; it is a locus of sensations, thoughts and acts that take time and carry us into a different moment, like a wave, “which exists only by changing” (ibid., 287). The relationship of this moment with other moments of calendar time is mediated exclusively by the power of our mind to create images since, at the moment of deciding, there is no way for the individual to elaborate any actual and objective consequences of the decision being taken (Shackle, 1958, 19). Within this context the “distinction between rational and irrational conduct” becomes meaningless, since “there can never in the nature of things be any ground for saying that a man has chosen the wrong action-scheme” (ibid., 20).

31It is only from the viewpoint of the researchers taking the outside view of time, and here Shackle makes the example of historians and mathematicians, who are external observers of the succession of actions and consequence at different points of time, and who do not “place themselves in any specific moments of the system they are describing” that these different points on a timeline can be compared (Shackle, 1959, 286).

2.2 Economic Systems and Individual Choices

32We have now to address the implications of Shackle’s contrast between the inside and the outside view of time and the relevance of economic modeling when models are intended to predict future economic events considering that, as Shackle argues, “if decision involves essential novelty, prediction of human conduct is logically impossible.” (Shackle, 1958, 21).

  • 10 For an analysis of the various adjustment mechanisms of different pension systems under uncertainty (...)

33According to Shackle, the two notions of time reflect two parallel notions of economic dynamics, one “which purports to show us a structure embracing as its component parts a number of different actual moments”; and another “which seeks to show the internal structure of a single moment” (ibid., 24). This twofold conception of time can be well exemplified by the working of pension systems. If the aim of the researcher is to determine the main properties of a system, e.g. in terms of fairness and sustainability, this can actually be done by observing ‘from the outside’ the evolution through time of the relevant economic magnitudes. Think for example to the so called pay-as-you-go, defined-benefit system that promises all retirees to pay an annuity based on an announced rule, say a fraction of their last earnings when active. At the same time, this system needs, each year, to levy contributions out of workers’ salaries to finance pension disbursement, which implies the involvement of cohorts born in different periods of time.10

34Table 1 shows, in a two-overlapping-generations settings, the evolution across three consecutive time periods of contribution revenues and of pension expenditures, where c denotes the contribution rate, W the wage sum at time t growing at the constant rate g and k is the fraction of the wage sum earned by workers that the system promises to pay as pensions in their retirement period. Note that the deterministic assumption is here made that all workers active in a given period will be retirees in the following one.

35For an outside observer, such as the economist, willing to understand the dynamics of the magnitudes reported in Table 1, all periods must be given the same importance (e.g. to understand that contribution revenue and pension expenditure are both growing at the constant rate g and to identify the condition c = k / (1 + g) which is necessary for sustained financial solvency of the promise made to workers to pay a fraction k of their salary as pension when retired). However, it is clear that assuming the steady state growth of the number of contributors and the number of retirees rules out any role for individual choice.

36Understanding the working of a pension system, and in particular the conditions for its financial stability, in a context in which time is seen only from the viewpoint of the outside observer is clearly of the utmost importance. It is essential for the policy maker to identify the necessary measures to ensure the desired degrees of fairness and solvency of the system.

37The ability of economists to understand the working of pension systems has nothing to do, however, with their ability to predict future developments of actual revenues and expenditures. These depend not only on external factors, such as longevity or aggregate demand shocks but also, and primarily, on individual choices affecting fertility rates, workers’ labor force participation or firms’ decision as to the preferred age structure of their employees, all choices that respond to the Shackleian irreducible complexity analyzed in section 2.

38The possibility to analyze the functioning of a complex economic system, while giving up any ambition to model, deterministically, human behavior and its ‘micro’ components clearly clashes with the traditional approach that treats “as axiomatic the notion that the behaviour of the world can be described from the bottom upwards, in terms of aggregates” (Earl and Kay, 1985, 36). It perfectly fits instead with what it is done in other disciplines, where scholars approach the complexity of their systems without bothering about the unpredictable behaviour of its subcomponents: “[C]hemists do not have constantly to bear Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in mind, ecologists do not have to incorporate physio-chemical relations in their models, and a gravitational model of the solar system can safely ignore the complexity and variety of the natural world on earth” (ibid., 37).

39It is precisely by emancipating micro theory from the task of founding macro theory that Shackle paved the way to a thorough understanding of human choices, in a context in which individuals choosers should be considered as pathbreaking entrepreneurs (Bianchi, 1998; Nisticò, 2020).

40For Shackle, any attempt to substitute some modelling of expectations for the actuality of the moment will prove to be delusive, since “as the individual viewpoint advances … the relative vividness of the rival expectational pictures … of any action-scheme shifts repeatedly” (Shackle, 1959, 288). While explaining the properties of an economic system can be done by using Ockham’s razor in order to get rid of the irrelevant complexities, nothing of the sort can be imagined to predict individual choices, simply because there is no ‘correct’ choice to guess.

41Shackle provides a clear example of this sort of ‘relativity’ of individual choices seen from the inside view of time by making reference to a hypothetical ‘action-scheme’ chosen by an individual in period t0, with anticipated pleasures ‘located’ in t1 (think of the feeling of emancipation from work generated from retirement) and anticipated pains ‘located’ in t3 (for example the poor real value of the pension in late years). The choice taken in t0 implies—and here Shackle seems to endorse some sort of maximization or cost-benefit analysis—that at that date “the good anticipations outweighed the bad” (ibid., 289). But then Shackle asks, what are the likely feelings of the individuals in t2? Given that the pleasures ‘belong to memory’ and the only consequences still to be experienced of the action-scheme taken in t0 are forthcoming pains, it is likely that the individual regrets his decision. However, Shackle also raises a second question: “Which of these two views taken at different dates by the same man about the same act is just? I contend that this question is meaningless …. These two moments cannot, for the individual to whom alone the question could matter, be ‘in being’ together, the actuality of the one denies and excludes the actuality of the other and it is only by assuming ourselves to be observers outside the system under discussion … that we can make the question even seem to mean something” (ibid.).

  • 11 On the other hand, despite the unpredictable nature of “the free-willed originative decisions of in (...)

42The theorist, Shackle concludes, should therefore give up any attempt to predict human actions and be content with a description of decision making.11

  • 12 There is a recent instance of the delusive attempt at predicting by means of the micro-simulation m (...)

43The delusive outcomes Shackle refers to can, again, be appreciated with reference to pension systems. Think about the so-called dynamic microsimulation models aiming to predict, among other variables, the likely number of workers who will retire having reached the minimum legal requirements to quit the labour market. Needless to say that deciding whether it is the right time to retire requires a list of ‘expectations and anticipations’ about the new activities that retirement opens up for the individual as well as about the old ones that will no more be available. The weights of the various items included in the cost-benefit analysis, that the individual will have to perform in the actuality of the final decision can hardly be predicted by any intertemporal utility maximization model based on the elaborationbe it via Monte Carlo simulations or Markow chainsof the objective frequencies of change from the status of worker to that of retiree.12 In Shackle’s words “the dynamics whose concern is the internal structure of the individual’s solitary moment-in-being is … private and subjective” (ibid.). Nevertheless, understanding how people choose about their retirement plans, taking the inside view of time, is still a fascinating research agenda. It could pave the way to creative policies aiming at stimulating workers and firms to introduce those necessary changes in their routines that can promote labor force participation rates among the elderly; a universally recognized mean to foster financial solvency and pension adequacy in the face of population ageing.

2.3 The Nature of Decision When Time Matters

44According to Shackle, the rationality assumption, both under certainty and uncertainty makes sense only if time is seen as a mere succession of points along the calendar axis, i.e. as “no more than the rolling of a wheel along a road which constantly and fixedly exists in its entirety wherever the wheel is located” (Shackle, 1959, 290). Let us add that such a conception of time is also implied by the idea that each individual is endowed with a ‘definitive’ intertemporal utility function to be maximized, such that utility can be ‘neutrally’ moved along the calendar axis through a discount factor representing individual time preference, precisely as it is with money through borrowing and lending. In this Fisherian perspective, the equilibrium interest rate can be seen as the result of the interaction among the many individuals showing different rates of time preferences.

  • 13 On the pleasure of imagined anticipation of future pleasure, as well as on the apprehension generat (...)
  • 14 For an approach to anticipated pleasures and pains in line with Shackle’s view of anticipation, see (...)

45Shackle’s critique of this approach is radical in that he questions the very idea that voluntary postponement of consumption is necessarily detrimental to the individual’s present utility and that, therefore, it should somehow be compensated with a positive interest rate. By contrast, Shackle raises the point that the imaginative anticipation of a pleasure is a pleasure itself and so is the anticipation of the anticipation thus showing the weakness of the assumption that “an anticipated satisfaction is always less attractive the more distant the future date to which the actual satisfaction is assigned” (Shackle, 1958, 32)13. In fact, Shackle argues, it can easily happen “that in a rather complex manner the total intensity of an anticipational experience may conceivably be an increasing function of the length of time expected to elapse between the moment-in-being and the date of the anticipated event” as it is when “a large part of the pleasure of having a holiday in prospect is the feeling that we have a long time in which to look forward to it” (ibid., 32-33).14

46In both classical and neoclassical economics, choice has generally been considered as a tool by which individuals or firms exploit all existing gain or arbitrage opportunities. In the classical theory, firms (capitalists), the only effective choosers, change location to their capitals in search of the highest rate of profit, which levels profit rates across sectors and favors the gravitation of market prices around their natural counterpart. On the other hand, within neoclassical theory including consumers as choosers, the demand side of choice, paved the way to the proof that a general competitive equilibrium is characterized by Pareto optimality, an ‘image’ of the harmonizing power of the invisible hand to be contrasted with the classical, conflictual view of capitalism.

47These two competing economic theories, surely “marked by both apologetic attitudes and preconceived criticisms” (Nisticò and Tosato, 2002, 12) are the result of the two alternative ‘atemporal’ scans of the economy where individual choices can be seen as pieces of a puzzle whose image is predetermined and where the “final picture takes its character from the necessity of fitting the pieces together in just the one possible way” (Shackle, 1959, 290).

  • 15 For Shackle’s contributions to entrepreneurial decisions, see Batstone and Pheby (1996). Littlechil (...)

48When time matters, actual, creative choices must be taken into account. Economic history then becomes the interplay of decision makers “introducing a new strand into the tapestry as it is woven, as injecting into the dance and play of events something essentially new, something not implicit in what had gone before” (ibid.). In this perspective, individuals must be seen for what they are, as active, enterprising subjects, as Schumpeter thought of entrepreneurs alone, who make not only routine decision but also pathbreaking ones whose outcome is highly uncertain .15

49This approach requires, however, that economic choice be analyzed by considering time significantly, as it has been suggested by Georgescu Roegen (1983) with the editorship of the long-awaited English translation of Gossen’s (1983 [1854]) Laws of Human Relations and the Rules of Human Actions Derived Therefrom. Georgescu Roegen’s edition of Gossen’s book has indeed prompted a recent strand of literature that explores the implications for choice theory of taking into account the fact that human activities take time and that individuals are more concerned with answering the question “what shall I do” rather than “what shall I buy” (Steedman, 2001). On the one hand, Steedman (ibid.) has shown that many of the fundamental results of neoclassical theory of demand do not hold when time, together with income and wealth, is included among the individual’s constraints. On the other hand, another strand of research (Nisticò, 2014; 2015; 2017) has focused on the possibility of building a Bentham-like, non-axiomatic and path-dependent theory based on the idea that individual choices are prompted by expected pleasures and pains and cannot be reduced to a simple response to given needs in a timeless present. In Georgescu-Roegen’s words, “except in a very few instances in modern societies (such as the customer who drinks in a lounge) no individual decides, say, how much bread to buy while eating bread” (Georgescu-Roegen, 1983, lxxxi). The path paved by Georgescu-Roegen’s reappraisal of Gossen is indeed surprisingly close and complementary to Shackle’s research on choice as ‘mover’, as a creative act; a conception that frees economic choice theory from the chains of predictability and from the ambition to serve as foundation of an understanding of economic systems in terms of convergence to—or deviations from—a Pareto optimal general equilibrium.

3. Shackle as A Trespasser

50In the concluding remarks of the “Preface” to Decision, Order and Time in Human Affairs Shackle writes: “If the thesis of this book is in any degree acceptable, it follows that such a subject as economics must not be looked at as self-contained. Human nature and action as a whole is the proper object of study, and philosopher, psychologist, economist, and historian must work hand in hand”. (ibid., xi).

51And these are the final passages of his A Student Pilgrimage:

I think there are two kinds of economics. One of them aims at precision, rigour, tidiness and the formulation of principles which will be permanently valid: an economic science. The other is, if you like, rhetorical. This word is often used disparagingly, but that is a modern unscholarly abuse. The rhetorician employs reason and appeals to logic, but he is a user of language at full compass, where words are fingers touching the keyboards of a hearer’s mind. I do not believe that human affairs can be exhibited as the infallible and invariable working of a closed system (Shackle, 1988, 239).

  • 16 According to Knight, before efficiency can even be discussed, it is necessary to have a measure of (...)

52This view of economics as an open system in close relation to the other social disciplines echoes a view of another economist who was inspirational for Shackle, Frank Knight. For, Knight too saw economics as part of a larger dialogue with other social disciplines, notably for him, ethics and aesthetics (Knight, 1935b [1925]). And for Knight, as for Shackle, the problem of knowledge is pre-eminently a problem of understanding and discovery, a process of creating new values (Bianchi, 2018). People, in Knight’s view, do not rest content with the given, but keep striving for what they think is better for them. Life, in short, is fundamentally an exploration in the field of values and not, or not merely, a matter of producing fixed values (Knight, 1935a [1923], 43).16

  • 17 On this point, see also Loasby (2011, 773-774).

53Creating values, however, requires different views of possible futures and a knowledge of future consequences that is inevitably uncertain. Yet uncertainty is not something negative for Knight; without uncertainty, there would be no exploration, no discovery, no entrepreneurship. And, even more revealingly, there would be no pleasure since “a life with uncertainty eliminated ... would not appeal to us” (Knight, 1971[1921], 348). Shackle, on his side, equated such a life to “the reverse of hope, the opposite of freedom” (Shackle, 1966a, 133).17

  • 18 In the closing of his 1966 paper Policy, Poetry and Success Shackle uses one of his many felicitous (...)

54For both economists, then, choice rests on “unknowledge” and on the human ability to respond inventively and differently to it.18 A world with perfect knowledge not only would be a world without change and novelty, but also without excitement and hope. Yet in order to address and understand the complexity of this world of change, economics should not be alone, but rely also on the contributions of other social disciplines such as psychology and history, but also philosophy, ethics and aesthetics.

55If we look at the developments that some of these disciplines have been undergoing, we discover some findings that are surprisingly close and complementary to Shackle’s research.

3.1 The Psychology of Motivations

56The first of the literature to consider is the field of experimental psychology, where, at the same time of Shackle’s reflections, some researchers were also attempting to uncover the role that novelty and variety play in explaining and motivating behavior. We refer here in particular to the work of Daniel Berlyne, whose psychological experimental research dates back to the late 1940s and early 1950s and focused initially on the study of exploratory behavior and curiosity, to be expanded in the mid nineteen seventies to the study of aesthetic preferences (Berlyne and Madsen, 1973).

57The earliest findings of this research stressed the existence, both in animals and in humans, of forms of behavior that were pursued without any biological basis that would explain why they are chosen or should prove gratifying. Rather than a simple Pavlovian response to external stimulation, these forms of behavior proved to be the opposite, since stimulation was the result and not the cause of exploration (Berlyne, 1978, 120). The reason why exploratory behavior proved rewarding is because it provided exposure to novelty and change, to challenge and interest. Behavior in other words is not a reaction but an active choice, originative of change and novelty that are rewarding in themselves (Bianchi, 2016).

58Then, not only are human (and animal) actions undertaken “unaided by outside stimulus” (Shackle, 1959, 288), but also they have a strong hedonic component. Looking for novelty and variety, for surprise and complexity through exploratory behavior and curiosity is highly rewarding and to be deprived of this reward proves insufferable as the privation of the satisfaction of basic needs. The discovery that variables such as novelty, variety, surprise, but also ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty could be pleasurable as long as they are within bounds, neither too high or too low, was momentous. It changed the way we look at human motivations.

59Up to that point psychologists (and economists) were content to look at variables of proven hedonic value, such as the satisfaction of basic needs. Unexplained were all those activities and choices that did not have any antecedent of pain or bother in order to be undertaken, but that were originative, creative and rewarding in themselves. The discovery of those variables of change that Berlyne calls collative in order to underline their character of being at the crossroad between two conflicting stimuli, e.g. past and present experience as in the case of novelty, or the expected and the unexpected as in the case of surprise, provided a first answer as to what motivates this kind of actions. Not only then, Berlyne’s collative variables, like Shackle’s unknown, represent the crossroads of exploratory and creative choices and actions, but the imagination that is behind them has also, as Shackle and Knight had intuited, an emotional, hedonic dimension .

3.2 Narrative as the “Science” of the Possible

60A second strand of research that provides both a support and a broader compass to Shackle’s representation of choice is linked to the psychological studies of the mind, and in particular to those studies that see the working of the mind as congenial to a “narrative mode”.

  • 19 See in particular the work of Mary Morgan (2001; 2017) who explores the specificity of narrative’s (...)

61Today a host of new literature, coming from literary studies, psychology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, neuroscience and economics,19 is addressing the relevance, meaning and indispensable role that narratives play in everyday life. Within this new view humankind is re-conceptualized as homo narrans and narratives are seen as the medium through which humans make sense of their past and make forecasts about their future.

62Interestingly, Shackle was well aware and appreciative of this now expanding strand of thought. In the conclusion to his “Preface” to his Decision, Order and Time in Human Affairs (1961) that we have referred to above, Shackle mentions the benefits that his work had enjoyed from the exchanges and friendship with scholars of different disciplines. Among these, one stands out, psychologist Jerome Bruner, who may be considered among the most original of those scholars exploring the links between the processes of the mind and the structure of stories.

63Bruner (1986, 11) draws a distinction between two “modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality”. One is the logical-scientific mode that deals with general causes and uses procedures to assure verifiability and testable empirical truths. The other is the “narrative mode” that proceeds by way of storytelling and deals with the vicissitudes and consequences of human intentions and actions. Though complementary and equally important, they are distinct. Yet, Bruner observes, in contrast to our vast knowledge of the way logical and scientific reasoning proceeds, we know very little of what makes a story a story and of how stories compare to other forms of reasoning and of making sense of the world.

64In Bruner’s view, narrative and storytelling appear to be the means to shape imagination, to give sense and meaning to the possible, to discriminate among alternatives. By a creative exploration of alternative courses of actions, choices and consequences, storytelling provides a possible structure to the unknown and an access to different ways of experiencing and thinking.

65When facing choices that are complex, imply values, and call for interpretations and for the creation of alternatives it is through storytelling that the decision-making procedures can be explored and tested.

  • 20 Narrative may play a role also in informing collective behavior. In this respect particular mention (...)

66As in Shackle, so in this alternative view, people, when making decisions, do not await passively how things turn out, but actively intervene to affect the outcome. “Do we make history or we simply enact it? Do we speak parts written for us or spontaneously improvise them ourselves?”, asks Shackle (Shackle, 1984, 7). Only through a narrative discourse, can people make sense of their own ongoing experiences in ways that help them to envisage their future and actively manage it in the hope of realizing their preferences and values (Beach, 2010; Beach and Bissel, 2016).20

67Yet Bruner warns that “not every sequence of events recounted constitutes a narrative” (Bruner, 1991a, 11). Not every form of discourse is a narrative. Narrative for Bruner has two features. One is the feature, common to every form of discourse that responds to canonicity and has to obey the rules of language and the logical-causal connections that keep a story together (Bruner, 1991b, 70). But this feature is clearly not enough.

  • 21 “By ‘turning points’ I mean those episodes in which, as if to underline the power of the agent's in (...)

68For a narrative to be worth telling instead there must have been some breaches, violations or deviations from the canonical (Bruner, 1991a, 26). There must have been some precipitating events, some turning points that call for intentional agency and choice.21 It is precisely this “why tell” feature that distinguishes and gives significance to narratives (Bruner, 1991b, 71).

69As several scholars, following the path opened by Bruner, have emphasized, eventful events are branching points that happen only in a world of open time and alternative possibilities (Nünning and Sicks, 2012; Beach and Bissel, 2016), where more than one thing can happen at the next moments, and possibilities exceed actualities (Morson, 2003, 62). For narratives to be worthy there must be some indeterminacy and potential unpredictability since at least some events of a narrative should not be entirely derivable from previous events (Beatty, 2017, 35).

70But if this is the case, if a narrative is the ramifying of possibilities and not just the linear actual (ibid., 34), narrated events are open to surprise, novelty and suspense because something unexpected and contrary to the already experienced has been created. “No suspense, no narrative” says Morson (2003, 68).

71It is not difficult to recognize in the way narrative operates the features that characterize the world of genuine choices of Shackle, where choices are originative of outcomes not entirely implicit in antecedents and where the conventionality and flexibility of language mirrors the canonicity and breach that for Bruner characterize stories. Narrative features tell us also what the settings of genuine choices are, since decisions are needed when discrepancies, mismatches of interpretations and predictions of past and present experience appear and call for action.

  • 22 For a thorough discussions of these points, see Bianchi and Patalano (2017).

72Moreover, as in narrative so in choices, the uncertainty of the ramifying futures that provide for delays, anticipation and postponements, counterfactuals, as ifs (all those narrative devices for which good literature excels), have a motivational counterpart that is both cognitive and emotional (Bianchi, 2014a). They are part of the process, as Berlyne had stressed, of addressing the unknown, of stimulating exploration and curiosity, but also of providing the pleasure and rewards, the fear and agony that accompany choices and actions.22 Finally, it is also clear that the vicissitudes that accompany choices can only be addressed from the inside view of time that stories embrace. The same inside view that allows for identification and empathy and for an active participation in the choice process.

  • 23 Morson and Schapiro (2017) have discussed how the more culture, contingency, unpredictability of ev (...)

73If stories require unpredictability and the need to discover, where the choice of one path precludes the realization of another, so choices rely on stories as the mind tool to create meaning, to link the past with the present and to provide the continuity that allows us to make plausible guesses about the future consequences of our choices.23

4. Conclusions

74Choice for Shackle is “the focal, creative, psychic event where knowledge, thought, feeling and imagination are fused into action” (Shackle, 1962, 105). To unravel the analytical and practical consequences of this representation of choice, Shackle devoted all his work, a work that made him an outsider among mainstream economists (Shackle, 1983).

  • 24 For a discussion and answer to these two critiques see Latsis (2015).

75After an early academic success and attention from leading economists of the time (Earl and Littleboy, 2014), Shackle’s intellectual project, with its emphasis on creativity, uncertainty and unpredictability, was considered more and more alien to the concerns and policy ambitions of mainstream economics. Criticized both for nihilism and a substantial disinterest in the problem of social order, Shackle was relegated to the ranks of those interesting but odd figures who did not leave a workable economic analysis.24

76We have tried to argue, instead, that Shackle’s theory of choice continues to be of the utmost relevance for an economic theory that, while enquiring into the functioning of structured and complex economic systems, does not retreat from addressing the problem of their openness, inevitable when one considers change and creativity as two fundamental features of human life.

77And in his endeavor Shackle is no longer alone. As we have argued, in the recent developments of those approaches to choice when time matters, of theories of motivations and of self-rewarding actions, as well as of narrative as the “science’ of the possible, it is surprising to discover how Shackle’s anticipatory analysis finds new support and additional arguments in the direction of a cross-fertilization between economics and friendly disciplines.

A previous version of this paper has been presented at the Creativity and Motivations Research Center of the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio. We are highly indebted to the anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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1 In the concluding remarks of his Introduction to Imagination and the Nature of Choice, Shackle asks what relation his “heresies” bear to the received view of economics and makes explicit reference to Littlechild’s paper ‘From radical subjectivism to radical subversion’ as the definitive answer in regard to his work (Shackle, 1979a, ix).

2 For an appraisal of Shackle’s notion of potential surprise, see Zappia (2014) and Derbyshire (2017).

3 “If we knew in an exploitable degree what we should find we should not need to find it. If we do not know what we should find, how can say what it will be worth?” (Shackle, 1983, 8).

4 “If choice is real”, Lawson argues, “any agent could always have done otherwise; each agent could always have acted differently than he or she in fact did” (Lawson, 1997, 8).

5 On this point we refer to Lewis (2017), who extensively and persuasively discusses the creative role played by language in Shackle’s theory of choice.

6 And Shackle is a master of language. The way he bends, breaks and blends words, phrases and sentences is the way he alerts and provokes the reader with the innovativeness of his thoughts. As Ford (1993, 697) remarks, Shackle “believed passionately that economics was a subject whose substance had to be conveyed by language; the only flexible, versatile, means of expression.”

7 The implications and suggestions of a non-distributional uncertainty variable was addressed in his Expectation in Economics (Shackle, 1952 [1949]).

8 On Shackle’s notion of potential surprise, see Earl and Littleboy (2014, 84-108).

9 “The act of decision is the fusing of judgments of different kinds, and these judgments in effect are made all at once in that moment and have their mutually relevant existence in that moment. The chooser of action wishes to fix upon the best and worst imagined outcome of each action that are possible enough: the best that is possible enough to be worth hoping for, and the worst that is too possible to be dismissed” (Shackle, 1988, 5). For an analysis of the genesis of Shackle’s view as alternative to probabilistic thinking, see Earl (2018).

10 For an analysis of the various adjustment mechanisms of different pension systems under uncertainty about the evolution of the economic and demographic variables, see Nisticò (2019).

11 On the other hand, despite the unpredictable nature of “the free-willed originative decisions of individuals … a short-term predictive dynamics of the economy as a whole” is possible according to some sort of Hicks’s type sequence analysis since a decision “however ultimately momentous, will require some time to produce its visible effects, and … during this period of incubation … the economy’s affairs will be carried on according to pre-existing plans” (Shackle, 1958, 28).

12 There is a recent instance of the delusive attempt at predicting by means of the micro-simulation models. It is the case of the introduction of the so called ‘quota 100’ by the Italian Government according to which all workers with at least 38 years of service were allowed to retire at the age of 62. The various attempts to predict the number of Italian workers that would have taken the opportunity have failed to predict the actual figure.

13 On the pleasure of imagined anticipation of future pleasure, as well as on the apprehension generated by anticipated pains, see also Bentham’s A Table of the Springs of Action (Bentham, 1815-17 [1983], 89-91). On a discussion of Benham’s understanding of rationality, see Quinn (2016).

14 For an approach to anticipated pleasures and pains in line with Shackle’s view of anticipation, see Nisticò (2020).

15 For Shackle’s contributions to entrepreneurial decisions, see Batstone and Pheby (1996). Littlechild, in his paper stressing Shackle’s subversivism, draws a sharp distinction between Shackle’s view of entrepreneurship and Kirzner’s, for whom entrepreneurs exploited existing unexplored opportunities (Littlechild, 1979). On this point see also Shackle (1983).

16 According to Knight, before efficiency can even be discussed, it is necessary to have a measure of usefulness, of value; and this is particularly true in the case in which there is more than one form of usefulness of output, or a costly input (Knight, 1935a [1923], 43), as is the case, crucially, when entrepreneurial decisions are at stake.

17 On this point, see also Loasby (2011, 773-774).

18 In the closing of his 1966 paper Policy, Poetry and Success Shackle uses one of his many felicitous expressions: “We need the radial, as well as the axial, type of mind.” (Shackle, 1966b, 767).

19 See in particular the work of Mary Morgan (2001; 2017) who explores the specificity of narrative’s characteristics that could be relevant for scientific discourse and distinctively for the use of models in economics.

20 Narrative may play a role also in informing collective behavior. In this respect particular mention deserves the works of Akerlof and Shiller (2009) and Shiller (2019) who have analyzed the effects that narrative plays in shaping economic downturns. Their analysis, however, is far from the perspective proposed here. In fact, their purpose is not the exploration of the role of narrative in shaping the construction of choice and action but the attempt to provide a prediction of those forms of herding behavior that, by becoming viral through narratives, may lead to negative economic outcomes.

21 “By ‘turning points’ I mean those episodes in which, as if to underline the power of the agent's intentional states, the narrator attributes a crucial change or stance in the protagonist's story to a belief, a conviction, a thought.” (Bruner, 1991b, 73).

22 For a thorough discussions of these points, see Bianchi and Patalano (2017).

23 Morson and Schapiro (2017) have discussed how the more culture, contingency, unpredictability of events are the issues, the more narrative is needed. They have coined the term humanomics to label the field of an ongoing conversation between the humanities and economics.

24 For a discussion and answer to these two critiques see Latsis (2015).

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Marina Bianchi

University of Cassino and Southern Lazio, Creativity and Motivations Economic Research Center, Department of Economics and Law.

Sergio Nisticò

University of Cassino and Southern Lazio, Creativity and Motivations Economic Research Center, Department of Economics and Law.

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