This is a book about the reasons we give and the reason we give them; a book about our behaviour rather than the mysteries of human existence or technology or the universe. For Charles Tilly, people give reasons not 'because of some universal craving for truth or coherence' but because they want to confirm, negotiate or repair their relationships. The whole business of giving reasons for what we do and for what happens is basically a pretext for another get-together. It's not that we don't know what we and the world are really like that troubles us but our sociability. Getting on rather than getting it right is what matters, and getting it right - giving accurate accounts - is one of the best things we have come up with to do together. 'Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons,' Tilly writes in this persuasive book, 'people are clearly negotiating their social lives. They are saying something about relations between themselves and those who hear their reasons.' Having acknowledged the 'whatever else they are doing', a nod to the more philosophically or psychologically-minded reader, Tilly can go his own way through the perplexing forms our reasons tend to take. His way is sociological, which means in this case a good mixture of the anecdotal and the schematic; there are riveting stories by survivors of 9/11, people who have been told by doctors that they have cancer, jilted lovers, and scientists interested in the ecology of common land, and rather less riveting but clearly useful attempts to formulate and formalise what Tilly calls 'the relational side of reason-giving'.
LRB 25 May 2006 | PDF Download