The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination

A team of thinkers roll up their sleeves and tackle the things we've left undone. Les Gofton looks on

July 29, 2010

What were the odds, I pondered, as I sat down to peruse a set of papers by a gathering of philosophers, economists, psychologists and the odd renegade sociologist and public planner - on the topic of procrastination, for goodness' sake - that I would suddenly find myself faced with the vision of Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander rummaging through the nation's bottom drawer? In Bill Hicks' phrase, "Who'da thunk it?"

Yet of course this topic (procrastination, the irrational avoidance of action in pursuit of future welfare benefits) has risen, like the scraps on a sinkful of dinner plates, to the surface of the British, and also the world's, political agenda over the past five years. And poor Danny suddenly finds himself bobbing around in the British section of this detritus through little fault of his own.

The topic, and indeed the title of this book, seems unlikely to threaten J.K. Rowling and Jordan at the top of the best-seller lists. Yet it is in some ways a response to a movement, and related books, that have made inroads there; the works growing out of the behavioural economics pioneered by Nobel laureate Gary Becker - books such as Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and its sequel Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, and peripherally the ruminations of Malcolm Gladwell on the connections between behaviour, choices and outcomes. This book uncovers in a most effective way the debates in philosophy, economics, politics and the other social sciences that lie behind these attempts to bridge the gap between the discourses of the academy and hoi polloi.

Like all other gnomic philosophical slogans, "Procrastination is the thief of time" from Edward Young's 18th-century poem Night-Thoughts isn't quite all he has to say on this issue; a few lines later, he advises "Be wise today; 'tis madness to defer". The real issue, of course, is how to be wise. It is this that occupies many of the contributors to this volume.

It is not an easy read, but it is worth it. The basic issue is: why do we irrationally refuse to make decisions essential to our long-term welfare? This promptly draws from the undergrowth specialists brandishing theses on rationality, ethics, the psychology of decision-making and much else. The definition of procrastination is itself such a conjunction of controversial and complex ideas as to give Wittgenstein's ghost a small nightmare.

Inevitably there is, in some cases, the sense that the language of the specialists is leading us into areas unlikely to be rendered accessible even to the average graduate on the Clapham omnibus. But it does open up fascinating possibilities for better understanding our situation, and recognising a few extra dangers that we may be able to deal with more easily than the environment and the economy tout court.

The contributors range across a broad set of issues with good accounts of the specialised debates within their specialist areas. Philosophers and economists of various stamp predominate, although there are also contributions from psychology, sociology and legal specialists.

Is procrastination irrational? The classic issues here would include self-harm satisfactions such as cigarettes and alcohol. The authors of Nudge and some politicians concerned with our economy would extend this to include saving for retirement, alongside a whole raft of measures to remove the burden of care and management from the state to the individual.

George Ainslie's opening paper offers a lucid, accessible introduction to the relevance of the concept. This "basic impulse" to defer necessary action, he argues, is the warp in the way we see the future. Key writing by the volume's co-editor Chrisoula Andreou and others argues that the procrastination that often results from this is necessarily irrational: for some a weakness of will and a particular kind of rational failing, for others a vice - as Sergio Tenenbaum argues, "a specific failure of instrumental rationality".

In a key contribution, Duncan MacIntosh confronts the issue of the rationality, and also the ethical status, of procrastination. The intransitivity of preferences and their vagueness, as the ground for characterising procrastination as irrational vice, are effectively dispatched.

Although much of this is a debate among specialists, it is clear that philosophers, economists and other social scientists are, as one contributor says, in a symbiotic relationship, sparking and informing cross-disciplinary debates and research. In a world badly in need of directions for the future, clarity and sharp analysis can only be of benefit. These are issues for the citizen, and not just the specialist.

As these debates illustrate, hyperbolic discounting may well be a universal tendency, and a severe impediment to necessary actions towards the future welfare of society. But it is neither irrational nor vice; the case for what actions need to be taken, when and how, will always revolve around the moral framework and values that a society accepts as its own, as "natural". As our present politics illustrates, if we are unable to choose or find an acceptable solution, or agree what these are, we may find ourselves with an outcome that no one wanted.

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination

Edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White

Oxford University Press 314pp, £40.00

ISBN 9780195376685

Published 29 April 2010

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