Methodological Individualism and Holism. Two Views, One Purpose

Master's Thesis 2013 45 Pages

Philosophy - Theoretical (Realisation, Science, Logic, Language)



1.1 Two views - two categories
1.2 The thesis

2.1 Categorization of MI
2.2 The political consequences of MI
2.3 Adversaries of MI and their arguments
2.3.1 Karl Marx
2.3.2 Emile Durkheim
2.3.3 David Hillel Ruben
2.3.4 Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliot Sober
2.3.5 Niklas Luhmann
2.4 The atomist’s demand of MI
2.5 Feared risks of full acceptance of MI
2.6 A principal fault: the part-whole idea

3.1 Categorization of holism
3.2 The long-lasting Hegelian influence
3.3 Functional explanations
3.4 The survival of the belief in supra-individual powers
3.5 Arguments for, and risks of, holism

4.1 Systemism by Mario Bunge
4.2 Holistic individualism by Philip Pettit

5.1 The theory of supervenience
5.2 The deconstruction of the mind
5.3 The Intentional stance

6.1 How to synthesize?
6.2 Conclusion



This work deals with the philosophy of social explanation. The main topic is the supposed antagonism between methodological individualism and holism. After an overview and the outline of the thesis, the contents, strengths and weaknesses of methodical individualism and holism are explained. The necessity of considering cognitions and achievements of the philosophy of the mind in order to progress is shown. The conclusion amounts to a synthesis of methodological individualism and holism with the inclusion of the intentional stance as a suggestion for a more productive manner in which to explain and predict social phenomena.


Methodological individualism and holism deal with the investigation and explanation of social phenomena. Social phenomena are the result of human behaviour. This subject concerns not merely social sciences but also psychology and philosophy, mainly the philosophy of the mind and political philosophy. All individuals are exposed to a dichotomy: while being the only ones who know about the existence of their own minds, they have to assume that those other individuals around them have minds too, and that they are influenced by and depends on them to a greater or lesser degree. The behaviour of these ‘others’ appears as individual behaviour and as behaviour of collectives. The first is the subject of psychology; the latter is the field of sociology. The realm of philosophy covers both topics. However, there is no clear dividing line. ‘Social theory continues to be about the functioning of social systems of behaviour, but empirical research is often concerned with explaining individual behaviour.’ (Coleman 1990: 1) The philosophical fields primarily concerned are political philosophy and the philosophy of mind.

1.1 Two views - two categories

There are basically two viewpoints from which explanations of social phenomena could be investigated:: the view from the ‘top’, which is called the ‘macro ‘level view or the view from the ‘bottom’, the so-called ‘micro ‘level view. From the ‘top’ means to observe, analyse and predict social phenomena as a whole without regard to the influence of individuals. The other view, called methodological individualism ‘… is a doctrine about explanation which asserts that all attempts to explain social (or individual) phenomena are to be rejected (or, according to a current, more sophisticated version, rejected as “rock-bottom” explanations) unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals’ (Lukes 1973: 110).

Two examples may highlight the difference: believing in a theory which claims that wars break out as a result of economic crises I would say yes, World War II broke out as the aftermath of the 1929 Great Depression. This is an explanation from the top which can be true or false, but certainly not complete. The role of the acting individuals is not considered here. If I believe in a theory which claims that wars are the result of the convictions and decisions of individuals, then I could claim that Adolf Hitler’s specific approach to political and economic problems corresponded with the beliefs and desires of many of his contemporaries and turned them into followers. This is an explanation from the ‘bottom’, considering the involved and acting individuals. This explanation too is far from dealing satisfactorily with the reasons for World War II. These examples already show that there is an inevitable connection between the two levels in order to explain a complex social event. Therefore, a third option ought to be pursued by considering both aspects. This I will show in my conclusion in section 6.2. Explanations from the macro level ought to be used in order to confirm the results achieved by the research on the micro level and/or to build models of supposed patterns of human behaviour. The previously mentioned two theories about assumed causes of World War II differ in an important respect: the first theory is only partially true because there have been economic crises which did not cause wars. The second theory is simply true because somebody must decide to declare war and order mobilization but it is not satisfactory. However, the economic crisis as merely one example played an important role in the reason for, and the triggering of, the war and has to be considered. Moreover, neither the first nor the second theory allows the predicting of social events. There are many influential forces at work. At present there are economic crises underway in Greece, Spain, and some other European countries. The reactions of the people concerned vary, depending upon the explanations and recommended remedies proposed by the respective governments. However, it could be predicted that an economic crisis will in any event lead to social tensions, sooner or later, while the degree of those tensions is not predictable. The second theory too does not allow prediction of social phenomena because individual beliefs, plans and decisions can be crossed by beliefs, plans and decisions of others. If one of the many intended assassination attempts against Hitler had not failed, history would have possibly taken another direction. Hitler was certainly one of the causes of World War II - but only one among many others. If Hitler had been born a generation earlier or later, his influence on world politics may well have been negligible. That specific aspect is the main problem social sciences are permanently confronted with: social phenomena are largely unforeseeable and explainable only after they took place. Therefore, theories developed by social scientists have to be regarded as models, designed with the intention and the obligation to adapt them permanently in order to approach a higher degree of validity of prognoses.

The ‘macro ‘view uses ‘functional explanations’, a specific type of explanation, which is not satisfying either, and which I will investigate in Section 3.3. In order to locate methodological individualism (hereafter MI) among its various competing views it may be helpful to run the gamut from the one extreme end position of radical holism, to the other of atomism. Anti-reductionism can be located somewhere in the middle of the gamut because its position acknowledges the explanation of social phenomena by micro level accounts but also allows the irreducibility of macro level explanations to micro-level explanations.

1.2 The thesis

MI’s ontological truth is evident and important; however its methodology does not sufficiently explain and allow valid predictions of social events. While the methodology of both views - MI and holism - can easily be combined, at first glance the ontology seems to resist any reconciliation. What has to be considered is their categorical difference: MI deals with concrete individuals while holism deals mainly with mental constructions, based on estimated models. In order to predict the behaviour of groups, institutions and collectives in general - except mob and mass events - as well as individuals, we have to adopt the intentional stance (see Section 5.3). Institutions consist of individuals with beliefs and desires. Institutions have no intentionality themselves. Individuals support them and act for them. Therefore, the philosophy of the mind has to be considered. If we figure out what the content and the congruency of their beliefs and desires are, we have good prospects of predicting what the institution will do. The ontological difference between holism and MI can be merged in a way that their valuable claims are unified in a new ontology (see 6.1). A synthesis of both views and the adoption of the intentional stance would contribute to our progress in cognition. The ‘intentional stance’ is a theory developed by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Its application as a strategy in our daily interaction is supposed to allow predictions with a relatively high degree of accuracy. I will explain plainly the intentional stance in Section 5.3. Thus, the work at issue is focused on three areas: MI, holism and the intentional stance.

The notion of ‘intentionality’ plays an important role in this constellation. Intentionality means those states of mind which are ‘about’ things or represent them (Honderich 2005: 338). Only mental states - hopes, beliefs, desires, and so on - are intentional and are called ‘intentional states’. Therefore, human beings are intentional subjects and species of agents (Pettit 1993: 10). But not only human beings; higher mammals and ‘thinking’ machines like robots can be numbered among intentional subjects too. The investigation of social phenomena cannot bypass the notion of intentionality without running the risk of speculation. Social phenomena are eventually caused by the intentional properties of individuals. Therefore, a synthesis of both views and the adoption of the intentional stance would contribute to our progress in cognition about social phenomena.


2.1 Categorization of MI

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes MI: ‘This doctrine was introduced as a methodological precept for the social sciences by Max Weber, most importantly in the first chapter of Economy and Society (1968 [1922]). It amounts to the claim that social phenomena must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. ‘(Heath 2011: 1)

MI has to be located totally opposite to the holistic position and near to, and in large parts congruent with, the atomistic positions. Methodological individualists share with the atomists the conviction that the micro level is the only one to investigate and to explain social phenomena. But methodological individualists recognize the interpersonal relations, while atomists do not. Atomists classify these relations as individually inherent patterns of behaviour and reactions and not as a separate entity between individuals. At first glance this contradicts our daily experience. We take our relations with our friends, colleagues, and relatives as really existing ‘between’ us, something we share with others. I believe that the girlfriend I fell in love with shares that ‘love’ with me. The atomist would say that there is nothing ‘between’ us, but that we both merely have corresponding mental states. Our love consists of a bundle of reciprocal beliefs. The relation does not exist between us. In other words: interpersonal relations merely exist in the heads of the individuals concerned. This view is consistent with the materialistic alignment of atomism.

MI claims that all social phenomena have to be explained in terms of facts about individuals. All other explanations must be rejected. Institutions consist of individuals and their relations. They function through the activities of individuals and not through those of ‘collectives’. Opposite views to MI are holism and atomism which will be discussed in Chapter 3, Section 2.4 respectively.

The ontological claim of MI can be summarized in three sentences:

(1) Society consists of human individuals; ‘society’ is merely conceptual, not concrete.
(2) ‘Society’, ‘state’ and other supra-individual entities are ‘person-independent’ properties assigned to these institutions, properties of those individuals constituting the institution.
(3) Institutions cannot act by themselves; if they become politically, economically or culturally active, this is the sum of the activity (or pressure) applied by each member of the institution.

2.2 The political consequences of MI

The metaphysical claim of MI has no political content. The economist Joseph A. Schumpeter assures:

‘We have already seen that it does not contain any demand or any moral or other judgement of various organizational forms of social economics and therefore cannot be hit with opposition in this category; we also see that it does not say anything about what determines people’s actions.’ (Schumpeter[1908]2010: 61)

Nevertheless, the issue of MI has political relevance. In spite of its non-political, purely metaphysical claim, it is obvious that MI underpins the political idea of Liberalism. The central demand of liberalism is individual freedom of the person in any human society. The state has to align its political and economic order to this demand. Liberalism stands in opposition to totalitarianism and is often seen as a pre-requisite for democracy. Liberalism does not reject the state as does anarchism, but accepts the state as the guarantor of private property and freedom. Collectivism’s highest priority is the welfare of the collective. Intentions and interests of the individual are subordinated to those of the group.

Some philosophers interpreted MI as a counterweight to Marxism which dominated the sociological discourse for decades up to 1990. The dominance of Marxism shrank with the crash of the most important bastion of Marxism, the Soviet Union. MI, due to its emphasis on the micro level view, is assigned to a normative commitment which is expressed in its political consequence, namely liberalism. It is remarkable that the political right - conservatism - as well as the political left - Marxism - in general are united in their hostility to liberalism, the political consequence of MI.

Nevertheless, there are Marxist philosophers who endorse MI as an included feature of Marxism. One such philosopher is Jon Elster. He identifies elements in the work of Marx which correspond with MI. He refers to the German Ideology and claims ‘…that Marx was committed to methodological individualism, at least intermittently.’ (Elster 1999: 7) Indeed, in that work, which was not intended to be published by Marx and Engels, a large part was devoted to the refutation of the philosophy of the most radical individualist Max Stirner (1806-1856). Marx evidently adopted some individualistic ideas in order to collateralize his communitarian theory (ibid: 88). Jon Elster will be discussed in Section 3.3 within the context of the analysis of functional explanations.

2.3 Adversaries of MI and their arguments

MI has strong defenders, e.g. Karl Popper, Friedrich A. Hayek, J. W. N. Watkins and H. J. Eysenck; and equally potent and numerous adversaries, e.g. Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, David-Hillel Ruben, Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliott Sober (hereafter ‘Wright et al.), and Niklas Luhmann. The way we explain social phenomena has enormous political consequences. In general, the communitarian faction, especially Marxists, tend - according to their inherent Hegelian tradition - to interpret and explain social phenomena from the macro level (see 3.2).

2.3.1 Karl Marx

Marxism as a political and economic philosophy dominated discourse throughout the 20th century. The loss of its importance came about with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. An important aspect of Marxism is the doctrine of historical materialism. This doctrine tries to predict the future development of society. Marxists subscribe to an explanatory approach of social phenomena by investigating and explaining social events and processes. ‘Marxist explanations emphasize the ‘need of the system’, the actions of social collectives, and structural constraints on action.’ (Jon Pike 2005: 17) Karl Marx and his supporter Friedrich Engels seem to have had some kind of a ‘reflex’ against individualism. This aversion may be rooted in their personal history and the conflict with their ideological antagonist Max Stirner (see 3.2). In their work, Die Deutsche Ideologie (The German Ideology) which they did not intended to publish, they devoted two thirds of the entire text in an attempt to contradict and ridicule him.

2.3.2 Emile Durkheim

Durkheim’s work too is based on a holistic and communitarian position and therefore stands in decided opposition to MI. Durkheim was steeped in the concept of creating a science of objective social facts outside the individual (Durkheim 1982:129).

‘Here; then, is a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.’ (Durkheim 1982: 52)

Durkheim was convinced that a ‘new species’ (ibid) is at work here; a species which does not exist in the individual’s mind. Its substratum is the society and its institutions. For Durkheim, social facts are detached from the individual as substratum. Society is another species above the individual which it controls and whose actions it steers.

This view can be interpreted as a totalitarian one. It means that the criminal individual is condemned and punished by an institution above the individual judge and the individual executioner. The institution is allowed to do what the individual is not allowed to do, for instance to print money and to punish individuals. The institution exists beyond responsibility. The judge sentences the revolutionary in the name of justice. After a revolution has taken place, it will be the former judge who will be called to account, not the institution. The institution will continue to exist, new judges will be appointed, who believe in a new ideology until the next political change, and so on.

Durkheim’s claim that manners of acting should be seen as external to the individual is not easy to follow. Durkheim admits that social facts come into being by the interaction of individuals. However, he claims that this synthesis takes place outside of those individuals. Durkheim owes us an explanation of how the manners of acting can be detached from the individual.

To postulate a ‘new species’ without any material evidence seems to be a bold project. Impressions from daily political events and incidents, however, tend to confirm Durkheim’s claim. Demonstrations, pogroms, vandalism and so on point to the cognition, that people act and react differently in groups as compared to being alone. This is a well- known fact which methodological individualists also accept. There is no ‘group-spirit’ above the group at work. Psychologists may explain this kind of phenomenon by our inherent urge to imitate which is evidently boosted in collectives. This fact does not contradict MI. Pogroms are typical examples of how individuals can get carried away and do harm which they would not do alone and which they are ashamed about afterwards. A similar phenomenon can be experienced when football fans attack fans from the opposing team and/or destroy the furniture of the stadium. But Durkheim does not accept any psychological explanation. The reason for this denial lies in his conviction that social facts differ in quality from psychological facts because they evolve in another environment and have another substratum. (Durkheim 1982: 40)

The weakness of Durkheim’s concept lies in the complete lack of explanation for phenomena on the micro level. But Durkheim’s aim was to establish sociology as an independent science as Steven Lukes explains in the introduction of Durkheim’s major work, The Rules of Sociological Method. (Durkheim 1982: 2) His strategy evidently was to deny competing views rather than integrate them. This was not only true for MI, but also for any psychological explanations of social phenomena. He claimed all these kinds of explanation were decidedly false. (ibid: 129) Hegel is not mentioned in Durkheim’s major work, yet it carries unmistakably Hegel’s trademark (see 3.2).

2.3.3 David Hillel Ruben

D.H. Ruben claims that explanations on the macro level are irreducible to explanations on the micro level. Individuals believe in social facts such as government, parliament and so on. These institutions cannot be explained by those individual beliefs. If we can explain an action by a belief in a social fact, for instance government, then this social fact is an irreducible explanation of that action, according to Ruben. An example: if a citizen wants to change a law he will write to his MP (Member of Parliament), believing that this is the way to initiate a change. This belief in the institution of parliament is not reducible, according to Ruben. The citizen’s belief refers to a social fact - the parliament - which is not reducible to lower-level processes.

‘It seems obvious that if social relations were to be included, the doctrine of MI would be incapable of giving any sense whatever to the idea of the explanatory priority of the non-social over the social.’ (Ruben 1985:150)

There are true social facts, for instance parliament, and there are individuals who believe in the truth of those facts and act according to their beliefs. Then these beliefs explain the action, and the social facts are an irreducible explanation of the action. ‘First, we need facts of one kind which can explain facts of another kind. Second, facts of the first kind must have no facts of the second kind among their explanansentities or explanatory ancestors | (ibid: 172)

Although the notion of ‘ supervenience ’ will be discussed in Section 5.1, it might be helpful to pre-draw some aspect within this context. The term ‘supervenience’ is generally used to describe a non-reductive theory of mind. It means that mental properties depend on physical properties but cannot be reduced to them. ‘One set of properties is supervenient on a second set of properties when they are so related that there could not be a difference in the first without there being a difference in the second, though there could be a difference in the second with no difference in the first.’ (Honderich 2005: 903) Transferred to Ruben’s claim the supervenience principle would mean that the ‘social’ depends on the ‘non-social’ but cannot be reduced to it. Therefore the ‘social’ is supervenient on the ‘non-social’. However, the supervenience concept describes rather than solves the problem. It does not really answer the question of why a theory is non-reductive. The notion of ‘supervenience’ also plays a role in the concept of ‘Types and Tokens’ which is the topic of the following paragraph.

2.3.4 Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliot Sober

Wright et al. introduced the concept of ’Types and Tokens’ in order to clarify the terms of ‘micro level explanations’ and ‘macro level explanations’. Types are general categories which subsume ‘tokens’ which are particular or individual entities. Two examples may be helpful: The Union Jack is a ‘type’ of which there are countless ‘tokens, e.g. on T-shirts, flags, caps, stickers and so on. The type ‘motorbike’ could be defined as a two-wheel vehicle suited to carrying and moving two people. Many different tokens exist under this type - various brands, with various constructions and different appearances. Nevertheless, they all can easily be subsumed under the type ‘motorbike’.

Methodological individualists merely deal with tokens. However, this will not help, according to Wright et al. in the case of supervenient properties and relations. For instance, ‘mental states are supervenient to brain states. […] For any kind of mental state - for example, the belief that snow is white, the intention to buy a chocolate bar, the feeling of pain - there are in principle many, perhaps infinitely many, physical states that could realize the mental state in question’ (Wright et al 1987: 63) Therefore they see ‘… the reason, why methodological individualism fails is because science has projects at stake beyond the explanation of token events.’ (ibid) As an example for such a ‘project at stake’ they present the term ‘fitness’ for the features of the ability to survive, being used in biology as well as in the economy as a type. The properties responsible for the survival of species A are different from those granting the survival of species B. And those granting the survival of species C are neither those of A nor those of B. It is neither a single property nor a group of properties which are responsible for survival.

A similarity exists for the survival of a company in the market. There are different decisions made by different managements which decide the survival of the enterprise. The same decision at a specific time and/or market situation can be a success and at another time and/or market situation a failure. Therefore there is no consistency among the tokens which constitute the type ‘fitness’. ‘Fitness’ is unsuitable as a type therefore and cannot be reduced to token. In the case of the definition of the type ‘motorbike’ I could say: What about bikes with a sidecar and therefore have three wheels? And where do ‘quads’, those bikes with four wheels, belong? Do they belong to another type?

Therefore, many macro-level phenomena like ‘unemployment’, ‘capitalism’

‘economic boom’, cannot be reduced to specific micro-level facts because many countless different micro-level facts can be the cause of the macro-level phenomena at stake. Hence, MI is false according to Wright et al .

From the MI viewpoint this conclusion is not satisfying. The fact that there are various micro-level causes of social phenomena with the same name does not disprove that there are always individuals who are the cause. It merely shows that there are terms for phenomena that are not appropriate. The phenomenon ‘unemployment’ for instance should rather be differentiated into ‘unemployment type A’, ‘unemployment type B’ and so on, according to their causes.

A nominalist (see 3.3) could say that types are ‘universals’ and therefore do not exist. However, this is not true in some cases. Reductionists believe that scientific valid results have to be achieved by reducing the more complex - matter, data or circumstances - to the less complex, and therefore categorise the achieved minute parts under types. Examples are genes and chemicals which are categorised in types and really exist as matter. Many examples of the irreducibility of terms - which are defined as types - are convincing. There are many supervenient terms which are superior to their micro- realizations. The type/token-concept is practical and intelligible, but nevertheless an arbitrary abstraction. Tokens are evident concrete objects, processes or properties which really exist in space and time. The type/token concept is an unstable but nevertheless practical model. But neither does it disprove the methodical individualist’s claim.

2.3.5 Niklas Luhmann

Luhmann’s view corresponds with Durkheim s to a considerable degree. Luhmann also has a holistic concept which excludes individual actors. It is always the ‘system’ which ‘reacts’, ‘answers’, ‘hits back’ and so on.

‘We are dealing with social, not psychic systems. We assume that social systems are not composed of psychic systems, let alone of bodily human beings. […] Therefore it is in principle false to assume that individuals are better, or at least more directly observable, than social systems.’ (Luhmann 1984: 255-256)

In Luhmann’s concept the ‘systems’ are ‘self-referential’. This means that social systems build relations with themselves, comparable with the relations built by technical systems like computers which are able to connect themselves with other computers and ‘decide’ specific tasks independently of the user. Luhmann, however, certainly did not have those technologies in mind. His work dates back to 1984. Of course, Luhmann also knew that the ‘reaction of the system’ is finally made by individuals. But he evidently did not want to consider them in his theory. He wanted to distinguish social systems from psychic systems.



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Title: Methodological Individualism and Holism. Two Views, One Purpose