Emergent Systems and Methodological Individualism, Part I: A false dichotomy

Posted on February 17, 2011 by


Classical liberals with whom I have discussed these issues often appear to have a peculiarly strong emotional commitment to methodological individualism, the idea that all social phenomena can be reduced to the actions of individuals. I once shared this view, but without the emotional commitment. When I finally left it behind I became intrigued as to why this commitment was so strong. I think that it rests n two mistaken beliefs, first that collectivism is the alternative explanatory principle to methodological individualism and second, that there is some kind if connection between individual freedom and methodological individualism. Both of these views are wrong, and when we see why they are wrong the case for methodological individualism should rapidly wither among classical liberals. If so, it will be about time.
When I first began reading Austrian economic theory some of their greatest thinkers, such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, were deeply engaged in an intellectual battle with Marxism. Marxism was not the only anti-liberal collectivist ideology, but it was the most developed and had the most intellectual coherence. Among its other weaknesses, Marxism attempted to reduce social phenomena to class consciousness and conflict between the dominant controlling and producing classes within a society. All else was mere “superstructure.” In the Marxist framework the collectivist concept of class served as both a foundational scientific concept and the idea of class conflict carried such powerful moral weight, that individuals could be easily and justifiably sacrificed to “class interests.”
Mises’ and others’ criticisms were telling ones, but along the way a false dichotomy arose: economic theory was based either on methodological individualism or collectivism of one sort or another. Setting aside the many problems with collectivism, methodological individualism created a falsely linear model of human action: society sprung from the planned and unplanned consequences of human action. This appeared to be obvious. Absent human beings acting, there would be no society.
But the model was seriously incomplete. To give one example of issues it could not handle, In vol. I of Law, Legislation and Liberty F. A. Hayek writes “man became man and developed reason and language while living for something like a million years in groups held together by common rules of conduct, and . . . one of the first uses of reason and language must have been to teach and enforce those established rules.” (74) Hayek argued that human rationality was the result of the rise of certain kinds of small groups in which rational thinking in the modern sense ultimately developed. In the process of making this and similar cases Hayek shifted from positions harmonious with methodological individualism to a more complex model of humans-in-society.
A society in which human rationality arose could not itself be the result of human action in a methodological individualist sense of the term, since they preceded human beings. Something more interesting was going on. In The Social Construction of Reality Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann identify what that something probably is.
Human beings always exist in contexts that are both the results of their actions and the causes of them. Causality is not linear, and understanding a society or those acting within it requires taking a systemic perspective, as Hayek did in his concept of spontaneous orders.
As Berger and Luckmann put it “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product. . . . An analysis that leaves out any one of these three moments will be distortive. . . . only with the transmission of the social world to a new generation (that is, internalization as effectuated by socialization) does the fundamental social dialectic appear in its totality.” (61)
In other words, no single one of these statements is foundational. There is no basic unit of analysis. The first “moment” is what we call methodological individualism: human society is created and maintained by human action. The second is more unfamiliar, but hardly controversial once we examine it. From infancy the newborn encounters a socially mediated reality. As the concept “mother” takes on ever more meaning it is simply taken for granted that this is what mothers are. Only late in the socialization process does the child begin to understand the physically “objective” biological meaning of the term, and in fact many mothers do not have that quality, such as adoptive mothers. But regardless of their biological status, the initial meaning of his or her mother appears to the child as taken for granted, as “objective” as the meaning of ‘dog’, ‘rock’, or ‘bed’.
Socialization is the process by which newborns become fully-fledged members of their society, and they do so by learning how members of that society make sense of things. Their consciousness then reflects that social world of meanings within which they live as surely as they live within a physical world.
Later the perceptive child will notice places where these initially taken for granted meanings sometimes do not fit together seamlessly, and begins to question some of them. But the child always does so from within the larger context of taken for granted meanings within which it was raised. There is no place outside of socialization where the child can stand and evaluate the social world it has learned all at once. Adults might become more sophisticated in their questioning (though often they do not), but no matter how sophisticated their questions they always do so within a larger context that is taken for granted. (This is one of the arguments against the project of completely redesigning society.)
So the social framework within which we live will always be encountered as an objective reality: it is what it is, independent of our attitudes. We can always question some part of it, as a scientist can question some part of current scientific knowledge about the world, but always while taking other elements of science for granted. The social world we encounter is no more our creation than is the physical world. Rather, both exist independently from us and go to make us who we are.
This leads to Berger and Luckmann’s third ‘moment:’ “Man is a social product.” Any given individual reflects and is decisively shaped by the society in which he or she grew up. The same baby adopted by a traditional Tibetan Buddhist family will grow u to be a different person than if adopted by a Fundamentalist Christian American family or a Santeria practicing Cuban one, let alone if they were taken back in time and adopted into a tenth century Anasazi one.
This kind of  “social creation” is not collectivism although collectivities go into making us who we are. I am shaped and molded by a number of collectivities over which I have little reciprocal influence, at least at first: my family, my country, my religious community, my social and economic status, and my language, to name a few. That is why we can make intelligent distinctions between an early 21st century middle class white American male and a 18th century French nobleman. But neither 21st century American men nor 18th century male French aristocrats are completely interchangeable, and distinctions within these classes can be as profound as those between them. We ate not reducing individuality to a collective, rather each individual unites a great many influences into a consciousness gestalt that is unique in time and place in part at least because of the different social influences that have gone into molding his or her character.
Berger and Luckmann’s perspective preserves the valid insights arising from methodological individualism while incorporating them into a far richer appreciation of what it is to be a human being. In the process that ways in which methodological individualist insights can deepen our appreciation of society and how it functions is expanded immensely, but relativized. They are more useful for investigating some social issues than they are for investigating others. An adequate understanding of human beings in society, and of society itself, must incorporate all three “moments.”
Moving beyond methodological individualism is one of Hayek’s most important contributions to the classical liberal tradition. He saw the market as operating through impersonal feedback through prices that were independent of any particular actions. In doing so it was a system within which individuals could act to pursue their own ends, and in the process influence the feedback signals the market provided to society as a whole.. But to do so they had t adapt to a market system as independent from their intentions as an ecosystem.
This ends part I. of my critique of methodological individualism. I will be grateful for critical comments as well as hopeful for praise.

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