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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Late Scholastics and Methodological Individualism

In response to a post of mine at Think Markets, Gerry O'Driscoll contended, "[Methodological individualism] goes back to the Spanish Scholastics at least."

Well, some people tend to classify any thinker who thinks individuals are real and of concern to social science as a "methodological individualist." But the absurdity of the position can be seen by actually looking at what the Spanish Scholastics thought, such as Francisco Suárez:

"But since the same moral characteristics are possessed by all men in common, it is equally possible to think of the state of nature not as a community of individuals, but rather as 'a single mystical body' in which all members recognize the same obligations, follow the same rules, and are thus 'capable of being regarded, from the moral point of view, as a single unified whole.' It is Suárez's essential contention that once we think of men in their natural condition in this alternative way, there is no difficulty about conceiving them as having the power to act with a single unified will to set up the legitimate authority of a commonwealth." Quentin Skinner, The Foundation of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 2, p. 165

Whether you consider the above interesting or a bunch of high-falutin' nonsense, I hope we can all agree that anyone who thinks that communities in the state of nature have a single mystical body capable of acting with a single will is not a methodological individualist.

9 comments:

  1. The way you framed the argument in this post strikes me as similar to Kinsella on Corporations. Not a perfect match, to be sure, but clearly we can end up with a legitimate corporation. It is, then merely a short hop to have a legit corp. in a geographical area, engaging in legit governance. I don't think methodological individualism forms a barrier to this kind of thinking, though I can see liberty minded people having a reactionary type attitude to all institutions because of how bad our institutions are.

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  2. Gene, not only is O'Driscoll's position not absurd, as you claim, but I actually think it's correct. In context:

    Nor is MI the invention of Mises or Hayek, as some seemed to suggest. Nor even of Menger. Nor of Smith. It goes back to the Spanish Scholastics at least.

    The fact that you have found at least one Spanish Scolastic, who--at least when it comes to moral questions--doesn't adhere to MI, hardly proves that O'Driscoll's claim is false, let alone absurd.

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    1. "Gene, not only is O'Driscoll's position not absurd, as you claim, but I actually think it's correct."

      Evidence, please? Or is this scholarship by assertion?

      "The fact that you have found at least one Spanish Scholastic..."

      Bob, Suárez was pretty much "the dude" (Rothbard calls him "the most brilliant Jesuit ever")-- if he thought this you can bet a lot of others did too.

      In fact, his position is just an extension of the position all of these Scholastics held on the Church: the Church constituted an actual mystical body, with the Pope as its head. The were combating the Lutheran heresy that the Church was ust an aggregate of individuals. (If you want to find MI in this period, Luther is a much better place to look.)

      The Scholastics were theologically committed to denying MI: that's why they were Catholics, and not Lutherans or Calvinists!

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    2. Well I looked at original post and didn't see any citations by O'Driscoll.

      Bob's right that the Spanish Scholastics weren't a homogenous school of thought, and that Suarez, like St. Thomas Aquinas for his period, is not the be-all and end-all for their schools.

      Unfortunately, regarding the Spanish Scholastics, I'm only familiar with Grice-Hutchinson's work - but from what I've read, I did not get the impression that they had developed MI. I wouldn't waste my time looking for it in Luther either.

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  3. Gene, I confess this issue isn't important enough to me, to justify actually digging something up. But since Rothbard loved the Spanish Scholastics and cast them as the founders of economic science, do you mean to tell me I wouldn't be able to go find them using methodological individualism in their approach to economics? That's all O'Driscoll was saying, that this was not some invention of Mises or Hayek.

    Your "scholarship by assertion" line is funny. To actually disprove O'Driscoll literally, you would have to demonstrate that not a single Scholastic ever wrote anything looking like MI in explaining economic outcomes.

    Now if I want to be more generous, you would merely have to prove that the school as a whole was hostile to it, which you haven't done.

    And if I want to be really really generous, I would have been OK with your post if you would have at least acknowledged, "BTW, to prove O'Driscoll wrong, I'd have to document it for the School as a whole, but this guy I'm quoting is a good representative."

    But you didn't do any of that, you produced one quote, didn't show us O'Driscoll's context (which mattered a lot), and then called him absurd.

    OK I'm done. As you were, everyone.

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    1. "But since Rothbard loved the Spanish Scholastics and cast them as the founders of economic science, do you mean to tell me I wouldn't be able to go find them using methodological individualism in their approach to economics?"

      No, no, no! This is exactly the mistake I am highlighting, and the mistake O'Driscoll (I think) made: that some thinker at times engages in the analysis of individual actions, motivations etc. (as the Late Scholastics certainly did) in no way makes them methodological individualists! What it means is that they are not methodological holists.

      But not a single significant critic of MI of whom I am aware today -- Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Tony Lawson, Geoffrey Hodgson, Clifford Geertz, Paul Lewis, a few guys whose names I can't remember -- is a methodological holist. We are all methodological pluralists: conduct your social analysis at whatever level is appropriate for your question: the individual, the corporation, the community, the nation, the linguistic group, the civilization, etc. So all of us were (and are) quite willing to do individualist economic analysis. All we are saying is there is no reason not to do *other* levels of analysis as well.

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    2. OK fair enough, Gene. That's a good distinction to make. I think you should make that a stand-alone blog post, because otherwise most Austrians are going to continue thinking you are crazy.

      (This must also be at the root of our constant Popper battles. The way I interpret "what Popper was saying," he is totally right and you are being a fool for criticizing him. But, I am prepared to admit that the way you interpret "what Popper was saying," he was indeed a fool.)

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    3. Thanks, Bob. Perhaps I shall.

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  4. The Scholastics were theologically committed to denying MI: that's why they were Catholics, and not Lutherans or Calvinists!

    I don't even know what this means. (I'm not saying that therefore it proves you're dumb, I'm saying, I don't understand what you are even trying to say here.) Does this show Tom Woods is confused?

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