Methodological individualism: False or vacuous?


So, I have a friend, Joe Bob, who makes a bundle of money in the stock market. He sells his small Brooklyn apartment, and buys a mansion up the Hudson river, with an extensive "park" around it, of the sort where scattered large trees are set in acres of lawn.

How might I explain this? Well, one thing I might say is, "This has been a goal of Joe Bob for a long time: he always wanted a mansion with some grounds like that, and now that he has the money, he values achieving that goal more than anything else he might do with the cash."

That is a fine explanation. But here is another explanation: people's appreciation of such settings comes from the fact that our ancestors lived on the savannah for many, many, many generations. Therefore, it is in our genes to like such scenes: they make us feel at home.

And here is yet another explanation: European nobility possessed just such manner houses in just such natural settings for hundreds and hundreds of years. Therefore, we are socially conditioned to want to acquire such property as a sign of our prestige and status.

The first explanation is an individualistic one. The other two are not. But all three are, I think, fine social explanations, and any one of the three might be superior, depending upon the context in which one is doing the explaining.

Now, does your version of methodological individualism insist that only explanation one is valid? Then it is false.

Or do you claim, "No, methodological individualism, as I use the term, can encompass all three explanations"? Well, then it is empty: if it doesn't proscribe some sorts of explanations of social phenomena, then it is silly to call it "methodological individualism."

21 comments:

  1. Gene, I am seriously trying to understand you here. Your posts on this continue to surprise me.

    You are the guy who got me to shake off crude materialist reductionism. You are the guy who got me to see just how absurd it is to say, "A computer knows how to play chess." You are the guy who routinely points out the absurdity of "the selfish gene."

    So are you really saying an economist is out of line if he says, "I refuse to explain purchases by reference to evolutionary history"?

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    1. 'So are you really saying an economist is out of line if he says, "I refuse to explain purchases by reference to evolutionary history"?'

      Okay, I think I see our problem. I am not proposing these as we arrive or explanations, where one of them can defeat the other one. If someone says "oh, he didn't *decide* to purchase that: it was just his genes," you would see Gene the defeater of reductionism springing into action.

      The problem is this person is taking genetics as a rival explanation to a praxiological one. In fact, they are complementary explanations: both of them are true, not one or the other. *Of course* my genes are one explanation of what I buy: I don't buy arsenic laden food products because my genetic makeup does not allow me to digest arsenic, whereas there are bacteria that can, and they would buy such things if they could buy anything at all.

      Think of it this way: on the table in front of us we have a globe, a street map of New York City, a subway map of New York City, a topographical map of New York City, and aerial photograph of New York City, hey zoning map of New York City, a 3-D model of New York City, and so on. Everyone in the room is arguing that the particular model they brought into the room is the "correct one" and should be used exclusively in order to understand New York City.

      What I am arguing is that these are all just models, and therefore abstract and incomplete, and all are fine as long as we remember they are each an incomplete abstraction.

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  2. @Gene_Callahan: Do you mean "proscribe" instead of "prescribe" at the end?

    You're right that if methodological individualism didn't prohibit some explanations, it would be vacuous, but that doesn't make it vacuous for permitting *those* explanations. It only rejects explanations that lack an in-principle reduction to individual behavior.

    In each of the examples you gave, one can say the same thing in terms of individuals, albeit at a cost in verbosity.

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    1. Thanks Silas, fixed the word choice problem.

      "It only rejects explanations that lack an in-principle reduction to individual behavior."

      But moving from neurons or genes to praxeology is "reverse reduction"!

      In any case, even the weaker condition is too strong: why should every good explanation be translatable into an individual one? What if there are emergent behavior that only appear at higher levels? Maybe there aren't, but why in the world should we rule them out a priori?

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    2. Well, can there really be fundamentally emergent behavior? I usually think of emergence as behavior observed In a complex system that you wouldn't expect if you just made a simple model of the constituent parts, not behavior that would be fundamentally inexplicable if you modeled the individual parts with sufficient detail and accuracy.

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    3. Well, can there really be fundamentally emergent behavior? I usually think of emergence as behavior observed In a complex system that you wouldn't expect if you just made a simple model of the constituent parts, not behavior that would be fundamentally inexplicable if you modeled the individual parts with sufficient detail and accuracy.

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    4. "Well, can there really be fundamentally emergent behavior?"

      Well, all the evidence says yes. But if there isn't, then MI is a dead letter, right? It is all just physics.

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    5. @Gene_Callahan: It's not that *every* explanation must be so reducible, only economic ones. Nor is the claim (as I understand it) that the explanation is *simplest* at the level of individuals, only that it should exist. It's a constraint on "what explanations are likely to be fruitful", not "what level we should express everything at".

      In the same way, I claim that any explanation in terms of pressure, temperature, and density is reducible to one in terms of molecules and their velocities and quantities, in the sense that any one of them can be so converted, but I do not claim that it will be less verbose.

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    6. @Silas: " It's not that *every* explanation must be so reducible, only economic ones."

      I believe Mises goes further, and claims all *social* explanation must be individualist. But if it is just a heuristic ("Hey, let's try to explain everything in terms of individual actors!") I have no problem with MI.

      In any case, we shouldn't put much effort into exactly what MI claims, since this is notoriously hard to pin down, and differs from Weber to Mises to Schumpeter to Watson to Hayek. See:
      Geoffrey Hodgson, (2007) "Meanings of Methodological Individualism", Journal of Economic Methodology 14(2), June, pp. 211–26.

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    7. @Gene_Callahan I think you can have methodological individualism without fundamental emergence. All you need to do is to posit a non-physical mind distinct from the brain.

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    8. "I think you can have methodological individualism without fundamental emergence. All you need to do is to posit a non-physical mind distinct from the brain."

      Well, this is clearly the angle Mises takes, and Descartes and perhaps Kant before him: there is simple matter which can be described with reductionist physics, and simple mental entities, which can be described by a rationalist philosophy. And in THAT case, MI makes sense: as I have noted before, it is reductionism on the mental side of the Cartesian duality.

      But I see no reason to believe either half of that picture.

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  3. I never liked the idea that we are controlled by our genes. It always gave me the creeps and reminds of scenes from The Adjustment Bureau. But, it seems like explanation number two can be an explanation for explanation number one. Austrian economics never sucked me in since I've grown up with an appreciation of the empirical approach.

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    1. The explanation I gave does not require that we are controlled by our genes, merely that we are influenced by that. And I think that we are influenced by them is pretty obvious.

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  4. A bacteria goes into a bar.
    "What's your poison," says the bar-keep.
    "Arsenic."
    "Old lace chaser?"
    "You got it."

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  5. Oh hell, it should have been a "bacterium" in the bar! Up to 80% of the time- OR MORE- I wouldn't have made such dumb mistake!

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  6. Pardon me for my lack of knowledge about this subject, but I just started reading Human Action and this discussion is confusing me.

    " "I think you can have methodological individualism without fundamental emergence. All you need to do is to posit a non-physical mind distinct from the brain."

    Well, this is clearly the angle Mises takes, and Descartes and perhaps Kant before him: there is simple matter which can be described with reductionist physics, and simple mental entities, which can be described by a rationalist philosophy. And in THAT case, MI makes sense: as I have noted before, it is reductionism on the mental side of the Cartesian duality.

    But I see no reason to believe either half of that picture."

    Are you saying that, for methodological individualism, Mises must take a philosophical stand on the mind-body issue or merely that he must see it as pragmatically the best way to approach the issue at the moment?

    The reason I am asking this is because when you say "But I see no reason to believe either half of that picture." it seems as if you're saying the former. However, from reading the first chapter of Mises's book, I was under the impression he only finds it as the best approach pragmatically. (If you're wondering what I'm talking about, it's in his discussion for methodological dualism, but I assumed it applied to methodological individualism as well, because we're still talking about method)

    -Bharat

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    1. Bharat, You're absolutely correct that Mises only accepts dualism as a working postulate. I think everything I said above stands given that.

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  7. In other words, we have no reason to limit ourselves to this atomistic, reductionist view of the individual, whether as a metaphysical or pragmatic postulate.

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  8. Hmm, I wonder where you got the name Joe Bob ...

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    1. I shouldn't have wondered ...

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