Mises Versus Geertz on Methodological Individualism

Mises: "The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society. It substitutes collaboration for the--at least conceivable--isolated life of individuals... The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man's reason is capable of recognizing this truth. But for these facts men would have forever remained deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs." -- Human Action

Geertz: "Most bluntly, it suggests that there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture would not be the clever savages of Golding's Lord of the Flies thrown back upon the cruel wisdom of their animal instincts; nor would they be the nature's noblemen of Enlightenment primitivism or even, as classical anthropological theory would imply, intrinsically talented apes who had somehow failed to find themselves. They would be unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases." -- The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 49

The first quote, to me, represents genuine methodological individualism. Man would still be man in isolation. These (conceivably) isolated individuals use their reason to deliberately form social bonds, since they realize they can get more stuff done that way. The individual is logically prior to society.

The second quote notes that all of the above is a load of poppycock. A homo sapiens who somehow managed to survive into adulthood in an asocial setting would be a human being only biologically. He would in no way be capable of "recognizing the truth" that the division of labor would increase his productivity. The individual is not logically prior to society: As Tony Lawson puts it, "Human agency and social structure then presuppose each other. Neither can be reduced to, identified with, or explained completely in terms of the other, for each requires the other."

On the other hand, I have had people tell me that what Geertz writes is perfectly compatible with methodological individualism as they use the term. Well, if so, they are using words in a very odd way.


  1. Forget people. The methodological individualists show no understanding of mammals.

    1. It's funny to see Mises sometimes declare that every animal is the implacable enemy of every other animal except its mate and offspring, as though he had never encountered pack or herd animals!

  2. I wonder if the confusion here comes from whether one uses AND vs. OR vs. XOR to join analyses.

    I think the correct operator is AND. Mises may be correct (each actor acts on his own value scale), but Gertz may be correct as well (cultural influences are responsible for many of the orderings on our scales).

    I'm not sure if the other operators are useful. XOR seems wrong. OR is probably wrong.

    1. "Mises may be correct (each actor acts on his own value scale)"

      Geertz never denies this.


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