Smith explores the historical and theoretical roots of methodological individualism and subjectivism.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Methodological individualism was a dominant theme in Enlightenment social theory, one that was not seriously challenged until after the French Revolution. The Augustinian theory of original sin, the centerpiece of Reformation moral theology, had lost its grip on the European mind. Man’s natural impulses were no longer regarded as evil. Even self‐​interest, long excoriated as avarice and greed, was rehabilitated and presented as self‐​love, the creative source of social order.

The Enlightenment stress on reason was inherently individualistic, since reason is a characteristic of the singular human being. The theological mode of explanation (such as the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which had been used to explain the origin of different languages) was in serious disrepair. Although most philosophers acknowledged the influence of divine providence, the deistic God of nature and Christian rationalism worked mainly from the bottom up, through the voluntary actions of individuals, not from the top down, through the coercive decrees of emperors and kings.

Philosophers sought to explain the harmonious order of nature, and here they were profoundly influenced by the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the patron saint of science. Newton set the stage for a good deal of Enlightenment social theory with these words:

I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of Nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles, for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards one another, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from one another.

Gravitation was the invisible force of Newton’s universe, and philosophers eagerly searched for a moral and social equivalent. Some philosophers, such as Shaftesbury and Voltaire, found the solution in man’s natural benevolence (“a delicate and generous sensibility,” as Condorcet described it). Other philosophers claimed to have discovered an innate “moral sense.” But self‐​interest was the undisputed champion of human passions, so here was the leading contender for the moral and social equivalent of gravitation. Here was the force that “impelled” and “repelled” human beings and caused them “to cohere in regular figures”—those social institutions that emerged spontaneously from the pursuit of self‐​interest.

The Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville is famous for his theory that private vices produce public benefits, but the same basic idea had been around for a long time before he wrote The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (6th ed., 1729). In 1625, for example, an Englishman argued that original sin had nearly eradicated charity from human nature, but that sinful actions, especially greed (“cupidity”), are sufficient to fulfill man’s reciprocal needs.

In order to the supplying these necessities cupidity hath taken the place of charity, and effecteth it after a manner which we cannot enough admire, and whereunto the ordinary charity would not arrive. For example, you see spread all over the country, persons who are ready to assist you when you travel….What could be more admirable than these persons, were they animated by charity. But it is cupidity which maketh them act….Where is that charity, which is contented to build a house for you….Cupidity will do, and cheerfully too. What charity will run to the Indies for medicines, stoop to the meanest employments, and not refuse the basest and most painful offices? Cupidity will perform all this without grudging. (Quoted in J.A.W. Gunn, Politics and the Public Interest in the Seventeenth Century, 1969, p. 213.)

Montesquieu, in his treatment of monarchy (Spirit of the Laws, 1748) compared self‐​interest to “a power of gravitation” that “connects all parts of the body politic and draws subjects to their king.” Thus, “each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own interest.”

Enlightenment philosophers repeatedly spoke of “invisible chains” that link self‐​interest to the public good. Mandeville referred to the “Chain of Causes” that connects the selfish actions of individuals so that they produce social benefits, “as naturally as Chickens do from Eggs.” The Scotch‐​Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (a teacher of Adam Smith) referred to “the secret chain between each person and mankind.” Likewise, the Italian philosopher Vico discussed the same “eternal chain,” a theory that he traced to the ancient Stoics. It is significant that Adam Smith, who also spoke repeatedly of “invisible chains,” was influenced by Stoicism.

Given many similar observations by other Enlightenment thinkers, it is fair to say that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—according to which the pursuit of economic self‐​interest, if pursued within the boundaries of justice, will frequently generate beneficial social outcomes that were not intended by the acting agents—became a common theme in moral philosophy before it became a staple in economic thinking. Consider these remarks by Bishop Butler (Sermons, 2nd ed., 1729):

[B]y acting merely from regard (suppose) to reputation, without any consideration of the good of others, men often contribute to the public good. [T]hey are plainly instruments in the hands of another, in the hands of Providence, to carry on ends, the preservation of the individual and the good of society, which they themselves have not in their view or intention.

What implications do the preceding observations have for sociology, or a “science of society”? Let’s begin with a passage from a book by William Stanley Jevons (a seminal figure in marginal utility theory), The Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method (2nd ed., 1877, p. 1):

Science arises from the discovery of Identity amidst Diversity. The process may be described in different words, but our language must always imply the presence of one common and necessary element. In every act of inference or scientific method we are engaged about a certain identity, sameness, similarity, likeness, resemblance, analogy, equivalence, or equality apparent between two objects….The whole value of science consists in the power which it confers upon us of applying to one object the knowledge acquired from like objects; and it is only so far, therefore, as we can discover and register resemblances that we can turn our observations to account.

If the social sciences are to establish uniform relationships in their field of study, they need criteria to decide when two (or more) social phenomena should be classified as the “same” thing. As R.S. Peters put it in The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1958, p. 83), “A regularity or uniformity is the constant recurrence of the same kind of event on the same kind of occasion; hence statements of uniformity presuppose judgments of identity.” This raises the question: By what criteria do social scientists recognize or classify the action of one person as the same as (or similar to) the action of another person? Or by what criteria do social scientists recognize or classify different actions by the same person as essentially identical?

According to methodological subjectivism, the ultimate data of the social sciences are the subjective mental states (beliefs, values, etc.) of individual human beings. Human action, including social interaction, is purposeful and value‐​driven. It has a subjective meaning for the acting agent, and the social scientist must interpret this meaning if he is to understand the nature of his subject matter.

Thus, according to methodological subjectivism, the subject matter of the social sciences differs radically from that of the natural sciences. We can explain why humans act as they do in a way that we cannot explain the behavior of electrons and molecules. As a human being himself, the social scientist knows that there is far more to human behavior than its external, or “objective,” characteristics. He knows that each person carries within himself a subjective world of feelings, desires, beliefs, values, etc.—and he knows (or should know) that these subjective factors impart to each action its distinctive identity.

F.A. Hayek, in a careful analysis of methodological subjectivism (The Counter‐​Revolution of Science), pointed out that the social scientist, unlike the physical scientist, must accept his subject matter as he finds it. The natural scientist, on the other hand, need not accept the everyday, or commonsensical, classification of the objects that constitute his field of study. He is well aware that facts often differ from appearances—that things which appear the same to us do not always behave in the same manner, and things which appear different may exhibit other similarities that escape the untrained eye. Thus, rather than accept the uncritical opinions of others at face value, the natural scientist must often forge new classifications that will serve his cognitive purpose.

The social scientist, in contrast, does not seek to modify or revise the natural concepts that people form spontaneously in their everyday lives. Our subjective ideas about the social world are, for the sociologist, the ultimate data on which all other explanations must depend. Our ideas about society are the irreducible elements that constitute the social world. The social sciences are concerned with social interaction—with the mental relationship between human beings rather than the physical relationship between things—and those relationships are determined subjectively, by how people think about them, rather than by their objective (i.e., external) characteristics.

Consider the concept of “a tool,” such as a hammer. Such things cannot be interpreted as objective facts or defined in terms of their physical properties, irrespective of what people think about them, since we may use many different things as “tools,” depending on our circumstances. It is our attitude toward an object—how we view it subjectively—that determines whether or not something is a “tool.” Hence if a sociologist wishes to study tool‐​making in a given culture, he must first try to understand the subjective viewpoint of its members. It would be absurd for a sociologist to define “tool” objectively, in terms of an object’s physical properties, and then conclude that a given culture does not use tools, because he can find no objects that conform to his definition.

Methodological subjectivism has a long and rather complex history. It was clearly expressed by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), who recommended the maxim “read thyself” as the key to understanding social and political behavior. This introspective method is reliable because there exists a “similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another.” We know by looking within ourselves what it means to “think, opine, reason, hope, fear, &c.”—and it is by extrapolating from these subjective insights that we come to understand “the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasion.”Despite this promising start, however, Hobbes failed to exploit this subjectivist method, opting instead for a mechanistic interpretation that reduces all human action to the positive and negative desires of “appetite” and “aversion.”

More promising (and more influential) was the germ of methodological subjectivism found in John Locke’s writings. Human action, according to Locke, originates in “uneasiness,” or “disquiet of the mind.” Mere apprehension of a greater good is insufficient to activate the will; that good must first become an object of desire so that a person feels uneasy without it. Action is motivated by this kind of subjective desire and appraisal.

Conclusions similar to Hayek’s have been reached by those social theorists influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. For example, according to R.S. Peters (quoted above), “social relations are expressions of ideas about reality.” If we wish to classify two social phenomena as “the same,” we must first understand how these phenomena are understood by the people involved. The “particular interpretation which is to be put upon the words ‘the same’ depends on the context in which the question arises.” If we are to understand the meaning of a social phenomenon, we must first understand the conceptual rule that guides the interpretation of its participants. Peters therefore maintained that the fundamental problems of social science are primarily philosophical, and as such should be settled by “conceptual analysis rather than by empirical research.” It is only by “tracing the implications of the concepts we use” that the social scientist is able to proceed in his work.

David Hume was an early defender of methodological subjectivism in the social sciences (which in his day were called “moral philosophy”). According to Hume, “though men be much governed by interest; yet even interest itself, and all human affairs, are entirely governed by opinion.” It is what people think about a situation—their beliefs and evaluations—that determine how they act. Rulers, for example, “have nothing to support them but opinion”; a government cannot rule by force alone but must depend on a widespread belief in its legitimacy (whether that belief be justified or not).

In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), after calling for an integrated “science of man,” Hume noted that those sciences which deal with human action suffer from a “peculiar disadvantage” relative to the natural sciences. In investigating human behavior, we cannot purposefully mold the social environment in order to conduct controlled and repeatable experiments. The natural scientist, if he wishes to know the effect of one body upon another, need only place himself in the appropriate situation and observe the results. But this option is not available to the person who wishes to understand human behavior. By “placing myself in the same case with that which I consider, ‘tis evident this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles, as to render it impossible to form any just conclusion from the phenomenon.” Hence:

We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human nature, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behavior in company, in affairs, in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.

This “cautious observation of human nature,” which takes into account the subjective beliefs and values of individual agents, is the essence of methodological subjectivism.