Methodological Individualism and the Study of History

The larger society does not think, it does not reason, it does not decide anything.

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Methodological individualism is the principle that only individuals act—only individuals consciously apply means toward the fulfilment of ends. whenever we investigate society we must do so through the experiences and actions of the individuals which compose it.

Further Readings/References:

Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. 2005.

George H. Smith & Marilyn Moore, eds. Individualism: A Reader. Washington, D.C.: The Cato Institute. 2015.

Anthony Comegna: The Marxist and classical liberal theories of history both offer distinct elements which indicate that a marriage of sorts may be profitable to both parties. Both theories explain change over time with reference to class formation and conflict, but what exactly are these classes? No matter how they may form or come into conflict, who exactly compose [00:00:30] these great social blobs, and why did those individuals do what they did? Brought down to the level of history from below, classical liberalism and Marxism must both approach their subject from the real, lived experience of individuals.
This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I am Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] For the Marxists, social classes are based on access to the means of production. When the super wealthy and disproportionately powerful few constantly gain at the expense of the many, the many will eventually try to offset starvation by eating the rich. According to the liberals, change is the result of disparate power relationships, splitting the population between those seeking a great spear of personal [00:01:30] liberty and those using force, fraud or threats to manipulate the choices of others.
Social classes are based on access to the means of coercion. It’s my hope that we can use methodological individualism to find a point of union between the modern Marxist perspective that does emphasize the need to construct history from the real, lived experience of acting human beings, and the modern libertarian perspective, which accepts [00:02:00] individualism as perhaps the key principle of social science.
Methodological individualism is the principle that only individuals act. Only individuals consciously apply means toward the fulfillment of ends, and really all this means is whenever we investigate society or any other collective unit, we must do so through the experiences and actions of the individuals which compose it. The larger society [00:02:30] does not think, it does not reason, it does not decide anything. For more, let’s turn to the man himself, Ludwig von Mises.
Reader: Human action: the principle of methodological individualism. By Ludwig von Mises.
Praxiology deals with the actions of individual men. It is only in the further course of its inquiries that cognition of human [00:03:00] cooperation is attained, and social action is treated as a special case of the more universal category of human action as such. This methodological individualism has been vehemently attacked by various metaphysical schools and disparaged as a nominalistic fallacy.
The notion of an individual, say the critics, is an empty abstraction. Real men is necessarily always a member of a social whole. It is even impossible [00:03:30] to imagine the existence of a man separated from the rest of mankind and not connected with society. Man as man is the product of a social evolution. His most eminent feature, reason, could only emerge within the framework of social mutuality. There is no thinking which does not depend on the concepts and notions of language, but speech is manifestly a social phenomenon.
Man is always the member of a collective, [00:04:00] as the whole is both logically and temporally prior to its parts or members. The study of the individual is posterior to the study of society. The only adequate method for the scientific treatment of human problems is the method of universalism or collectivism. Now, the controversy whether the whole or its parts are logically prior is vain. Logically, the notions of a whole and its parts are correlative. [00:04:30] As logical concepts, they are both apart from time. It is uncontested that in the sphere of human action, social entities have real existence. Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events. Methodological individualism, far from contesting the significance of such collective wholes, considers it as one of its main tasks to describe and to analyze their becoming [00:05:00] and their disappearing, their changing structures, and their operation, and it chooses the only method fitted to solve this problem satisfactorily.
First, we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals. A collective operates always through the intermediary of one or several individuals whose actions are related to the collective as the secondary source. It is the meaning which the acting individuals and all those who [00:05:30] are touched by their action attribute to an action that determines its character. It is the meaning that marks one action as the action of an individual, and another action as the action of the state or of the municipality. The hang man, not the state, executes a criminal. It is the meaning of those concerned, the discerns in the hang man’s action, and action of the state.
A group of armed men occupies a place. It is the meaning of those concerned which imputes this occupation [00:06:00] not to the officers and soldiers on the spot, but to their nation. If we scrutinize the meaning of the various actions performed by individuals, we must necessarily learn everything about the actions of collective wholes, for a social collective has no existence and reality outside of the individual members’ actions. The life of a collective is lived in the actions of the individuals constituting its body. There is no social collective conceivable which [00:06:30] is not operative in the actions of some individuals.
The reality of a social integer consists in its directing and releasing definite actions on the part of individuals. Thus, the way to a cognition of collective wholes is through an analysis of the individual’s actions. As a thinking and acting being, man emerges from his pre-human existence already as a social being. The evolution of reason, language, and cooperation [00:07:00] is the outcome of the same process. They were inseparably and necessarily linked together, but this process took place in individuals. It consisted in changes of the behavior of individuals. There is no other substance in which it occurred than the individuals. There is no substratum of society other than the actions of individuals. That there are nations, states, and churches, that there is social cooperation under the division of labor becomes discernible only [00:07:30] in the actions of certain individuals. Nobody ever perceived a nation without perceiving its members.
In this sense, one may say that a social collective comes into being through the actions of individuals. That does not mean that the individual is temporally antecedent. It merely means that definite actions of individuals constitute the collective. The problems raised by the multiplicity of coexisting social units and their [00:08:00] mutual antagonisms can be solved only by methodological individualism.
Anthony Comegna: For Libertarians, this concept has been a cornerstone of our thought in some sense forever. The exact meaning, practice, and implications of individualism took time to develop for sure, but since there has been anything distinguishable as a liberal tradition, individuals, their interests, [00:08:30] and their fundamental moral rights have always been at its center.
For Marxists, however, accepting and practicing methodological individualism may be difficult. Though, I should stress that the very best historians I’ve encountered, no matter what their official school of thought, have always been methodological individualists. In recent decades, as structuralism has fallen far out of favor, historians reared on Marxism have almost become methodological individualists [00:09:00] by default. Today, Marxist work is dominated by history from below. They produce histories for those people whom power has disenfranchised, denuded, and silenced. Whatever you might think of modern Marxist historians, or the validity of their full programs, the Marxist contributions to history from below offer as much insight and value to Libertarians as we, in our strict individualism, have to offer them.
But if only individuals [00:09:30] act, why is there so much of our history about collective entities? If we recognize that the state is nothing more than a bunch of people doing stuff, how do we tell nice, neat, concise, pointed narratives about the past? Well, maybe history simply isn’t neat.
I asked the editor of [Kato 00:09:50] Unbound, historian Jason Kuznicki, about how the methodological individualist studies and reconstructs the past.
Jason Kuznicki: History is not just [00:10:00] a story of events. The weather is a story of events. History is a story of events plus motivations. History conventionally begins with writing, because writing gives us some insight into motivations. Without writing we have very little insight into motivations. We have some speculation about animal behavior, but it is very fragmentary and partial and we don’t really know what the animals themselves claim to be doing because they don’t have speech. When we have writing, we have [00:10:30] ideas from people that give us some insight into why they did what they did. That insight is not perfect. Sometimes it is fragmentary. Sometimes it is a product of self-delusion. Sometimes it is full of lies, but at least it is something to go on. So we begin history with writing because what we’re trying to do is gain insight into human motivations over time.
Anthony Comegna: History is not just random, but it is incredibly complex. [00:11:00] It takes an awful lot of work to reconstruct what you would say is a convincing explanation for why people did what they did. Especially if you are doing history from below. It’s a huge evidential burden to build up what is actually representative of the past, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. It just means we have our work cut out for us, basically.
Jason Kuznicki: It is complex, and often it leads to arguments that are never satisfyingly resolved. [00:11:30] There was an enormous desire for some sort of simplifying narrative theory of history, some way to reduce all this complicated messy, human stuff into a set of laws that would explain the course of history in the same way that Newtonian mechanics explains the motion of the planets very, very well. I think that this [00:12:00] urge toward a comprehensive, explanatory science of history finds particularly clear expression in Marx. This is what Marx was really trying to do. He wanted to find a way to reduce history to its lowest terms to make it tractable, to make it almost calculable, if you will.
While he was, himself, somewhat realistic about these prospects and acknowledged there would still be complications and difficulties, he thought he had [00:12:30] found exactly this type of explanation for historical events. Now, we can say, no, he did not, but at the time, he was quite confident about it and managed to convince a lot of people.
Anthony Comegna: Again, it seems that the main conceptual tool that the Marxists and those before them, the classical liberals, were lacking was this strict methodological individualism. They did not, certainly the Marxists, but even the liberals, [00:13:00] generally speaking, treat the individual as the fundamental unit of social analysis. What exactly does that mean, and how do we know if we’re doing that?
Jason Kuznicki: We can’t predict in advance how an individual will act, and we can’t look at the traits that they bear with them going into an event to make reliable inferences about how they [00:13:30] will act in the moment. Sometimes those inferences appear to be verified, but then other times, they are not. When you have that kind of evidentiary pattern where you can verify something sometimes, but then also it gets falsified a lot, you don’t have a valid causal theory. This is not science. This is an attempt that has failed. You will know that you’re doing methodological individualism [00:14:00] when you do not simply recur to categories to try to explain human behavior, but instead make every effort to listen to what the person claimed that they were doing. It is very important to ask why people took actions and to listen to their own stated motivations. Now, those motivations may be brushed up, they may be self serving, they may be delusional, but it is important to listen to them anyway, and to tell them [00:14:30] as part of the story.
Anthony Comegna: Teachers and professors are quite right to warn their students against using the passive voice when writing. Active voice, for example, “Thomas Jefferson sold slaves” clearly and precisely establishes who is doing what to whom, but with passive voice, “Slaves were sold,” it is entirely unclear who actually acted [00:15:00] here. Who sold these slaves? Who captured them in the first place? They simply were captured, I guess. You wipe your hands and move onto the next page.
But methodological individualism forces the historian to discover the root causes of human action. We have to dig down as far as possible through the fog and much of society, cut through the cobweb-like narratives of countless historians from above, [00:15:30] and reinterpret the past as individuals actually lived it and acted. Someone sold those people into slavery. Someone bought and transported them. Someone repurchased them and perhaps reshipped them. And someone yet still kept them in torturous bondage until worked into dust. Plenty of others allowed all of this to happen to fellow human beings in their midst. We owe it to the victims to find out who did what [00:16:00] to whom and why.
The individualist social scientist is no passive observer of aggregated events, nor is she the collection and distribution hub for group entities and identities. Instead, the individualist historian lets past actors speak for themselves as themselves. If historical voice was somehow denied them, then the historian’s task is one of salvage and recovery.
[00:16:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.