Sen on "Methodological Individualism"
By David Henderson
I’m at a weekend conference in Indianapolis that started last night and goes through tonight. About 14 people, roughly evenly split between philosophers and economists, are working our way through Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. One of the things I’ll raise is a jarring passage on “methodological individualism.” Sen’s working definition, from Frances Stewart and Severine Deneulin, is that it is the belief that “all social phenomena must be accounted for in terms of what individuals think, choose, and do.”
Having written that, Sen writes in his next sentence, “There have certainly been schools of thought based on individual thought, choice, and action, detached from the society in which they exist.”
Did you see the fast one he pulled? Somehow the thought that social phenomena must be accounted for by the things individuals do translates, for Sen, into the thought that individuals are “detached from the society in which they exist.” That doesn’t follow at all. I know probably dozens of “methodological individualists.” I’m one myself. I don’t know a single one who thinks that thoughts, choices, and actions are not influenced by others.
If, for example, women in traditionally sexist societies come to accept that women’s position has to be standardly [sic] inferior to men, then that view–shared by individual women under social influence–is not, in any sense, independent of social conditions.
I agree. So what? Those women are individuals who think, make choices, and act, and they’re influenced by others’ choices and actions. That example is not a counterexample to methodological individualism.