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Miller Methodological Individualism And Social E Xplanation Notes

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Richard Miller - Methodological Individualism and Social Explanation




MI must be plausible and nontrivial
* non-trivial - must actually rule out some social theories
* but it must also be a valid methodological principle
# it is not one because it excludes appeals to nonrational processes which control behaviour (certainly in small group interactions and probably in large scale social phenomena) Watkins' MI seems to amount to the following: 'There must be a rock-bottom explanation of every large-scale social phenomenon which explains the phenomenon as solely due to the beliefs and dispositions of actual or typical individuals and the situations to which they respond in accordance with their beliefs and dispositions.'
* this is plausible - it doesn't require that the words used in explanation can't include terms that entail the existence of a society
# e.g. 'marriage' can't be defined individualistically, but a marriage custom can be explained as due to participants' beliefs about marriage
* what does Watkins mean by 'disposition'?
# he can't mean what an individual does or tends to do, or else MI will be trivial
* this is because it won't rule out any theories - every social explanation is in terms of what individuals do; the interesting question is what causes them to act as they do
# actually he means subjective meaning, in the Weberian sense
* so the agent's beliefs and dispositions characterise the reasons for the action as they appear to the acting agent
* subjective meaning = 'Y is a subjective meaning X attaches to his action, Z, at time t, just in case Y is a reason for action that X has at time t, and X did Z at that time because he had this reason' But what about cases of self-deception, where an agent believes he is acting for one reason, but in fact is acting for another, with the other reason masking the first
* e.g. an unemployed (and honest) man, John asks his neighbour Bill for a loan, claiming that he'll have a job within a month. Both men possess evidence that it will likely be many months before he has a job.
# John is not being dishonest - he really believed he would get a job soon, when he said it. This belief was caused by his need to get credit and his need to continue to see himself as an honest guy
# here the action can't be explained solely with reference to the agent's subjective meaning i.e. beliefs and dispositions, but requires reference to 'needs, goals or desires which are not the agent's reasons for so behaving'
* such an account explains behaviour as due to objective interests Watkins' statement of methodological individualism is not a valid methodological principle
* valid methodological principle:
# commitment to it does not prevent one from attaining a true picture of reality in the sciences in question
# if one discovers that one cannot be in a position to put forward a given claim while still maintaining the methodological principle in question, that fact is always, in itself, a good reason for abandoning that claim
* MI is incompatible with Marxist social theory, but this is not a good reason to abandon

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