Nonreductive Individualism Part I – Supervenience and Wild Disjunction

Nonreductive Individualism

Table of Contents

Abstract: Nonreductive Individualism

The author draws on arguments from the contemporary philosophy of mind to provide an argument for sociological collectivism. This argument for nonreductive individualism accepts that only individuals exist but rejects methodological Individualism. In Part1, the author presents the argument for nonreductive individualism by working through the implications of supervening, multiple realizability, and wild disjunction in some detail. In Part II, he extends the argument to provide a defense for social causal laws, and this account of social causation does not require any commitment to intentionality or agency on the part of individuals.

Short Detail

The tension between individualism and collectivism is central to contemporary sociological theory and practice. The debate occurs at two levels: an ontological level, concerning arguments about what entities and properties exist in the world, and a methodological or epistemological level, concerning the proper way to proceed in scientific practice. In this article, I draw on several decades of established argument in the philosophy of mind to explore and clarify these longstanding ontological and methodological issues in sociology.
Individualists, such as rational choice theorists and exchange theorists, make both ontological and methodological claims for their approach. Ontological individualism is the stance that only individuals exist; sociological objects and properties are nothing but combinations of the individual participants and their properties. Methodological individualism is an epistemological stance that argues that every event that sociology explains can be explained in terms of individuals, and every law in sociology can be explained by laws concerning individuals (Coleman 1990, 20; Hempel 1965, 258-64; Homans 1964).

1-Early statements of methodological individualism by Popper, Hayek, and Watkins were soon criticized (e.g., Gellner [1956] 1968; Goldstein 537 Received 18 January 2002Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 32 No. 4, December 2002 537-559 DOI: 10.1177/004839302237836 © 2002 Sage Publications Downloaded from at Zentralbibliothek Zuerich on June 10, 2009 [1958] 1973; Mandelbaum 1955); contemporary methodological individualists have responded vigorously to these criticisms (e.g., Macdonald and Pettit 1981; Quinton 1975-76; Mellor 1982). Despite this long history, the debate remains confused and unresolved (cf. Bhargava 1992; Ruben 1985, 132). For example, upon examination, many of the arguments for methodological individualism seem in fact to be arguments for ontological individualism, yet one can accept ontological individualism and still reject methodological individualism.

2-The logical error of making ontological arguments in support of methodological claims is quite common in the philosophy of social science and is found in Popper’s (1962) confusion of materialist metaphysics with epistemology (e.g., p. 341), in Elster’s (1985) methodologically individualist reading of Marx, and in Giddens’s (1984) attacks on structural sociology (e.g., chap. 4).

In opposition to individualism, contemporary collectivist paradigms in sociology include network theory, structural sociology, sociological realism, and neo-functionalism. Structuralists, for example, argue that social phenomena can be studied objectively and scientifically without concern for individual-level properties (e.g., Blau 1970, 1977; Mayhew 1980).

Like individualists, collectivists have not been clear about the degree to which their stance is ontological or
methodological. As a result, several theorists have accused structuralists of hypostatizing or reifying sociological concepts (Collins 1981; Giddens 1984; King 1999). These critics claim that the structuralist method assumes that society is ontologically autonomous of individuals, when in fact it is nothing more than a descriptive convenience for sociologists (e.g., King 1999, 272). Are structural sociologists claiming that sociological terms and concepts are real, or are they making the weaker argument that sociologists need them for an explanation? If the latter, then sociological terms and concepts would seem to be nothing more than descriptive conveniences, and they would seem to be epiphenomenal. If one makes only methodological claims for the usefulness of sociological terms and concepts, then those terms and concepts cannot have causal power. Yet many structuralists speak as if sociological phenomena can exert causal power over individuals. If collective phenomena can exert causal power, then they must be real, and the theorist must provide philosophical arguments to justify this sociological realism.
In fact, several contemporary sociological theorists who reject individualism have made realist arguments (e.g., Archer 1995; Bhaskar 1975, 1979; Keat and Urry 1975). The unresolved difficulty facing 538 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / December 2002 Downloaded from at Zentralbibliothek Zuerich on June 10, 2009, sociological realists is the problem of a dualist ontology: if both social entities and individuals are real, then it seems that one has two distinct ontological orders. Without a more robust foundational account,
ontological individualist sociology has no grounds for proposing social causal laws. Due to such difficulties, sociological realism is not widely held by contemporary philosophers of social science, and many prominent schools of sociological theory—including methodological individualism, subjectivism, and interpretivism—are
antirealist concerning the social. In this two-part article, I draw on contemporary philosophy of mind to provide a novel integration of the individualist and collectivist positions. In Part I, I draw on philosophical discussions of
supervenience, multiple realizability, and wild disjunction to provide a philosophical argument to ground collectivist macro sociology, one that grants to individualists their primary ontological concerns yet holds that sociology may of necessity be irreducible to laws and terms concerning individuals. I refer to this position as nonreductive individualism (NRI) by analogy with the consensus position in philosophy of mind, nonreductive materialism.
3- Nonreductive materialism developed over the past thirty years as a theory concerning the mind-brain relation. As a result of debates beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1990s, arguments for nonreductive materialism largely convinced philosophers of mind to reject eliminative materialism, the physicalist stance that higher-level discourse is incorrect and unnecessary and should be replaced with the lower-level discourse. Nonreductive materialism holds to ontological materialism, the belief that all that exists is the matter, thus rejecting various forms of Cartesian dualism and vitalism. However, nonreductive materialism argues that mental properties and states are irreducible to physical properties and states and that the science of the mind is autonomous from the science of neurons.
Although these arguments have focused on the mind-brain relation, many philosophers believe that they can be generalized to apply to any hierarchically ordered sets of properties (Fodor 1989; Humphreys 1997, 3; Jackson and Pettit 1992, 107; Kincaid 1997, 76; Yablo 1992, 247, n. 5). Yet the implications of these well-established arguments have not yet been fully developed by sociological theorists. The concepts of supervenience and multiple realizability have been discussed by some philosophers of social science (Currie 1984; Kincaid 1997; Mellor 1982; MacDonald and Pettit 1981; Pettit 1993), although their influence in sociological theory has been limited. The
Sawyer / NONREDUCTIVE INDIVIDUALISM 539 Downloaded from at Zentralbibliothek Zuerich on June 10, 2009, wild disjunction argument has not been fully explored by these philosophers, and its sociological implications have not been elaborated. Consequently, in Part I, I elaborate on this argument in some detail.

4- In Part II, I extend NRI to provide an account of why social causation may necessarily be a part of a  sociological explanation. A commonly noted problem with ontological individualism is that it seems to result in sociological phenomena that are epiphenomenal, or causally inert. Many philosophers of social science who reject methodological individualism nonetheless agree that the society has no causal power. Prior realist and collectivist accounts have left this issue unresolved. In Part II, I draw on arguments for mental causation from the philosophy of mind to make an argument for social causation that is consistent with ontological individualism, and I conclude that sociologists are justified in forming laws that describe how individuals are affected by social causes and that such laws may be irreducible to the intentions, perceptions, goals, or actions of individuals.


To summarize Part I, I have defined NRI as an acceptance of token identity and supervenience, combined with the wild disjunction argument that this ontological position does not entail the reductivist program in sociology. Even if token sociological events are identical to token individual events and social properties supervene on individSawyer / NONREDUCTIVE INDIVIDUALISM 553 Downloaded from at Zentralbibliothek Zuerich on June 10, 2009, dual properties, it does not follow that the natural kind predicates of
sociology are coextensive with the natural kind predicates of individualism. Thus, ontological individualism does not guarantee that the properties of individuals provide a sufficient vocabulary for sociological theory. In the same way that nonreductive materialism is compatible with the ontological assumptions of materialism—matter is the
the only substance that exists in the universe—NRI is compatible with the ontological assumptions of individualism—social groups are composed of nothing other than individuals. And like nonreductive materialism, NRI nonetheless argues that sociologists have valid philosophical grounds for developing laws and theories concerning collective phenomena that may not be reducible to laws and theories concerning individuals. NRI supports collectivism by demonstrating how sociological laws, properties, and types may be irreducible to individual laws, properties, and types. The extent to which wild disjunction holds for any given sociological property is an empirical question that must be resolved through empirical study (cf. Fodor 1974; Kincaid 1997, 13-30). But if it does hold, NRI suggests that collectivism may be a necessary scientific stance because of the structure of the world, not only because of our own epistemological limitations. NRI would then lead to a special type of sociological realism with respect to those properties, a realism that is consistent with ontological individualism. Fodor and others have used these arguments to argue that mental properties are real, but this remains one of the more controversial elements of the argument. One of the reasons that these arguments are still current in the philosophy of mind is that their resolution is directly relevant to the question of mental causation. The exact nature of one’s version of supervenience determines one’s attitude toward the possibility of irreducible higher-level causal laws. The import of antirealist criticisms of property dualism is that higher-level properties are causally inert. If so, we still have no account of how mental or social properties could participate in causal laws. In Part II, I extend NRI to provide an account of social causation.

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Nonreductive Individualism: Part I—Supervenience and Wild Disjunction

Philosophy of the Social Sciences
DOI: 10.1177/004839302237836
Philosophy of the Social Sciences 2002; 32; 537
R. Keith SawyerR. KEITH SAWYER
Washington University in St. Louis
Nonreductive Individualism: Part I—Supervenience and Wild Disjunction
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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Nasim Gazerani was born in 1983 in Arak. She holds a Master's degree in Software Engineering from UM University of Malaysia.