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Holism and individualism in history and social science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Article Summary

Methodological individualists such as Mill, Weber, Schumpeter, Popper, Hayek and Elster argue that all social facts must be explained wholly and exhaustively in terms of the actions, beliefs and desires of individuals. On the other hand, methodological holists, such as Durkheim and Marx, tend in their explanations to bypass individual action. Within this debate, better arguments exist for the view that explanations of social phenomena without the beliefs and desires of agents are deficient. If this is so, individualists appear to have a distinct edge over their adversaries. Indeed, a consensus exists among philosophers and social scientists that holism is implausible or false and individualism, when carefully formulated, is trivially true.

Holists challenge this consensus by first arguing that caricatured formulations of holism that ignore human action must be set aside. They then ask us to re-examine the nature of human action. Action is distinguished from mere behaviour by its intentional character. This much is uncontested between individualists and holists. But against the individualist contention that intentions exist as only psychological states in the heads of individuals, the holist argues that they also lie directly embedded in irreducible social practices, and that the identification of any intention is impossible without examining the social context within which agents think and act. Holists find nothing wrong with the need to unravel the motivations of individuals, but they contend that these motivations cannot be individuated without appeal to the wider beliefs and practices of the community. For instance, the acquiescence of oppressed workers may take the form not of total submission but subtle negotiation that yields them sub-optimal benefits. Insensitivity to social context may blind us to this. Besides, it is not a matter of individual beliefs and preferences that this strategy is adopted. That decisions are taken by subtle strategies of negotiation rather than by explicit bargaining, deployment of force or use of high moral principles is a matter of social practice irreducible to the conscious action of individuals.

Two conclusions follow if the holist claim is true. First, that a reference to a social entity is inescapable even when social facts are explained in terms of individual actions, because of the necessary presence of a social ingredient in all individual intentions and actions. Second, a reference to individual actions is not even necessary when social facts are explained or understood in terms of social practices. Thus, the individualist view that explanation in social science must rely wholly and exhaustively on individual entities is hotly contested and is not as uncontroversial or trivial as it appears.

Citing this article:
Bhargava, Rajeev. Holism and individualism in history and social science, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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