Methodological individualism

The conservative doctrine that society is prior to individuals (pace Margaret Thatcher) is the received view of sociology, but if there’s an assumed political implication, it lies to the left: we’re all in the same boat, so we should help each other and spend time keeping the vessel seaworthy, if we don’t want to end up in the drink. Society cannot be reduced to its members, as St. Paul knew and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus after him (Act I Scene i):

There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answer’d […]
‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,
‘That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
You, my good friends,’–this says the belly, mark me, […]
Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.’ What say you to’t?

… and see I Corinthians 12:14 ff.

Here the idea is advanced in favour of patrician privilege, so maybe it doesn’t belong on the left at all. To return to sociology, crudely speaking, those who take something of an atomistic view of individuals court suspicion of entertaining right-wing sympathies. There is an elaborate insistence that their individualism is no more than “methodological”, but it’s clear there’s an elective affinity between methodology and ideology.

Perhaps in five hundred years, liberalism will be viewed as a passing aberration.


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