One further note on Foucault, concerning methodological individualism

In my previous post, I neglected one point.  Reading Foucault is one useful path out of extreme positions of methodological individualism.  By methodological individualism I mean the view that "method aimed at explaining and understanding broad society-wide developments as the aggregation of decisions by individuals," as Wikipedia puts it.

Foucault understood how actual historical explanation relies on the use of broad categories, classes, and exemplars, and in a manner which is not logically reducible to statements about individual beliefs and desires.  The writer (theorist) has nothing close to a complete mental model of how the interacting categories reduce to component individual parts, and so some or most of the moving parts of the explanation retain their autonomy at a partially macro level.  The Austrians will kick and scream on this one, but if you combine imperfect information and the sense/reference distinction, methodological individualism ends up as more of a slogan than anything else.  There is a reflective equilibrium to the explanatory process, and micro relies on some macro foundations, not just vice versa, and individuals rely on the social for some of their cues.  Atomistic reduction to the level of the individual in general will not succeed.

The denier of strict MI is not committed to extreme Hegelian views about the autonomous existence of collectivities and it is debatable how much even Hegel himself made that mistake.

I grant that Foucault takes his own method too far in the anti-individualist direction, as did Hegel.

Foucault is by no means the only or even the best path out of extreme methodological individualism.  See this article by David Levy or late Wittgenstein or William James on pluralism, for instance, or more recently Geoffrey Hodgson, perhaps the best place to start.  Here is a quick overview of some of the debates, though it does not cover the best criticisms.  Neuroeconomics, and modular models of the mind, also can be read as critiques of MI, suggesting, as did Nozick, there is no particular reason to stop at the level of the individual in doing the explanation.

Oddly, for all their talk about methodological individualism, economists hardly ever engage in the medium for which it is most appropriate: biography.

A while ago I wrote a review essay on biography and economics.  Here's a challenge: if economics is so powerful, and MI is so persuasive, try writing a biography of a person, using economic tools, and see how much of that person's life you can explain.  It is a humbling and instructive experience and you can read my attempt here.


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