Monday, March 01, 2010

Carl Dyke explains why atomistic reductionism and "methodological individualism" are silly

A little item from the group blog Dead Voles that my friend Carl Dyke runs with two associates. Carl is formally a historian, but by intellectual formation and inclination he's also a social theorist. One theme he addresses frequently & perceptively in this blog is the logic and significance of emergent properties--or, to put it the other way around, the fallacious, analytically superficial, and misleadingly pseudo-realistic character of approaches based on atomistic reductionism.

(Incidentally: When atomistic reductionism is applied in discussions of society and politics, the phrase commonly used to describe this position by its adherents is "methodological individualism". But that standard phrase is often misleading, since much of the time their perspective is more correctly described as ontological individualism--i.e., a quasi-metaphysical commitment to the notion that only individuals really exist, so that social or cultural phenomena are really no more than aggregations of individuals and of individual characteristics. This perspective is often presented as tough-minded and analytically rigorous, but in fact it is sociologically naive, theoretically and practically misleading, and, to put it bluntly, wrong. Or so I would argue, along with Carl Dyke, Emile Durkheim, and others. )

--Jeff Weintraub

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Dead Voles
November 17, 2009
Emergence x2
Posted by Carl Dyke

Collating two nice clear instances of emergence. The first is from xkcd, courtesy of hyper tiling. The alt-text is the kicker, but you may have to click through to get it ["Dad, where is Grandpa right now?"]:

Dad, where is Grandpa right now?

The second is from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), courtesy of Ktismatics:
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”
A little Orientalism here, but it’s Calvino so everything gets its exotic turn.

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