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Other theories argue that among the constituents of the social are also resources and other features of the world. For instance, many microeconomic models include variables not only for attributes of individual people, but also for bundles of resources possessed by those people, or for such things as capital goods or geographic locations. Penrose proposes that firms corporations, partnerships, etc. Despite such examples, it is often unclear whether such theories genuinely take goods and resources to be ontologically related to social entities.

Or instead, whether they regard resources to interact causally with social entities, but not to constitute them.

Moreover, even in models that include resources, often only individual choices are modeled as having causal powers: resources have no causal import except as mediated by the attitudes and actions of individuals. A more unequivocal turn away from mentalism and toward the external world in constituting social entities occurred in the s in sociology and anthropology.

The Idea of a Social Science: And Its Relation to Philosophy by Peter Winch

Theorists in these fields began to pay a great deal of attention to how bodies cope in the practical world, as discussed in section 3. The most prominent theories arguing for non-social building blocks of the social are individualistic in either a narrow or broad sense. Either the social is exhaustively determined by the psychological states of individual people, or by these plus behaviors, bodies, and actions, or by these plus resource bundles allocated to individuals.

An alternative is to reject individualism altogether, and instead regard the determination base of the social to include at least potentially any physical entities whatever see Epstein , Hindriks , Ylikoski Physicalism is often understood to be the view that all facts—the social ones included—are physical facts see entry on physicalism. Physicalism—on this and related understandings—has difficulties as well.

First, even if it is true, it would be surprising if this is all we can say about the facts that determine the social ones. Physicalism seems at best a starting point in an account of the ontology of the social. But these are largely designed to make sense of levels of a sort in scientific methodology, rather than to put forward claims about ontological determination.

Second, it is difficult to define physicalism, and in particular to ensure that it is not trivial see entry on physicalism. See sections 3. Clarifying physicalism likewise requires clarifying what dependence relation various facts are taken to stand in, with regard to the physical. Are social facts, for instance, taken to be physical facts? To supervene on physical facts? To be exhaustively grounded by physical facts?

See section 2. Third, it is unclear if physicalism is true. In fact, certain social entities seem to be good candidates for counterexamples to at least some versions of physicalism. Bennett b. The classic example used to discuss coinciding objects is an artwork—a statue—and the clay that constitutes it Gibbard Many theorists in social ontology reject the approaches discussed in section 3. It is fruitless, they hold, to search for non-social building blocks of the social world.

That does not mean, however, that they renounce analysis of the social altogether. Instead, they try to shed light on the determination of the social in terms of other social components. Some of these projects make similar claims to the ones in the last section. That is, they propose sets of entities that exhaustively determine the social world—but they propose sets consisting of social entities.

Other projects are more modest. They aim at partial accounts, rather than exhaustive ones. Just as one might break a car down into chassis, engine, transmission, etc. For those projects that do attempt to give an exhaustive analysis of the social in terms of other social building blocks, a recurring worry is whether they can avoid being circular. If we were trying to explain the nature of water, it would hardly do to say that it is built out of watery parts.

Likewise, it is unclear what we have accomplished if we argue that social entity x is ontologically determined by social entity y , and then that y in turn is partly ontologically determined by x. A variant of psychologism takes an externalist approach to mental states. Externalism is the view that mental states ontologically depend on facts about the external world.

Government partly depends on the external entity that is the U.

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Government see the entry on externalism about mental content. This version of psychologism regards the social to be exhaustively determined by externalist mental states. Mid-century opponents of standard psychologism Mandelbaum , Gellner , Goldstein had raised the problem of attitudes toward social entities, but it is not clear in those views whether the external world was causally or constitutively related to the mental states. Following Kripke and Putnam , the explicitly externalist view was developed by Bhargava and Pettit Pettit argues for externalist psychologism as a qualified version of individualism.

Like more standard psychologism, he takes social phenomena to be exhaustively determined by mental states. The mental states in question, however, are partly constituted by external stuff. Externalist psychologism, if correct, would pare down the determination base of the social world to one kind of partly social entity. It faces hurdles, however. First, it must explain how it avoids circularity—that is, social entities depend on attitudes toward those entities that depend on the social entities themselves. Second and more seriously, it needs to explain why this is a plausible determination base for the social.

According to this view, the external world figures profoundly into the determination of the social—but only when it is a constituent of attitudes. Strangely, when the external world is not a constituent of attitudes, it plays no role in the determination of the social. Other theorists argue that people or selves are socially constituted.

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A view like this—much like the externalist psychologism discussed above—can be seen as individualistic in some sense. Though it does not argue that the social world is determined by non-social or pre-social individuals, it still holds that the social is determined by individuals. Husserl, for one, argues that the social world is the community of intersubjectively constituted individuals. Many views of the self as socially constituted implicitly equate the self with the individual mind, consciousness, or mental states.

Among many others, Hegel argues that self-consciousness—and hence the existence of the self—depends on recognition from others see section 1. MacIntyre argues that selves are constituted by social narratives; Taylor that the self is constituted through the participation in moral frameworks; and Davis develops a social narrative theory of the individual in economics.

Other views focus on the social constitution of the body. Foucault , a and Butler , , , among others, hold that an adequate theory of the self involves the construction of bodies as much as it does the construction of mental states. And they argue that human bodies are largely products of discourse and the exercise of social power. However, in interpreting these views it is important to distinguish claims about the constituents of selves and bodies from claims about how kinds and categories are set up. At least to some extent, these are theories of how narratives and practices set up categories for classifying bodies see sections 4.

It can also be illuminating even to give a partial account of one particular social entity in terms of others.

Social Ontology

A certain type of hate-crime, for instance, might be usefully analyzed as constituted in part by a speech act. That may be useful for social science or law, whether or not we can say much about the nature of speech acts. In economics, general equilibrium models are often designed to represent sets of households as opposed to individuals , endowments of resources, sets of firms, goods, and other entities such as bonds and governments Mas-Colell et al. In models like these, some ontological work is implicitly done, in their partial analysis of economic systems into components.

It is also common in sociological theory to analyze social entities into other social parts see section 5. Coleman , Jarvie , Udehn This, however, is an approach to methodology, not a claim about the nature of the social. These models do not generally commit themselves to ontological claims either about the nature of these entities or about which social entities the various components constitute. Popper, for one, argues for the indispensability of institutions in social explanation, but has a psychologistic ontology of institutions and all social entities.

Theories of practice, developed in anthropology in the s and s, turn their attention to actions, routines, and the engagement of people with the world. Consider, for instance, a way of cooking in a given culture.

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Individuals, according to practice theory, are always involved in the performance of practices, but those performances are not limited to the bodies and minds of the performing individuals. Bourdieu takes practices to be exhaustively determined by sets of objectively observable behaviors. Some theories of practice are, to a certain extent, individualistic.


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Practice theory is largely concerned with bodily activity—the ways people move, carry themselves, and act skillfully—as it is reproduced in a culture. Still, practices involve not only attitudes and mental representations, but also objects in the world: pans, stoves, vegetables, and sauces are among the constituents of cooking practices. Moreover, individual activities themselves depend on the social: they are partly constituted by the cultural practices of which they are instances.

Although it is common to distinguish individualism and holism as the two poles in debates over social ontology, the range of views discussed in sections 3. Even among those in 3.


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  4. Some theories are dualist: they propose separate spheres of the individualistic and the social, akin to the Cartesian distinction between bodies and mind. Others are monist: they take the social to be fundamental or to have ontological priority. Dualism about the social is the view that social and non-social entities—such as societies and individuals, or structures and agents—are distinct, and neither is grounded in the other.

    In those debates, defenders of holism did not deny the existence of the non-social. Instead, they argued that the social cannot be reduced to individualistic entities. Work on the relation between minds and bodies strongly influences arguments about social dualism. As applied to minds, this is the view that there may be in-principle obstacles to reducing mental properties or facts to physical properties or facts, even though the mental is exhaustively determined by the physical.

    These philosophers agree with the basic strategy for denying dualism. Dualism has seen a resurgence among some philosophers of mind, e. It is not clear, however, that the sorts of argument marshalled in favor of mental dualism could apply to social dualism. A different version of social holism is monist rather than dualist.

    Instead of postulating two or more spheres of substances—social and non-social—this version regards social entities to be ontologically prior or fundamental, and individual people and other entities to be ontologically derivative on the social. This sort of monism is often associated with Hegel see section A. Some mid-century social theories also seem to take this position. In its initial applications to anthropology, roles in a cultural system were analyzed in terms of the system as a whole. By the s, however, the point was applied not just to roles but to individuals themselves.