Social Groups, Explanation and Ontological Holism

Philosophical Papers 32 (2):193-224 (2003)
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Abstract Ontological holism is the thesis that social groups are best understood as composite material particulars. At a high level of taxonomic classification groups such as mobs, tribes and nations are the same kind of thing as organisms and artefacts. This holism is opposed by ontological individualism, which maintains that in our formal and folk social scientific discourse we only really refer to individuals and the relations in which they stand. The paper begins from the claim that ontological holism is given prima facie plausibility by the apparently ineliminable role of groups in some descriptions and explanations of the social domain. If the individualist accepts the link between indispensabilty and realism, then individualism must show that groups cannot play the role the holist requires. Three arguments are considered which aim to show that groups are indeed unfitted for this ineliminable role: the appeal to reduction-in principle, the claim that groups cannot possess the causal powers attributed to them by holism, and the view that holism is committed to the attribution of mental properties to groups. Each is rejected as a basis for undermining holism. The paper concludes that this leaves holism in a position to be articulated within a framework that supports a broadly naturalist conception of the social sciences.



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Paul Sheehy
King's College London

Citations of this work

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