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The Reduction of Society

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

D. H. Mellor
University of Cambridge


How does the study of society relate to the study of the people it comprises? This longstanding question is partly one of method, but mainly one of fact, of how independent the objects of these two studies, societies and people, are. It is commonly put as a question of reduction, and I shall tackle it in that form: does sociology reduce in principle to individual psychology? I follow custom in calling the claim that it does ‘individualism’ and its denial ‘holism’.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1982

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1 E.g. E., Nagel, The Structure of Science (London: Routledge, 1969), ch. 11; P. K. Feyerabend, ‘Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism’, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science Volume 3, H. Feigl and G. Maxwell (eds) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 28-97.Google Scholar

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24 This is not a merely pedantic conclusion, to be evaded by some formal weakening of the identity conditions for sets. Groups can only be innocuously abstract objects, and group membership acceptable as a primitive formal relation, if the group's identity follows, as a set's does, from that of its members.

25 In particular, since languages are attributes of individual people as well as of groups, and extensional logic identifies attributes with the sets of their possessors, this confusion also helps to reinforce that of groups with sets of their members.

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32 In this respect these states are like dispositions in any other science; it does not make the way they explain action any less causal than, say, the way acceleration is explained by forces acting on inertial masses. See my ‘In Defense of Dispositions’, Philosophical Review 83 (1974), 157-181.

33 Op. cit., note 29.

34 This is not of course to deny that psychological states are affected by social ones, merely that the latter in t u r n reduce to other psychological and physical states.

35 Even if jealousy itself is required to have an actual object, the related state that generates and explains a's jealous actions can do without it, and that is what matters here.

36 D. H. Mellor, op. cit., note 5, section 2.

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41 E.g. by E. A. Gellner, ‘Explanations in History’, in J. O'Neill (ed.), op. cit., note 7, 263; M. Mandelbaum, op. cit., note 29, 229.

42 S. D. T., James, Holism in Social Theory: the Case of Marxism (Cambridge University Ph.D. dissertation, 1978), 73. This dissertation has in fact been t h e main source, both of new ideas and recent references, in my latest revision of this paper, and my debt is none the less for my disagreement with it.Google Scholar

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47 47 This is the latest of a series of successively and heavily revised papers on this topic, and I am indebted to all those who have commented on its predecessors, especially those present at the September 1978 meeting of the Thyssen UK Philosophy Group, at which the penultimate version was discussed. The present version was written during my tenure of a Radcliffe Fellowship, and partly while holding a British Academy Overseas Visiting Fellowship at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. I am grateful to the Radcliffe Trust and the British Academy for making that visit possible, and to my colleagues at Berkeley and Stanford for making it both profitable and pleasant. Since the final version of this paper was accepted for publication in 1980, the following relevant articles have appeared, of which it has therefore not been possible to take account: H. L. Dreyfus, ‘Holism and Hermeneutics’, Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980), 3-23; K.-D. Opp, ‘Group Size, Emergence, and Composition Laws’, Philosophy of Social Sciences 9 (1979), 445-455; C. Perry, ‘Individualism and Causal Explanations’, Agora 4 (1980), 1-15; C. Perry, ‘Popper, Winch and Individualism’, International Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1980), 59-71; C. Taylor, ‘Understanding in Human Science’, Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980), 25-38; P. Urbach, ‘Social propensities’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 31 (1980), 317-328.