Individualism in Social Science: Forms and Limits of a Methodology

By Rajeev Bhargava | Go to book overview

6
The Non-Individualist Challenge: Contextualism

For an individualist, stereotypes, the shared intensions of ordinary folk, are similar mental states of individuals. These common beliefs determine everyday reference. What counts as a lemon, a bottle, a club, a nation, or art, or who counts as a policeman or a bourgeois, is determined by what a collection of individuals believes each to be. Our world of everyday reference is a matter of intersubjective agreement or consensus. Classifications are based on conventions and change by the common decision of individuals. The individualism in all this arises from the content of mental states that is both individuated and known individually. As a result what is common and intersubjective is the mere concurrence of many wholly individual mental states. There is nothing more to the socalled sociality of meanings and concepts. Although there is a sense in which some mutual interlocking of beliefs exists, the relevant beliefs neither entail nor presuppose the existence of any other entity, including the beliefs of others. A group mind or consciousness cannot exist. Here in essence is the best individualist view of the matter. Can it be challenged?

In the social sciences, opposition to this perspective has come from a view that I shall henceforth call contextualism. One major aspect of the contextualist thesis is the claim that concepts must be understood in their social context, and a fortiori that they are social in the sense that they are possible and sustainable only in a social context. For the contextualist, concepts cannot and do not exist only in the minds of individuals and grasping them cannot simply be a matter of performing an individual mental act. Furthermore, it is in the very nature of concepts that they be shared; sharing is not something that happens contingently after they are formed or grasped. The emergence and persistence of meanings cannot be explained in terms of individual decision or inter-individual convenience. Finally, the determination of reference is governed by socially rooted frameworks not by psychologically founded consensus. Everyday reference is fixed by practice and therefore is a social as opposed to an individual construction. Even the classification of nature depends upon

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