Rethinking the Individualism-Holism Debate

Volume 372 of the series Synthese Library pp 39-53


Social Entities and the Basis of Their Powers

  • Dave Elder-VassAffiliated withDepartment of Social Sciences, Loughborough University Email author 

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This paper offers an emergentist justification for the claim that social structure is causally significant when it takes the form of social entities with relationally emergent causal powers. Such powers are generated by processes of interaction between the characteristic set of parts, given the characteristic relations between them, that occur in entities of the type concerned. The paper offers a justification of this argument in the face of criticisms that it is too weak to ground causal claims, arguing on the contrary that debates in the philosophy of mind have raised expectations of emergence theory beyond what it can plausibly deliver. The relational form of emergence theory provides a viable refutation of eliminative reductionism as a generalised strategy, and can also be employed to refute the form of eliminative reductionism known as methodological individualism. This kind of emergence theory delivers just what we need from the concept: it justifies the need for higher level sciences to study higher level mechanisms and powers, mechanisms whose explanation will never be made redundant by some lower level theory of everything. It also supports a specific way of thinking about social structure that is arguably rather different from the ways that have tended to dominate sociological discourse. My project includes developing such theory, and the final part of the paper illustrates how this way of thinking about emergence in the social sphere leads to useful and interesting ways of reconceptualising social structure.


Social emergence Methodological individualism Relational emergence Causal powers Norm circles