Against Holism: The Boudon-Montaigne Farting Example

24 June 2007 at 7:13 am 2 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Sophisticated attacks by methodological holists on methodological individualism often take the form of admitting that while, strictly speaking, only individuals act, individuals are so strongly influenced and constrained by institutions (in a broad sense) that we might as well disregard those individuals and instead reason directly from institutions to social outcomes. Individuals are effectively malleable by social forces. “There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture,” Clifford Geertz famously argued, tying the holist argument to cultural relativism.

A famous thinker often invoked by holists/relativists (particularly Geertz) is Michel de Montaigne on account of his argument that since moral truths differ across cultures, Protestants and Catholics should not engage in war. However, Montaigne was by no means a believer in wholesale socialization (as Geertz wants it). To cite Raymond Boudon (in this book, p. 33):

… in a comical passage inspired by Diogenes, Montaigne shows that philosophico-religious beliefs themselves, far from expressing the indelible effect of socialization, may on the contrary seem very fragile. A Greek member of the Stoic sect had, he recounts, “farted indiscreetely while debating, in the presence of his school, and kept to his house, hiding there in his shame.” Such shame is indeed a socialization effect. But this effect must have disappeared all of a sudden when one of his friends “by adding to his reasons and consolations the example of his freedom, began to fart himself in imitation, and in so he took away his shame, and moreover took him out of his Stoic sect.” … A single fart may, then, according to Montaigne, suddenly wipe out all the effects of the mechanisms of socialization that the culturalists see as determinant as the laws of gravitation.

A pretty decisive example, right?

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Myths and Realities.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Mahoney  |  24 June 2007 at 9:14 am

    While some may say your example stinks, I would say it’s a gas.

  • 2. spostrel  |  24 June 2007 at 8:15 pm

    And on a less aromatic note, let’s not forget the Kraatz-Zajac paper on liberal arts colleges.

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