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Functional Explanation and Metaphysical Individualism
  • Justin Schwartz

A number of (present or former) analytical Marxists, such as Jon Elster, have argued that functional explanation has almost no place in the social sciences. (Although the discussion is framed in terms of a debate among analytical Marxists, the point is quite general, and Marxism is used for illustrative purposes.) Functional explanation accounts for what is to be explained by reference to its function; thus, sighted organism have eyes because eyes enable them to see. Elster and other critics of functional explanation argue that this pattern of explanation is inconsistent with "methodological individualism," the idea, as they understand it, that social phenomena and institutions are to be explained in terms of the actions, beefs, and desires of the individual actors.

However, other analytical Marxists, such as the (now late) G.A. Cohen, argue that functional explanation is essential and valuable in social explanation, and that Marx in particular makes great use of it in his account of capitalism, explaining social institutions like the state by their usefulness to the ruling class in maintaining class rule and the prevailing mode of production. Cohen offers a detailed account of functional explanation that is supposed to avoid Elster's strictures. I argue that Elster's criticisms of functional explanation and Cohen's defense of it are both flawed. I offer an alternative account based on an analogy to functional explanation in biology.

In addition, I show how Elster's defense of of "methodological individualism" is a metaphysical rather than a scientific account, and one based on a common confusion between explaining away a higher-level, collective phenomenon by showing that it "nothing but" the causal connections that bring it about (which can be eliminated without explanatory loss), and explaining what that phenomenon is and how it is caused and constituted (without eliminating it) by showing how lower-level explanatory factors bring it about. By making the distinctions I suggest and avoiding the confusions I urge, I show how a correct notion of functional explanation can have a useful role in social explanation. I also show that methodological individualism, as opposed to metaphysical individualism, is an empirical hypothesis -- often not a very plausible one -- rather than a methodological rule or metaphysical constraint on legitimate social scientific analysis

  • Functional explanation,
  • Methodological individualism,
  • social scientific explanation,
  • reduction,
  • elimination,
  • antireductionism,
  • collective entities,
  • G.A. Cohen,
  • Jon Elster,
  • evolutionary explanation,
  • analytical Marxis
Publication Date
Citation Information
Justin Schwartz. "Functional Explanation and Metaphysical Individualism" PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE Vol. 60 (1993)
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