chapter  11
17 Pages

Should we privilege the individual?

There are two lines of argument favoured by some philosophers of history today which conclude that in explaining social changes in the past, and even in just describing what happened in the past, we should focus upon individuals and their particular behaviour. The first of these arguments has often been called an argument for methodological individualism. That theory says that social changes are brought about by individuals, and so should be explained as the product of individual actions. It denies that social changes can themselves be causes of other social changes. The second line of argument is derived from the work of Jean-François Lyotard, particularly that translated and published under the title The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). Lyotard attacks all theories of social change, and even theories of knowledge, as ‘meta-narratives’ which are not really true, and should be ignored. Instead he advises historians to write small narratives of historical episodes, which have no general significance whatever. Both these lines of argument are interesting, but in the end neither is persuasive.