Individuals in Science


November 18 & 19, 2013
Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
University of Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne


Monday, November 18, 2013
10:00-11:30 John B. Davis (Marquette University and University of
Amsterdam): Moving economics’ individual conception forward
12:00-14:00 Lunch break
14:00-15:30 Christian List (LSE): Methodological Individualism and Holism in Political Science: A Reconciliation
15:30-16:00 Coffee break
16:00-17:30 Alex Manafu (IHPST): Inter-theoretic Relations: the Brønsted-Lowry Theory of Acids and Microphysics

Tuesday, November 19, 2013
9:00-10:30 John Dupré (University of Exeter): Individuating Living Processes.
10:30-11:00 Coffee break
11:00-12:30 Philippe Huneman (IHPST Paris) Individuality as a theoretical scheme: an interactions-first view of individuals
12:30-14:30 Lunch break
14:30-16:00 Arantza Etxeberria (U Basque Country, San Sebastian): Individuality, relatedness and autonomy in biology and medicine



  • John B. Davis (Marquette University and University of Amsterdam): Moving economics’ individual conception forward

I review the ontological-criterial approach to individual identity employed in my Individuals and Identity in Economics (2011) to evaluate the adequacy of recent individual conceptions in economics. The individuation criterion evaluates individual conceptions according to whether they successfully pick out independent individuals, and concerns an ‘upper’ bound on what being an individual involves, namely that the individual does not disappear into a social aggregate. The re-identification criterion evaluates individual conceptions according to whether they successfully pick out single individuals through change, and concerns a ‘lower’ bound on what being an individual involves, namely that the individual does not fragment into multiple selves. The two leading individual conceptions in economics – the neoclassical utility and behavioral economics conceptions – are briefly evaluated in terms of these criteria.

I then argue that an important problem for the standard expected utility individual conception is that it does not adequately accommodate reflexivity, understood as how individuals revise the grounds on which they make choices. Those grounds are: (1) their beliefs, where revision operates through Bayesian expectations feedback systems, explained in terms of rational expectations and the representative individual assumption; and (2) their preferences, where revision operates through endogenous preference feedback systems, explained in terms of rational addiction and by assuming dynamically consistent preferences. Rational expectations and the representative individual assumption require that different individuals’ expectations are uncorrelated. At issue here is the ‘upper’ bound on what being an individual involves, and whether individuals disappear into social aggregates. Rational addiction and the assumption that preferences are dynamically consistent exclude present-bias and dynamically inconsistent preferences. At issue here is the ‘lower’ bound on what being an individual involves, and whether individuals fragment into multiple selves. I close with brief comments on what an individual conception involves which addresses these two problems.

Political science is divided between methodological individualists, who seek to explain political phenomena by reference to individuals and their interactions, and holists (or non-reductionists), who consider some higher-level social entities or properties such as states, institutions, or cultures ontologically or causally significant. We propose a reconciliation between these two perspectives, building on related work in philosophy.
After laying out a taxonomy of different variants of each view, we observe that (i) although political phenomena result from underlying individual attitudes and behaviour, individual-level descriptions do not always capture all explanatorily salient properties, and (ii) non-reductionistic explanations are mandated when social regularities are robust to changes in their individual-level realization. We characterize the dividing line between phenomena requiring non-reductionistic explanation and phenomena permitting individualistic explanation and give examples from the study of ethnic conflicts, social-network theory, and international-relations theory.

  • Paul Teller (University of California Davis): What – and how – do we learn when we “give an ontology”?

What individuals are there in the world? I will pursue this question as an instance of how to think very broadly about “giving an ontology”. We think of the ontologist’s job as that of figuring out, what is the true ontology of the world. A tough job because, today and for at least a long time to come, even our best theories are highly idealized, not true. Consider the example of water: To understand the fluid properties of water we idealize it as a continuous medium, and to understand dispersive, electrolytic and other properties we idealize it as a collection of thermally moving particles. We think that the particulate ontology is “more nearly right”. I argue against this attitude, urging that instead we should think of the two water models both as legitimate ways of understanding aspects of the world, both of which, given human limitations, we must have for the our best available way of getting at the world. And I argue that this “water/water” moral applies very generally to all our theoretical knowledge. Given that the world is too complicated for us to devise theories that are both completely precise and completely accurate, our theoretical knowledge of the world is ineliminably pluralistic. The same sort of conclusions apply also to our prescientific, in particular to perceptual knowledge. We have a kind of “reifying instinct” that makes us think intuitively as direct realists. But perception essentially involves representation, and where representation in science always fails of perfect precision and/or accuracy, the more so does this hold for perception. This conclusion is well illustrated and supported by what we know of color perception, that it is not of some independent, intrinsic properties of external objects, but is a complex, approximate, and dynamic relation among us, perceptual targets, and the intervening environment. So the conclusion holds with complete generality: Our epistemic limitations dictate that, rather than choosing some one correct ontology from among competing rivals, human knowledge works with complementary ontologies all of which we need for a robust but never exact understanding of what there is.

  • John Dupré (University of Exeter): Individuating Living Processes

Whereas much thinking about science is still grounded in the substance-based ontology that has dominated at least since the Scientific Revolution, living things are in fact fundamentally processual. Life processes are, moreover, profoundly intertwined with one another, often to an extent that makes distinguishing between individual processes difficult or even arbitrary. In this talk I shall discuss the problems this ontological situation poses for individuating biological entities.

  • Philippe Huneman (IHPST Paris): Individuality as a theoretical scheme: an interactions-first view of individuals

Biological individuals are traditionally defined through a reference to natural selection (e.g. Hull 1980). This paper looks for a concept of individuality that would hold at the same time for organisms and for ecosystems, the latter being  unaffected by natural selection (as accepted by the traditional theory). In the wake of Simon’s notion of “quasi-independence”, I elaborate a concept of “weak individuality” defined by probabilistic connections between sub-entities, read off our knowledge of their interactions. This formal scheme of connections allows one to infer what are the individuals, to the extent that they are made up by subentities that stand in constant interactions. The paper first argues that if ecosystems don’t have strong individuality (in the sense of natural-selection based individuality), they still possess a weak individuality, ecological theories providing the values of the variables in the formula for individuality. Second it argues more generally that in any ontological field individuals are understood on the basis of our knowledge of interactions, through the application of these general formula for extracting individuals from interactions. Individuality appears therefore as a formal notion, whose instantiations are always theory-based, since a specific theory has always to provide the meaning and values for all variables in order allow one to apply the formulas for the individuality scheme.

  • Arantza Etxeberria (U Basque Country, San Sebastian): Individuality, relatedness and autonomy in biology and medicine

Recent research in biology shows the shortcomings of individualistic views of living entities and the difficulties to define what a biological individual or an organism is. Although they have been characterised as homogeneous, unique, and autonomous, new literature emphasises that organisms may be heterogeneous, clonal, and totally dependent on others with whom they form symbiotic or other kinds of entangled associations. Thus, the claim that “organisms are not individuals” starts to be pronounced as a mantra, and there are efforts to understand biological entities in relatedness and ecological interactions.
In order to examine claims of individuality and relatedness two different aspects of autonomy elaborated in biology and medicine will be examined in this presentation. One is organizational autonomy, dealing with how parts causally interact among them to dynamically generate one another and globally an organized entity such as an organism. There is no need that its components are homogenous; they can have different origins. And this organization provides an identity to the entity, but not related to the idiosyncrasies of certain parts, such as the genome, but distributed in the processes of components and interactions. The other is relational autonomy, which has to do with the way in which emerging entities or individuals deal with others. Of this there are two possible understandings. One emphasises individuality over relatedness, so that self-development and independence from others in the surroundings are marks of autonomy. The other reveals that important properties which are assumed to be intrinsic to the individual entity are in fact generated in relations. Thus, relations with other entities may enhance or diminish the degree of autonomy of the entity considered. For some authors the fact that important biological properties or functions are interactive or relational, and not intrinsic, has as a consequence the recent crisis of the notion of individual or of organism in biology.
The goal of this presentation is to examine the role of individuality as autonomy for research in biology and medicine. I will suggest that both in the philosophy of biology and of medicine part of the problem is an ambiguity about whether the perspective of autonomy considers phenomena in a descriptive or in a normative way. Whereas authors appealing to autonomy to characterise living organization (organizational autonomy) defend that autonomy is a fact and its properties or conditions can be naturalized, very often autonomy is considered as a value or as a norm, and this is evident in the two opposed understandings of relational autonomy.


Organizers: Max Kistler, Alex Manafu, Thomas Pradeu, Alexandre Guay

Alex Manafu: Alex.Manafu(here goes you know what sign)
Max Kistler: Maximilian.Kistler(here goes you know what sign)