One of the fundamental principles of the Austrian school of economics, particularly the kind promoted by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, is methodological individualism, according to which the only way to analyze economic phenomena is with reference to individual human beings. Human action is viewed as an irreducible primitive, by which a human being through free will can use an intention to effect changes in the physical world.

Yet many Austrians, being atheists, subscribe to a materialistic worldview in which a human being is nothing but a system of interacting particles? ?My question is, is that belief compatible with their adherence to methodological individualism? If a human being is nothing more than a collection of particles, then how is it possible that human action cannot be explained in terms the behavior of those particles and their interactions?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You in Advance.

2 Answers 2


Mises does not insists that human behaviour may not be explainable from some point of view. He just says that he needs not be concerned with that, because that men do act cannot be denied (in doing so, you would actuallay act, mind you). Or, as they put it, you cannot not act.

To draw an analogy: Take chemistry - sure, you can explain the chemical elements on a lower level like quantum theory. But the chemist needs not to be concerned about that. He can start from the fact that chemical elements exist, and that their properties are such and such. (I am convinced you need to know a good deal of physics to be a good chemist, but you certainly don't need to know quantum theory.)

I recommend reading the first chapter of "Human Action", where this topic is discussed.

On another note "nothing more than a collection of particles" is not exactly materialism. It would be an extreme form of "materialist reductionism", which could, for example, not see that an ant colony is a bit more than just a "collection of ants".



☛ Methodological individualism (MI) usually indicates one of two views :

the main individualist claims usually hold either that theories referring to social entities, social properties, etc. are in principle reducible to purely individualist theories or that at least every social event, etc. can be fully explained in purely individualist terms (Harold Kincaid, 'Eliminativism and Methodological Individualism', Philosophy of Science, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), p.141.

☛ Materialism

If the term is to be used, I go along with JJC Smart's view that materialism is 'the theory that there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics' (JJC Smart, 'Materialism', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60, No. 22, 1963, 651). Other takes on materialism are available but this lightly extensional one seems to fit the phrase in the question, at least as far as concerns human beings, namely that we are just 'collections of molecules'. (We could be just collections of sub-atomic particles, of course, but let's stay with the questioner at the molecular level.)


MI as such makes no assumptions about the nature of the individuals to which social entities and the rest are reducible. It does assume that reduction stops at the level of human beings as interacting, conscious, purposive agents (and not of human beings as a 'collection of particles') but whether human beings are nothing but material objects, or some other kind of physical object, or minds-and-bodies is an issue with which MI is not concerned. MI is not inconsistent with materialism; as a methodology in the social sciences it takes no view on materialism.

Nothing I'm aware of in the work of von Mises, Boehm-Bawark, Menger or Rothbard assumes that MI - or methodological 'apriorism' as von Mises called it - assumes that we are nothing but 'collections of particles'. They were economists interested in the nature of social explanation, in human beings as (to repeat) interacting, conscious, purposive agents. If we are 'collections of particles' this was not the description under which they were interested in us any more than they were interested in our chemical composition as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.

They could have accepted the identity theory that 'collections of molecules' are Locke's 'thinking matter' ('Essay Concerning Human Understanding', IV.iii.6) and that human beings are collections of molecules that are identical with interacting, conscious, purposive agents.


On the materialist side only eliminative materialism : mental states (properties and events) are realised by physical states (properties and events) and a psychology of 'consciousness' and 'purposiveness' is replaceable by a purely physical account of human behaviour - would be inconsistent with MI as characterised above. Whether it would take a conscious, purposive human agent to produce such an account, I leave an open question.

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