Individualists about social ontology hold that social facts are “built out of” facts about individuals. In this paper, I argue that there are two distinct kinds of individualism about social ontology, two different ways individual people might be the metaphysical “builders” of the social world. The familiar kind is ontological individualism. This is the thesis that social facts supervene on, or are exhaustively grounded by, facts about individual people. What I call anchor individualism is the alternative thesis that facts about individuals put in place the conditions for a social entity to exist, or the conditions for something to have a social property. Examples include conventionalist theories of the social world, such as David Hume’s theories of promises, money, and government, and collective acceptance theories, such as John Searle’s theory of institutional facts. Anchor individualism is often conflated with ontological individualism. But in fact, the two theses are in tension with one another: if one of these kinds of individualism is true, then the other is very unlikely to be. My aim in this paper is to clarify both, and argue that they should be sharply distinguished from one another.
In Rethinking the Individualism/Holism Debate: Essays in the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. by Finn Collin and Julie Zahle. Dordrecht: Springer, 2014.