Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Early View. 2023.
Bernard Williams articulated his later political philosophy notably in response to Ronald Dworkin, who, striving for coherence or integrity among our political concepts, sought to immunize the concepts of liberty and equality against conflict. Williams, doubtful that we either could or should eliminate the conflict, resisted the pursuit of conceptual integrity. Here, I reconstruct this Dworkin–Williams debate with an eye to drawing out ideas of ongoing philosophical and political importance. The debate not only exemplifies Williams’s political realism and its connection to his critique of the morality system. It also illustrates the virtues and hazards of contemporary efforts to ameliorate or engineer our concepts; it indicates what political philosophy might look to in appraising political concepts; it adverts to the different needs these concepts have to meet if they are to sustain a politics of pluralism, deal with polarization, and secure the consent of those who end up on the losing side of political decisions; and it presents us with two starkly contrasting conceptions of politics itself, of the place of political values within it, and of our prospects of reducing the uncomfortably conflictual character of those values through philosophy.
Midwest Studies in Philosophy 47 (1). 2023.
Genealogies of belief have dominated recent philosophical discussions of genealogical debunking at the expense of genealogies of concepts, which has in turn focused attention on genealogical debunking in an epistemological key. As I argue in this paper, however, this double focus encourages an overly narrow understanding of genealogical debunking. First, not all genealogical debunking can be reduced to the debunking of beliefs—concepts can be debunked without debunking any particular belief, just as beliefs can be debunked without debunking the concepts in terms of which they are articulated. Second, not all genealogical debunking is epistemological debunking. Focusing on concepts rather than beliefs brings distinct forms of genealogical debunking to the fore that cannot be comprehensively captured in terms of epistemological debunking. We thus need a broader understanding of genealogical debunking, which encompasses not just epistemological debunking, but also what I shall refer to as metaphysical debunking and ethical debunking.
Topoi. 2023. With Marcel van Ackeren
Virtue ethics is frequently billed as a remedy to the problems of deontological and consequentialist ethics that Bernard Williams identified in his critique of “the morality system.” But how far can virtue ethics be relied upon to avoid these problems? What does Williams’s critique of the morality system mean for virtue ethics? To answer this question, we offer a more principled characterisation of the defining features of the morality system in terms of its organising ambition—to shelter life against luck. This reveals the system to be multiply realisable: the same function can be served by substantively different but functionally equivalent ideas. After identifying four requirements that ethical thought must meet to function as a morality system, we show that they can also be met by certain constellations of virtue-ethical ideas. We thereby demonstrate the possibility of virtue-ethical morality systems raising problems analogous to those besetting their deontological and consequentialist counterparts. This not only widens the scope of Williams’s critique and brings out the cautionary aspect of his legacy for virtue ethics. It also offers contemporary virtue ethicists a more principled understanding of the functional features that mark out morality systems and lie at the root of their problems, thereby helping them to avoid or overcome these problems.
In: Making Sense of the Past: Bernard Williams and the History of Philosophy. Edited by Marcel van Ackeren and Matthieu Queloz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming. With Nikhil Krishnan.
This chapter argues that several aspects of Bernard Williams’s style, methodology, and metaphilosophy can be read as evolving dialectically out of Wittgenstein’s own. After considering Wittgenstein as a stylistic influence on Williams, especially as regards ideals of clarity, precision, and depth, Williams’s methodological debt to Wittgenstein is examined, in particular his anthropological interest in thick concepts and their point. The chapter then turns to Williams’s explicit association, in the 1990s, with a certain form of Wittgensteinianism, which he called ‘Left Wittgensteinianism’. It is shown how this is not a sudden conversion, but the direct product of Williams’s longstanding critical engagement with Wittgenstein’s methodology and metaphilosophy: Williams arrives at this position by envisaging a Wittgensteinianism that thinks in concrete sociohistorical terms, embraces genuine explanation, and relinquishes its insistence on the purity of philosophy. When properly understood, moreover, this critique turns out to be continuous with Williams’s advocacy of a conception of philosophy as a humanistic discipline. Finally, it is shown that Williams inherits from Wittgenstein a certain understanding of how philosophy can help us to live, in particular the therapeutic ambition to liberate us from distortions in our self-understanding by assembling reminders.
Mind 131 (524): 1247–1278. 2022.
In this paper, I identify a central problem for conceptual engineering: the problem of showing concept-users why they should recognise the authority of the concepts advocated by engineers. I argue that this authority problem cannot generally be solved by appealing to the increased precision, consistency, or other theoretical virtues of engineered concepts. Outside contexts in which we anyway already aim to realise theoretical virtues, solving the authority problem requires engineering to take a functional turn and attend to the functions of concepts. But this then presents us with the problem of how to specify a concept’s function. I argue that extant solutions to this function specification problem are unsatisfactory for engineering purposes, because the functions they identify fail to reliably bestow authority on concepts, and hence fail to solve the authority problem. What is required is an authoritative notion of conceptual function: an account of the functions of concepts which simultaneously shows why concepts fulfilling such functions should be recognised as having authority. I offer an account that meets this combination of demands by specifying the functions of concepts in terms of how they tie in with our present concerns.
In: Bernard Williams: From Responsibility to Law and Jurisprudence. Edited by Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco, Daniel Peixoto Murata, and Julieta Rabanos. Oxford: Hart, forthcoming.
In ‘What Has Philosophy to Learn from Tort Law?’, Bernard Williams reaffirms J. L. Austin’s suggestion that philosophy might learn from tort law ‘the difference between practical reality and philosophical frivolity’. Yet while Austin regarded tort law as just another repository of time-tested concepts, on a par with common sense as represented by a dictionary, Williams argues that ‘the use of certain ideas in the law does more to show that those ideas have strength than is done by the mere fact that they are part of the currency of common sense’. But what does it mean to show that ideas or concepts ‘have strength’? How does conceptual strength relate to the distinction between practical reality and philosophical frivolity? And what special features of the law are supposed to make it a better test of conceptual strength than common sense? In this chapter, I reconstruct and develop Williams’s answers to these questions. I show why Williams believes that we need to test the concepts forming the currency of common sense against practical reality as embodied by legal practice; I identify seven features of tort law that make it particularly suitable to act as such a test; I distinguish three respects in which concepts can show strength, and unpack Williams’s metaphor of microwave-resistant concepts: concepts capable of holding and presenting material for intense critical scrutiny without succumbing to it themselves; lastly, I show how philosophy can learn to identify systematically weak concepts, and the limits of otherwise valuable concepts, by considering which concepts fail the test.
Inquiry 66 (7): 1335–1364. Proceedings of the International Society for Nietzsche Studies. 2023.
If ethical reflection on which concepts to use has an avatar, it must be Nietzsche, who took more seriously than most the question of what concepts one should live by, and regarded many of our inherited concepts as deeply problematic. Moreover, his eschewal of traditional attempts to derive the one right set of concepts from timeless rational foundations renders his conceptual ethics strikingly modern, raising the prospect of a Nietzschean alternative to Wittgensteinian non-foundationalism. Yet Nietzsche appears to engage in two seemingly contrary modes of concept evaluation: one looks to concepts’ effects, the other to what concepts express. I offer an account of the expressive character of concepts which unifies these two modes and accounts for Nietzsche’s seemingly bifurcating interests. His fundamental concern is with the effects concepts are likely to have going forward, and it is precisely this concern that motivates his preoccupation with what concepts express. He evaluates concepts by asking for whom they have a point, working back from a concept via the need it fills to the conditions that engender that need and thereby render the concept pointful. For a concept to be pointful is for it to serve the concerns of its users through its effects. But even when it is not pointful, a concept expresses the presuppositions of its pointfulness, which we can work back to by asking who would have need of such a concept. What emerges is a powerful approach to conceptual ethics that looks beyond the formal virtues and vices of concepts at the presuppositions we buy into by using them.
In this paper, I respond to three critical notices of The Practical Origins of Ideas: Genealogy as Conceptual Reverse-Engineering, written by Cheryl Misak, Alexander Prescott-Couch, and Paul Roth, respectively. After contrasting genealogical conceptual reverse-engineering with conceptual reverse-engineering, I discuss pragmatic genealogy’s relation to history. I argue that it would be a mistake to understand pragmatic genealogy as a fiction (or a model, or an idealization) as opposed to a form of historical explanation. That would be to rely on precisely the stark dichotomy between idealization and history that I propose to call into question. Just as some historical explanations begin with a functional hypothesis arrived at through idealization as abstraction, some pragmatic genealogies embody an abstract form of historiography, stringing together, in a way that is loosely indexed to certain times and places, the most salient needs responsible for giving a concept the contours it now has. I then describe the naturalistic stance that I find expressed in the pragmatic genealogies I consider in the book before examining the evaluative standard at work in those genealogies, defusing the charge that they involve a commitment to a ‘stingy axiology’.
In this précis of The Practical Origins of Ideas: Genealogy as Conceptual Reverse-Engineering, I summarize the keys claims of the book for a symposium in Analysis. The book describes, develops, and defends an underappreciated methodological tradition: the tradition of pragmatic genealogy, which aims to identify what our loftiest and most inscrutable conceptual practices do for us by telling strongly idealized, but still historically informed stories about what might have driven people to adopt and elaborate them as they did. What marks out this methodological tradition, I argue, is that it synthesizes two genres of philosophical genealogy that are standardly set against each other: state-of-nature fictions on the one hand and patiently documentary historiography on the other. These two genres of genealogy are usually taken to be mutually exclusive and to answer to radically different philosophical interests and temperaments. But I offer a systematic account of a tradition that combines both genres into a single genealogical method, augmenting genealogy’s power and range by harnessing the strengths and possibilities of both genres.
European Journal of Philosophy 31 (1): 226–247. 2023. With Nikhil Krishnan.
Bernard Williams thought that philosophy should address real human concerns felt beyond academic philosophy. But what wider concerns are addressed by Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, a book he introduces as being ‘principally about how things are in moral philosophy’? In this article, we argue that Williams responded to the concerns of his day indirectly, refraining from explicitly claiming wider cultural relevance, but hinting at it in the pair of epigraphs that opens the main text. This was Williams’s solution to what he perceived as the stylistic problem of how to pursue philosophy as cultural critique. Taking the epigraphs as interpretative keys to the wider resonances of the book, we show how they reveal Williams’s philosophical concerns—with the primacy of character over method, the obligation to follow orders, and the possibility of combining truth, truthfulness, and a meaningful life in a disillusioned world—to be recognisably rooted in the cultural concerns of post-war Britain. In the light of its epigraphs, the book emerges as the critique of a philosophical tradition’s inadequacies to the special difficulties of its cultural moment.
In: Themes from Susan Wolf. Edited by Michael Frauchiger and Markus Stepanians. Berlin: De Gruyter, forthcoming.
What reasons do we have to use certain concepts and conceptions rather than others? Approaching that question in a methodologically humanistic rather than Platonic spirit, one might seek “reasons for concept use” in how well concepts serve the contingent human concerns of those who live by them. But appealing to the instrumentality of concepts in meeting our concerns invites the worry that this yields the wrong kind of reasons, especially if the relevant concerns are nonmoral ones. Drawing on Susan Wolf’s work on the moral/nonmoral distinction and the neglected role of reasons of love, I argue that this worry is misplaced, and in fact overlooks some of our most important reasons to prefer certain concepts over others. Yet a lingering worry remains, namely that the value of concepts does not just lie in what they are good for. Drawing on another strand in Wolf’s work, I explore the question whether concepts can be valuable good-for-nothings, and show how this ultimately also underscores the importance of reasons of love as reasons for concept use.
In: Historiography and the Formation of Philosophical Canons. Edited by Sandra Lapointe and Erich Reck, 171–191. London: Routledge, 2023.
Pragmatic genealogies seek to explain ideas by regarding them, primarily, not as answers to philosophical questions, but as practical solutions to practical problems. Here I argue that pragmatic genealogies can inform the formation of philosophical canons. But the rationale for resorting to genealogy in this connection is not the familiar one that genealogy renders the concepts of the present intelligible by relating them to the concerns of the past—the claim is rather the reverse one, that genealogy renders the concepts of the past intelligible by relating them to the concerns of the present: past thinkers can be made to speak to us by revealing how their ideas tie in with our concerns, in the sense of helping us to remedy practical problems we still face in some form. As various as the reasons for studying thinkers of the past are, one important way in which they can earn their claim to our attention is by helping us understand what ideas we now need, given the problems we now face.
European Journal of Philosophy 31 (2): 501–508. 2023.
Nietzsche’s injunction to examine “the value of values” can be heard in a pragmatic key, as inviting us to consider not whether certain values are true, but what they do for us. This oddly neglected pragmatic approach to Nietzsche now receives authoritative support from Bernard Reginster’s new book, which offers a compelling and notably cohesive interpretation of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. In this essay, I reconstruct Reginster’s account of Nietzsche’s critique of morality as a “self-undermining functionality critique” and raise three problems for it: (i) Is there room within an etiological conception of function for the notion of self-undermining functionality? (ii) If Nietzsche’s critique is internal and based solely on the function it ascribes to morality, where does that critique derive its normative significance from? (iii) Does Reginster’s account not make out ascetic morality to be more universally dysfunctional than it in fact is, given that some priestly types have done remarkably well out of morality?
Journal of the History of International Law 24 (4): 561–587. 2022. With Damian Cueni.
Though recent years have seen a proliferation of critical histories of international law, their normative significance remains under-theorized, especially from the perspective of general readers rather than writers of such histories. How do critical histories of international law acquire their normative significance? And how should one react to them? We distinguish three ways in which critical histories can be normatively significant: (i) by undermining the overt or covert conceptions of history embedded within present practices in support of their authority; (ii) by disappointing the normative expectations that regulate people’s reactions to critical histories; and (iii) by revealing continuities and discontinuities in the functions that our practices serve. By giving us a theoretical grip on the different ways in which history can be normatively significant and call for different reactions, this account helps us think about the overall normative significance of critical histories and how one and the same critical history can pull us in different directions.
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 103 (3): 670–91. 2022. With Friedemann Bieber.
Conceptual engineering is thought to face an ‘implementation challenge’: the challenge of securing uptake of engineered concepts. But is the fact that implementation is challenging really a defect to be overcome? What kind of picture of political life would be implied by making engineering easy to implement? We contend that the ambition to obviate the implementation challenge goes against the very idea of liberal democratic politics. On the picture we draw, the implementation challenge can be overcome by institutionalizing control over conceptual uptake, and there are contexts—such as professions that depend on coordinated conceptual innovation—in which there are good reasons to institutionalize control in this fashion. But the liberal fear of this power to control conceptual uptake ending up in the wrong hands, combined with the democratic demand for freedom of thought as a precondition of genuine consent, yields a liberal democratic rationale for keeping implementation challenging.
In: Morality and Agency: Themes from Bernard Williams. Edited by András Szigeti and Matthew Talbert, 182–209. New York: Oxford University Press. 2022.
Far from being indiscriminately critical of the ideas he associated with the morality system, Bernard Williams offered vindicatory explanations of its crucial building blocks, such as the moral/non-moral distinction, the idea of obligation, the voluntary/involuntary distinction, and the practice of blame. The rationale for these concessive moves, I argue, is that understanding what these ideas do for us when they are not in the service of the system is just as important to leading us out of the system as the critique of that system. I then show how regarding the aspiration to shelter life from luck as the system’s organizing ambition explains why the system elaborates and combines these building blocks in the way it does. Finally, I argue that the ultimate problem with the resulting construction is its frictionless purity. It robs valuable concepts of their grip on the world we live in, and, by insisting on purity from contingency, threatens to issue in nihilism about value and scepticism about agency.
Philosophical Studies 179 (5): 1591–1620. 2022.
Is the idea of the voluntary important? Those who think so tend to regard it as an idea that can be metaphysically deepened through a theory about voluntary action, while those who think it a superficial idea that cannot coherently be deepened tend to neglect it as unimportant. Parting company with both camps, I argue that the idea of the voluntary is at once important and superficial—it is an essentially superficial notion that performs important functions, but can only perform them if we refrain from deepening it. After elaborating the contrast between superficial and deepened ideas of the voluntary, I identify the important functions that the superficial idea performs in relation to demands for fairness and freedom. I then suggest that theories trying to deepen the idea exemplify a problematic moralization of psychology—they warp psychological ideas to ensure that moral demands can be met. I offer a three-tier model of the problematic dynamics this creates, and show why the pressure to deepen the idea should be resisted. On this basis, I take stock of what an idea of the voluntary worth having should look like, and what residual tensions with moral ideas this leaves us with.
The Monist 105 (4): 435–51. 2022.
Against those who identify genealogy with reductive genealogical debunking or deny it any evaluative and action-guiding significance, I argue for the following three claims: that although genealogies, true to their Enlightenment origins, tend to trace the higher to the lower, they need not reduce the higher to the lower, but can elucidate the relation between them and put us in a position to think more realistically about both relata; that if we think of genealogy’s normative significance in terms of a triadic model that includes the genealogy’s addressee, we can see that in tracing the higher to the lower, a genealogy can facilitate an evaluation of the higher element, and where the lower element is some important practical need rather than some sinister motive, the genealogy can even be vindicatory; and finally, that vindicatory genealogies can offer positive guidance on how to engineer better concepts.
21. Review Essay on Ethics Beyond the Limits: New Essays on Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Sophie Grace Chappell and Marcel van Ackeren
Mind 132 (525): 234–243. 2023.
Bernard Williams’ books demand an unusual amount of work from readers. This is particularly true of his 1985 magnum opus, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy—a work so charged with ideas that there seems to be nothing more to say, and yet at the same time so pared-down and tersely argued that there seems to be nothing left to take away. Reflecting on the book five years after its publication, Williams writes that it is centrally concerned with a Nietzschean question: the question of philosophy’s authority, in particular when it comes to telling us how to live. Some ethical theories seem implicitly committed to the idea that philosophy has everything to tell us about how to live. This Williams rejects. But the question then is how much philosophy has to tell us, and as critical as Williams may be of philosophy’s ambitions in this regard, his answer is certainly not nothing. The book even suggests some things that philosophy might tell us. But what Williams emphatically insists on, both in the book and in his later reflection on it, is that the question needs to be taken more seriously than it has been.
European Journal of Philosophy 29 (4): 758–77. 2021. With Damian Cueni.
Social and political concepts are indispensable yet historically and culturally variable in a way that poses a challenge: how can we reconcile confident commitment to them with awareness of their contingency? In this article, we argue that available responses to this problem—Foundationalism, Ironism, and Right Wittgensteinianism—are unsatisfactory. Instead, we draw on the work of Bernard Williams to tease out and develop a Left Wittgensteinian response. In present-day pluralistic and historically self-conscious societies, mere confidence in our concepts is not enough. For modern individuals who are ineluctably aware of conceptual change, engaged concept-use requires reasonable confidence, and in the absence of rational foundations, the possibility of reasonable confidence is tied to the possibility of critically discriminating between conceptual practices worth endorsing and those worth rejecting. We show that Left Wittgensteinianism offers such a basis for critical discrimination through point-based explanations of conceptual practices which relate them to the needs of concept-users. We end by considering how Left Wittgensteinianism guides our understanding of how conceptual practices can be revised in the face of new needs.
Philosophical Studies 178 (4): 1361–79. 2021.
This paper puts forward an account of blame combining two ideas that are usually set up against each other: that blame performs an important function, and that blame is justified by the moral reasons making people blameworthy rather than by its functionality. The paper argues that blame could not have developed in a purely instrumental form, and that its functionality itself demands that its functionality be effaced in favour of non-instrumental reasons for blame—its functionality is self-effacing. This notion is sharpened and it is shown how it offers an alternative to instrumentalist or consequentialist accounts of blame which preserves their animating insight while avoiding their weaknesses by recasting that insight in an explanatory role. This not only allows one to do better justice to the authority and autonomy of non-instrumental reasons for blame, but also reveals that autonomy to be a precondition of blame’s functionality. Unlike rival accounts, it also avoids the “alienation effect” that renders blame unstable under reflection by undercutting the authority of the moral reasons which enable it to perform its function in the first place. It instead yields a vindicatory explanation that strengthens our confidence in those moral reasons.
The Philosophical Quarterly 71 (2): 286–307. 2021.
Amplifying Bernard Williams’s critique of the Nietzschean project of a revaluation of values, this paper mounts a critique of the idea that whether values will help us to live can serve as a criterion for choosing which values to live by. I explore why it might not serve as a criterion and highlight a number of further difficulties faced by the Nietzschean project. I then come to Nietzsche’s defence, arguing that if we distinguish valuations from values, there is at least one form of the project which overcomes those difficulties. Finally, however, I show that even on this reading, the project must either fall prey to ‘Saint-Just’s illusion’ or fall back into the problems it was supposed to escape. This highlights important difficulties faced by the Nietzschean project and its descendants while also explaining why Williams, who was so Nietzschean in other respects, remained wary of the revaluation of values as a project.
American Philosophical Quarterly 58 (2): 134–45. 2021. With Damian Cueni.
Where does the impetus towards ethical theory come from? What drives humans to make values explicit, consistent, and discursively justifiable? This paper situates the demand for ethical theory in human life by identifying the practical needs that give rise to it. Such a practical derivation puts the demand in its place: while finding a place for it in the public decision-making of modern societies, it also imposes limitations on the demand by presenting it as scalable and context-sensitive. This differentiates strong forms of the demand calling for theory from weaker forms calling for less, and contexts where it has a place from contexts where it is out of place. In light of this, subjecting personal deliberation to the demand turns out to involve a trade-off.
Mind 129 (515): 683–714. 2020.
Why would philosophers interested in the points or functions of our conceptual practices bother with genealogical explanations if they can focus directly on paradigmatic examples of the practices we now have? To answer this question, I compare the method of pragmatic genealogy advocated by Edward Craig, Bernard Williams, and Miranda Fricker—a method whose singular combination of fictionalising and historicising has met with suspicion—with the simpler method of paradigm-based explanation. Fricker herself has recently moved towards paradigm-based explanation, arguing that it is a more perspicuous way of reaping the same explanatory pay-off as pragmatic genealogy while dispensing with its fictionalising and historicising. My aim is to determine when and why the reverse movement from paradigm-based explanation to pragmatic genealogy remains warranted. I argue that the fictionalising and historicising of pragmatic genealogy is well-motivated, and I outline three ways in which the method earns its keep: by successfully handling historically inflected practices which paradigm-based explanation cannot handle; by revealing and arguing for connections to generic needs we might otherwise miss; and by providing comprehensive views of practices that place and relate the respects in which they serve both generic and local needs.
Synthese 197 (5): 2005–2027. 2020.
Can genealogical explanations affect the space of reasons? Those who think so commonly face two objections. The first objection maintains that attempts to derive reasons from claims about the genesis of something commit the genetic fallacy—they conflate genesis and justification. One way for genealogies to side-step this objection is to focus on the functional origins of practices—to show that, given certain facts about us and our environment, certain conceptual practices are rational because apt responses. But this invites a second objection, which maintains that attempts to derive current from original function suffer from continuity failure—the conditions in response to which something originated no longer obtain. This paper shows how normatively ambitious genealogies can steer clear of both problems. It first maps out various ways in which genealogies can involve non-fallacious genetic arguments before arguing that some genealogies do not invite the charge of the genetic fallacy if they are interpreted as revealing the original functions of conceptual practices. However, they then incur the burden of showing that the conditions relative to which practices function continuously obtain. Taking its cue from the genealogies of E. J. Craig, Bernard Williams, and Miranda Fricker, the paper shows how model-based genealogies can avoid continuity failures by identifying bases of continuity in the demands we face.
In: Social Functions in Philosophy: Metaphysical, Normative, and Methodological Perspectives. Edited by Rebekka Hufendiek, Daniel James and Raphael van Riel, 200–218. London: Routledge, 2020.
There is an under-appreciated tradition of genealogical explanation that is centrally concerned with social functions. I shall refer to it as the tradition of pragmatic genealogy. It runs from David Hume and the early Friedrich Nietzsche through E. J. Craig to Bernard Williams and Miranda Fricker. These pragmatic genealogists start out with a description of an avowedly fictional “state of nature” and end up ascribing social functions to particular building blocks of our practices – such as the fact that we use a certain concept, or live by a certain virtue – which we did not necessarily expect to have such a function at all. That the seemingly archaic device of a fictional state-of-nature story should be a helpful way to get at the functions of our actual practices must seem a mystifying proposal, however; I shall therefore endeavor to demystify it in what follows. My aim in this chapter is twofold. First, by delineating the framework of pragmatic genealogy and contrasting it with superficially similar methods, I argue that pragmatic genealogies are best interpreted as dynamic models whose point is to reveal the function – and non-coincidentally often the social function – of certain practices. Second, by buttressing this framework with something it notably lacks, namely an account of the type of functionality it operates with, I argue that both the type of functional commitment and the depth of factual obligation incurred by a pragmatic genealogy depend on what we use the method for: the dynamic models of pragmatic genealogy can be used merely as heuristic devices helping us spot functional patterns, or more ambitiously as arguments grounding our ascriptions of functionality to actual practices, or even more ambitiously as bases for functional explanations of the resilience or the persistence of practices. By bringing these distinctions into view, we gain the ability to distinguish strengths and weaknesses of the method’s application from strengths and weaknesses of the method itself.
Australasian Philosophical Review 3 (3): 305–11. 2019.
This paper examines Miranda Fricker’s method of paradigm-based explanation and in particular its promise of yielding an ordered pluralism. Fricker’s starting point is a schism between two conceptions of forgiveness, Moral Justice Forgiveness and Gifted Forgiveness. In the light of a hypothesis about the basic point of forgiveness, she reveals the unity underlying the initially baffling plurality and brings order into it, presenting a paradigmatic form of forgiveness as explanatorily basic and other forms as derivative. The resulting picture, she claims, is an ‘explanatorily satisfying ordered pluralism.’ But what is this ordered pluralism and how does Fricker’s method deliver it? And to what extent can this strategy be generalised to other conceptual practices? By making explicit and critically examining the conception of ordered pluralism implicit in Fricker’s procedure, I assess the promise that her approach holds as a way of resolving stand-offs between warring conceptions of ideas or practices more widely. I argue that it holds great promise in this respect, but that if we are to avoid reproducing just the schismatic debates that the pluralism of paradigm-based explanation is supposed to overcome at the level of what is to be regarded as a paradigm case, we need to take seriously the thought that what counts as a paradigm is partly determined by our purposes in giving a paradigm-based explanation.
The Philosophical Quarterly 69 (274): 100–120. 2019.
This paper examines three reasons to think that Craig’s genealogy of the concept of knowledge is incompatible with knowledge-first epistemology and finds that far from being incompatible with it, the genealogy lends succour to it. This reconciliation turns on two ideas. First, the genealogy is not history, but a dynamic model of needs. Secondly, by recognizing the continuity of Craig’s genealogy with Williams’s genealogy of truthfulness, we can see that while both genealogies start out from specific needs explaining what drives the development of certain concepts rather than others, they then factor in less specific needs which in reality do not come later at all, and which have also left their mark on these concepts. These genealogies thereby reveal widespread functional dynamics driving what I call the de-instrumentalization of concepts, the recognition of which adds to the plausibility of such instrumentalist approaches to concepts.
The Monist 102 (3): 277–297. 2019. With Damian Cueni.
This paper argues that Nietzsche is a critic of just the kind of genealogical debunking he is popularly associated with. We begin by showing that interpretations of Nietzsche which see him as engaging in genealogical debunking turn him into an advocate of nihilism, for on his own premises, any truthful genealogical inquiry into our values is going to uncover what most of his contemporaries deem objectionable origins and thus license global genealogical debunking. To escape nihilism and make room for naturalism without indiscriminate subversion, we then argue, Nietzsche targets the way of thinking about values that permits genealogical debunking: far from trying to subvert values simply by uncovering their origins, Nietzsche is actively criticising genealogical debunking thus understood. Finally, we draw out the consequences of our reading for Nietzsche’s positive vision.
Canadian Journal of Philosophy 49 (8): 1122–1145. 2019.
In the literature seeking to explain concepts in terms of their point, talk of ‘the point’ of concepts remains under-theorised. I propose a typology of points which distinguishes practical, evaluative, animating, and inferential points. This allows us to resolve tensions such as that between the ambition of explanations in terms of the points of concepts to be informative and the claim that mastering concepts requires grasping their point; and it allows us to exploit connections between types of points to understand why they come apart, and whether they do so for problematic ideological reasons or for benignly functional reasons.
Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 103 (2): 341–63. 2021.
This paper aims to increase our understanding of the genealogical method by taking a developmental approach to Nietzsche’s genealogical methodology and reconstructing an early instance of it: Nietzsche’s genealogy of truthfulness in ‘On Truth and Lie’. Placing this essay against complementary remarks from his notebooks, I show that Nietzsche’s early use of the genealogical method concerns imagined situations before documented history, aims to reveal practical necessity before contingency, and focuses on vindication before it turns to subversion or problematization. I argue that we understand Nietzsche’s later critique of truthfulness better if we place it against the background of his earlier vindicatory insight into the practical necessity of cultivating truthfulness in some form; and I suggest that Nietzsche’s own mature genealogical method has roots in its supposed contrary, the method of the ‘English’ genealogists.
Philosophers’ Imprint 18 (17): 1–20. 2018.
In Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams sought to defend the value of truth by giving a vindicatory genealogy revealing its instrumental value. But what separates Williams’s instrumental vindication from the indirect utilitarianism of which he was a critic? And how can genealogy vindicate anything, let alone something which, as Williams says of the concept of truth, does not have a history? In this paper, I propose to resolve these puzzles by reading Williams as a type of pragmatist and his genealogy as a pragmatic genealogy. On this basis, I show just in what sense Williams’s genealogy can by itself yield reasons to cultivate a sense of the value of truth. Using various criticisms of Williams’s genealogical method as a foil, I then develop an understanding of pragmatic genealogy which reveals it to be uniquely suited to dealing with practices exhibiting what I call self-effacing functionality—practices that are functional only insofar as and because we do not engage in them for their functionality. I conclude with an assessment of the wider significance of Williams’s genealogy for his own oeuvre and for further genealogical inquiry.
Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 5 (6): 153–72. 2018.
A longstanding debate in the philosophy of action opposes causalists to anti-causalists. Causalists claim the authority of Davidson, who offered powerful arguments to the effect that intentional explanations must be causal explanations. Anti-causalists claim the authority of Wittgenstein, who offered equally powerful arguments to the effect that reasons cannot be causes. My aim in this paper is to achieve a rapprochement between Davidsonian causalists and Wittgensteinian anti-causalists by showing how both sides can agree that reasons are not causes, but that intentional explanations are causal explanations. To this end, I first defuse Davidson’s Challenge, an argument purporting to show that intentional explanations are best made sense of as being explanatory because reasons are causes. I argue that Wittgenstein furnishes anti-causalists with the means to resist this conclusion. I then argue that this leaves the Master Argument for the claim that intentional explanations are causal explanations, but that by distinguishing between a narrow and a wide conception of causal explanation, we can resolve the stalemate between Wittgensteinian anti-causalists impressed by the thought that reasons cannot be causes and Davidsonian causalists impressed by the thought that intentional explanations must be causal explanations.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25 (4): 727–749. 2017.
This paper analyses the connection between Nietzsche’s early employment of the genealogical method and contemporary neo-pragmatism. The paper has two goals. On the one hand, by viewing Nietzsche’s writings in the light of neo-pragmatist ideas and reconstructing his approach to justice as a pragmatic genealogy, it seeks to bring out an under-appreciated aspect of his genealogical method which illustrates how genealogy can be used to vindicate rather than to subvert, and accounts for Nietzsche’s lack of historical references. On the other hand, by highlighting what Nietzsche has to offer neo-pragmatism, it seeks to contribute to neo-pragmatism’s conception of genealogy. The paper argues that Nietzsche and the neo-pragmatists share a naturalistic concern and a pragmatist strategy in responding to it. The paper then shows that Nietzsche avoids a reductive form of functionalism by introducing a temporal axis, but that this axis should be understood as a developmental model rather than as historical time. This explains Nietzsche’s failure to engage with history. The paper concludes that pragmatic genealogy can claim a genuinely Nietzschean pedigree.
Philosophy 92 (3): 369–97. 2017.
This paper situates Wittgenstein in what is known as the causalism/anti-causalism debate in the philosophy of mind and action and reconstructs his arguments to the effect that reasons are not a species of causes. On the one hand, the paper aims to reinvigorate the question of what these arguments are by offering a historical sketch of the debate showing that Wittgenstein’s arguments were overshadowed by those of the people he influenced, and that he came to be seen as an anti-causalist for reasons that are in large part extraneous to his thought. On the other hand, the paper aims to recover the arguments scattered in Wittgenstein’s own writings by detailing and defending three lines of argument distinguishing reasons from causes. The paper concludes that Wittgenstein’s arguments differ from those of his immediate successors; that he anticipates current anti-psychologistic trends; and that he is perhaps closer to Davidson than historical dialectics suggest.
Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 67 (3): 429–439. 2019.
This paper argues that besides the critical and historically informed genealogies of his later work, Nietzsche also sketched genealogies that are not historically situated and that display an under-appreciated affirmative aspect. The paper begins by looking at two early examples of such genealogies where datable historical origins are clearly not at issue, which raises the question of what kind of origins Nietzsche is after. It is argued that these genealogies inquire into practical origins—into the original point of certain conceptual practices given certain needs—and that this reflects Nietzsche’s instrumentalism about concepts. It is then argued that this focus lends the genealogies an affirmative dimension, because they present their object as naturalistically intelligible and practically indispensable. Finally, it is shown how the nature and limits of this affirmative dimension can be tentatively sharpened by connecting it to Nietzsche’s later notion of the economic justification of morality.
Studia Philosophica: The Swiss Journal of Philosophy 76, 137–51. 2017.
This paper develops Bernard Williams’s suggestion that for philosophy to ignore its history is for it to assume that its history is vindicatory. The paper aims to offer a fruitful line of inquiry into the question whether philosophy has a vindicatory history by providing a map of possible answers to it. It first distinguishes three types of history: the history of discovery, the history of progress, and the history of change. It then suggests that much of philosophy lacks a vindicatory history, for reasons that reflect philosophy’s character as a humanistic discipline. On this basis, the paper reconstructs Williams’s conception of what it means for philosophy to engage with its own history. The paper concludes that it is a mistake to think that a vindicatory history is what we would really like to have, and that in fact, the resulting picture gives philosophy several reasons to engage with its own history.
Wittgenstein-Studien 7 (1): 105–130. 2016.
In this paper, I examine Wittgenstein’s conception of reason and rationality through the lens of his conception of reasons. Central in this context, I argue, is the image of the chain, which informs not only his methodology in the form of the chain-method, but also his conception of reasons as linking up immediately, like the links of a chain. I first provide a general sketch of what reasons are on Wittgenstein’s view, arguing that giving reasons consists in making thought and action intelligible by delineating reasoning routes; that something is a reason not in virtue of some intrinsic property, but in virtue of its role; and that citing something as a reason characterises it in terms of the rational relations it stands in according to context-dependent norms. I then argue that on Wittgenstein’s view, we misconceive chains of reasons if we think of them on the model of chains of causes. Chains of reasons are necessarily finite, because they are anchored in and held in place by our reason-giving practices, and it is in virtue of their finitude that chains of reasons can guide, justify and explain. I argue that this liberates us from the expectation that one should be able to give reasons for everything, but that it limits the reach of reasons by tying them to particular reasoning-practices that they cannot themselves justify. I end by comparing and reconciling Wittgenstein’s dichotomy between chains of reasons and chains of causes with seemingly competing construals of the dichotomy, and I clarify its relation to the dichotomy between explanation and justification.
The Journal of Political Philosophy 24 (1): 47–66. 2016.
DNA possesses a double nature: it is both an analog chemical compound and a digital carrier of information. By distinguishing these two aspects, this paper aims to reevaluate the legally and politically influential idea that the human genome forms part of the common heritage of mankind, an idea which is thought to conflict with the practice of patenting DNA. The paper explores the lines of reasoning that lead to the common heritage idea, articulates and motivates what emerges as the most viable version of it, and assesses the extent to which this version conflicts with gene-patenting practices as exemplified by the U.S. regime. It concludes that the genome is best thought of as a repository of information to which humanity has a fiduciary relationship, and that on this view, the perceived conflict with gene-patenting largely dissolves.