The Practical Origins of Ideas: Genealogy as Conceptual Reverse-Engineering

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Open Access.

The Practical Origins of Ideas

Why did such highly abstract ideas as truth, knowledge, or justice become so important to us? What was the point of coming to think in these terms? The Practical Origins of Ideas presents a philosophical method designed to answer such questions: the method of pragmatic genealogy. Pragmatic genealogies are partly fictional, partly historical narratives exploring what might have driven us to develop certain ideas in order to find out what these do for us. The book uncovers an under-appreciated tradition of pragmatic genealogy which cuts across the analytic-continental divide, running from the state-of-nature stories of David Hume and the early genealogies of Friedrich Nietzsche to recent work in analytic philosophy by Edward Craig, Bernard Williams, and Miranda Fricker. However, these genealogies combine fictionalizing and historicizing in ways that even philosophers sympathetic to the use of state-of-nature fictions or real history have found puzzling. To make sense of why both fictionalizing and historicizing are called for, the book offers a systematic account of pragmatic genealogies as dynamic models serving to reverse-engineer the points of ideas in relation not only to near-universal human needs, but also to socio-historically situated needs. This allows the method to offer us explanation without reduction and to help us understand what led our ideas to shed the traces of their practical origins. Far from being normatively inert, moreover, pragmatic genealogy can affect the space of reasons, guiding attempts to improve our conceptual repertoire by helping us determine whether and when our ideas are worth having.

A chapter-by-chapter summary of the book is available here

Reviews of The Practical Origins of Ideas:

“Unlike a lot of contemporary scholarship, the book is refreshingly ambitious. … The book is also delightful to read: the prose is colorful, elegant, and sharp, and Queloz has a knack for bringing high-minded ideals down to earth. I wish more philosophers wrote so well. Overall, it is an excellent and important piece of philosophy.” —Michael HannonMind

“superb … [a] splendid book. … Queloz’s The Practical Origins of Ideas will stand as one of the most important pragmatist treatises on conceptual engineering.” —Cheryl MisakAnalysis

“this is a great book … the prose has a kind of effortless elegance that reminds one of the book’s primary inspiration, Bernard Williams. It is possible to read it for pleasure, not merely from duty.” —Alexander Prescott-CouchAnalysis

“Queloz’s prose is clear and the book is never dull, and it will be interesting to those working on methodological issues in contemporary philosophy. … there is a tremendous amount to be learned from this very stimulating book.” —P. J. E. KailNotre Dame Philosophical Reviews

“[A] ground-breaking book … Queloz not only has given his readers an excellent example of how to do philosophy, but also has done more than anyone in recent times to reanimate debate about what makes philosophy relevant.” ––Paul A. RothAnalysis

Translations of The Practical Origins of Ideas:

A contract has been signed for a translation of the book into Arabic. For enquiries concerning translations into other languages, please contact the translation team of Oxford University Press at

Making Sense of the Past: Bernard Williams and the History of Philosophy

Marcel van Ackeren and Matthieu Queloz (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Bernard Williams’s work as a systematic philosopher has tended to overshadow his historical work. Yet that work is in some ways equally influential and of remarkable depth and range: it covers not only Homer, the Greek Tragedians, Plato, and Aristotle, but also Enlightenment figures such as Descartes, Hume, and Kant as well as modern thinkers such as Nietzsche, Collingwood, and Wittgenstein. It would be a mistake, moreover, to treat his systematic work as entirely separable from his historical work. Williams himself insisted that historical and philosophical inquiry were importantly related, and he explored this relation from two directions. He argued, first, that the history of philosophy could be ‘done philosophically’, in a way that yielded philosophy before it yielded history; and second, he advocated what he called a ‘historicist turn’ in philosophy, arguing that systematic philosophy needed to draw on history if it was to achieve what it set out to achieve. This volume brings together leading interpreters of Williams’s work and experts in the various fields of scholarship it touches on to address the following four sets of questions: (i) How does Williams interpret past philosophers? In what way are these interpretations influenced by his own systematic views? (ii) How does Williams’s engagement with historical texts shape his own systematic views? And how, on Williams’s view, should awareness of the history of our outlook affect our understanding of that outlook and its relation to past outlooks? (iii) How can the history of philosophy be done philosophically (as judged by Williams’s own example)? What should work in the history of philosophy aim to do for us, and how can these aims guide the way we do it? (iv) Why does philosophy need history? In what way should philosophy draw on history? And how does philosophy’s need for its own history relate to philosophy’s need for history more generally? To answer these questions, the volume assembles specially commissioned contributions by Marcel van Ackeren, Carla Bagnoli, Simon Blackburn, Sophie-Grace Chappell, James Connelly, John Cottingham, Ilaria Cozzaglio, Garrett Cullity, Miranda Fricker, Hans-Johann Glock, Lorenzo Greco, Amanda Greene, Terence Irwin, Peter Kail, Gerald Lang, John Marenbon, Adrian Moore, Geraldine Ng, Giuseppina d’Oro, David Owen, Matthieu Queloz, Catherine Rowett, Paul Russell, Christopher Shields, and Ralph Wedgwood.

Reasons for Reasons: An Essay on the Authority of Concepts

In progress.

While much philosophy is concerned to improve our grip on our concepts, we also sometimes find ourselves questioning their grip on us: why do we grant a given concept the authority to shape our thought and conduct? Does this concept merit the confidence with which we deploy it and act on the reasons it adverts to? Casting our thoughts in different terms would highlight different considerations and carry different implications. What makes this particular definition or conception better than a competing one? 

This book offers an account of what makes a concept authoritative and develops a framework for evaluating the concepts we live by. At the heart of this framework are reasons for concept use, a special class of second-order reasons underpinning the reasons for action and belief that more immediately guide our deliberations. By demanding such reasons for reasons, we can challenge the authority of a concept, and in some cases vindicate it by acquiring the metaconceptual knowledge that this concept is right for us. We therefore do not have to choose between blindly embracing the concepts we happen to find or, more critically but equally indiscriminately, feeling alienated from all concepts alike in view of their pervasive contingency. Reasons for concept use can show us whether the concepts we inherited merit confidence, and what concepts we have reason to use going forward.

One of the first book-length contributions to the emerging field of conceptual ethics, this wide-ranging work explores the quest for the concepts that are absolutely best, examines the significance of the contingency of our ways of thinking, and evaluates the merits of tidying up our thinking by striving for more precise, determinate, and consistent concepts. The book’s orienting claim is that concepts ultimately derive their authority from the complex and often indirect ways in which they tie in with our underlying concerns: the concerns we pursue interact with our capacities and circumstances to generate needs for certain concepts. By considering not what concepts are timelessly and definitively best, but what concepts we now need, we can critically appraise our conceptual inheritance and assess competing proposals for how to understand contested concepts such as liberty or free will. A theory of reasons for concept use thus promises to distinguish helpful clarification from hamstringing tidy-mindedness and authoritative definition from conceptual gerrymandering.