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 précis of the book, to appear in Analysis, is available here. A chapter-by-chapter summary of the book is available here. For essays introducing some of the book’s main ideas to a wider audience, see my pieces in Aeon and The Philosopher.

Reception of The Practical Origins of Ideas:

Winner of the Amerbach Prize 2022. Selected for Oxford University Press’s Best of Philosophy collection as one of the Top 10 Books of 2021.

“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

“Matthieu Queloz’s exciting new book … is clear, impressively erudite, well-structured, sensitive to both historical and systematic questions about genealogy and advances the debate about the genealogical method. It is an invaluable contribution to the ever-growing literature surrounding genealogical arguments and anyone interested in such debates cannot afford to overlook it.” —Christos Kyriacou, The Journal of Value Inquiry

The Practical Origins of Ideas is a substantial contribution of great value … Queloz presents an important thesis: pragmatic genealogy not only acknowledges the legitimacy of both local historical genealogies and of genealogies that reconstruct an idealised starting situation, but also, and above all, enables us to see these two different approaches as two phases of a single pragmatic genealogical method.” —Matteo Santarelli, Iride

Translations of The Practical Origins of Ideas:

The book has been translated into Arabic. For enquiries concerning translations into other languages, please contact the translation team of Oxford University Press at

The Ethics of Conceptualization: A Needs-Based Approach

Oxford: Oxford University Press. Forthcoming.

Philosophy strives to give us a firmer hold on our concepts. But what about their hold on us? Why place ourselves under the sway of a concept and grant it the authority to shape our thought and conduct? Another conceptualization would carry different implications. What makes one way of thinking better than another? This book develops a framework for concept appraisal. Its guiding idea is that by questioning the authority of concepts, we demand reasons of a special kind: reasons for concept use, which tell us which concepts to adopt, adhere to, or abandon, thereby shoring up—or undercutting—the reasons for action and belief that guide our deliberations. Traditionally, reasons for concept use have been sought either in timeless rational foundations or in concepts’ inherent virtues, such as precision and consistency. Against this, the book advances two main claims: that we find reasons for concept use in the conceptual needs we discover when we critically distance ourselves from a concept and view it from the autoethnographic stance; and that sometimes, concepts that conflict, or exhibit other vices such as vagueness or superficiality, are just what we need. By considering not what concepts are absolutely best, but what concepts we now need, we can reconcile ourselves to the contingency of our concepts, determine the proper place of efforts to tidy up thought, and adjudicate between competing ways of understanding contested notions like liberty or free will. A needs-based approach separates helpful clarification from hobbling tidy-mindedness, and authoritative definition from conceptual gerrymandering.

Keywords: conceptual ethics, conceptual engineering, thick concepts, authority, critique, contingency, knowledge, theoretical virtues, conflicts of value, pluralism, liberty, free will, responsibility, moral luck, action theory, Bernard Williams, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ronald Dworkin, Iris Murdoch, Susan Wolf.

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

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

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, Sophie-Grace Chappell, James Connelly, John Cottingham, Ilaria Cozzaglio, Garrett Cullity, Miranda Fricker, Hans-Johann Glock, Lorenzo Greco, Amanda Greene, Terence Irwin, Peter Kail, Nikhil Krishnan, Gerald Lang, John Marenbon, Adrian Moore, Geraldine Ng, Giuseppina d’Oro, David Owen, Matthieu Queloz, Catherine Rowett, and Ralph Wedgwood.