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. It tackles big questions like ‘What is philosophy about?’ and ‘How should we investigate its subject matter?’ 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

Translations of The Practical Origins of Ideas:

A translation of the book into Arabic is in the works. 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 concept the authority to shape our thought and structure our lives? A different concept would cast our thoughts in different terms and advert to other reasons. What reasons do we have to reason along just these lines? What makes this particular definition better than a competing one? Reasons for Reasons: An Essay on the Authority of Concepts develops a framework for the evaluation of concepts. At its heart are reasons for concept use, a special class of reasons underpinning the reasons for action and belief that guide our deliberations. We can challenge the authority of a concept by demanding reasons for concept use, and vindicate its authority by giving them. One of the first full-fledged and book-length contributions to the emerging field of conceptual ethics, this wide-ranging work explores the contingency of different casts of thought, the quest for the set of absolutely best concepts, and the merit of 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 concerns. By understanding how those concerns interact with our capacities and circumstances to generate conceptual needs—needs for certain concepts rather than others—we gain a nuanced and case-specific sense of which concepts we have most reason to use. This can not only inform critical appraisals of our conceptual inheritance, but also help us assess competing proposals for how to understand contested concepts such as liberty or free will. Unearthing the connection between concepts and concerns thus promises to empower us to distinguish between helpful clarification and hamstringing tidy-mindedness, between authoritative definition and conceptual gerrymandering.