Pragmatic Genealogy

Recordings of the Moral Sciences Club, University of Cambridge. 2022.

Though conceptual engineering is a forward-looking enterprise, the thought has been gaining traction that it should be guided by a prior understanding of the points or functions of our concepts. In this talk, I explore some of the motivations for this backward-looking enterprise of conceptual reverse-engineering, and I argue that there is an under-appreciated tradition which offers a methodologically controlled way of doing conceptual reverse-engineering: the tradition of pragmatic genealogy. I contend that pragmatic genealogy is particularly well suited to dealing with two kinds of conceptual practices in particular: those exhibiting what I call self-effacing functionality, and those that are historically inflected to such a degree that they lack a paradigm case displaying the practice’s connection to human needs. By enabling us to reverse-engineer the points of concepts even then, pragmatic genealogy earns its place in our methodological repertoire.

Tracing Concepts to Needs

The Philosopher 109 (3): 34–39. 2021.

Why is the concept of truth so important to us? After all, it is not at all obvious why human intelligence would have evolved to do anything other than to dissimulate, deceive, cheat, and trick. Pragmatic genealogies like the genealogies of the value of truth told by Nietzsche and Williams can help us grasp why we think as we do. But instead of explaining concepts by tracing them to antecedent objects in reality, they trace them to practical needs and reverse-engineer the functions performed by the concepts.

Ideas that Work

Aeon: A World of Ideas. June 24, 2021.

Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins.