Revealing Social Functions through Pragmatic Genealogies

In Rebekka Hufendiek, Daniel James & Raphael Van Riel (eds.), Social Functions in Philosophy: Metaphysical, Normative, and Methodological Perspectives. London: Routledge. pp. 200-218 (2020)
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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 (T, 3.2.2) and the early Friedrich Nietzsche (TL) through E. J. Craig (1990, 1993) to Bernard Williams (2002) and Miranda Fricker (2007). 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.

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Matthieu Queloz
University of Bern


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