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

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Why did such highly abstract ideas as truth, knowledge, or justice become so important to us? What was the practical point of coming to think in these terms? This book uncovers, develops, and defends a philosophical method that aims to answer such questions. This is the method of pragmatic genealogy: the telling of developmental narratives that seek to make sense of ideas in terms of their practical origins. Two principal theses structure the book. The first is that there is a pragmatic genealogical tradition which cuts across the analytic- continental divide, a tradition running from the state-of-nature stories of David Hume and the early genealogies of Friedrich Nietzsche to more recent work in analytic philosophy by Edward Craig, Bernard Williams, and Miranda Fricker. These genealogies combine fictionalising and historicising in ways that even those sympathetic to genealogy have found puzzling. Hence the book’s second, systematic thesis: we understand why both the fictionalising and the historicising are called for if we interpret these genealogies as dynamic models serving to reverse-engineer the points of ideas in relation to generic and socio-historically local needs. Pragmatic genealogy then emerges as having two attractive features. Far from issuing in the kind of reductively instrumental view of things often associated with naturalism, pragmatism, and genealogy, the method offers us explanation without reduction, helping us understand what led our ideas to shed the traces of their practical origins. And far from being normatively inert in the way that genealogical explanations are commonly taken to be, pragmatic genealogy can affect the space of reasons by helping us determine whether and when our ideas are worth having.
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