As some readers may recall (but most probably don't), I’ve written a few blog posts on the significance of the history of philosophy for systematic philosophical analysis (here and here, for example). I used the term ‘conceptual archeology’ to refer to the kind of investigation that seeks to unearth the origins and development of philosophical concepts that are central for contemporary philosophers. I also suggested that this exercise is important in that it highlights the contingent and potentially contentious assumptions that led to the establishment of a given philosophical concept, and the dogmas and truisms surrounding it.
Now, NewAPPS’er Jeff Bell is working on a project for a volume on (if I understood it correctly) establishing fruitful dialogues between continental and analytic philosophers. When he invited me to contribute, I figured this could be the occasion I had been waiting for to finally flesh out these ideas of mine in a more systematic way.
So I’ve been reading a bit about Nietzsche and Foucault on genealogy/archeology (for example, this excellent paper by R. Geuss on Nietzsche and genealogy) in order to write the abstract Jeff asked me to (the volume is still very much at its initial stages). I’m now starting to think that what I have in mind is better captured by the concept of genealogy than by the concept of archeology (both the ‘commonsensical’ meanings of these terms as well as their technical senses in Nietzsche and Foucault). What I am interested in is precisely the historical development of a given philosophical concept, its historical origins, the paths of influence and the transformations that occurred along the way so that it has now acquired a specific guise for us, contemporary philosophers. (As I mentioned before, one concept I have myself worked on adopting this methodology is the concept of logical form, and relatedly the notion of the formal as pertaining to logic -- see a list of my published papers here.)
Just to illustrate what I believe to be the usefulness of the genealogical methodology, let me give an example outside my own ‘comfort zone’. A few weeks ago, I was in St. Andrews and attended a very interesting talk by Jessica Leech (Sheffield) on the concept of essence. The talk was not intended to be historical; its main goal was to engage critically with the concept of essence as entertained by modern philosophers (e.g. Kit Fine).
At Q&A, the always impressive Sarah Broadie made the remark which I had had in my mind from the start, but which she formulated in a much more elegant way than I could possibly have done myself. She pointed out that the concept of essence that we now entertain is still laden with its Aristotelian historical origins. According to her (I hope I am not mispresenting her views!), while the concept made sense against the background of Aristotle’s general project (basically, the biological project of explaining middle-sized living beings such as animals and plants) and the science of the time, it is far from obvious in which ways it can be made to be useful or even compelling against the background of modern science.
This ‘genealogical argument’ seemed to me to be a very efficient strategy to engage in the project of ‘deconstructing’ the concept of essence. And yet, many people in the audience disagreed quite strongly with both Sarah and me regarding the relevance of the history of the concept of essence for that particular debate, which suggests that the idea of ‘conceptual genealogy’ as an important tool for the (analytic) philosopher is far from uncontroversial. And thus, it is well worth writing a paper to defend it!
I am copying here the tentative abstract for the paper; feedback is most welcome. (I am particularly interested in views readers may have on the choice between ‘genealogy’ and ‘archeology’ as the concept that best captures the gist of the project.)
Conceptual genealogy for analytic philosophy
significance of the history of philosophy for the systematic investigation of philosophical
issues is an important aspect of dissimilarity between the analytic and the
continental traditions. Typically, the continental philosopher sees the
historical development of a given philosophical issue or concept as an
important and perhaps even necessary element for its analysis, whereas the
analytic philosopher tends to treat issues and concepts as if they were
a-historical entities, thus not requiring such a historical contextualization
to be properly grasped.
On the continental side, influential authors such as Nietzsche and Foucault have placed historical analysis at the epicenter of their respective philosophical methodologies, in particular with the concepts of ‘genealogy’ and ‘archeology’. More recently, authors such as Ian Hacking and Alain de Libera have pursued similar lines of investigation. For the most part, however, analytic philosophers remain quite hostile to the idea that a systematic analysis of a given concept or issue has anything to gain by becoming historically informed. In effect, Hacking represents the almost unique occurrence of an analytically trained philosopher who systematically deployed the archeology/genealogy methodology, explicitly under the influence of Foucault.
In this paper, I discuss in detail what I refer to as the methodology of ‘conceptual genealogy’, which is loosely inspired by (and yet different from) the concept of genealogy as found in Nietzsche and Foucault. This methodology underpins much of my work in the philosophy of logic to date (for example, my work on the concept of logical form), which nevertheless falls squarely within the ‘analytic tradition’. I thus argue that analytic philosophy in general has much to gain by incorporating the historicist component of genealogical/archeological investigations. Analytic philosophers too must take seriously the idea that philosophical concepts are historical constructions rather than a-temporal natural kinds or essences, and that they bring along with them traces of their historical development. Indeed, one of the key aspects of the ‘conceptual genealogy’ approach (as is clear in particular in Nietzsche) is an emphasis on the contingent nature of philosophical concepts as products of long historical traditions. Moreover, conceptual genealogy produces narratives whose protagonists are concepts and issues, not authors; it operates on philosophical texts, but textual authorship is not the main focus.