Since Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, philosophers and social critics have used genealogical arguments — arguments about the historical development of widely held beliefs — to criticize those beliefs. However, it is not clear whether or why genealogical arguments work, rather than succumbing to the “genetic fallacy.” In this paper, I argue that many genealogical arguments do succumb to this fallacy. However, I argue that theorists have been misled by the assumption that if a claim is deserving of criticism, it is because the claim is false. Turning to the criticism of concepts rather than criticism of claims, I expand on the distinction between “descriptive semantics” and “foundational semantics” to show that genealogy can be uniquely qualified to explore the foundations of concepts, and therefore to criticize concepts that are problematic in non-obvious ways.
Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40, No. 1 (2010), 3-29