The Power of Genealogy

Dissertation, Georgetown University (2015)


What is the normative import of telling genealogies? Genealogies are historical accounts of our present reason-giving practices. They purport to show how certain reasons, forms of reasoning, norms, and concepts came to be authoritative for us, by looking at how these practices developed in concrete social and material settings. I argue in this dissertation that telling genealogies can challenge the legitimacy of found norms and thereby open up a space for normative transformation. To understand the central role that the concept of power plays in genealogies, I develop a novel account of the ontology of power and the pragmatic effects of power attributions. I argue that power cannot play a useful role in social explanations; I show that a number of common strategies to account for power as an explanatorily useful social capacity fail. As an alternative, I develop a fictionalist account of power: When we attribute power to agents, we treat them as if they had social capacities, even if we are not strictly speaking entitled to do so. The resulting fiction of power is not simply an illusion, but is built into the structure of our material practices. Power attributions can play a constitutive role in the creation and maintenance of social order. On the basis of this view, I argue that power talk has an expressive function: Power attributions can make explicit the norms that are embodied in the social and material settings in which we act. I show that pragmatist accounts of reason-giving need such an expressive concept of power, because it allows us to raise questions about the default authority of found, embodied norms. This, I argue, is also the role that the concept plays in genealogies. For the genealogist, power is not a merely causal factor that distorts or undermines rational practices from the outside. Instead, she uses the concept to disrupt our familiarity with the everyday world by making explicit the embodied norms that structure it. As a result, a genealogy calls on us to take responsibility for these norms and practically transform the space in which we act.

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