What is Reverse Engineering?

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

Melissa Morano Aurigemma
6 min readFeb 13, 2024

At present, I am making my way through the book The Practical Origins of Ideas: Genealogy as Conceptual Reverse-Engineering by Matthieu Queloz. Firstly, the origination of ideas (cognitive, cultural) is certainly compelling as a topic. The subtitle inclusive of “conceptual reverse-engineering” actually further baited me to pick up the book.

Defining Reverse Engineering

How often do we hear “reverse engineering”? Often. It gives me pause. Because it is an action, but it is also a method, a practice. Queloz begins the book with some helpful considerations for thinking about a) idea origination and b) reverse engineering.

Starting with Queloz’s utilized definition of concepts may be a good place to start. Concepts he defines as “thinking techniques” governed by normative patterns that allow us (cognitively) to move “from perception to thought, from thought to thought, and from thought to action” (23). Our learning and absorbing of concepts allow us to “learn to interpret and evaluate the world around us by forming bundles of dispositions to partition the world in certain ways and draw certain inferences about it, both in our minds and through our actions” (23).

Queloz continues on to describe the distinction between conceptual engineering and conceptual reverse-engineering (which, I will just call “reverse engineering” for the duration of this piece). Conceptual engineering asserts a desired concept or outcome to be achieved and works “from the function to the conceptual practice that would perform it” while reverse engineering begins at the point of the conceptual practice, to the function it performs.

Reverse engineering is typically simplified as a “working backward” or procedural “inversion.” Queloz agrees it is a backward-looking enterprise but one with the potential to “reveal what our conceptual practices do for us when we do not yet know it…reverse engineering nevertheless can and should guide the forward-looking enterprise of engineering better concepts.” He argues further that this method provides explanation without the risk of reduction (20). Hyper-focus on functionality can miss the mark of acknowledging the conceptual practice in its relevant contextuality.


Queloz then details seven potentialities of reverse engineering, of which I will highlight a selection herein.

Reverse engineering can organize seemingly disparate or chaotic elements into what Miranda Fricker refers to as “ordered pluralism” — reverse engineering may illuminate “functional unity” acting as a “beacon around which other forms can be arranged and in relation to which their own derivative point becomes apparent. Variety that was initially baffling is shown to be subservient to a single overarching point” (27).

I appreciate that Queloz spends time to explain how reverse engineering enables a “holistic understanding of concepts” and connecting it to Wittgenstein’s assertion that “careful scrutiny of a concept alone is not going to tell us everything worth knowing about it, and that we must look beyond the concept to the contingent facts that explain its formation and give it its point” (29). Looking merely at a stand-alone concept increases the risk of a form of eliminativism given its penchant for easily dismissing concepts or outlier ideas that require detailed comprehension or greater contextual understanding. Reverse engineering can demystify this, providing a “form of rehabilitation in the face of eliminativist reactions to philosophical vexation” (28). This advocates for a toward-totality approach vs singular granularity; allow me a brief, oversimplified metaphor — the hyper-focus on one granule of sand makes you forget you’re on a beach, that’s on Earth, and adjacent to the sea, the sun is shining, and the moon is connected to the tide.

Queloz writes:

“Where conceptual analysis zooms in on a concept…reverse-engineering zooms out to bring into view the broader patterns and purposes of human behaviour and the weave of life in which they are embedded. We need a holistic understanding of what the context in which we put our concepts to use is actually like, and how this renders it more useful to operate with certain concepts rather than others, in order to see what our concepts do for us” (29–30).


So, what happens when we have this broadened holistic lens, we engage with a variety of informative context, and we conclude that a conceptual practice or method is problematic or malfunctioning? Queloz asserts that reverse engineering “facilitates responsible conceptual engineering” writing, “it is one thing to realize that our conceptual practices are problematic and need to change, and quite another to secure the kind of understanding required to change them responsibly” (42).

Queloz continues:

“Conceptual engineering as described by Herman Cappelen in Fixing Language (2018, 34) is defect-based: it encourages us to proceed by listing generic defects in concepts or words — emptiness, incoherence, inconsistency, vagueness, or objectionable effects on society, cognition, or theorizing — before going on to fix them across our conceptual repertoire. Conceptual engineering is then conceived primarily as a matter of fixing our concepts or words. Yet responsible conceptual engineering requires one to understand not just what needs fixing or what is bad about our concepts, but also what is good about them — the variety of things they do for us when they function well” (42).

Failure to engage in reverse engineering ends up at an irresponsible end as it reasserts the risk of eliminativist thinking — where historical context and/or phenomena of the human condition cease to be understood as intrinsic to conceptual analysis.

Relevance: Revisionary vs Revolutionary Potential

Queloz paraphrases Isaiah Berlin’s statement that if “revolutions have tended to issue in something entirely different from what they intended, it was because they are always at risk of seeing only the tip of the iceberg and producing unanticipated consequences by stirring up the depths” (42). I believe this is a valid point to keep in mind at a time when, for example investors, may understand the importance and upside of betting on outliers, but have varied methods for the identification of so-called outliers.

Revisionary thought and engineering efforts intend to amend what is dysfunctional, but as Queloz argues, these efforts are potentially most effective when informed “by a grasp of what is functional” (43). The basic principle of not operating within a vacuum is validated with this reasoning. Responsible conceptual engineering requires conceptual reverse-engineering, according to Queloz as “insights into what concepts we need and why we need them are useful not only for retrospective, explanatory purposes, but also for prospective, action-guiding purposes” (43).

Here I will conclude with my own thoughts regarding revision. I agree with Queloz that responsible conceptual engineering is not detachable from reverse engineering. Revision-focused solutions remain revisions; iteration upon an existing concept. For revolutionary ideation, a grasp of the functional and a greater expanse of the contextual is likely required.

We ought to possess a comprehensive view of, as Queloz puts it, the “multiple layers of functions laid up in our conceptual practices — not to focus only on the functions that are particularly salient to us because they are historically recent or because they are in the spotlight of some ethical or political theory, but to step further back and ask what older, more familiar, and hence perhaps less striking functions our conceptual practices also perform” (43). When we find faults with a concept, it is imperative to ask ourselves if we are positioning our evaluation within the appropriate fullness of context — are we actually reverse engineering, or are we merely looking over our shoulder to see what the rest of the assembled audience is thinking?

This maintains relevancy not only in terms of invention, but responsible invention — and responsible investing. I will end with one final, and I hope thought provoking quote from Queloz — “even when a conceptual practice clearly has objectionable effects, identifying the vindicatory aspects of its genealogy can help us distinguish between a situation in which we should abandon the practice wholesale and one in which we should aim to preserve the benefits of the practice while mitigating its disadvantages” (43).

There is no true revolutionary future in which we are cultivating a habit of dismissing certain technologies and tools in their entirety. It is important to remain curious about what can unfold and emerge beyond one-dimensional revision, into the realm of revolutionary ideation and origination.

Looking forward to reading more of this book and would recommend it to anyone who found what I shared interesting — Matthieu Queloz works including The Practical Origins of Ideas: Genealogy as Conceptual Reverse-Engineering (which is Open Access via Oxford University Press) can be found here.



Melissa Morano Aurigemma

Philosopher, artist, poet, etc, etc by night and by day Chief of Staff at Exceptional Capital