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I am reading the book “The Sovereignty of Good” by Iris Murdoch and I am not able to grasp the meaning of the expression “genetic analysis”, which she often uses in phrases like “genetic analysis of mental concepts”. It may be an expression, and as I am not native I do not understand it. But a search on google only results on the scientific procedure of analysing genes.

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    I suppose it means the way they were born, created or developed.
    – Just me
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 23:20
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    It is not an idiom, but it is specific to Murdoch. "Genetic" here refers to something pertaining to genesis, formation, not biological genes. From context, she refers to analysis as "genetic" when it reduces concepts to publicly observable uses and discards "specialized personal uses", i.e. contributions from inner life. Presumably, when concepts are deeply personal, such as one's concept of repentance, their genesis cannot be tracked through publicly observable circumstances, and hence analyzed, for they depend on deeply private experiences.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 0:02
  • @Conifold that makes sense. Thanks. I think you could add that as an answer.
    – vicaba
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 23:57

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It is not an idiom, but it is specific to Murdoch. "Genetic" here refers to something pertaining to genesis, formation, not biological genes. From context, she refers to analysis as "genetic" when it reduces concepts to publicly observable uses and discards "specialized personal uses", i.e. contributions from inner life. Presumably, when concepts are deeply personal, such as one's concept of repentance, their genesis cannot be tracked through publicly observable circumstances, and hence analyzed, for they depend on deeply private experiences. Murdoch sees "genetic analysis", as found e.g. in Hare, Ayer and Ryle, as taking Wittgenstein's objections to private language too far.

For extensive commentary see Paese's 2018 dissertation The human, love, and the inner life: ethics after Murdoch, 3.1:

"The problematic development, which she calls “genetic analysis” of the meaning of mental concepts, consists in deriving from the consideration that it does not make sense to take the first-personal uses of mental concepts to be reports about inner objects the conclusion that, by acquiring the capacity to apply such concepts (e.g. that of decision) in ordinary public contexts, “I learn the essence of the matter” (Murdoch 1970: 12). As Murdoch immediately explains, the view she wants to put into question is that mental concepts lack any structure over and above their outer structure, which is fixed, and therefore, there is no room for the idea of progress in the understanding of them once this is grasped. There are no further steps for me to take in the understanding of a given concept once I have reached the threshold of ordinary competence in the use of the word corresponding to it.

[...] She draws our attention to the fact that the activity of reassessing and redefining one’s mental concepts and the way one applies them “often suggests and demands a checking procedure which is a function of an individual history” (1970: 25). In other words, this checking procedure involves precisely those aspects of our thought that go beyond what we share with most other people and in which we use concepts in a way that is shaped by our personal history, i.e., in ways that are “specialized” in her sense of the term."

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