Nietzschean Genealogy: Snapshots

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I mentioned in my last post that the Spring semester was psychologically hefty: Foucault and Foucault’s acolytes from across the spectrum. For the last couple of weeks, I needed to do some lighthearted and playful activities that would relieve the kind of confused perma-stress that I inadequately described in my last post. But I’m ready to return to thinking about Foucault, about Foucauldian genealogy, and about Nietzschean genealogy.

I wondered whether Foucault’s ideas had made me feel psychologically ill. Now, I know that they had. Some of the truths, too convincing, some of the implications, too distressing. It was like that one time I read Misery. But things are calming down—through the catharsis of having written about that philosophical distress; and I want to resume those philosophical activities with the knowledge that genealogy—Nietzschean or Foucauldian—is not a toy.

Of course, Foucault is ‘simply a Nietzschean.’ But, apart from the question of what it means for Foucault to be a Nietzschean, what does it mean to be a Nietzschean to begin with? Oh God:

Anyway, I spent some time with Nietzsche during the semester and will spend some of the summer spending more.

This little article—this articulus(ulus)—has a grand task as its aim: to make a meaningful statement about Nietzschean genealogy. But I shall do so only by outlining a definition and then pointing to a dyad of conflicting interpretations—both useful—of what the Genealogy of Morals (GM) is all about.

Genealogy is a species of history. Alexander Nehamas has called it ‘history correctly practiced.’ But with what conceptions of history is Nehamas contrasting genealogy? That’s a much larger question that I don’t intend to tackle. Rather, I shall unpack what P.J.E. Kail has succinctly argued:

[Genealogy] is primarily an explanatory account of some distinctive set of beliefs, practices, and associated phenomena, involving situating agents with a particular psychology in a social-cum-environmental situation to which that psychology is responsive. (pg. 214 in May, 2014)

Now, that might already be clear enough, but I should imagine that those with no prior Nietzsche are squinting their eyes and scratching their heads. Let me try to simplify. Nietzschean genealogy is a method that explains the historical development of how human beings as moral agents have acted upon and been acted upon by their social and historical environments. Genealogy, at the very least, attempts to answer a question like, Why do I hold a certain moral belief? by pointing to a history of the psychological frames of mind that gave rise to that belief.

Let’s take a step back: for what good is it to answer the question of why I hold a moral belief? What warrant does a philosopher have to question morality, to be a moral skeptic? That all depends on what the belief is and how whoever holds that belief justifies it to themselves. But, for Nietzsche, Judeo-Christian morality became open to debate as a result of the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions. His reasoning is simple and lucid: if religious institutions were wrong about the Earth’s place in the cosmos and about human biology, were they not perhaps wrong about man’s place on earth? Nietzsche noticed that religious values and principles such as poverty, chastity, and humility still retained their religious aura even after the appeal to God-givenness as a ground for certain scientific beliefs became less and less acceptable. Nietzsche is reacting to the downfall of the absolute scientific authority of religious institutions.

(I should point out that the battle between religious institutions and the natural sciences carries on.)

So, Nietzsche notices a key contradiction: 1) the Copernican and Darwinian Revolutions have offered conclusive warrants for the belief that no appeal to Holy Scriptures qua divine can count as a scientific argument. This constitutes a major reversal of Aquinas’s maxim: philosophia ancilla theologiae. Instead, science subsumes theology as, at most, another field of inquiry into the natural. 2) Although belief in the moral claims that comprise the Holy Scriptures requires further explanation and interrogation, even naturalist philosophers like Schopenhauer have, on Nietzsche’s view, yet to call those beliefs into question. Many naturalists who no longer come anywhere near believing that religious precepts are justifiable qua religious still admire and strive for virtues that are perhaps residually and originally Platonic and Christian.

The simplest way of putting this: many people organize their moral lives around precepts that emanate from religious authorities that these people no longer accept as per se authoritative.

Nietzsche thinks that the possibility that a defunct set of values still shapes, molds, and impresses one’s whole psyche would be good to know something about. And I do, like many Anglo-American readers, ‘understate’ his moral attitude toward that possibility.

Genealogy, then, is a way of seeing the history of morals from a Darwinian psychological point of view. Once one does this, then moral precepts that claim to place their treasure in otherworldly aims like heaven actually have a psychological motivation that is immanent in the lives of whoever holds those beliefs. This is a serious rickroll: talk of heaven is at bottom always talk of earth. Because those who talk of heaven are unaware of their own psychological states that arise from their embodiment, that directedness toward the region of divinity either does constitute or at least perhaps constitutes a crooked and winding path that always leads back to the earth. Wherever you go, there you are.

Now, there is a kind of interesting debate going on in the academic literature that surrounds GM. I have actually risked driving right past it in the course of what I’ve already written. Kail points to this debate as between two possible interpretive stances toward GM: the one takes Nietzschean genealogy as immanently critical, the other as merely destabilizing. I might take a dialectical perspective that no solution that consists in anything other than entertaining rich arguments from either view can offer the interpretive tools that are needed in order to perform a grounded reading.

Kail’s destabilizing approach reads GM merely as calling into question particular moral beliefs by means of demonstrating that the reasons that used to be cited in order to justify following a rule no longer apply. Genealogy, on the ‘destabilizing’ reading of it, does not take the next step of revaluating the values it analyzes. It simply elaborates the disjunction between a belief and the supposed justification for that belief.

This ‘destabilizing’ view of GM feels and sounds an awful lot what Foucault calls problematization. It is very Foucauldian indeed not to take the normative next step, i.e., of coming to grips with what one thinks about the object of moral value itself. It’s Foucauldian, and it’s analytic in the true sense of the term, for it isolates genealogy qua method, but is it Nietzschean?

Other scholars isolate a different dimension of GM: genealogy quaintention-implication. I use the term ‘intention-implication’ to assimilate two features of the immanently critical reading of Nietzschean genealogy: a) that Nietzsche intends to criticize morals directly by means of the genealogical method because the method as such b) implies that certain moral beliefs are no longer justified.

I should say that the capacity to assume either view in relation to a particular passage or moral precept allows the reader not to universalize about Nietzsche’s moral attitudes. This ability ‘not to universalize’ about the text entails the possibility of ‘doing philosophy to it.’ But is the attitude toward ‘doing philosophy’ that involves not imposing norms the imposition of a postmodern and Foucauldian norm onto a fundamentally normative text? The text GM provides so much evidence for reading his genealogy as immanently critical that doing so has become all too natural, so natural that this technique may obscure Nietzschean sensitivity to a more palliative view of the social norms that Christian virtues have shaped. So, it is probably wise—indeed, more scientific and philosophical, I might say—to have the other option (that genealogy as such merely destabilizes) on the table, at least qua reader and philosopher, but still to retain the point of view that there are moments in the genealogy where the justifications for a moral belief are so transparently outmoded that any mental elaboration beyond genealogy itself is so negligible, so subtle as to make it reasonable to include it within the scope of genealogical inquiry as such.

There are moments in the text when one need say no more about the moral rule beyond what genealogy immanently produces, and there are moments when one has to think of the rule in light of considerations beyond a genealogy that merely destabilizes.

Recommended reading (a link to any book on Amazon is OF COURSE an affiliate link—get real!):

  1. May, Simon. Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  2. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Keith Ansell-Pearson, and Carol Diethe. On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. The translation I have used.
  3. One thing I didn’t write about or explain in this article is the “Will to Power”. This is an important idea. More about it here: Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 17, 2017. Accessed June 08, 2018.

Snapshots of Nietzschean Genealogy
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Snapshots of Nietzschean Genealogy
This article tracks some basic features of Nietzschean genealogy. Is moral criticism immanent in Nietszchean genealogy or does genealogy merely destabilize?
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