Nietzsche's Genealogy

By Smith, Shawn J. | Philosophy Today, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Nietzsche's Genealogy


Smith, Shawn J., Philosophy Today


Two related and yet opposing forces cut across Nietzsche's writings from The Birth of Tragedy to Nietzsche Contra Wagner: the desire to champion a life-affirming noble way of life, and an ironic "evil eye" for all that is mendacious-and not only with regard to others. In Nietzsche's earlier writings, the ennobling tendency took the form of a somewhat atavistic and romantic desire for a transcendent nobility of the spirit-classical Greece and Wagner provided models for this ahistorical, "untimely" nobility. At this early stage in Nietzsche's writing, the ironic tendency manifested itself in sharp attacks on opposed positions-Nietzsche's own mentors (and through them, his own interests) are left relatively unscathed. Nietzsche's ability to champion a transcendent nobility ofthe spirit declines, over time, proportionate to the increasing scope of his ironic tendency; he came more and more to see the story lying behind his own story. The nobility of the spirit gives way to those who are able to practice self-overcoming.

This essay will give a privileged place among Nietzsche's works to On the Genealogy of Morals. In that work, ironic suspicion, paired with self-overcoming, finds a methodological form: genealogy. Prior to that work, Nietzsche had found his material but not yet his method. Afterwards, genealogy would continue as his method; the later writings enact not so much a "revaluation of all values" as the revaluation of Nietzsche's own models; the joyous self-parody of Ecce Homo now stands as the exemplar. No longer does Nietzsche look beyond his own situation to find a life that can assume mythological dimensions.

To explore genealogy as a method, a strategy developed in On the Genealogy of Morals and employed throughout Nietzsche's subsequent writings, it will be useful to begin with an examination of On the Genealogy of Morals : what does it seek to accomplish, and how does it operate?1 Next, a comparison of the treatment of certain matters in On the Genealogy of Morals with the treatment of those same issues in the immediately preceding Beyond Good and Evil will allow for an understanding of the shift effected by the development of genealogy as a method. Finally, a consideration of the later works will show genealogy as a strategy amenable to various ends.

The Strategy Developed: On the Genealogy of Morals

What is a genealogy? Quite simply, a family story. Much of the recent commentary on genealogy, Nietzsche's or Foucault's, as an historical/philosophical method, has missed the most obvious meaning of the term: unearthing the family history of some particular subject. This connection with the traditional practice of doing family trees, while certainly not sufficient to explain the philosophical and political turns that this practice has taken at the hands of Nietzsche and Foucault, should not be forgotten.

What is it that gives Nietzsche's genealogy its character of historical/philosophical criticism? Two twists on the standard construction of a family tree. First, the "subject" of a genealogy a la Nietzsche is not some individual person, but a theory, a belief, an ethical framework, an idea. And this ideal nature of the subject of the genealogy leads to the second twist: these ideas were not supposed to have a history; what we can know, what we can hope for, and what we should do were thought to have a separate origin from that which could have a family tree. By definition, to successfully indicate a pedigree for an idea is to expose a hidden family scandal, to drag the skeleton out ofthe closet.

As the title indicates, On the Genealogy of Morals seeks to establish such a pedigree for morality. But which morality? While the first of the three essays presents a sweeping picture of both "slave" and "noble" moralities, insofar as a critique is elaborated, it is a critique of slave morality. A genealogical account of the development of the slave morality that has triumphed in Europe is presented in order to indicate the decadence of that morality. …

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