Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Limits of Metaphor in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Limits of Metaphor in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals

Article excerpt

It is a commonplace that Nietzsche makes heavier use of metaphor than most philosophers. But the boundaries between metaphor and literal language are unclear, especially when Nietzsche uses biological terms. Recent commentators, anxious to avoid biological reductionism, have interpreted such terms as purely metaphorical. But recent studies suggest that Nietzsche worked within a nineteenth-century intellectual context that may be called 'biologism,' which saw biology as providing models for processes in other areas of life, but did not reduce them to biology. To test this insight, the present article examines particularly the metaphors (or apparent metaphors) used for processes of change in The Genealogy of Morals, showing how Nietzsche draws on two branches of scholarship that he especially valued: philology and biology. At certain difficult points in Nietzsche's argument, these metaphors come under strain, especially when Nietzsche applies a whole series of incompatible metaphors to explain (or seem to explain) the development of 'slave morality.'

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Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is a hugely, almost insanely ambitious treatise. It undertakes to explain the origins not only of morals but of society, custom, law, class differences, religion, priesthood, and scholarship--all under the sign of the Will to Power. Being concerned with origins, it is also concerned with change and continuity. It asks, for example, how primitive man, who lived from day to day, was changed, over the millennia, into the modern autonomous subject capable of remembering the past and making promises about the future. But it also undertakes to reveal the continuity, for instance, between the early priest with his terrifying ascetic practices and the modem scholar whose asceticism takes the form of a devotion to truth. Nietzsche therefore needs models for change combined with continuity, and he finds two such models in the sciences of his own day. One is philology, which traces the transformation of words; the other is evolutionary biology, which examines the transformation of organisms. In addition, especially in the third essay, he appeals also to physiology and medicine. His constant reference to these sciences gives Nietzsche's late prose a rich metaphorical texture.

Where, though, does metaphor stop and literal meaning begin? Many of Nietzsche's recent interpreters ascribe to him a radical epistemological skepticism that would deny the possibility of knowledge and truth. Hence there could be no literal language, because there would be no solid reality for such language to refer to. And indeed The Genealogy of Morals ends by questioning the search for truth, describing it as the last remnant of Christian asceticism, and speaking admiringly of the Islamic sect whose secret doctrine was "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" (III, 24). (1) Yet the Preface seems to announce a factual, scholarly, painstaking search for the truth about morality. Contrasting his own project with the Kantian concept of an innate sense of right and wrong, Nietzsche explains his conviction that morality has a history. He found some provocation in the English philosophers who traced the "moral sense" back to sociability or utility. In order to approach "the real history of morality" (Preface 7; emphasis in original, here and elsewhere), however, his hypotheses needed a firmer basis. Instead of such speculation "into the blue," his approach is "grey": "by that I mean what has been documented, what is really ascertainable, what has really existed, in short, the whole long hieroglyphic text, so difficult to decipher, of humanity's moral past!" (Preface 7). Astonishingly for postmodern interpreters of Nietzsche, this sounds very like a commitment to ascertainable data. These data are to be found especially in two sciences that Nietzsche in another late work, The Antichrist (section 47), described as "the two greatest opponents of all superstition, philology and medicine. …

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