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Genealogy as history

In an 1887 letter to his friend Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche confesses a central fear for his philosophy of history. “At last my mistrust now turns to the question whether history is actually possible? What, then, does one want to ascertain [feststellen]? Something which, in a moment of happening, does not itself ‘stand fast’ [feststand]?”1 This mistrust illustrates a core problem for Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project. For since Nietzsche formulates a significant - it would not be an exaggeration to say the predominant — number of his arguments about truth, culture, religion, values, psychology, etc., in historical terms, that is, in claims about how things ‘used to be’ and how they have in some way become what they now are, the very cogency of his philosophy depends upon his account of the past — his ability to ‘set still’ that which does not ‘stand fast.’ And if his claims about ‘the slave revolt in morality,’ ‘the twilight of aristocratic values,’ ‘the birth of tragedy,’ ‘the instantiation of ascetic ideals,’ ‘how he became what he is,’ and so forth cannot be considered viable explanations of the phenomena in question, then Nietzsche may be a genius teller of stories, but no philosopher.

This dependency concerns not only the rhetorical devices that Nietzsche happened to employ — as if he could have written a non-historically framed philosophy. Historiography is essential to Nietzsche’s philosophy because its very subject matter concerns a reality that is historical through and through. In fact, Nietzsche considers it a major failing of the great philosophers that they ignore the intrinsically historical character of that very reality whose task it is theirs to explicate. “A lack of historical sense,” Nietzsche emphasizes in the opening sections of Human all-too-Human, “is the root mistake [Erbfehler] of all philosophers.”[1] [2] This is precisely because “everything has come to be; there are no eternal facts: just as there are no absolute truths. From now on, therefore, historicalphilosophizing [historische Philosophiren] will be necessary, and along with it the virtue of modesty.”[3] “[P]hilosophy [...] means for us only the widest extension of the concept ‘history.’”[4] “What separates us from Kant, as well as from Plato and Leibniz: we believe in becoming alone, even in intellectual matters; we are historical through and through; [...] revived is the way of thinking of Heraclitus and Empedocles.”[5] By contrast, “the morality of philosophers from Socrates onward is a sort of Don Quixotery,” a “selfmisunderstanding,” which evinces “a complete lack of historical sense”[6] by virtue of its attempt to judge “sub specie aeterni.”[7] It goes without saying that Nietzsche’s own ‘historical sense,’ his own “extension of the concept ‘history,’” will be very different from that inimical historisches Sinn for which he ridiculed his scientistic contemporaries in the mid-i87os.[8] Nietzsche requires a new model, one different in fundamental epistemological and ontological ways from traditional methods of describing and explaining the past.

Nietzsche characterizes his own philosophical project as just such an attempt to make becoming ‘stand still.’ He is trying to conceptualize history in a meaningful way while at the same time acknowledging the past is “unconceptualized chaos.”[9] Certainly not by ignoring reality’s historical character, nor by believing his concepts, words, and propositions successfully do arrest reality as it really was independent of his construction; Nietzsche’s unique accomplishment in the philosophy of history was to simultaneously recognize the developmental character of reality and that his own account of it represents a symbolic way of description, a way that admits the anti-realist, perspectival, and historical character of his historiography.[10] “Philosophy, the way I alone regard it, as the most general form of history [Historie], as an attempt to somehow describe and abbreviate in symbols [Zeichen] the Heraclitean 11


The character of reality is, for Nietzsche, a constant process, a continual flux of forms and shapes, the meaning of which shifts and transmogrifies along with the conceptual symbols of those interpreters who try to encapsulate it. Our values, as a part of reality, will be no different. They will be no Platonic forms existing immutably beyond space and time, awaiting the philosopher capable of apprehending them beyond the flux of appearances. They will be no Schopenhauerian ideas, no timeless objects of speculation.[11] [12] For Nietzsche, the flux of appearances is our reality, our only reality, and as such our task as philosophers cannot be to make reality really ‘stand fast,’ but to abbreviate it as if it did, to approximate reality in concepts and words, to interpret reality symbolically in ways that are meaningful for beings that are psycho-physiognomically arranged in the approximate ways our types are. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche must represent values like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ symbolically, while recognizing that in reality both are historically contingent interpretations and not timeless facts. “History can only be conceptualized through concepts [durch Begriffe begriffen werden]; the concepts, however, must be created by historical people.”[13] Genealogy, as Nietzsche conceives it, is a historically contingent anti-realist representation set within and constructed to convince a specific and determinate type of perspective.

  • [1] Nietzsche to Overbeck, February 23, 1887; KSB 8, 28.
  • [2] MaM i, 2; KSA 2, 24. For a discussion of this and the following quotations, see Brobjer (2007), 159.
  • [3] MaMi, 2; KSA 2, 25. 2 NFJune-July 1885, 38(14]; KSA 11, 613.
  • [4] 5 NFApril-June 1885, 34173]; KSA 11, 442.
  • [5] 6 NF end 1886—spring 1887, 7[2o]; KSA 12, 302ff. KSA 12, 303 cites this passage as “Ende 1836—Frnhjahr
  • [6] 1887,” which is an obvious misprint.
  • [7] GD “Venunft,” 1; KSA 6, 74.
  • [8] Lou Salome is reported to have made the interesting remark that “The historical instinct consists notso much in arranging facts as in enlarging them correctly.” Cited in Pfeiffer (1970), 203. Althoughnon-confirmable, if true this sentiment at least goes some way toward explaining his attitude shifttoward the phrase ‘historical sense’ away from his earlier disdain of the fact-grubbing scientifichistorians, which we outlined in Chapter 4.
  • [9] The phrase is an apt description from Bernard Williams (2002), 244ff, who, however, considersNietzsche’s historiographical project fundamentally incoherent. See especially Williams (2000), 157.See also Conway (1994), 318—333. My own refutation of Williams depends upon the cogency of myascription of representational anti-realism, which will continue to become clear in the next twochapters.
  • [10] In this way, I try to avoid the typically Derridian strategy of showing an author to be working with a‘philosopheme’ that that same author has already undermined. Nietzsche is not writing history whileundermining the possibility of writing history, but writing histories in a way consistent with hisepistemology and ontology.
  • [11] NFJune—July 1885, 36^7]; KSA11, 562. My emphasis. My interpretation brings Nietzsche particularlyclose to Mach’s position on the symbolic ‘economy’ of mental representation. See Mach (1886), 1—24.
  • [12] Indeed Nietzsche stresses his opposition to the subject-free Anschauung model of apprehension,which we saw was for a time his own. See GM ill, 6; KSA 5, 347ff. Ree, too, considered his ownposition as intrinsically anti-Schopenhauerian insofar as values must be considered in terms of theirhistorical development. Schopenhauer’s doctrine of compassion, for example, “can make us aware ofhow wrong it is to make the non-egoistic sentiment by itself the object of speculation, withoutattention to the history of its origin.” Ree (2003), 92.
  • [13] NFApril—June 1885, 34 [22]; KSA 11, 428. The statement is an approving summary ofHippolyte Taine.
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