Home Philosophy Nietzsche philosophy of history
Genealogy as representational anti-realism
Nietzsche’s central presupposition in the 1887 Genealogie is that the values we hold today to be universal, timeless, and inviolable are really a culturally specific, temporary, and contingent manifestation of a tortuously long development. To this end, Nietzsche’s entire purpose hangs upon an historical description. Nietzsche seeks to describe “morality as it really existed and was really lived,” “the real history of morality,” “the really- confirmable [das Wirklich-Feststellbare], the really-as-it-had-been-there
[das Wirklich-Dagewesene]."14 Nietzsche criticizes other historical accounts of morality precisely with respect to their inability to consider this ‘true’ history of morals. Beyond the naivety of supra-historical metaphysicians like Plato, Kant, and Schopenhauer, he “sincerely hopes" that those who do study the history of morality —‘those English Psychologists,’ for example — have learned to “sacrifice desirability to truth, every truth, even a plain, bitter, ugly, foul, unchristian, immoral truth [...] Because there are such truths."15 The work is more than a disinterested chronicle of ‘historical facts’; it is ostensibly a polemic intended to make readers think critically about their long-held values by offering up a rival set capable of displacing them. But the prescriptive force of the book depends intrinsically on Nietzsche’s historical description - precisely what his meta-history renders problematic at best and impossible at worst.
Nearly all commentators on the Genealogie recognize the problem of affixing the veracity of Nietzsche’s claims, and offer a variety of strategies for mitigating it. I take the view that Nietzsche thinks his description is true, in a specific historiographical sense.16 For were his exhortation to truthfulness nothing more than an ‘irritating’ rhetorical device,17 then in what way could his ‘Streitschrift’ possibly succeed against those readers who do take seriously the truth of their own counter-values? Were none of his historical explanations intended to be true, if Nietzsche was no more than “parasitically inhabiting] the dominant interpretation,"18 then why should we esteem his description of the historical transfiguration of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ the slave revolt in morality, the various heritages of modern punishment, and the development of the meaning of ascetic ideals with any more seriousness than we do the historical accuracy of his description of the character Zarathustra?19 Had he wished to construct a philosophically meaningful but fictive narrative whose content was never meant to express the “real history ofmorality," the composition ofhis Also sprachZarathustra proves to      
us both that he was able to do so and, for whatever reason, chose not to do so in his Genealogie der Moral. Apart from an unconvincing strategy, we might also question why - were this all just a narrative fiction - Nietzsche would have bothered with such meticulous historical research.
Nietzsche, I contend, is not just constructing fictive narratives but offering a representational anti-realist description of his historical subject matter pursuant to a perspectival explanation orchestrated to convince certain types of readers. Let us see whether the argumentative structure of GM bears out this contention.
Structurally, Nietzsche seeks, “which origins [welchen Ursprung] our terms good and evil actually have.” These cannot be origins in the sense of an alpha-point mechanical cause given what we saw earlier about his critique of scientific explanations - some single cue ball whose impact sets the whole table of moral history in motion. He wants to know “under what conditions [Bedingungen] did man invent the value judgments good and evil? And what value do they have themselves?’'2' We “need to know about the conditions and circumstances under which these values grew up, developed and changed.” Accordingly, Nietzsche seeks to articulate the set of natural conditions of that process by which values develop, sometimes long and slow as in the case of the development of the meaning of punishment or the development of the ascetic ideal from its early religious roots to its new manifestation in modern science, sometimes abrupt as in Paul’s historical falsification of the meaning of Christ.24 Those conditions will typically be naturalistic in the sense that they are at least theoretically approachable in terms consistent with natural science and will avoid talk of divine interventions, providential ends, and metaphysical dei ex machinis.
It would be difficult to deny, unless one maintains that each of the above quotations is ironic25 or rhetorical,26 that Nietzsche intends to provide, above all, a naturalistic account that explicates the causes as to how contemporary values developed out of an older period of time. He criticizes historical interpreters who trace the development of ascetic ideals to the wrong causes, but offers his own set of the right ones. “Allow me to present how things actually were [den Thatbestand] in contrast to this: the ascetic ideals spring from the protective and healing instincts of a degenerating life, which uses every means to maintain itself and struggles for existence.”27 Of the historical development of ressentiment, he again maintains the validity of a characteristically causal account. “Here alone, in my opinion, is found the real physiological causation [wirkliche physiologische Ursachlichkeit] of ressentiment, revenge and their derivatives, in a yearning, then, to anaesthetize pain through affects.”2 “At this point, I can no longer avoid giving a preliminary expression to my own hypothesis on the origin [Ursprung] of ‘bad conscience.’”29 But what kind of causes are these? Surely not ‘scientific causes’ intended to provide for once and all the single deduction by which the origin of morality will be for all time proven — as if Nietzsche could point out some general law of the development of meaning such that the particular instances of the meaning of good or evil could somehow be deduced. Nor can it be some metaphysical entity which brings about events in the manner of teleological historiography - as if Nietzsche could assign God, the Metaphysical Unconscious, or Geist the duty of pushing forward
three worthy readers, see Nietzsche to Reinhart von Seydlitz, shortly before October 26,1886; KSB 7, 270. Rohde’s critique of Taine may have in fact contributed to Nietzsche’s increasingly icy attitude toward Rhode in the late i88os. See Nietzsche to Rohde, May i9, i887; KSB 8, 76ff.
the development of the aescetic ideal. Nietzsche’s use of causal language is in fact more in keeping with twentieth-century thinking than with the scientific positivism of his own century, in two ways.
First, Nietzsche’s convention is consistent with the counterfactual theory of explanation put forward most notably by David Lewis. “We think of a cause as something that makes a difference, and the difference it makes must be a difference from what would have happened without it.” Were the cause alleged by the historian not the case, the event to be explained would not have happened as it did. This is quintessentially an anti-realist mode of representation since its construal of ‘what might otherwise have been’ is obviously just the opposite of an attempt to represent ‘what had actually been.’ It is a mind-centered contrary-to-fact conditional about what ought to be considered responsible for a genuinely real event. And Nietzsche’s accounts make substantial use of such antirealist etiological explanations. That the ‘slave revolt’ in morality was brought about by the gradual encroaching of Judeo-Christian power aims upon those of the Greco-Romans fits this sort of thinking. Without such a ‘world-historical event,’ without the ‘victory’ of the Jews, the older value system might well have remained dominant. This is hardly just some story, but an appeal to a rather credible contrary-to-fact conditional. The rise of the Judeo-Christian morals is what ‘makes the difference’ from what would have happened otherwise, i.e., the continuation of a more characteristically Roman set of mores or else their defeat at the hands of an even less ‘tamed’ expression of power from Rome’s various northern and western neighbors. And what ‘makes a difference’ is itself a relational valuation that depends upon the perspective of the author and audience of the statement. There is no way to test the truth conditions of this type of explanation logically or empirically since one cannot compare what did happen ‘as a result’ of the slave revolt with a reality in which Judeo-Christian beliefs failed to become dominant in Europe. Indeed, ‘responsibility’ itself is in a strict sense nothing real in the world but, again, an ascription of causal relation for the sake of certain perspectives in a way that increases their familiarity with the situation.
The explanation Nietzsche offers cannot, as such, be considered viable as a realist account. Were it, we would have to consider the Jewish people as a physical, ontological cause for the development of morality, which would be to say that Nietzsche genuinely believes that every Jewish person, all of them, consciously and with ‘unfathomable hatred’ chose to reject an existent and apparently quite obvious ‘aristocratic value equation.’ This simply cannot be what he is claiming. But as an anti-realist account - which brings Nietzsche close to more reasonable counterfactual causal explanations like ‘were it not for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States would not have entered the Second World War,’ - it serves to highlight which cause the historian values as the most significant factor in the causal process and hopes to convince like-minded readers of the same by increasing their familiarity with the situation under investigation. An antirealist counterfactual explanation does not treat cause mechanistically - as if things like ‘Slave Revolts’ or ‘the attack on Pearl Harbor’ could be mechanistically efficacious - but nonetheless meaningfully explains a historical event in a way that contributes to our ‘knowledge,’ in the sense of increased familiarity for certain perspectives, of the event in question. A counterfactual explanation of this sort is neither a mere story among other stories nor a representation of the past as it really was, but nevertheless a genuine historiographical argument whose measure of acceptance rests upon the extent to which other like-minded perspectives also place the responsibility of historical change on that same cause.
The second way that Nietzsche’s use of anti-realist etiology aligns with twentieth-century philosophy of history concerns the ontological status of this alleged cause. We’ve already shown that, for Nietzsche, reality is dynamic and because of that our designations of ‘things’ or ‘events,’ however necessary for navigating our world, must be considered a symbolic use of designations within an anti-realist framework of representation. And if this is so, then the ‘causal fulcrum’ by which a persistent substantial entity is to bring about a change can, too, only be considered a convenient and convincing symbolic representation. It was Maurice Mandelbaum who, in his own well-known critique of traditional historiographical theories of causation, noted the same phenomenon. “The popular notion of causality, as it was usually interpreted, demanded that all events be regarded as derivative from ultimate substantial entities. When the ultimate substantial nature of matter began to disappear under the bombardments of physical research, the popular notion of causality was seriously undermined.”35 The explanatory theory he offered in place of the traditional notion claims that when we assign causes we are really just connecting two related events or things - admittedly representationally abstracted events and things - in a way that is meaningful to the historian and to the audience for whom they write.36 That connection is not really ‘in’ the events or things in a realist way, but in the mind of the historian; and as such can be meaningful in however many ways that increase our familiarity with the phenomenon in question. Nietzsche did the same generations earlier.
The descriptions Nietzsche offers in the Genealogy serve psychologically to communicate knowledge in the manner we outlined in the previous chapter: as perspectival explanations. For while those conditions are not general laws under which particular historical events could be deduced or predicted, they are idiographic designations that increase our sense of familiarity with the formerly unfamiliar phenomena because we readers - in the event we agree with Nietzsche - share in the proximally same perspectival sphere of meaning. For example, we may not apprehend where the notion ‘good’ comes from; but we understand the feeling of inadequacy combined with a desire for sour-grape style revenge over those who have physically bested us sufficiently well such that the proffered perspectival explanation of the origin of good genuinely does increase our familiarity with the notion. The origin of ‘bad conscience’ seems prima facie mysterious as well; but by couching his perspectival explanation of it in the sufficiently familiar phenomenon of cruelty combined with our inclination to believe that civilized man is less violent in an outward manner, we are prepared to acknowledge that ‘bad conscience’ is caused by a certain need for cruelty turned inward - a Verinnerlichung der Grausamkeit - through a long process of civilized taming of the animal man.
|< Prev||CONTENTS||Next >|