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The ‘English’ genealogists

The meaningfulness of a perspectival explanation not only presupposes a horizon in which it is circumscribed, but also a rival perspectival interpretation against which it can compete. Were there no allowance for rival points of view, the perspectival would devolve into the same sort of absolutistic thinking genealogy it intended to resist. Perhaps the most important counter-interpretation to Nietzsche’s own power-based view of the development of morality is Darwinian evolution, as it was applied on the one hand by the ‘English genealogists’ like Mill and Spencer and on the other by Nietzsche’s one-time confidant Paul Ree.[1] Nietzsche’s genealogical critique serves two undermining functions: first, as a psychological critique of their particular theses about historical development; second, as a critique of their general mode of historical judgment.

To the first point, even though Nietzsche shares with the Darwinians a general historical naturalism and the belief that values are historically derivative social constructions,[2] he finds that a number of their theses are untenable.[3] Where Darwinians see moral progress over time, Nietzsche sees at best no progress and at worst deterioration.[4] Where - especially for Spencer - the competition among organisms not only reveals which are more fit but actually brings about more fit organisms over history, for Nietzsche conflict guarantees no progress, only the further exertion of power in different dynamics.[5] The origin of the concept ‘good’ is sought by the Darwinians among the recipients of good deeds, while Nietzsche understood the passive recipients of deeds as passive, too, in the process of designating values.[6] For Darwin, animals that work in groups while reinforcing cooperation and compassion are better suited for survival than individualistic societies. For Nietzsche, what really helps a species evolve (and not just preserve itself) is the elevation of individuals who work against the existing herd, even if those great individuals sacrifice themselves.[7] Darwin thinks that the earliest laws and customs were made with a mind toward equality and protecting the weak. Nietzsche, following Walter Bagehot, thought that laws were essentially constructed to compel obedience among the herd.[8] For Darwin, the fittest survive, whereas for Nietzsche even the very fittest are susceptible to being overcome by a larger number of the less fit.[9] For Darwin, the will to survive and to propagate the species motivates human behavior, where for Nietzsche survival and propagation are derivative from the more essential Will-to-Power.

Darwinian interpretations cannot be considered false because their judgments fail to correspond to a past world external to them. With a familiar move, Nietzsche now investigates the drive-constituted view of life, the perspective on life, which led these Darwinian historians to hold these particular theses and their audiences to accept them. Nietzsche locates it thusly:

I highlight this major point of historical method, all the more since it runs counter to precisely that prevailing instinct and fashion which would much rather come to terms with absolute randomness [absoluten Zufdlligkeit], and even the mechanistic senselessness of all events, than the theory that a power- will is acted out in all that happens. The democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually shaped and dressed itself up as intellectual, most intellectual [...]. But this is to misunderstand the essence of life, its will to power, we overlook the prime importance which the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, reinterpreting, redirecting, and formative powers have, which ‘adaptation’ follows only when they have had their effect; in the organism itself, the dominant role of these highest functionaries, in whom the life-will is active and manifests itself, is denied.[10]

The Darwinians, for all their historicizing, fail to recognize that their own democratic moral values are themselves the product of a long historical process.[11] Psychologically, they are inclined to start from their own ‘mis- archic’ standpoint as an absolute, and unconsciously look backwards to history only to find the success of precisely those traits they are predisposed to seek. Darwin himself is particularly guilty of this ahistorical historiography when he seeks the origin of ‘moral’ feelings — by which he tends to mean cooperation, sympathy, care for the young, and altruism: all the comfortable bourgeois democratic values in which he was raised - and is all-too-happy to discover that ‘moral’ animals like chimpanzees and apes already exhibit these traits. But one could, driven by a different psychology, provide a very different interpretation of ‘moral animals’ if one presumed that self-sufficiency, fitness for conflict, or cunning were similarly ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ values.[12] Darwin, driven unconsciously to value equality, sees cooperation and sympathy as fundamental human goods. Nietzsche, aware of his own interpretive impulses, speaks of competition, overcoming, and strength of will.

Why should we believe Nietzsche’s version of history over Darwin’s? Darwin, more so than his followers Spencer or Ree, really was a fine historian in the traditional sense of one who collects mountains of data to support his theses and tests his hypotheses against the widest possible diversity of examples. And part of the reason Darwin himself resisted pontificating on morality overmuch was the relative paucity of reliable and objective evidence. Most of Nietzsche’s counter-claims are assertions or declarations with little hope of convincing those who require the usual kinds of historical evidence. Where are the texts, where are the archeological artifacts that prove anything about the great European slave revolt or development of ascetic ideals? Nietzsche’s evidence, if it can be called that, consists in a few scattered etymologies that can at best illustrate but neither explain nor demonstrate his interpretation. In the rather sarcastic words of Daniel Dennett, himself no stranger to evolutionary thinking, “Nietzsche’s Just-So Stories are terrific [...]. They are a mixture of brilliant and crazy, sublime and ignoble, devastatingly acute history and untrammeled fantasy.”63

But what Dennett fails to see - and this constitutes that second, more caustic undermining of traditional historiography like Darwin’s - is that Nietzsche’s focus also has in view the possibility of their mode of historiography itself. As we continue to see, Nietzsche’s mature philosophy of history simultaneously undermines a single absolute subject-free interpretation of historical events and opens up the possibility, indeed the necessity, of having rival interpretations compete for acceptance by appealing to perspectival spheres of meaning.[13] Historiography, as an expression of the Will-to-Power insofar as it manipulates, contests, critiques, reestablishes, reportrays, and remolds the meaning of the ‘givens’ of the past, will always reject the vacuum of a single absolute interpretation and seek rivals - as does Nietzsche’s Streitschrift with the Darwinians - against which it can assert its influence.[14] Its appeal rests neither in its logical demonstrations nor its quantity of empirical evidence, but, in keeping with the principles of perspectival explanation, provides a symbolic representation that is meaningful and even convincing to many, but not all, perspectives on that same event.[15] It is therefore not merely that particular theses of the Darwinian interpretation are susceptible to doubt due to their insalubrious perspective; it’s that their practice of history is intrinsically untenable: it represents an ascetic ideal of objectivity, timelessness, and selflessness that sought the one absolute way of interpreting the ‘facts’ of the past - a hypocritical historiography that denies the evolutionary character of his own theory of evolution.

And the very presence of evolutionary theory as a reinterpretation of existing interpretations of ‘the facts’ by itself suggests the inherent preferability of Nietzsche’s own belief that proper historiography is an expression of Will-to-Power. For “somebody with an opposite intention and mode of interpretation,” like Spencer or Ree,

could come along and be able to read from the same nature, and with reference to the same set of appearances [...]- an interpreter would show the exceptionless and unconditional nature of all ‘will to power’ so vividly and graphically that almost every word, and even the word ‘tyranny,’ would ultimately seem unusable .. . Certainly, this is only an interpretation too - and you will be eager enough to point this out? - well, all the better.[16]

Far from trying to eliminate counter-interpretations that result from competing power-wills, Nietzsche’s genealogy - a Streitschrift after all - actually requires them to reveal the preferability of his account of historiography as an expression of power aims. Even to those perspectives on the past for which Nietzsche holds no sympathy he can only acknowledge that what counts for “meaning of the herd should rule in the herd - just that it not overreach itself.”[17] Accordingly, not only does the Genealogie claim that historical phenomena have developed out of a historical conflict of power wills that vie to interpret and overwrite those necessary counter interpretations over time, but the text exemplifies in practice the fact that every historical account of morals, and, indeed all historiography itself, engages in the very same act. Consistent with his claim that morality is a dynamic of competing interpretations situated within typological perspectives, Nietzsche offers a dynamic power-based historiography aware of its metahistorical status as an anti-realist representation and perspectival explanation that stems from his own perspective and hopes to find acceptance within similarly typed readers. The Darwinians, despite their fundamental contention about the evolutionary character of all reality, write about values as if they were an absolute, unchanging, non-evolutionary set of goods. Nietzsche’s genealogy, as Alexander Nehamas notes, is “history correctly practiced,”[18] a historiography that denies absolute interpretations of history, and that best reflects and embraces the character of historiographical interpretation and indeed of life as a dynamic of competing wills to power.

  • [1] Small reports that Nietzsche probably only read one work of Darwin’s: “Biographical Sketch of anInfant.” Small (2005), 88 n. 37. Nietzsche drew much of his knowledge of Darwin from Ree’sPsychologische Beobachtungen (1875), Der Urspring der moralischen Empfindungen (1877), and hisEntstehung des Gewissen (1885); and we know Nietzsche read Spencer’s Einleitung in das StudiumderSociologie (1875), and his Die Tatsachen der Ethik (1879). A fuller account of Darwin, Ree, and the‘English’ school of morality can be found in Richardson (2004), Small (2005), Sommer (2010), andJohnson (2010). On Nietzsche’s understanding of Spencer and Mill, see especially Fornari (2006). Iconsulted these sources throughout this section.
  • [2] See NFspring 1880-spring 1882, m[D88]; KSA 9, 433ff.
  • [3] Contra Dennett (1995), 65: “Aside from Nietzsche’s characteristic huffing and puffing about somepower subduing and becoming master, this is pure Darwin.”
  • [4] Darwin (1996), 395. Cited in Johnson (2010), 123.
  • [5] “[A] succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subjugationexacted on the thing.” GM11, 12; KSA 5, 314. See also Johnson (2010), 134; Born (2010), 46.
  • [6] See GMI, 2; KSA 5, 258ft. 2 See, among other sections, FW1 and 4; GM1,1.
  • [7] 58 See Bagehot (1965—1986) viii, 31. Nietzsche’s reading of Bagehot (1874) was particularly helpful in his
  • [8] divergence from Darwinism. Cf. Small (2005), 128.
  • [9] A good example is A 51; KSA 6, 23iff: “It was not (as is commonly believed) the corruption of antiquityitself, of the nobles of antiquity that made Christianity possible [...] The great numbers gained control; thedemocratism of the Christian instinct had won [...] it appealed to all the types that had been disinheritedby life, it had its allies everywhere.” The “principle lie of history” is even claimed to be the Darwinianconnection between success of a people and their morality at NF fall 1887, 9 [157]; KSA 12, 428.
  • [10] GM II, 12; KSA 5, 3i5ff.
  • [11] That this was a common trend in historiography, cf. NF fall 1885—fall 1886, 2 [188]; KSA 12,160.
  • [12] See Hoy (1986), 29. 63 Dennett (1995), 464.
  • [13] See Johnson (2010), 112-114. While I agree with Johnson on this point, my next section will refute his(and others’) claim that Nietzsche’s interpretation is just one reading among many and that there isno inherent measure of preferability among interpretations. See Johnson (2010), 135; cf. also Born(2010), 208.
  • [14] The connection Nietzsche envisioned between historiographical interpretations of morality and theWill-to-Power is indicated in an outline to his so-called ‘Lenzer Heide’ fragment: NF summer 1886-fall 1887, 5 [70]; KSA 12, 2i0ff. On Will-to-Power within historical interpretation, see Lipperheide(1999), 143; Saar (2007), 107-130.
  • [15] In David Owen’s words, genealogy is a “perspicuous representation oriented around the axis of ourreal need.” Owen (2007), 143.
  • [16] JGB 22; KSA 5, 37.
  • [17] NFend 1886—spring 1887, 7[6]; KSA 12, 280.
  • [18] See Nehamas (1985), 246, n. 1. See also Geuss (1994), 278ft
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