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Genealogy and the Will-to-Power

We have shown so far that there are two levels on which Nietzsche’s critique operates, namely, as a specific critique of particular interpretations on the grounds that they explain their phenomena from an unconducive psychological perspective and as a more global critique of even the possibility of grafting a static and absolute interpretation onto those phenomena within historical discourse.[1] The former go some way in showing how modern interpretations of phenomena - whether Judeo-Christian or Darwinian - are susceptible to a critique of the underlying psychology that constitutes individual historical judgments, the latter in showing how all static and essentialist interpretations - and, indeed, the institutionalized expressions of power that justify their existence on the basis of such interpretations[2] - fail to account for the inextricably historical character of reality.[3] We reasoners are compelled to represent reality as permanent, despite the fact that we have uncovered the anti-realist character of those representations. This, incidentally, again illustrates the radical transition of Nietzsche’s genealogical project away from his earlier historiographical forms.[4]

Once we accept that Nietzsche’s characterization of historical reality is an anti-realist representation, we can permit without contradiction his utilization of causal accounts on the one hand and on the other his claim that cause is really nothing more than a mind-centered rubric. We can permit, that is, how he uses generalizations like ‘the Jews did x’ or ‘the priests did y’ while at the same time claiming “[n]o one who judges, ‘in this case everyone would have to act like this’” apprehends the truth of the past as it really was.[5] Contrary to MacIntyre, Nietzsche’s genealogy is no “self- engendering paradox” that requires a “persistent and substantial” vision of the past for the possibility of deconstructing it.[6] Nietzsche uses such designations symbolically, as he says, as “prescriptions of action [...] that relate only to their rough exterior,” since they are manifestly effective at making us feel more familiar with the topic under investigation.[7]

What makes Nietzsche’s Genealogie more than just a critique of rival views is its constitutive function.[8] Nietzsche is aware of his role as an antirealist historiographer in the text, and his historiography’s efficacy in creating values in a way the ‘English’ psychologists did not. For if “only something which has no history can be defined” and reality itself is a thoroughgoing historical process, then any account he provides cannot be a definition, but an interpretation. “One must first interpret this state of affairs [Thatbestand]: in itself it remains silent [dumm] for all eternity, just like every ‘Thing in itself.’”78 Those interpretations are not invented willy- nilly but, as we saw in the previous chapter, follow functionally from the mental and psychological constitution of the interpreter, i.e., their perspective.79 Types of interpreters are individuated by roughly similar dynamics of psycho-physiognomies, and therefore both issue and comprehend judgments in type-relative standard ways. But the common characteristic of the drives and instincts that propel an agent to interpret the world as they do is ultimately, Nietzsche thinks, Will-to-Power.80

But every purpose and use is just a sign [Anzeichen] that a will to power has become master over something less powerful, and has impressed upon it its own sense of a function; and the whole history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a tradition can to this extent be a continuous symbol-chain [Zeichen-Kette] of new interpretations and adaptations, whose causes [Ursachen] need not be connected even amongst themselves, but rather follow and replace one another just accidentally.[9] [10] [11] [12]

Like the chiming of a clock at midday, each moment brings with it a new layer of sound, creating new harmonies even while effacing the possibility of discerning the reverberations of the original bell.82 Our static definitions for indefinable historical realities like ‘things,’ ‘organs,’ or ‘traditions,’ too, are not merely convenient fictions, but symbolic designations that over time necessarily compete with one another, harmonize with, or displace one another, as expressions of the power aims of a specific type of interpreter over and against an entire history ofother interpreters, to the point that that original phenomenon, what it actually meant in-itself, has become indiscernible. “ The Will-to-Power interprets: in the structure of an organ it’s a question of interpretation; it sets limits, defines degrees, differences of power [Machtverschiedenheiten] ... In truth, interpretation is itself a means to become master of something. The organic process presupposes continuing interpretation.”83 The historical interpreter herself manifests her will to power in interpreting the past in the typical way she does. The interpretation proceeds functionally from her will to render phenomena understandable, control them, utilize them, and ultimately have hers triumph over and replace competing interpretations of the same phenomena.[13] Many interpretative spheres of meaning will be shared among many types of interpreters, for example, that words like ‘king’ or ‘revolution’ are signs with at least proximally agreed-upon meanings, that political affairs have more impact upon more people than do purely personal affairs, or that naturalistic causes are better explanatory mechanisms than those employing ‘divine hands.’ But the differences in interpretation among historical interpreters are more interesting in that they better reveal the circumferences of the historians’ perspectives, the timbre of their power-wills. Whether combatants are seen as freedom fighters or terrorists, whether a change in circumstances represents progress or decline, each interpretation reveals something about the power interests of the interpreter. Those spheres of meaning in which perspectival explanations garner acceptance or rejection now exude the single common element: the Will-to-Power. “Our drives,” though multifaceted in their particular aims to interpret the past in certain ways, “are reducible to the will to power.”[14]

Accordingly, the moral theme is represented symbolically as a sort of Will- to-Power in each of the three essays of the Genealogie. In the first essay both the nobles and base are portrayed as striving to exercise their strengths in order to procure a feeling of power over the other party. They esteem as ‘good’ that which increases the power of someone in their or a similar condition of life. Hence those victorious in competition, the rich, the powerful, conquerors in battle are interpreted as favored by the gods. The lowly, unable to compete in these respects, change the historical rules of valuation in order that their typical characteristics like humility, obedience, patience, charity and tolerance are considered good. In the second essay, punishment is unmasked as a continually transmogrifying will to express one’s power in a dominant way over something which resists. Directed outwardly, this will becomes interpersonal torture; directed inward, this will to power leads to the development of self-conscience and nausea, various forms of self-torture. And in the third essay, asceticism is viewed as a self-contradictory “unsatiated instinct and power-will that would like to become lord not over something living but rather over life itself.”[15] The ascetic ideal is, in one of its guises, the dangerous seduction of believing one’s interpretation is the only one possible, objective in the positivist sense, final, once and for all.

To avoid the absolutism of the ascetic ideal, by analogy, the historiographical interpreter must understand his interpretations to be a perspec- tival expression circumscribed by his power drives rather than a representation that adequately corresponds to the world outside him exactly as it really was. The anti-ascetic genealogical historian must, that is, be a representational anti-realist, able to talk about and represent a state of affairs in an admittedly symbolic way without demanding that the meaning of his static symbols depend upon its correspondence with the constant flux of reality. He does not hope that his interpretation should stand for all time or as the only possible one, but that it wins acceptance among perspectives whose typological power aims at least minimally and at least momentarily overlap.

  • [1] Robert Guay names this trend ‘Cautious Humean’ — a ‘leading us away from defective beliefs’without a generative force capable of producing new values. See Guay (2000), 354. See also Danto(l965f 157.
  • [2] As Emden puts it, “[K]nowledge about the history and transformation of cultural institutions andtheir underlying set of values prevents absolutist political claims.” Emden (2008), 268.
  • [3] See GD “Vernunft,” 5; KSA 6, 77.
  • [4] Contrary to Benne (2005), 101; Porter (2000a), 4; and Babich (2005), 62. For my arguments againsttheir methodological assimilation of Nietzsche’s published philology and his later genealogy, seeJensen (2013a).
  • [5] FW335, KSA 3, 562. 5 MacIntyre (1990), 50-55. 6 FW335, KSA 3, 563.
  • [6] 77 Contra Stegmaier, who contends the Genealogie is not history at all, but simply critique. Stegmaier
  • [7] (1994), 66.
  • [8] 78 GM111, 7; KSA 5, 350.
  • [9] The freedom to change these conditions was rejected by Nietzsche even as early as Philosophy in theTragic Age of the Greeks (1873). PTG 7, KSA 1, 831. See also MaM 1, 106; KSA 2, 103. Robin Smallmakes a convincing argument that much of Nietzsche’s formulation of freedom derives from Ree.See, for example, Ree (2003), I05ff; Small (2005), 92—107.
  • [10] Here I do not enter the longstanding debate about the ontological status of the Will-to-Power, since itis not directly relevant to its role as an explanatory characteristic of interpretive schemas in theGenealogy of Morals. For an informative discussion of the relation between Will-to-Power andgenealogical interpretation, see Strong (2006), 93—97; Janaway (2007), 150, I52ff; Saar (2008), 453—469; and Born (2010), 202—252. Of the many scholarly renditions of Will-to-Power, mine followsmost closely the one of Abel (1984) and (1985), 35—89; and Gerhardt (1996).
  • [11] GM11, 12; KSA 5, 314. See also, JGB 203; KSA 5, 126. 82 GM Vorrede, 1; KSA 5, 247.
  • [12] 83 NFfall 1885—fall 1886, 2[i48]; KSA 12, I39ff. The word ‘Interpretiren’ is emboldened in the KSA.
  • [13] See Born (2010), 41.
  • [14] NF August—September 1885, 4o[6i]; KSA 11, 661. In Wolfgang Muller-Lauter’s words, “Everyproposition has as much justification as it has power.” Muller-Lauter (1974), 48. See also Abel(1984), 142.
  • [15] GM in, 11; KSA 5, 363.
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