Methodology: Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy


In the first chapter/lecture of The Birth of Biopolitics, the book drawn from Michel Foucault’s 1979 lectures, the following remarks are made regarding methodology:

Instead of deducing concrete phenomena from universals, or instead of starting with universals as an obligatory grid of intelligibility for certain concrete practices, I would like to start with those concrete practices … I start from the theoretical and methodological decision that consists in saying: Let’s suppose that universals don’t exist.  And then I put the question to history and historians: How can you write a history if you do not accept a priori the existence of things like the state, society, the sovereign, and subjects? … Let’s suppose that madness [for example, as in Madness and Civilization] does not exist.  If we suppose that it does not exist, then what can history make of these different events and practices which are apparently organized around something that is supposed to be madness? (p. 3)

Foucault explains approach in other places as well, such as “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History” and the Archaeology of Knowledge.  I note this because the goal for today is not to explain Foucault’s methodology – or even discuss it on its own behalf.  Instead, I wish to clarify what I am doing and what sort of knowledge is being produced as a result of thinking through this blog.

As noted previously, my goal is to examine the ends to which the notion and the label (white) privilege are used, what belief-sets people must hold in order to feel guilt for having privilege, where these worldviews come from, historically and philosophically, and more broadly, to use the concept as a focal point that allows me/the reader to examine other ideas in relation to contending conceptualizations of privilege.

What I am not doing is trying to explain what privilege really is (and is not).  Like Foucault with madness, I begin with the presupposition that privilege is not some thing in the world that exists.  It is an idea that has no single, true, and universal meaning because what it means changes from one time to another, one place to another, and is even understood differently by people living in the same place and time – holding a conversation with one another, for example.  Privilege is hardly special in this regard.  All big, abstract ideas have the same sort of reality.  Philosophy that seeks to find the essences of things is dead.  Nietzsche (with help from Wittgenstein) killed it.  Now we (some scholars, anyway) seek to understand how it is that people came to believe x.

How does someone following Nietzsche, Foucault, and others tell the/a story of privilege then?  Simply by examining what has been said and tracing (genealogically) the history of ideas that allow a person to think such things.  Said differently and perhaps more simply, an intellectual history is constructed that allows us to see points of divergence (and sometimes convergence) in competing conceptualizations (of privilege, for example).

This is what Nietzsche (sort of) did in his Genealogy of Morals.  The main thrust of the argument is a philological analysis of moral language, particularly of good and bad/evil.  In the book, Nietzsche suggested that privilege should be understood through its historical connection to the development of human agency and responsibility. The story begins in antiquity.  At that time, the ancient nobility considered privilege the honor of responsibility and freedom: a rare commodity, acquired only at the greatest of costs, and highly valued.  With the development of more or less permanent society, another chapter in the development of the modern subject (understood in Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s dual manner of both agent and object) began.  Here, alongside the passing of noble privilege and its attempted extension to others, disturbing mnemonic devices were employed such as stoning, quartering, the wheel, etc., to help communities of people acquire the predispositions required for the privilege of freedom.  Reason, solemnity, the mastering of emotions, reflection: all the virtues of discipline that we now share were learned, according to Nietzsche, with the cost of much blood and horror – so that we commoners might share the privilege of freedom and self-determination.

The Genealogy was Nietzsche’s critique of late nineteenth century morality, or more specifically, ethical theory.  The progressive histories of his time, he argued, were too rationalistic and metaphysical, and the approaches employed misled scholars to seek the essence of morality and to construct a world whereby this moral core developed from a primitive state to the more or less predetermined and advanced form held by ethicists of the late nineteenth century.

Nietzsche argued in the Genealogy and elsewhere that it was a mistake to try to track the ascent of morality and to believe that the world was evolving toward unified consciousness and equality.  If anything, the Western world had, according to Nietzsche, experienced moral decline over the last two millennia.  And so, rather than narrate the unified dialectical evolution toward contemporary moral prejudices, Nietzsche emphasized difference through the antagonisms and group-interests that gave rise to changes in moral sentiments.

Nietzsche’s philological training strongly influenced the then-radical nature of his philosophical thinking, and he noted that it led him to ask different questions and eventually to settle on a different problem (than the essence or telos of morality): namely, “under what conditions did man invent the value judgments good and evil – and what value do they themselves have” (p.5)?  How, he wondered, did peoples’ ethical systems reflect their collective experience and view of life?  Specifically, which ethical systems viewed life, living, and the world as something good, and which ones saw life and the world as something bad? (Schopenhauer)

In order to know this he would have to study the conditions and circumstances under which the values grew up developed and changed.  Nietzsche said he was given a pointer in the right direction by inquiring as to what the term good variously signified in different languages.  Study of these languages confirmed for Nietzsche that in antiquity, the term good was a cognate of aristocratic and noble.  In the earliest texts, good was often associated with the courageous and god-like warrior, and then after the initial conquest and during the maintenance of power, good came to be the cognate of qualities such as spiritually advanced, spiritually privileged, and honest.  In these same ancient sources bad was originally a cognate of common, plebian, and simple.  According to Nietzsche, these terms were not explicitly derogatory, but primarily descriptive.

Essay 1 of the Genealogy continues the philological approach to philosophy by tracking the evolution of good and bad.  During this study, Nietzsche discovered that in some ethical perspectives, good was opposed to evil rather than to bad: and this was the key to realizing that he was dealing with two different ethical systems rather than one unified system evolving over time.  Nietzsche located this development in the rise of priestly class who, in settled society, come to vie for power with the aristocracy.  Combining etymology with a bit of speculative psychology, he argued that this extended event occurred at various times and across the world: from India to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and beyond.  Channeling Hegel, he argued that the noble did not really know the commoners or understand the priestly.  The aristocracy knew that they were beautiful, strong, and healthy relative to others, and had the general understanding that others were pitiable, unfortunate, unhappy, and so forth (as indicated, again, by cognate words), and the very language of their ethical and evaluative systems confirmed their goodness.  On the other hand, claimed Nietzsche, the priestly classes who came into conflict with the nobility were faced with a moral language that branded their enemy as good and themselves as not-good.  It was this tension that led the priestly class to create the conception of evil: as a second opposite of good, and which came to stand as the dividing point or axial pole in the development of a different moral system.

The priestly class, according to Nietzsche, sought to garner the power of the masses by enacting a revaluation of morality whereby all of the qualities of the aristocracy were changed from good to evil and the qualities of the weak and powerless were reconfigured as actual good.  It was difficult to overturn what seemed to be sensible: that the strong, powerful, beautiful, and courageous were the good and that the weak, meek, cowardly, and humble were less so.  The accomplishment of this task required nothing less than the creation of another, unseen and hidden world wherein the weak were strong and the strong were cast down.  In this scheme, because the new (imaginary) world was to be understood as the good world, the existing world that everyone actually lived in had to be understood differently: as bad, flawed, and in need of redemption: a redemption that would be mediated by the priests.

The Genealogy continues to theorize the priestly system came to dominate.  Following its origins in the resentment of the privileged, the system becomes victorious when those who had heretofore thought of the world an inherently good place come to view the world as evil, and man as fallen and in need of redemption.  The story Nietzsche tells is not so simple, however, as to contend that now the world is really fallen.  Instead, he explains how the guilt and bad conscious is both a poison and a stimulus.  It has made us deeper, more sophisticated and cunning, more dangerous, reasonable, and efficient.

Today, in what I read anyway, privilege is a concept that is exceedingly ripe for historical analysis – because, as Nietzsche noted of the moralizers of his day, the concept is discussed from one moral vantage and those doing the speaking seem to be presupposing that their moral perspective is universal.  In Nietzsche’s view, privilege as bad works only because those with privilege have bought into a moral system that understands the existing world as bad and in need of a redemption that must be administered or at least mediated by the modern priests (academics).  Nietzsche would contend that guilting people for their privilege works only if (1) they do in fact feel that their privilege is unearned, and that that is bad, and relatedly, only if (2) they take an unhistorical view of privilege or fail to acknowledge and own the sacrifices made by past kinsman (blood and otherwise).

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