Today I discuss the connection between the historical analytic I use (genealogy), my philosophy of history, and the nature of the world.
It is quite clear which color is a hundred times more important for a genealogist than blue: namely gray, which is to say, that which can be documented, which can actually be confirmed and has actually existed, in short, the whole, long, hard-to-decipher hieroglyphic script of man’s moral past! (Nietz, GM, p. 8)
Introducing genealogy in the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche maintained that rather than be an exercise in speculative philosophy, genealogy should be historical. That is, genealogical analysis reconstructs belief systems by studying historical evidence, and it resists the brand of philosophical speculation whose premise is that human society develops logically from the barbaric and animal past to the conscious and enlightened present. The view that human history is progressing toward an end, a telos, is seen most famously perhaps in G. W. Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, but it has been common to a whole school of historical writing (progressive history) since the late 1800s. Although it is tempting to imagine that these notions of progress were due to the influence of Darwin, it should be kept in mind that the evolutionary ideas informing progressive history were largely pre-Darwinian, formed in association with the mechanical or clockwork model of the world. This view drew from Newtonian physics and Protestant theology and understood the world to have been the product of a creator who established the cosmos, with all of its laws, set it in motion, and allowed the world to unwind or unfold until it reached the end of history. Thus conceived, the truth of the world can only be grasped when seen in whole. At the end of history, truth ceases becoming and comes into being. Correlatively, the truth of things and events in the world can be understood only in relation to the fulfilled cosmos. Since the ultimate meaning of the world itself is bound up in its end, which, according to Hegel, is characterized by consciousness, rationality, and equality, events from the past should be seen as steps in the development of consciousness, rationality, and equality.
By attending to how human interests, desires, and local contests of power have influenced the evolution of ideas, practices, and events, genealogical analyses do not so readily subsume every historical event within a narrative of teleological social and moral progress. As such, the analytic likewise resists metaphysical thinking, including beliefs such as things have essences, our conceptual system can capture or represent these essences, and indubitable knowledge can be secured in the construction of rational systems. Instead of searching for essences and true natures, genealogical analysis understands historical identities forming, reforming, unforming, and being assimilated and accommodated in a dynamic and fluid manner.
The nominalism associated with this approach is maintained even when dealing with human society and the human subject, which contends that that there is no essential or true self that lies deep within us; rather, the self is a contested field, whereby different situations prove more amenable to the appearance of different identities, or as Nietzsche calls them, masks. Said differently, the self becomes and becomes: selves are becomings rather than things with essences. It is a mistake to ask who some historical person really was because persons change over time and there is no single identity that inheres through time. Identity is dynamic and is manifest in relation to the attractors, repellants, threats, and forth that present themselves in the changing contexts of peoples’ lives. Lives exist within and among a series of more and less complex systems. History is understood in this view as the aggregate of these individual and battles to retain identity (life) or to meld identities (join forces), and so forth. Nietzsche held that life was characterized by the will to power. I would call it an instinct or characteristic for growth and localized negentropy. As with Hegel’s, this view is of a world becoming, evolving, developing; the difference lies in whether or not there is a goal state/end/telos (Hegelian/progressive view) or whether the world is understood to develop in an open fashion, with no particular end (my view).
I hold open the possibility that as we learn more about our universe (which must, it seems, be one of countless other open systems) that was born (big bang), develops, and will likewise die (be assimilated into an even larger whole), we will develop a more sophisticated understanding of our role within the cosmic system. Perhaps, for example, humans might come be understood as something like a mobile node in a cosmic neural pathway. In the same way that our brain seems initially hardwired to develop certain lobes and areas, so too might we be part of an evolved cosmic ontogenesis. In such a reality, we would be given a role to play. This in turn might lead some to think of that as our calling or purpose or telos. But to think thusly is to fail to understand the nature of complex systems. It would be equivalent to see the purpose of the cricket to be food for the mockingbird. Purposes (identities) shift from one perspective to the next. Yes, the purpose of the cricket is bird-food, but it is also to produce other crickets and to nourish the mockingbird that is eaten by the cat … Identity and purpose shifts from one perspective to the next. Likewise, even humans are part of a naturally developing cosmic nervous system, but this does not constitute our sole purpose as a species or as individuals. Said differently, we have no essence, and history has no end. Genealogical analysis starts with these premises leads to different sorts of interpretations of historical events than one will encounter with progressive, Hegelian, and Marxist interpretations of historical events that posit a telos, such as equality, for example.
The significance of the above for this study is best explained in contrast. Many indeed seem to presume or presuppose that increased equality is a sign of moral and social progress. This lends itself to questions such as why one is to believe that this is a sign of progress, what the criteria for progress are, upon what are those criteria based, and how are we to understand the connection between progress and goodness. Put more simply, why should we believe that the world is rightly evolving toward equality and that this is good? I do not attempt to answer these here because it would take too long and because ultimately I do not believe that there is a singular goal for history or that increased equality is inherently good. It is good for some reasons but is not inherently good. Likewise, I do not view privilege, understood as a type of inequality, as inherently bad or undesirable. Such evaluations depend on context and perspective.
If privilege is seen (or strategically positioned) as inherently bad by a scholar, then the analysis will likely take the form of a simplistic, normative narrative: Privilege is bad, mhkay. In contrast, one might contend that privilege is necessary for order – something along the lines of Hobbes’ Leviathan. I hold neither of these views, but seek to show how the concept of privilege has developed and the ends to which it is used.