Word Bin


The hiatus is due to classes starting back and to the fact that I have been focusing on preparing my thoughts on privilege for a journal article that is due in one week now.  After writing and writing, I am now mostly cutting.

Cutting paragraphs is unsettling.  I will likely discard some thoughtful analysis that I spent a lot of time considering and writing – just because it doesn’t flow with the narrative created.  My desire to conserve and steward makes that difficult.  So, I will put some of it here:

There are a number of different historical influences and ways to understand progressive historiography, but the progressive narrative is generally understood to include technological and social progress (see Briesach).  These ideas captured the zeitgeist of the modern era, which optimistically embraced the view that through education and rational management, technical and scientific progress could be applied to social and moral ends.  The progressive histories were eventually informed by Darwin’s theory of evolution, but their foundation lay rather in the pre-Darwinian understandings of social change  exemplified in Hegel’s philosophy of history (see Johnson, 2014).  By the nineteen twenties, social Darwinism and eugenics were often included in popular views of progress, but this was not the case in the 1880s when Nietzsche wrote the Genealogy.  At this time, popular academic morality was primarily consequentialist and utilitarian, as attested by Nietzsche in the Genealogy.  It was this view of morality that he sought to overturn.  Not altogether unlike Kant, however, Nietzsche was working with and against two somewhat different traditions.  On the one hand were the utilitarian, English genealogists, and on the other were the German speculative philosophers, inspired by Hegel.

He argued against what he saw as the utilitarian thesis that the designation of good lay with those who benefitted from such acts, and argued instead that the goodness of actions and qualities was established, by association with people who were deemed good.  That is, the person is understood as good (noble) and then the actions generally associated with them are deemed good (noble).   The mistake made by the utilitarian genealogists was that they erroneously presupposed that the then-contemporary understanding of morality (good as utilitarian and consequentialist), or at least its essence, could be traced back to the origin of morals, or alternatively, that morality could be understood to develop naturally teleologically from the distant past toward the current state.  However, in what has become, since Nietzsche, a standard practice, the argument was made that we should not presume that our current perspective was held by those in different times and places.  More precisely, the origin of evaluations and designations likely have little to do with their current use (it might appear, for example, that the evolutionary purpose of fingers is to type on a laptop), but we should be wary of this line of thinking and should certainly no more presume that the origin of morals was connected to utilitarian calculations than we should that fingers evolved so that we might one day be able to type.

Nietzsche used the name genealogy in the same way that he used Zarathustra: as its traditionally understood opposite.  That is, the historical Zarathustra was seen by Nietzsche to represent a Manichean worldview whereby history is understood as a battle between good and evil; as used by Nietzsche, however, the name Zarathustra is used to undermine this view of the world.  Similarly, whereas genealogy was (and is) commonly used to trace a marker or essential quality back – unbroken – from the present to a point of origin in the past, Nietzsche’s genealogy was used to emphasis the difference, multiple origins, infections, infusions, assimilations, and accommodations that one must find when tracing back causal lines.  The point to be made is that with each generation, or assemblage of causes, the material constitution and other influences upon a thing increase exponentially.  That is, the further back in history one goes, the more absurd becomes the notion that there is some single, unadulterated quality that has passed from the original to the present.

It seems easier to conserve the essence when one maintains or presumes that history is developmental and evolves toward some telos.  When the end form is known in advance, one can neatly identify the significant events, place them within the narrative model offered by the progressive arc, and explain those events that represent moral and social progress and those that are backward or stand in the way of history.  What is required to understand historical development in this way is knowledge of the good / the end of history.  There are perhaps innumerable possible candidates for the good and the progressive, but Nietzsche’s genealogical approach was employed in opposition to one in particular: the conviction that history progressively evolves (or should progressively evolve) toward increased equality.


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