The philosophical function of genealogy

It is seldom in dispute that genealogy, or genealogical accounts are central to Nietzsche’s philosophic enterprise. The role that genealogy plays in Nietzsche’s thought is little understood, however, as is Nietzsche’s argumentation in general, and, for that matter, what Nietzsche might be arguing for. In this paper I attempt to summarize Nietzsche’s genealogical account of modern ethical practices and offer an explanation of the philosophical import of genealogy. The difficulties in coming to understand the philosophical function of genealogy are obvious. Genealogy, whatever else we say about it, offers a story of the genesis of contemporary ethical beliefs and practices. The story that Nietzsche gave is obviously a revisionist one, and Nietzsche seldom cites specific historical evidence; although it contains many historical allusions, the presentation is thematic or even mythical. At the same time, Nietzsche’s interests were primarily ethical: he seems to be attempting, in some novel way, either to solve or to eliminate1 philosophical problems about norms and values. In particular, he offered his genealogy as part of a critique of specifically “modern” values and the advancement of an “immoralism” that would take their place. So the difficulties are: it is unclear what status we should accord Nietzsche’s stories in particular, and it is unclear what role any story about the emergence of modern values can play in an assessment of those values. We seem to need a reason to take Nietzsche’s account as particularly authoritative, and then an explanation of how his account does in fact bear upon the normative status of “modern values.”.
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