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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Volume 46, Number 2, Summer
2015, pp. 239-247 (Article)

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moral philosophy I n Beyond Good and Evil. It helps us “structure our interpretation” of morality. He implies that such an understanding is an important prerequisite to the ultimate task of GM. thus tempting one to draw false evaluative conclusions. 46. interpretation. I argue that. But there is not an analogous story for why understanding morality’s history is important for coming to an accurate assessment of it.3 Yet it is not at all obvious why understanding morality’s history should be helpful for understanding current morality. I use the account to explain why Nietzsche’s genealogy mixes fact and fiction.1 Part of Nietzsche’s complaint in this passage seems to be that the judgments. PA 239 . in GM. especially if one’s ultimate aim is to assess morality’s value. Nietzsche claims that understanding morality requires not only a more sophisticated moral typology but an examination of morality’s history. After defending this account of how Nietzsche’s historical claims are relevant to his critique. Vol. and that consequently a more fine-grained typology is required. Would not a sophisticated typology be superior? After all. it is obvious why such a typology would be necessary to avoid evaluative errors—an overly simplistic typology may group together phenomena that differ in descriptive properties that make an evaluative difference. and practices grouped together under the concept of “morality” do not possess the requisite unity to be evaluated as a whole. morality’s history is a guide to whether and where we should expect to find coherence in our current moral practice. I consider how Nietzsche’s history of morality in On the Genealogy of Morality is relevant to his critique of morality. however.2 However. JOURNAL OF NIETZSCHE STUDIES. No. Keywords: geneaology. 2015 Copyright © 2015 The Pennsylvania State University. was thought to be ‘given’” (BGE 186).Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation Alexander Prescott-Couch Abstract: In this article. 2. Morality itself. University Park. on Nietzsche’s view. Nietzsche remarks that an interest in justifying morality has led moral philosophers to overlook an important question. assessing the value of morality. History is relevant to critique because it reveals that morality is unlikely to have the kind of coherence required by many of its defenders. affective states. the question of what morality is: “every philosopher so far has thought that he has provided a ground for morality.

The number of cases in which historical investigation can serve the first purpose is limited. Many interpretations of the genealogy assume that Nietzsche uses genealogy for one of these two purposes. Interpretations of GM that locate genealogy’s critical potential in its ability to undermine self-serving myths often emphasize this use of history. I argue that Nietzsche’s history provides us with information about how to “structure” our interpretation of morality. if moral rules are (now) commands issued by God. For example. Nietzsche believes that what we call “morality” has changed substantially over the course of history. After explaining the basic ideas behind my account. My article is organized as follows: I begin by considering how information about the conditions of a text’s production may structure our interpretation of that text. these rules must have been—at some point in the past—­commanded by God. I conclude by showing how my account explains why Nietzsche’s genealogy mixes fact and fiction. Interpretations of GM that emphasize that investigating the origin of morality reveals obscured features of current moral attitudes understand history as evidentially useful in this way. You mention this difficulty to a friend. I provide textual evidence that Nietzsche considered the history of morality relevant to how we interpret it. This article considers an alternative account of how Nietzsche’s historical story in GM is relevant for his critique of morality. who smiles and remarks that of course you’re having . Information “structures our interpretation” when it serves as an “interpretive guide. and history is often redundant for the second purpose.4 A second way information about morality’s past may be important is by providing evidence that current morality has certain features. neither of these considerations is sufficient to secure an important place for history in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Moreover. One way this information might be relevant is that how morality is now may bear some logical relation to the past. it would be puzzling for him to think he could directly infer features of our current moral practice from past features of that practice. However.240   Alexander Prescott-Couch Of course.” a guide to whether and where we should expect to find coherence in our current moral practice. even if it has substantially changed. The present property of these rules—that they are divine commands— makes implicit reference to the past. If Nietzsche believes this. How History Structures Our Interpretation of Texts Imagine you are trying to interpret a book but are having difficulty reconciling some of the statements in one chapter with those in another. historical information may not be completely irrelevant for knowing what morality is like now. I then consider how ­information about the emergence of a practice might structure our interpretation of that practice.

Interpretive norms such as (all things being equal) optimizing along dimensions of truth and coherence are then to be applied to the individual partitions. it does indicate how to go about interpreting it.and multipleauthor texts a name. In the case above. Similarly. How should this information affect your interpretation of the book?5 While your friend’s revelation does not reveal anything about what is in the text (i. Such coherence would call out for explanation in a way that the coherence of a text with a single author would not. all written by separate authors in different historical periods.Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation  241 difficulty. The book is a collection of essays. Such historical information is especially important for determining how to apply interpretive norms such as charity. Consequently. given this information. nonoverlapping parts that are jointly exhaustive. An interpretative structure is a set of norms that guides one’s interpretation of a text. the information indicates that you are unlikely to find ideological and stylistic coherence across chapters and that looking for such coherence is thus pointless. the text’s content). and where ideological and stylistic coherence—the sorts of coherence relevant for literary interpretation—should be sought. the history of authorship tells you that you should partition the text. much of the text was edited and adjusted to suggest a viewpoint quite different from the author’s own. To give these differences between interpretations of single. break it up into separate.. The information relevant to how you should interpret the text also has ­implications for what sort of coherence you should expect to find and how such coherence—if found—is to be understood. and your friend tells you that the book had a ­particularly strong-willed (bordering on pugnacious) editor who vehemently ­disagreed with many of the authors’ claims. that is. Particularly. the following two scenarios: 1. it should be understood as overlap or agreement among distinct voices. Imagine. For what might look like charitable interpretation of a text with one history of authorship might look deeply uncharitable with another. there is no need to search for a rationale for stylistic differences among chapters. For instance. it indicates which parts of the text should be used to determine the meaning of other parts. Moreover. we can say that they differ with respect to interpretive structure. There are more complex interpretive structures than those discussed above. even if such coherence were to be found. The Pugnacious Editor: You are having trouble reconciling ­various claims in a book.e. In the case above. if two chapters contain conflicting claims. there is no interpretive pressure to resolve the conflict. . One aspect of interpretive structure—highlighted in the above example—concerns what claims can be used to interpret the meaning of other claims and how they may be so used. for example.

In interpreting such a text. The fact rather than the nature of this historical sensitivity is what will be relevant in what follows. subtracts. one does not want to treat the text as a coherent whole but rather to distinguish the different strands of influence. The Pan-Generational Rewrite: You are having trouble reconciling various claims in a book. and rewrites some passages. and look at how they are responding to one another.. For instance. given how the text in “The Pugnacious Editor” came to be. If author and editor are disagreeing. For example. and I will not attempt it here. When we aim to interpret a text.g. one that corresponds to what the author would mean and one that corresponds to what the editor would mean (e. As in the original example. morality is like a text that has been pugnaciously reedited over the course of hundreds of generations. The purpose of investigating morality’s history is to provide us with tools for interpreting this “text” correctly. The correct interpretation is not simply to look for maximal unity among the parts of the text. you might take the fact that the author passage says p is a reason to ascribe not-p to the editor passage. the historical information about the texts is information relevant to structuring your interpretation of them. This happens over a series of hundreds of years. so one could use information about what the subject matter is in an author passage to interpret the subject matter of an editor passage or vice versa. one should see the text as a “struggle” between two authors of the text. Moreover. it would not be appropriate simply to partition the text and employ within those partitions interpretive norms such as maximizing truth and coherence. Things stand similarly in the second scenario. and your friend tells you that the book is the product of a number of generations.242   Alexander Prescott-Couch 2. say the editor left in a passage that—if ­interpreted in the context of the editors’ comments—would have a meaning that is the opposite of that originally intended by the author). then they must be sharing a subject matter. and then adds. we aim to put clearly on display the meaning of the . there might be passages that have two quite distinct meanings. Rather. Cataloguing the exact contours of these interpretive norms would be a difficult and laborious enterprise. if you know that certain passages are written by the editor rather than the author. Each generation reads the text of the last.6 Interpreting the text as a struggle means to apply a certain set of interpretive norms to it. How History Structures Our Interpretation of Practices On Nietzsche’s view. The point is simply that the norms might be relatively complex—quite different from the norm of optimizing along dimensions of truth and coherence—and the exact nature of this complexity will be sensitive to the history of authorship of the text.

For example. we will look for multiple functions rather than a single overarching function to which different aspects of the practice contribute. For many practices. it is assumed that an account of the relations among these parts should consist in showing how the parts operate together in support of a single basic function. There are various parts of this practice: the federal government prints paper bills.. however. When we interpret the practice of Christmas. There are many elements of this practice: going shopping. a structurally simple interpretation renders a practice “coherent” by showing that the parts display a functional unity. Given this history. for instance. we aim to put clearly on display the functions of the various parts of that practice and relations among those functions. There are. and the figure of Santa Claus is a composite of the Dutch Sinterklaas and British Father Christmas. there is no unified rationale for the practice of Christmas. and the practice had quite different functions in those different periods. automatic teller machines function to allow easy access to acquired bills. which functions to purchase goods and services. many practices that we do not assume have the sort of coherence that makes structurally simple interpretation appropriate. our practice of employing a medium of exchange to purchase goods and services. Call an interpretation of a practice that assumes the practice’s parts are unified in this way a structurally simple interpretation. An interpretation of this practice consists of an account of the functions of these parts of the practice (e. it would be . That is. Consider the practice of celebrating Christmas. when we aim to interpret a social practice. Why is it obvious that the appropriate interpretive approach to Christmas is structurally complex? I believe it is because most people are acquainted with basic facts about the history of Christmas: that different aspects of our current holiday practice derive from quite different periods in the practice’s history. singing holiday music in the cold to whoever will listen. Similarly. and so on. However. those bills are held in ­electronic machines that can be accessed using little pieces of plastic. reading stories about the baby Jesus. If successful. etc. the use of holiday wreaths derives from ancient Rome. there is no single function that the elements of the practice of Christmas are integrated to realize.) and how these parts “cohere” in the service of a single basic function: increasing the efficiency of exchange.Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation  243 text’s individual sentences as well as the interrelations among those sentences. Take. individuals give those bills to others in exchange for various physical objects. ornamenting evergreens.g. the practice of singing carols derives from the use of vernacular songs (rather than Latin hymns) at community events. the tradition of setting up Christmas trees originates in pre-Christian winter festivals. Such an interpretation is like that of a text with multiple authors or a text that has been substantially rewritten by a series of editors. Call an interpretation a structurally complex interpretation if it differs from a structurally simple interpretation. and so on.

it will be obvious that one’s account of morality should not be structurally simple. Nietzsche thinks.” The history of punishment up to now. This conclusion is important for critique because many defenses of morality have a structurally simple form: they assume morality has a single basic function. provide an account of this function. This point about punishment generalizes to the other phenomena constitutive of morality such as moral emotions and attitudes. (Today it is impossible to say clearly why we really punish. all ideas in which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. in general.244   Alexander Prescott-Couch amazing if these different aspects of the Christmas tradition displayed a kind of functional unity. If one is made aware of this history. As products of a certain sort of historical development. It is not a practice whose elements cohere in the service of a single basic rationale. It is as if they are looking for a unified interpretation of a text written by multiple authors or with a series of pugnacious editors who continually rewrite and revise it. difficult to analyze. In other words. these phenomena embody a complex structure of different meanings. and then argue that this function is valuable. so far as that other element in punishment is concerned. it must be stressed. Philosophers have erred in looking for a single meaning for such a practice. finally crystallizes into a sort of unity. (GM II:13) What Nietzsche seems to be saying in this passage is that as the product of a certain historical development. totally incapable of definition. Consider Nietzsche’s famous discussion of punishment in GM’s second treatise: Now. The Importance of History in GM Now consider morality. which is difficult to untangle. the fluid element. it is rather constituted by a complex jumble of elements each deriving from different historical periods. Consider Nietzsche’s discussion of our feeling . and historical investigation reveals which sorts of attitudes can be used to interpret others. This is why sensitive interpreters of the practice typically do not look for a single rationale but rather are interested in exhibiting the diverse and potentially competing rationales behind the various aspects of the holiday. philosophers are looking for an interpretation of morality that has the wrong structure. and. Only something which has no history is capable of being defined). If Nietzsche is right.” in a very late cultural state (for example in contemporary Europe) the idea of “punishment” actually presents not simply one meaning but a whole synthesis of “meanings. the history of its use for different purposes. morality is like Christmas. this form of defense is not available. On Nietzsche’s view. punishment embodies a complex structure of different but interrelated meanings. its “meaning.

This account of the role of Nietzsche’s historical story can help explain some ­otherwise puzzling features of GM. Nietzsche provides a complex historical story about the feeling of guilt in which an association between pain and having debts (GM II:4–6) becomes an expectation that we will be suffer for violating custom (GM II:19). And because these various traces derive from quite different historical contexts. there is little reason to think that they interconnect to serve some simple end. For all its problems. they show that a certain kind of account of the value of these aspects of morality is misguided: an account in which these aspects of morality have a single basic function that can be used as a basis of assessment. If my interpretive hypothesis is correct. (Of course. Each of these transformations leaves a trace. Nietzsche believes. Why should Nietzsche simplify the history in this way? I suggest it is because when the slaves are depicted in this fashion. history on this account does not directly provide reasons for affirming or rejecting morality. For instance. which when interpreted using the concept of sin becomes our current feeling of guilt (GM III:16. it guides our reflection about those reasons. But this role for history is still relevant for critique because it guides our reflection in a way that is at odds with widely shared assumptions about how such reflection should proceed. show whether punishment or guilt is valuable. in our current feeling. That is. This is exactly the type of history Nietzsche writes. Historical investigation is thus a prolegomenon to a critique of morality. Because agents act with a certain unity and purpose. which is transformed into a premoral bad conscience when our aggressive tendencies turn inward (GM II:16). rather. They do not. it is appropriate to look for unity and coherence in changes to phenomena brought about by those agents. Nietzsche treats “the slaves” as an undifferentiated collective actor. Rather. the changes the slaves make to master morality can be expected to display a certain degree of ideological coherence.7 it has a mythic quality. It is often the story of big collective actors battling it out to influence our social practices and psychological makeup. My account of the role of history should make this feature of Nietzsche’s genealogy less surprising. in the first book of GM. one would expect Nietzsche to focus on a certain sort of history—a history of singular or collective agential influence on practices rather than. given the other . a structurally complex interpretation of the feeling of guilt is required. An odd feature of GM is that despite Nietzsche’s ostensible focus on detailed historical study. This conclusion can be used for critique when accounts of the positive value of these phenomena require a structurally simple interpretation of them. for example. This is at best a simplification of the historical dynamics. history focusing on structural change. for all that has been said so far. Let us consider what these histories show. So. 20).Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation  245 of guilt. this sort of history does possess at least one virtue—it tells a story that most directly displays the sort of information we need for deciding how to structure our interpretation of morality.

and out of the answers there developed new questions.harvard. 2001). and I would like to thank audience members for very helpful feedback. trans. In citing Nietzsche’s work. In GM. ed. reproduce. I would also like to thank Olivia Bailey. History does not tell us what to think about m ­ orality but rather how we should go about t­ hinking about it. and are destroyed. ed. conjectures. probabilities until I had my own territory. perhaps. For instance. trans. a whole silently growing and blossoming world . . There is also a passage in BGE that expresses this idea: “We should admit to ourselves with all due severity exactly what will be necessary for a long time to come and what is provisionally correct. peoples. my own soil. ” (P:3). 2002). Ned Hall. investigations. formulating concepts. history is important not because it establishes or disestablishes morality’s value but because it attacks a common presupposition of moral apologetics. and putting into order the tremendous realm of tender value feelings and value distinctions that live. I have used the Cambridge editions: Beyond Good and Evil. Nathan Pensler. in “Nietzsche and Genealogy. Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. we do not have reason to expect that the end product of these developments—nineteenth-century middle-European Christian morality—will possess such unity. Andrew Huddleston.—and.246   Alexander Prescott-Couch events described in the genealogy.” Tracing a pedigree has five characteristics: (1) In the . Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Paul Katsafanas. grades of rank between individuals. 3.) Conclusion This essay is an attempt to answer the question of why the argument in GM takes a historical form. 2007). namely: collecting material. I distinguished between epochs.” Raymond Geuss argues that genealogy opposes what he calls “tracing a pedigree. Thus. Harvard University prescott@fas. The suggestion is that the history provides us with ­information about how we should structure our understanding of a complex phenomenon like morality. trans. The Gay Science.—all of which would be a preparation for a typology of morals” (BGE 186). I focused my inquiry. attempting to illustrate the recurring and more frequent shapes of this living crystallization. Rolf-Peter Horstmann. Rachel Cristy. Bernard Williams. he writes that GM is concerned with the questions “under what conditions did man invent the value judgments good and evil? and what value do they themselves have?” (GM P:3). Notes I presented this paper at the Central Division Meeting of the North American Nietzsche Society in 2013. and Timothy Stoll for invaluable comments and discussion. ed. Nietzsche describes the first steps of his investigation as developing a more sophisticated moral typology: “To these questions I found and ventured all kinds of answers. On the Genealogy of Morality. For example. Keith AnsellPearson. 2. 4. . 1.

I assume that textual interpretation should be sensitive to history of authorship. (2) the pedigree. If the value of X derives from its history. long. this might be fruitful (e. and to warn [Paul Rée]. which can actually be confirmed and has actually existed. but it may not be appropriate for all situations. and the editor turned out to be a luminary. The correct role of authorial intention in textual interpretation is of course a contentious issue and will depend on a broader understanding of what one is trying to accomplish in interpreting literary texts. that which can be documented. Note that this is a significantly weaker assumption than the assumption that interpretation should be sensitive to authorial intention. The original. . against such English hypothesis-mongering into the blue. Morality. One might think that the correct interpretation is one that tries to strip away the editor’s influence and get back to what the author originally intended. the whole. (5) by a series of steps that preserve whatever value is in question. Culture. For instance. unedited text may not be the text of interest. See Raymond Geuss. which is to say.Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation  247 interests of a positive valorization of some item. in short.. then it is obvious how a revised understanding of X’s history would have consequences for our assessment of its value. where “the origin is the essence”). 6. rather the text that is the combined achievement of the two is what one wants to interpret. In some cases. unbiased eye in a better direction. hard-todecipher hieroglyphic script of man’s moral past!” (GM P:7). Suppose that the original author was a bit of a hack. starting from a singular origin. the direction of a real history of morality. 5.g. 7. History: Essays on German Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press. (4) traces an unbroken line of succession from the origin to that item. 1999). It is quite clear which color is a hundred times more important for a genealogist than blue: namely grey. “I wanted to focus this sharp. while there was still time. (3) which is an actual source of value. For the purpose of this section.