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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Volume 46, Number 2, Summer

2015, pp. 239-247 (Article)

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Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation

Alexander Prescott-Couch
Abstract: In this article, I consider how Nietzsches history of morality in On
the Genealogy of Morality is relevant to his critique of morality. I argue that, on
Nietzsches view, moralitys history is a guide to whether and where we should
expect to find coherence in our current moral practice. It helps us structure
our interpretation 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. After defending this account of how Nietzsches historical claims are
relevant to his critique, I use the account to explain why Nietzsches genealogy
mixes fact and fiction.
Keywords: geneaology, interpretation, moral philosophy

n Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche remarks that an interest in justifying morality has led moral philosophers to overlook an important question, the question
of what morality is: every philosopher so far has thought that he has provided
a ground for morality. Morality itself, however, was thought to be given
(BGE 186).1 Part of Nietzsches complaint in this passage seems to be that the
judgments, affective states, and practices grouped together under the concept
of morality do not possess the requisite unity to be evaluated as a whole, and
that consequently a more fine-grained typology is required.2 However, in GM,
Nietzsche claims that understanding morality requires not only a more sophisticated moral typology but an examination of moralitys history. He implies that
such an understanding is an important prerequisite to the ultimate task of GM,
assessing the value of morality.3
Yet it is not at all obvious why understanding moralitys history should be
helpful for understanding current morality, especially if ones ultimate aim is to
assess moralitys value. Would not a sophisticated typology be superior? After
all, it is obvious why such a typology would be necessary to avoid evaluative
errorsan overly simplistic typology may group together phenomena that differ in descriptive properties that make an evaluative difference, thus tempting
one to draw false evaluative conclusions. But there is not an analogous story
for why understanding moralitys history is important for coming to an accurate
assessment of it.


Copyright 2015 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA


240 Alexander Prescott-Couch

Of course, historical information may not be completely irrelevant for knowing what morality is like now, even if it has substantially changed. One way this
information might be relevant is that how morality is now may bear some logical
relation to the past. For example, if moral rules are (now) commands issued by
God, these rules must have beenat some point in the pastcommanded by
God. The present property of these rulesthat they are divine commands
makes implicit reference to the past. Interpretations of GM that locate genealogys critical potential in its ability to undermine self-serving myths often
emphasize this use of history.4 A second way information about moralitys past
may be important is by providing evidence that current morality has certain
features. 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.
Many interpretations of the genealogy assume that Nietzsche uses genealogy
for one of these two purposes. However, neither of these considerations is sufficient to secure an important place for history in Nietzsches philosophy. The
number of cases in which historical investigation can serve the first purpose
is limited, and history is often redundant for the second purpose. Moreover,
Nietzsche believes that what we call morality has changed substantially over
the course of history. If Nietzsche believes this, it would be puzzling for him
to think he could directly infer features of our current moral practice from past
features of that practice.
This article considers an alternative account of how Nietzsches historical
story in GM is relevant for his critique of morality. I argue that Nietzsches history provides us with information about how to structure our interpretation of
morality. Information structures our interpretation when it serves as an interpretive guide, a guide to whether and where we should expect to find coherence
in our current moral practice. My article is organized as follows: Ibegin by
considering how information about the conditions of a texts production may
structure our interpretation of that text. I then consider how information about
the emergence of a practice might structure our interpretation of that practice.
After explaining the basic ideas behind my account, I provide textual evidence
that Nietzsche considered the history of morality relevant to how we interpret
it. I conclude by showing how my account explains why Nietzsches genealogy
mixes fact and fiction.

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. You mention
this difficulty to a friend, who smiles and remarks that of course youre having

Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation241

difficulty. The book is a collection of essays, all written by separate authors in

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

242 Alexander Prescott-Couch

2. The Pan-Generational Rewrite: You are having trouble reconciling

various claims in a book, and your friend tells you that the book is the
product of a number of generations. Each generation reads the text of
the last, and then adds, subtracts, and rewrites some passages. This
happens over a series of hundreds of years.
As in the original example, the historical information about the texts is information relevant to structuring your interpretation of them. For instance, given
how the text in The Pugnacious Editor came to be, it would not be appropriate
simply to partition the text and employ within those partitions interpretive norms
such as maximizing truth and coherence. Rather, one should see the text as a
struggle between two authors of the text.6 Interpreting the text as a struggle
means to apply a certain set of interpretive norms to it. For example, if you know
that certain passages are written by the editor rather than the author, you might
take the fact that the author passage says p is a reason to ascribe not-p to the
editor passage. If author and editor are disagreeing, then they must be sharing
a subject matter, 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. Moreover, there might be passages that have two quite distinct meanings,
one that corresponds to what the author would mean and one that corresponds
to what the editor would mean (e.g., say the editor left in a passage thatif
interpreted in the context of the editors commentswould have a meaning that
is the opposite of that originally intended by the author). Things stand similarly
in the second scenario. In interpreting such a text, one does not want to treat the
text as a coherent whole but rather to distinguish the different strands of influence,
and look at how they are responding to one another. The correct interpretation
is not simply to look for maximal unity among the parts of the text.
Cataloguing the exact contours of these interpretive norms would be a difficult and laborious enterprise, and I will not attempt it here. The point is simply
that the norms might be relatively complexquite different from the norm of
optimizing along dimensions of truth and coherenceand the exact nature of
this complexity will be sensitive to the history of authorship of the text. The
fact rather than the nature of this historical sensitivity is what will be relevant
in what follows.

How History Structures Our Interpretation of Practices

On Nietzsches view, morality is like a text that has been pugnaciously reedited
over the course of hundreds of generations. The purpose of investigating moralitys history is to provide us with tools for interpreting this text correctly. When
we aim to interpret a text, we aim to put clearly on display the meaning of the

Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation243

texts individual sentences as well as the interrelations among those sentences.

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

244 Alexander Prescott-Couch

amazing if these different aspects of the Christmas tradition displayed a kind of

functional unity. 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.

The Importance of History in GM

Now consider morality. On Nietzsches view, morality is like Christmas. It is not
a practice whose elements cohere in the service of a single basic rationale; it is
rather constituted by a complex jumble of elements each deriving from different
historical periods. If one is made aware of this history, Nietzsche thinks, it will
be obvious that ones account of morality should not be structurally simple. 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, and then argue that this function is valuable.
If Nietzsche is right, this form of defense is not available.
Consider Nietzsches famous discussion of punishment in GMs second treatise:
Now, so far as that other element in punishment is concerned, the fluid
element, its meaning, 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 punishment up to now, in general, the history of its use for different purposes,
finally crystallizes into a sort of unity, which is difficult to untangle, difficult to analyze, and, it must be stressed, totally incapable of definition.
(Today it is impossible to say clearly why we really punish; all ideas in
which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. Only
something which has no history is capable of being defined). (GM II:13)
What Nietzsche seems to be saying in this passage is that as the product of a
certain historical development, punishment embodies a complex structure of
different but interrelated meanings. Philosophers have erred in looking for a
single meaning for such a practice. In other words, philosophers are looking
for an interpretation of morality that has the wrong structure. 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.
This point about punishment generalizes to the other phenomena constitutive
of morality such as moral emotions and attitudes. As products of a certain sort
of historical development, these phenomena embody a complex structure of
different meanings, and historical investigation reveals which sorts of attitudes
can be used to interpret others. Consider Nietzsches discussion of our feeling

Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation245

of guilt. Nietzsche provides a complex historical story about the feeling of guilt
in which an association between pain and having debts (GM II:46) becomes
an expectation that we will be suffer for violating custom (GM II:19), which is
transformed into a premoral bad conscience when our aggressive tendencies turn
inward (GM II:16), which when interpreted using the concept of sin becomes
our current feeling of guilt (GM III:16, 20). Each of these transformations leaves
a trace, Nietzsche believes, in our current feeling. 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. That is, a structurally complex
interpretation of the feeling of guilt is required.
Let us consider what these histories show. They do not, for all that has been
said so far, show whether punishment or guilt is valuable. Rather, 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. This conclusion can be used for critique
when accounts of the positive value of these phenomena require a structurally
simple interpretation of them. So, history on this account does not directly provide reasons for affirming or rejecting morality; rather, 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. Historical investigation is thus a
prolegomenon to a critique of morality.
This account of the role of Nietzsches historical story can help explain some
otherwise puzzling features of GM. An odd feature of GM is that despite Nietzsches
ostensible focus on detailed historical study,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 Nietzsches genealogy less surprising. If my interpretive hypothesis
is correct, one would expect Nietzsche to focus on a certain sort of historya
history of singular or collective agential influence on practices rather than, for
example, history focusing on structural change. This is exactly the type of history
Nietzsche writes. For all its problems, this sort of history does possess at least one
virtueit tells a story that most directly displays the sort of information we need
for deciding how to structure our interpretation of morality. Because agents act
with a certain unity and purpose, it is appropriate to look for unity and coherence
in changes to phenomena brought about by those agents. For instance, in the first
book of GM, Nietzsche treats the slaves as an undifferentiated collective actor.
This is at best a simplification of the historical dynamics. Why should Nietzsche
simplify the history in this way? I suggest it is because when the slaves are depicted
in this fashion, the changes the slaves make to master morality can be expected
to display a certain degree of ideological coherence. (Of course, given the other

246 Alexander Prescott-Couch

events described in the genealogy, we do not have reason to expect that the end
product of these developmentsnineteenth-century middle-European Christian
moralitywill possess such unity.)

This essay is an attempt to answer the question of why the argument in GM takes
a historical form. The suggestion is that the history provides us with information
about how we should structure our understanding of a complex phenomenon
like morality. History does not tell us what to think about m
orality but rather
how we should go about t hinking about it. Thus, history is important not because
it establishes or disestablishes moralitys value but because it attacks a common
presupposition of moral apologetics.
Harvard University

I presented this paper at the Central Division Meeting of the North American Nietzsche Society
in 2013, and I would like to thank audience members for very helpful feedback. I would also like
to thank Olivia Bailey, Rachel Cristy, Ned Hall, Andrew Huddleston, Paul Katsafanas, Nathan
Pensler, and Timothy Stoll for invaluable comments and discussion.
1. In citing Nietzsches work, I have used the Cambridge editions: Beyond Good and Evil,
ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002); The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith AnsellPearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
2. In GM, 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,
Idistinguished between epochs, peoples, grades of rank between individuals, I focused my
inquiry, and out of the answers there developed new questions, investigations, conjectures,
probabilities until I had my own territory, my own soil, a whole silently growing and blossoming
world . . . (P:3). 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, namely: collecting material, formulating concepts, and putting into order
the tremendous realm of tender value feelings and value distinctions that live, grow, reproduce,
and are destroyed,and, perhaps, attempting to illustrate the recurring and more frequent shapes
of this living crystallization,all of which would be a preparation for a typology of morals
3. For instance, 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).
4. For example, in Nietzsche and Genealogy, Raymond Geuss argues that genealogy
opposes what he calls tracing a pedigree. Tracing a pedigree has five characteristics: (1) In the

Genealogy and the Structure of Interpretation247

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