What is the modern view of the validity of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals?



I have been rereading Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. The prose is moving, inasmuch as one is moved by prose (I am but very little), but the content seems to my eye poorly reasoned (relying heavily on rhetorical flourish and single examples instead of methodical dissection and consideration of possibilities) and highly anachronistic from a modern perspective (complete with what today seems like particularly odd racial/ethnic/cultural viewpoints and a generous helping of historical inaccuracies).

Given this, I simply don't know what to do with this as a body of work, aside from note its intriguing place in history and its influence on thinkers of the time. The Critique of Pure Reason, in contrast, sets out a clearly defined and carefully reasoned thesis and therefore has contributed a permanent and in some sense timeless approach to morality and knowledge and such (even though one may argue with the reasoning or assumptions in numerous places).

Thus the question is (quoted for emphasis):

Is there some consensus of what the lasting value* is of On the Genealogy of Morals? Where would one find a compelling argument in favor of this value? Or is it perhaps only comprehensible in the context of other of Nietzsche's works (which I have at best skimmed), which together contain a view of lasting value? Or is it best viewed not as part of the collected knowledge of the field of philosophy, but rather as an interesting but ultimately transient part of its history?

To expand a little further: my usual sources for these sorts of questions have not been as helpful as usual. Wikipedia summarizes the content, but has only a very sparse coverage of critiques and modern perspective. IEP covers Nietzsche in great depth, but barely mentions On the Genealogy of Morals. SEP has an article on Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy, but the discussion is so mixed between On the Genealogy of Morals and other works that I can scarcely recognize any of the Genealogy in it; this nonetheless makes me wonder whether when viewed as a whole the works of Nietzsche paint a clearer picture of which G.M. is an essential part. And in every case, the focus is more on what he said than was it true; a discussion or defense of the latter is what I am most sorely lacking because so often, even when attempting to take Nietzsche's use of terms like "aristocrat" into account, his claims seem so often blatantly wrong that I wonder why G.M. continues to be viewed with more than historical interest. Or maybe it is merely historical interest. Or maybe most everyone agrees that it was in large part blatantly wrong, but it was blatantly wrong in such interestingly different ways than intuitively obvious yet actually wrong views that came before (and keep arising) that it has value as sort of a buffer, a counter-narrative that undermines a tempting yet misleading view of human morality.

*To clarify what I mean about lasting value, since this is apparently not an intuitively obvious term: philosophy as a field attempts to study things the way they are or should be, both as the primary field for several types of inquiry (morality, comprehensibility of the world, etc) and as meta-analysis for others (philosophy of mathematics and science, for instance). Philosophy is not merely an expression of human creativity or artistry (we have art and literature and music and so on for that). Therefore, to study philosophy, one needs to be familiar with what philosophy studies, and what progress has been made in that study: what are the most natural questions to ask, and what compelling answers have been given? Are there counters to those answers, and so on? In this vein, for a philosophical work to have lasting value, it must either demonstrate something that is (at least approximately) true and relevant--either for the first time or as one of the best explanations yet, or it must raise a question or open up a new branch of philosophy (or close off an old one) and do so in one of the most compelling and clear ways that has been devised. It is not of lasting value, in the sense I mean, if it was merely part of a historical trend of moving in a new direction. For example, Giotto's painting Christ before Caiaphas was part of a trend towards improved perspective in paintings, but it is of no "lasting value" for accuracy in painting because the method used is wrong--wrong enough so that one shouldn't duplicate it--and because it is not terribly clear from looking at the painting what it was that he was doing.

Rex Kerr

Posted 2013-01-02T09:34:48.477

Reputation: 15 388

1just an aside here: Nietsche was interested in the presocratics. And one of them, Acusilaus of Argos wrote a book called Geanologies - of the origin of men & gods. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-02T10:52:57.570

1The books are a diagnosis of certain tendencies in 'modern' forms of valuation and social exchange, and a study of their historical and or etymological conditions of emergence. Is it not satisfying to you to say their lasting value is in the use people have made of these insights? Can you be more specific about which part of the 3 theses do you find unclear? – Dr Sister – 2013-01-02T11:21:22.823

1@DrSister - Whether or not it is satisfying, if the only use is that other people made use of the insights as inspiration say something well-grounded and useful, then one would not recommend reading Nietzsche directly in most cases except as history of philosophy. It's not so much that I find Nietzsche unclear, at least in a plain reading. His ideas and arguments seem quite straightforward but sound quaint, to put it politely; I wonder whether buried under the non-analytic form and impassioned rhetoric there's a timeless core that I'm missing. – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-02T12:23:58.570

@RexKerr just in passing, it may be easier to extract a kind of dynamic logic from the work than anything resembling a "rational system"; Nietzsche is after all concerned (even obsessed!) with unveiling, "making visible" rather than interpreting – Joseph Weissman – 2013-01-02T18:49:05.630

This is the problem I come across so often when reading Nietzsche: incredibly written prose that has virtually nothing to teach me but how to write well. The Genealogy, especially, seems to put great weight on coincidence made to sound convincing with rhetoric. Part of Nietzsche's charm appears to be writing so as to distract people from actually checking the facts. – commando – 2013-01-02T21:42:27.417

@JosephWeissman - It may indeed, but one is still left with the question of whether that which he has unveiled is as it seems or whether that perspective tends to lead one astray (or is untrue/illusory). So my question stands pretty much unaltered, except that I grant that Nietzsche was not intending to write in that way which I find easy to digest. – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-02T21:48:10.203

It strikes me that 'validity' may not be the most interesting or urgent of criteria for evaluating philosophical texts. The question about the 'value' of the work which you raise in the body of the question is undoubtedly much more interesting, but also much more speculative-subjective. Could you maybe clarify a little bit what you're looking for in an answer? – Joseph Weissman – 2013-01-03T01:03:02.527

1The way you phrase the 'value' question, it seems likely you're after some consensus on the work in the theoretical community; but after all the views in the relevant communities may not really be coherent enough to identify a positive evaluation. I guess I am just wondering if I might be able to persuade you to clarify the meaning of the 'value' question a bit further, given that Nietzsche studies remain an active area of philosophical research, given his lasting and profound influence on modern literature and philosophy, etc. – Joseph Weissman – 2013-01-03T01:07:24.887

@JosephWeissman - I have appended a description of how I view "lasting value" to my question. As it was rather long and an aside, I have made the font small. But it does not fit easily in the length permitted for comments. – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-03T17:55:14.117

i think i see at least some of the difficulty here:

"Philosophy is not merely an expression of human creativity artistry"

Nietzsche would not agree here. For Nietzsche art is the ultimate horizon - the primary counter-movement against the nihilism engendered by the absence of an absolute guarantor of truth can't be truth - it's art - art is the countermovement against nihilism for Nietzsche, not truth. Deleuze makes the interesting comment that one of Nietzsche's lasting contributions to philosophy is to exchange emphasis on truth and falsity for the importance of Sense and Value – Dr Sister – 2013-01-03T21:04:06.953

@DrSister - If this is why OtGoM has value--it is art--then you could expand this comment into an answer. But you also then have to do more to defend Nietzsche's position that art is the (proper) countermovement; I am not asking why Nietzschze thinks OtGoM has value, but why we should. If you want to get there by arguing that Nietzsche is correct, fine, but that argument, either in an answer or in a compelling summary shorter than all of Nietzsche's works, is something I'm missing. – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-03T21:27:39.810

a fair call, i do think this question deserves a full answer, but today i'm moving house and therefore can't provide it right now. But stay tuned :) – Dr Sister – 2013-01-03T22:17:59.150

Looking for well-groundedness in Nietsche is like looking for calories in low-fat food: if you find some, it's there by accident. Nietsche didn't believe in grounding- for Nietsche: "...Truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour"- if you take, for example, the fact that the sky is blue, and try to fully describe what it means, you'll talk yourself in circles (cf. the modern thought experiment Mary's Room)- it's about metaphor and feeling- as @DrSister says: sense and value – Tom Boardman – 2013-01-04T11:42:30.423

@TomBoardman - The profundity of Mary's Room is much reduced when one looks at the problem from the perspective of neuroscience: "Claim: the conceptual processing portion of our brain may induce in any other portion of our brain responsible for experience the identical neuronal firing patterns as direct sensory input; Response: that's absurd, the brain is not organized that way!" It does not follow that truth is an illusion, only that declarative knowledge is not everything. How does one interpret "truths are illusions"--a truth claim!--if truth is illusory? I find that of no value! – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-04T16:17:09.493

@RexKerr It's not a truth claim, rather a metaphor describing human experience ;). I agree that Mary's Room isn't exactly profound, but I suspect a modified version might be: what I think Nietsche would claim is that if Mary had been not a scientist, but an artist, and had studied several abstract paintings (in black and white, of course), poetry and songs, all pertaining to colours; that upon her first seeing them, she would gain new knowledge, but would also be able to identify which colour was which- he might even stretch to saying that the scientist Mary would not be able to do this... – Tom Boardman – 2013-01-04T17:38:33.197

...I should add, though, that that is speculation of the very boldest sort- and it was certainly not Nietsche's style to make claims of that nature. In passing it might also be worthwhile to turn you onto late period post-linguistic-turn Heidegger (on which I've only read seconadry lit, so I'm not overly confident) which was all about archeologically digging for 'logos'- the hypothetical language in which 'love' really did mean the very essence of the experience of love- I'm sure a decent undergraduate thesis could be constructed comparing this with Nietsche's '...Genealogy...' – Tom Boardman – 2013-01-04T17:46:56.223

@TomBoardman - I think that's bordering on absurd. Mary the scientist would simply look at some objects of known color to calibrate herself (taking an appropriately large sample to avoid incidental errors). Anyway, I do actually want an answer to my original question, so let's try to limit the volume of discussion in comments! – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-04T18:35:45.310

Okay, this has kind of turned into a little chat room. Maybe try to take side-discussions over to chat and let's create a question on meta if there are really still clarifications to be made or objections to the question itself. (Will likely be deleting comments soon.) – Joseph Weissman – 2013-01-09T23:35:30.740

@JosephWeissman - Sounds good to me. I think I had already moved all clarifying statements into the main question, but let me know if something seems missing. If you have comment-by-comment control, maybe leave Dr. Sister's comment about art, sense, and value (and maybe my response). – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-10T01:06:16.493



This is a great question, one that I've wanted to come back to for a while, but lacked sufficient time.

Framing the question in terms of lasting value, I think being overly focussed on the truth-value of TGoM's content may obscure what history has proved to be most valuable. In relation to your comments above I would say it must also be observed from the outset that Nietzsche had a deeply ambivalent orientation toward truth, and to judge oTGoM by standards of deductive or inductive veracity is loosely analogous to 'judging a fish by its ability to climb trees': his task is simply different.

The answer I would propose is that it instantiates and initiates a way of doing philosophy which, prior to oTGoM, did not exist. The genealogical method is one which has been taken up in various forms by a number of philosophers. Nietzsche never explicitly formulated its essential characteristics, and a number of Different definitions abound. Of all people, Judith Butler has a ripper: "genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin".

One fairly accessible entry point which I would recommend is Foucault's essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

One title which I would recommend is:

Jeffrey Minson (1985) Genealogies of Morals: Nietzsche, Foucault, Donzelot and the Eccentricities of ethics

Dr Sister

Posted 2013-01-02T09:34:48.477

Reputation: 1 764


Consensus is a hard thing to find about work that is supposed to be thought provoking. I guess I did just give my opinion about it to be honest. There is a highly respected novelist from Canada called Margaret Atwood and she wrote a piece of prose about debt recently that I consider to be in the Nietzschean vein but its relevance is due to the contemporary global economic downturn. Giles Deluze is a celebrated contemporary philosopher who wrote quite a famous text called Anti-oedipus in which he says that the GoM was intended by its author to be an attack on Kant's critique of pure reason. How accepted this has become among academics, I don't know.

Also a commentator (whose name I forget) said that Freud's last culminating book was called Civilisation and its discontents, but this entire book is a total plagiarism of GoM.


Posted 2013-01-02T09:34:48.477

Reputation: 19

2This is a pretty good answer in terms of content, and I would have +1'd but there are some fairly severe formatting/composition issues here -- is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to clean this up a little bit? – Joseph Weissman – 2013-01-09T23:32:38.290


Nietzsche is a highly self-styled warrior-poet. An heroic philosopher on a death-defying quest. The ancient latin poet Horace spoke of making his work "more enduring than brass" but this kind of ambition is surely realised for Nietzsche through his essays of the genealogy. To treat human history as a special kind of natural history (that is as without a narrative, narrator, providence, teleology) is entirely original. To remove the illusions imposed by scientists or theologians; namely order or organising principals of any type from our conceptions of the species development through time is bold and done in an effort to establish truth in this area and tantalising in its implications for further philosophical inquiry. What are 'punishment', 'justice', the origins of 'conscience' (with which all human beings over place and time seems to possess to varying degree and quality), the 'legal subject' (or maybe simply 'human subject'). The relationship between culture and the moral status of the people that comprise it has of course been touched upon by other philosophers but Nieztsche's brilliant analysis is both timeless and unforgetable. The bravery of the autonomous mind to reject easy explanations about the world or any morality to be found in it and not to assume the these dread questions can ever be settled for a human being is what I sense Nietzsche is trying to enjoy us to with this endlessly exciting book of his. I offer you now no more rhetoric but I as you a sensible question. Which will remain the longest philosophical accounts of ethics and morality that have been produced thitherto or Nietzsce's provocational questions?


Posted 2013-01-02T09:34:48.477

Reputation: 29

1How is this "the modern view"? I only see you providing your opinion here, and as a block of impenetrable text. – Ryder – 2013-01-06T21:45:23.040

2I appreciate the attempt, so I won't vote it down, but this answer lacks (1) references that establish that this is a typical viewpoint, and (2) justification that it is either true or so fascinating in its falsity that we should study it as a work of philosophy (it may make great literature). In particular, if a work is boldly wrong, original yet confused, rejects easy and accurate explanations, etc., its primary value is as a manual of how not to do philosophy. Thus, while I gather from your use of superlatives that you like the work, it does not adequately answer the question. – Rex Kerr – 2013-01-06T22:14:45.593