David Owen, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality
Stocksfield, UK: Acumen, 2007. hb ISBN 978-1-84465-103-0 pb ISBN 978-1-84465-104-7, hb. £45, pp. £14.99, pp. 179
Reviewed by Matthew Meyer
David Owen's Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality will be a welcome addition to the general direction of recent scholarship on Nietzsche's critique of morality in On the Genealogy of Morals and his related project of a revaluation of all values. Indeed, it is an important contribution to the on-going debates, first shaped by the efforts of Foot, Geuss, Ridley, and Leiter, about the nature, style, and purpose of GM, one that pays careful attention to Nietzsche's use of rhetoric, his genealogical method, and conceptions of ethical agency. The work is slightly less successful in situating GM within the larger context of Nietzsche's revaluation of all values.
Owen divides the work into two parts. In the first, he traces the development of Nietzsche's call for a revaluation of values and his eventual turn toward the genealogical method. He pursues this line of inquiry because he believes that if we can get clear about what motivates Nietzsche's turn to genealogy within the context of his revaluation of all values, we will be able to understand what this mode of inquiry is ultimately intended to accomplish. In the second part, he provides an analysis of GM itself. Here, Owen offers an interpretation of each of the three essays in GM and situates his own reading within current scholarly debates. He concludes with an attempt to contrast Nietzsche's historical analysis of morality with the ahistorical approach of analytic moral philosophers, where morality is simply taken as a given.
The first part of the work consists of three subsections. In the first, Owen shows how Nietzsche's interest in a revaluation of all values emerges from his early engagement with and eventual surmounting of the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Paul Rée in Daybreak. In the second subsection, Owen traces the way in which Nietzsche develops and revises his project of a revaluation in the works from The Gay Science to Beyond Good and Evil. Perhaps one of the most perspicacious aspects of Owen's analysis here is the emphasis on what he calls the problem of not inferring (28). The problem of not inferring has to do with Nietzsche's stress on the fact that the death of God entails certain consequences that affect our understanding of morality and how we conceive of ourselves as moral agents. The final subsection consists of Owen's attempt to explain Nietzsche's use of rhetorical strategies in terms of his larger commitment to the ideal of philosophical reflectiveness and how his rhetorical strategies shift as he confronts the problem of not inferring.
In the second part of the work, Owen turns to GM itself, dividing his analysis into five subsections. After some introductory remarks that sketch the overall structure of GM and stress the way in which Nietzsche offers an internal critique of Christian morality, Owen delves into the contents of the first essay of GM. In a move that is a bit surprising given his overall interest in the project of revaluation, Owen focuses not so much on the emergence of the self-sacrificial love that completed the initial Judeo-Christian revaluation of all nobler ideals (GM I:8), but rather on the conception of agency that emerged with the slave revolt in morality. For Owen, the contrast between noble and slave is therefore defined not so much in terms of self-affirmation and self-effacement, but rather in terms of competing conceptions of ethical agency. In contradistinction to the noble who experiences himself as an agent, where agency is defined as "how one acts is what one is, "the slaves" do not experience their agency as intrinsically their own (78). The slaves, however, do eventually come to experience themselves as agents by constructing a new account of agency. According to Owen's analysis of GM I:13, the slaves invented the freely choosing subject not only so that they could hold the nobles responsible for acting the way that they do, but also so that they could construe their slavish dispositions and behavior in terms of a freely-made moral choice.
In his next chapter, Owen turns to the issues of guilt and the bad conscience that take center stage in GM II. He first details the way in which, according to Nietzsche, man became a promise-making animal through a system of punishment inherently tied to the creditor-debtor relationship and how this system was rooted in the creditor's instinct for cruelty (91ff.). After an extended analysis of the sovereign individual that incorporates Owen's previous discussions of agency, the chapter concludes with a look at the figure directly opposed to the sovereign individual, namely the man of bad conscience (102). Here, Owen explicates Nietzsche's account of how the moralization of guilt in the form of bad conscience has prevented the decline in the belief in God from resulting in a corresponding weakening of the sense of guilt. According to Owen, the primary stumbling block is that we remain captive to a metaphysical picture of freely choosing subjects that can be held accountable for their actions, as it is this picture that makes possible the redirection of ressentiment back onto the self in the form of guilt.
In turning to the third essay of GM, Owen argues that Nietzsche is out to supplement his previous analyses with an account of the unconditional and universal aspects of morality. Central to Owen's reading of GM III is the metaphysical picture that is supposed to underwrite the ascetic ideal. Specifically, he contends that the ascetic ideal results in a system of unconditional moral rules through an appeal to a metaphysical beyond (123). Here, the ascetic ideal denies its perspectival character, and this gives rise to a corresponding conception of the knower as a pure, will-less, painless, and timeless knowing subject (124). Having revealed the incoherence of this picture through an analysis of GM III:12, Owen turns to Nietzsche's critique of science and its relationship to the ascetic ideal in the closing sections of third essay. In so doing, Owen contends that science becomes an expression of the ascetic ideal when it denies its own perspectival character, when it claims to give the one and only true account of the world (127). According to Owen, Nietzsche shows that science so construed is ultimately self-undermining, as the will to truth that drives the scientific project forces one to reject the metaphysical assumptions that deny science's perspectival character and elevate the will to truth to an unconditional value. Indeed, Owen contends that GM is itself situated within this process, "as a contribution of truthfulness to the destruction of Christian morality, whose meaning and value are given by the system of purposes that it serves: the need for a revaluation of values" (128).
Reading GM as an exercise in truthfulness that contributes to the destruction of Christianity plays an important role in Owen's attempt to situate his interpretation within the context of current scholarly debates. One crucial issue for Owen is whether GM should be read as an internal or external critique of morality. To support his view that GM is an internal critique, Owen appeals to GS 344 and GM III:27, where Nietzsche explicitly identifies the will to truth as a central component of Christian morality. The idea here is that the will to truth inherent in the Christian moral perspective leads to the recognition that Christian morality inhibits our capacity to experience ourselves as agents and that we therefore stand in need of a revaluation of all values (134).
While Owen is right to point to the importance of these passages, I am not entirely convinced that they offer support for his position. The reason is that we can read these passages not as references to GM, but rather to the works of the free spirit, i.e. the works from Human, All Too Human to GS, where Nietzsche adopts the will to truth in the former only to show, via his critique of morality in Daybreak, how it self-destructs in the latter. Thus, I would agree with Owen that Nietzsche does offer an internal critique of Christianity, but, pace Owen, that he does so only in the works of the free spirit. On this reading, GM is not designed to motivate those committed to the value of truthfulness to reject Christian morality on the grounds that it is somehow false or deceptive. Instead, GM aims to motivate those free spirits who now assess judgments according to their life-promoting and life-enhancing capacity (BGE 4) to reject Christian morality on the grounds that it is a sick and degenerate expression of the will to life and power, one that it is ultimately hostile to the flourishing of higher types like Nietzsche himself.
This point brings me to an additional concern I have about Owen's exposition. Although Owen should be applauded for his attempt to trace Nietzsche's gradual turn toward the genealogical method in the context of his revaluations of all values, I am struck by the relative lack of attention he gives to the way in which GM relates to Nietzsche's 1888 works. Based on Owen's analysis alone, one almost has the impression that the project of a revaluation takes place with Nietzsche's writing of GM, rather than offering "decisive preliminary studies for a revaluation of values (68). In my mind, GM should be read as a transitional work between BGE, with its initial attempt to distinguish between noble and slave moralities (BGE 260), and the Antichrist and Ecce Homo (EH), where the revaluation of values is either completed or nears its completion. Central to these works is the antithesis between Dionysus and the Crucified, one that is initially established in BGE 295 (Dionysus) and BGE 269 (Crucified) and trumpeted in the final section of EH. Whereas the Crucified represents a kind of self-sacrificial love that culminates in asceticism and life-denying nihilism, Dionysus represents a kind of love that develops from a deep satisfaction with oneself and life and ultimately gives to and redeems all things. Indeed, Owen's attempt to identify a positive ethic in GM in the final section of his own work would have benefited from such a broadened perspective, as he might have recognized Dionysus as the symbol for Nietzsche's positive, life-affirming ethics and EH as the work in which Nietzsche gives expression to the very virtue opposed to Judeo-Christian ressentiment, namely Dankbarkeit or, to speak the language of Pindar's second Pythian ode, charis.
Despite such considerations, it is nevertheless the case has Owen has provided us with another fine contribution to the ever-proliferating debate surrounding GM. His account of Nietzsche's gradual turn to the genealogical method, his analysis of the conception of agency that emerged with the slave revolt in morality, and his focus on Nietzsche's rhetorical strategies in GM all make Owen's work a welcome contribution to our understanding of the nature, style, and purpose of Nietzsche's critique of morality both in his earlier works and in GM itself.