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Friderike Günther, Angela Holzer and Enrico Müller (eds.). Zur Genealogie des Zivilisationsprozesses. Friedrich Nietzsche und Nobert Elias

Berlin / New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010, 323 pp., ISBN 9783110220704, € 94,95.

Reviewed by André Luis Muniz Garcia

In recent years, Nietzsche-Forschung has displayed an increasing interest in establishing a dialogue between Nietzsche’s philosophy and other disciplines. Zur Genealogie des Zivilisationsprozesses attempts to establish a dialogue with the sociology of Norbert Elias and thus takes an important step towards realizing what Nietzsche himself saw as the inevitable task of philosophy—namely, a scientifically-structured program of interdisciplinary research into morality. Indeed, in a well-known footnote to section 17 of the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, he outlined a project aimed at providing a comprehensive study of the evolution of moral concepts through a comparison of the “different perspectives” of philosophy, history, philology, medicine, anthropology, and linguistics. Engaging Nietzsche’s philosophy with Elias’s sociology—or, more specifically, Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy with Elias’s concept of “process”—is precisely such an interdisciplinary project, as the editors themselves highlight in their introduction (p. 1). Drawn from a conference held in Berlin in 2008 and divided thematically, the 13 chapters of the book focus primarily on the relationships between the individual and society, customs and culture, and civilization and morality.

Like Nietzsche’s conception of Genealogie, Elias’s so-called Prozesssoziologie has the methodological aim of showing how traditional theories (such as that of Talcott Parsons’ school) are insufficient to understand the complex and intricate relationship between the “individual” and “society”. Indeed, for this reason Prozesssoziologie cannot be considered a “theory” in the strict sense, but rather a counter to socio-cultural perspectives that conceive of social processes statically. For at the core of Elias’s counter-perspective lies the opposition between Prozess and Zustand, which he considers central to the “observer” as well as to the “observed”. This opposition is intended to indicate that social changes should not be treated as “states [Zuständen]”—that is, as the consequences of a desired tendency for stability—but rather, more “realistically,” in terms of “movement,” because society in particular and reality more generally are dynamic and do not follow any a priori rule. For Elias, a theory of society should therefore devise and integrate a large number of “theories” for the sake of a plausible and comprehensive knowledge of intrinsically “unstable” phenomena.

Correspondingly, Nietzsche conceives of his genealogy as a critical methodology that takes as “strange” the very elements that for moral philosophy are “familiar”—namely, the apparent self-evidence of moral values. Genealogy is a comprehensive guide for recovering the past from the present (as in the case of the so-called Ahnenforschung) by recovering multiple and unconnected events, facts (through their historical interpretation) and judgments, and viewpoints (through their psychological interpretation) that are mistakenly supposed to have a stable value. Genealogical investigation thus always intends to reproduce the internal “uncertainties” of something conventionally assumed to be “right,” by problematizing the medium by which values ​​generally acquire stability of meaning and use. These questions are brought to light especially clearly in the introductory chapter by Enrico Müller, “Kultur/en im Wandel denken. Zu den Voraussetzungen genealogischer und genetischer Reflexion.”

Two important chapters also treat Elias’s reading of Nietzsche. Angela Holzer’s “Philosoph der Kultur und des Krieges: Zur Nietzsche-Rezeption von Nobert Elias” provides a philological exploration of Elias’s posthumous writings, his critical notes on some of Nietzsche’s claims and their influence on his own work. “Nietzsche and Elias as Educators: Their Role in the Writing of Nihilism and Culture” by Johan Goudsblom, Elias’s pupil and a pioneering figure in Elias-Forschung, deals with this reception from a philosophical point of view. This chapter recapitulates Goudsblom’s dissertation, Nihilism and Culture (New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1980; first published as Nihilisme en cultuur, Amsterdam, 1960), in order to show that both Nietzsche’s philosophical methodology and Elias’s sociology may be useful for the diagnosis of culture—and especially for the diagnosis of nihilism—if they are not arbitrarily interposed or intersected. Also notable in regard to Elias’s reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy, in addition to Müller’s chapter, is Christian Emden’s “Anthropologien der Gewalt bei Nobert Elias und Friedrich Nietzsche,” which concentrates on the concept of power as the axis by which modern forms of social organization are articulated.

Although the concept of “civilization” in Nietzsche’s philosophy should not be taken simply as “culture,” a concept coined by Elias, one can approach it (like Elias’s concept of “habitus”) in terms of Nietzsche’s genealogical analysis of historical events, in order to understand the evolution of some instruments of power that are molded into attitudes and social values. In this regard, it is worth highlighting Werner Stegmaier’s contribution, “Nietzsches Mitteilungszeichen, Elias’ Symboltheorie und Spielräume der Orientierung,” which deals with Nietzsche’s and Elias’s critical views of the modes of communication, understanding, and symbolic interaction.

n the two volumes of his magnum opus, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (1939), Elias showed how post-medieval European standards of communication, behavior, bodily functions, etiquette, and forms of speech were gradually transformed due to the existence of psychologically repressed feelings, such as shame and repugnance. In this regard, Renate Reschke’s “Höfsche Kultur. Der kulturkritische und soziologische Blick: Zur Differenz von Nobert Elias und Friedrich Nietzsche” is notable, for it treats the question of etiquette and courting praxis. Also in relation to the constitution of the praxis of modern man, one must not overlook Nietszsche’s important definition of “sittlichen Menchen” as having a complete mastery over fear concerning desires (KSA 9:3[119]). This is examined by Chiara Piazzesi in her chapter, “Die soziale Verinnerlichung von Machtverhältnissen. Über die produktiven Aspekte der Selbstdisziplinierung und der Affektkontrolle bei Nietzsche und Elias,” which critically analyzes the models of self-control and the self-discipline of affects offered by Nietzsche and Elias, in order to conceive both as productive and therapeutically-oriented perspectives.

IIn my view, Zur Genealogie des Zivilisationsprozesses may be a first and crucial step towards showing that it is mistaken to claim there to be a “sociological deficit” in Nietzsche’s culture-diagnosis, as Jürgen Habermas does when he alleges that Nietzsche’s philosophy does not provide a legitimate critique of modernity because the emancipatory potential of his critique was held back (Der philosophische Diskurs der Modernen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988, p. 117). In this sense, connecting Nietzsche’s philosophy to Elias’s sociology is a wise strategy, since it makes it possible not only to find new paths in his philosophy but also to regard it as a significant contribution to a critical and interdisciplinary project.