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Marcus Andreas Born, Nihilistisches Geschichtsdenken: Nietzsches perspektivische Genealogie

Munich: Fink, 2010. 347 pp. ISBN 978-3-7705-5049-4. Paper, €44.90.

Reviewed by Christoph Schuringa

As early as 1941, George Allen Morgan wrote that Nietzsche’s thought is “saturated with the historical point of view.” [1] It is breathtaking how long it has taken scholarly writing on Nietzsche to catch up with Morgan and pay this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought the serious attention it deserves. Marcus Andreas Born’s study is therefore a very welcome development as a serious and engaged examination of Nietzsche’s “historical thought.”

As his subtitle indicates, Born’s approach focuses on Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy. He ties genealogy closely to history, by suggesting that Nietzsche proposes genealogy as his way of revising, and improving upon, existing approaches to history (18). For Born, as for Alexander Nehamas, genealogy “simply is history, correctly practiced,” [2] but the criterion for correct practice is a radically new one set by Nietzsche, to be sharply distinguished from the way historians have carried on in the past. Born both traces some of the genealogy that Nietzsche himself does and raises methodological questions about the nature of the genealogical approach itself. For him, genealogy is essentially perspectival. It thus gives rise to various problems classically associated with perspectivism, in particular the threat of self-contradiction or self-dissolution. If what is being asserted is merely one perspective among others, why take it seriously? It would seem that to make any special claim on behalf of such a perspective to be taken more seriously than competing perspectives would be self-defeating, since such a claim would itself turn out to have a perspectival character. For this set of problems Born proposes a bold new solution that invokes a conception of Feindesliebe, or “love of one’s enemy,” that he attributes to Nietzsche. As well as contributing to Nietzsche exegesis, then, Born presents a novel defense of what he takes to be Nietzsche’s distinctively perspectival approach.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “A Genealogy of Nihilism,” provides a detailed genealogical account of the connections between, in turn, Socratic intellectualism, the elevation of the will to truth to the highest ideal by Christianity, the resultant cultivation of truthfulness, and the development of nihilism through the corrosive effect that this truthfulness has for Christianity’s own claims to absoluteness. Born’s account shows up connections that might easily be missed across Nietzsche’s oeuvre. He gives an illuminating portrayal of Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates from The Birth of Tragedy to Twilight of the Idols, and demonstrates the links between Nietzsche’s critique of (Second Temple) Judaism and of Pauline Christianity, which together form a continuous tradition that, according to Nietzsche, entirely circumvents the historical figure of Jesus, the “only Christian” (A 39). Again, his detailed and sensitive reading of the important Lenzerheide fragment lays out the connections between Christianity and nihilism (in its various forms), and the need to pass through nihilism in order to embark on the revaluation of all values.

Moving on from the exegetical Part I, in Part II, “Thinking History Without God,” Born lays out his conception of genealogy as a methodology. He presents genealogy as a distinctive method that recasts history in the wake of the death of God. Surprisingly, Born claims that, in response to the death of God, Nietzsche is concerned “in particular” (11) with a revised approach to history. Born is surely right that there must be epistemological consequences for historiography in the light of this event, which he plausibly explicates as the collapse of belief in an absolute guarantor of truth and value. It is less clear that Nietzsche saw himself as spurred on by it to formulate a new historical methodology. At least, he does not articulate such concerns with any frequency, and his most sustained discussion of such matters (the early HL) is concerned principally with the “uses of history for life,” not with historical methodology an sich.

Born attributes to Nietzsche a radical form of perspectivism, to the effect that, as the phrase goes, there are “only interpretations.” This reading of perspectivism gives rise to notorious problems that threaten to collapse it into an irremediable relativism. Born proposes to solve these problems in terms of the concept of Feindesliebe. While he alerts the reader to the prima facie implausibility of the idea that Nietzsche would endorse this concept as it is found in the Gospels, he nonetheless musters considerable textual evidence from Nietzsche’s works to show that he elaborated his own version of the Christian notion. Born goes on to state unequivocally that the concept of Feindesliebe presents us with a solution to the problem of perspectivism (265), but he does not present a substantial argument for this conclusion. The thought seems to be, roughly, that the notion of the “agon” is central to Nietzsche’s conception of knowledge, and that the ultimately irresolvable conflict of perspectives is therefore something to be welcomed in a communal project of knowledge acquisition. This, however, leaves untouched the core epistemological concerns that make the problem of perspectivism pressing, and does little to make the Nietzschean approach as Born presents it more palatable to those who squirm at the consequences of perspectivism.

Further, underlying Born’s advocacy of a perspectival history are some presuppositions that deserve to be questioned. He often speaks as if the possibilities for an epistemology of historiography are exhausted by, on the one hand, a view that supposes history to possess an “absolute meaning” (e.g. 11, 13) and, on the other, a radical perspectivism such as he proposes. The choice between an “absolute” conception of the objects of history and a perspectivistic genealogy appears, however, to be a false dichotomy. Very few historians would seem to accept either. Historians routinely put forward interpretations that conflict with those of other historians without supposing there to be an “absolute” answer that could resolve their disputes, and yet without falling into a despairing relativism either. A further issue with this dichotomy is Born’s association of the extreme “absolutist” position with Hegel, for it is unlikely that Hegel ever held such a view, as recent scholarship has been at pains to insist.[3] Perhaps neither, for that matter, need Nietzsche’s own perspectivism be drawn so starkly. A considerable consensus among Nietzsche scholars thinks that it need not, in the wake of Maudemarie Clark’s influential Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy,[4] a work Born does not refer to.

Indeed, one might also question whether Nietzsche really thought of genealogy in such radical terms as Born suggests in the first place. For Nietzsche, to do genealogy appears to be simply to do history in the ordinary sense. He does not himself use “genealogy” as a technical term, and in fact hardly uses it at all, a fact that seems puzzling if he really regarded it as a major new innovation. In notebook entries dealing with the same subject matter as On the Genealogy of Morality, he repeatedly calls for a “history of moral valuations,” rather than a “genealogy.” (See KSA 10:8[15], p. 337, 10:16[33], p. 511, 11:26[130], p. 184, 11:26[164], p. 192, and 12:5[70], p. 211.) Nietzsche’s genealogies are certainly selective and guided by specific interests, but these features do not distinguish genealogies from other historical narratives. And Nietzsche unequivocally presents himself in the Preface to GM as offering a “real history of morality [wirkliche Historie der Moral]” (GM P:7). Born reads this call for “real” history as a plea to “exercise moderation” in light of the “necessarily violent” way we seize hold of the past (45). Perhaps, however, it makes more sense to read Nietzsche at face value here, particularly if we combine this injunction with his claim in The Antichrist to deliver the “genuine history [echte Geschichte]” of Christianity (A 39).

In the concluding Part III, “A Genealogy of Genealogy,” Born focuses on a core claim animating his work: that genealogy and nihilism are in an important way interdependent. It is an important insight, which Born masterfully brings to the fore, that nihilism and genealogy have a common ground in the experience of the death of God, an experience that undercuts claims to absoluteness and permanence of our values. It seems plausible to suggest that Nietzsche’s drive to pursue a genealogical questioning of the moral past was (in part at least) fueled by the type of nihilistic disorientation prompted by the death of God. And, as Born also emphasizes, genealogy’s own investigative tendencies will cause it to constantly alight on its own birth out of the spirit of nihilism. It is less clear, however, why we must continue to think of genealogy as tied up with “nihilism” (14, 332). Could not genealogy, although born out of nihilism, gain a new self-assurance if we could dispense with or overcome nihilism? Born seems to assume that we could never transcend the relativizing doubts that nihilism engenders since we are “subject to structures of meaning which we cannot step behind” (38 fn. 52) and “embedded in a (historical) horizon that [we] cannot leave” (29; cf. 200). But it is not apparent that this was Nietzsche’s own view. Nietzsche does speak of being “bounded by a horizon” as a condition of our existence in The Use and Abuse of History for Life 1, but only to make the point that there must be limits to our pursuit of the past if we are to be healthy. Again, in a passage Born cites (199) from the same text, Nietzsche tells us that every human being is chained to the past, and “however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him” (HL 1). But this is to say that the past is a burden to us that we must somehow deal with, not an epistemological point about our embeddedness in history. It would be interesting to see if a view of the inescapability of our historical horizon such as that proposed by Born could be discerned from other passages in Nietzsche’s texts.

Nietzsche is a historical thinker of exceptional range and power, as is revealed in Born’s tracing of the genealogy of nihilism in Part I. His historical thought extends more widely across Nietzsche’s oeuvre than Born allows for, however. From early texts such as “Fatum und Geschichte,” Nietzsche was concerned with drawing philosophical conclusions from historical insights. In Human, All Too Human he called for traditional “metaphysical philosophy” to be replaced by “historical philosophy,” a project that arguably stretches beyond the narratives he described as “genealogical.” There are even notebook entries (which Born does not discuss) in which Nietzsche makes history and philosophy entirely coextensive (see KSA 11:36[27], p. 562, and 11:38[14], p. 613). It is less clear that Nietzsche was particularly exercised about the epistemology of historiography, other than in scattered remarks that sought to implicate the demand for historiographical “objectivity” in the ascetic ideal. The reason for this may be that Nietzsche did not, after all, see his historical investigations as limited to a “perspectival” genealogy of the kind that Born attributes to him. Nonetheless, Born’s provocative and original reading of genealogy repays serious attention as a discussion of the problem of perspectivism. Furthermore, the book’s detailed tracing of Nietzsche’s historical thought, which often involves pointing out connections across his oeuvre that are far from obvious, sends the study of Nietzsche’s work in an important new direction.

Birkbeck, University of London

[1] George Allen Morgan, What Nietzsche Means (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), 319.

[2] Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 246.

[3] See, for example, Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), and Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.