Simon May. Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (x + 345 pp.) ISBN 978-0-521-51880-2.
Reviewed by Neil Sinhababu
Of the 14 essays in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, several are excellent, several are pretty good, and only one is bad. That's a good score, and Simon May deserves credit for assembling a volume that will advance our understanding of the Genealogy.
The first essay is Raymond Geuss' "The Future of Evil". Geuss sees evil as "a structural feature of all vices" (14) and considers how our use of the concept of evil might change. He describes false metaphysical presuppositions such as free will that Nietzsche takes our attributions of evil to involve, and notes that even those who reject these presuppositions will be inclined to continue using the concept of evil because of deep-seated psychological dispositions. Connecting Geuss' essay to contemporary moral philosophy and Nietzsche scholarship is left to the reader, as Blumenberg's 1966 "Die Legitimität der Neuzeit" is the only work written after 1900 that Geuss cites. The discussion of Theognis of Megara, who discussed changing values in ancient Greece and whom Nietzsche studied, is a high point of the essay.
Lanier Anderson argues that "the priests who figure importantly in Nietzsche’s story are intended to be unambiguous instances of the noble character type" (24). As always, Anderson's work engages at impressive depth with the scholarly literature, responding at particular length to Aaron Ridley's contention that the priest incorporates slavish elements as well. Using BGE 261, Anderson argues that "what constitutes psychological slavishness for Nietzsche is precisely the slave’s inability to value herself... and her consequent adoption of the characteristic values, beliefs, and assessments of the masters who dominate her" (31). This makes the priests' nobility essential to the slave revolt. Without it, nobody could actually create the new values. But while not valuing oneself may be an important part of slavishness, wholly adopting nobles' values seems to be less so. Slaves "skeptical and suspicious" of noble values are creating their own "morality of utility" in BGE 260, for instance.
Bernard Reginster explores the relations between guilt and a variety of closely related concepts discussed in the second essay of GM, including conscience and indebtedness. Particularly interesting is his view "that the Christian representation of guilt is not an account of the ordinary feeling of guilt... but a perversion of it" (57). This is because it consists in "inexpiable guilt toward God" (77) and thus can't ever be paid off, permanently ruining one's sense of worth as a person. I would recommend the essay to anyone interested in Nietzsche's view of guilt, as it has the scholarly depth and thoroughness typical of Reginster's work.
May's contribution is titled "Why Nietzsche is still in the morality game," but something like "Life-denial and life-affirmation" might have been more informative about its contents. The essay provides a detailed account of life-affirmation and connects it with themes throughout Nietzsche's philosophy, including atheism and the meaning of suffering. I did not understand why May wrote that "giving suffering a meaning in terms of a higher good that it makes possible, or of which it is constitutive... is, of course, to advance a theodicy" (80-81). While giving a meaning to suffering is sometimes part of theistic responses to the problem of evil, can it not also be part of a secular project? While this is one of several places where I wish May had been careful rather than exciting, his view that affirming life involves appreciating it without concern for justifying it seems exactly right to me.
Brian Leiter defends his much-discussed view that Nietzsche rejects free will, addressing problem cases like the "sovereign individual" in the beginning of the Second Essay, described as a "master of the free will" (107). Responding to Thomas Miles, Ken Gemes, and Peter Poellner, he argues that this and the other positive references to free will involve Stevensonian ‘persuasive definition,’ where Nietzsche revises the concepts to direct their emotional appeal away from something impossible and towards ways that humans can actually act. As Nietzsche forcefully rejects free will in the passages where he is most clearly discussing it as a metaphysical issue, this seems like the best way to read such passages. And since Nietzsche is less interested in analyzing our concepts than in changing us, rhetorically forceful persuasive redefinitions are the sort of thing we might expect from him.
Peter Poellner's "Ressentiment and morality" begins by considering ways in which Nietzsche might maintain that we should reject morality because of its origins in ressentiment. He might posit a "not merely causal but constitutive" connection "between the allegedly disreputable psychological origins of morality and the content of that morality," or he might hold that the problems with ressentiment "are nevertheless frequently or typically associated also with its later manifestations" (121). An option Poellner doesn't consider is that ressentiment might (like wishful thinking) be generally unreliable in producing true belief about morality and other topics. Those versed in Poellner's distinctive and difficult Kant-influenced vocabulary might be able to help me understand his view that ressentiment "is intrinsically a project that, if universalized, would be tantamount to the subversion of the conditions of the possibility of valuing, of recognizing value, as such" (141).
The next are essays from Nadeem Hussain and Paul Katsafanas, each one addressing a significant issue in Nietzsche scholarship with clear writing and thoughtful argument. Hussain asks why Nietzsche does not engage in a genealogical critique of his own favored values––life and power––as he does with Christian values. His answer is that Nietzsche sees living creatures as inescapably driven toward power, just as Bentham sees us as driven toward pleasure and Marx sees us as driven toward the resolution of class struggle. Hussain can be understood as supporting the constitutivist views defended by Richard Schacht and now by Katsafanas against critics like Leiter, to whom he responds at length. Katsafanas' own contribution fits Nietzsche's historical claims into an explanation of how Christian morality undermines the will to power, showing us why it is important that Nietzsche's arguments against this morality take a historical form. I liked his discussion of how "modern morality has systematically (and deliberately) broken the connection between perceptions of increased power, and actual increases in power" (171). He agrees with Hussain in claiming that "power is the one value to which we are inescapably committed" (177). These essays were similar in their views of Nietzsche's own normative theorizing, and in being excellent.
Lawrence Hatab clears the way to answering his titular question, "Why would master morality surrender its power?," by noting that distinctions between noble and slave psychology are not absolute and that other distinctions cross-cut them: "cultural creativity is made possible by a dialectic of master and slave characteristics, so that not everything in the latter is 'slavish' and not everything in the former is 'noble'" (210). This struck me as very reasonable on textual and historical grounds, though not especially exciting. It became more exciting with the concrete example of Socrates as containing both noble and slave characteristics, and therefore being positioned to market ascetic ideals (and then perhaps slave values as well) to ancient nobles.
Peter Kail's clear and thoughtful paper presents genealogy as "an explanatory account of the emergence of some distinctive set of beliefs, practices, and associated phenomena, involving situating agents with a particular psychology in a social-cum-environmental situation to which that psychology is responsive" (214). The useful third section of his paper discusses the role of genealogy in the revaluation of values, noting that not all genealogies will provide us with reason to reject the values they are about, and characterizing the specific ways some genealogies might do so. The fourth section's convincing response to Bernard Williams' discussion of genealogy notes that Nietzsche's genealogies are not in any interesting sense state-of-nature stories, and are better regarded as conjectural than as simply fictional.
Stephen Mulhall uses the poetic aspects of the Genealogy to launch his own poetic-philosophical explorations. The clearest remark among his profundities connecting social epistemology to the metaphor of "honey-gatherers" in the preface of the Genealogy is the apiological error that "honey’s raw material" is pollen––it is actually nectar (235). He jumps quickly from interpreting Nietzsche to discussing issues of dubious relevance. One section leaps from the word halcyon in the preface to kingfishers (halcyon once meant kingfisher) to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend to Sir Percival to Parsifal. I understand the connections, but they do not help me understand Nietzsche. It is great when wordplay reinforces substantial philosophical points, but focusing scholarly essays on associations between far-flung concepts inevitably comes off like an interminable joke badly told.
Edward Harcourt criticizes interpretations on which the values Nietzsche favors are treated as aesthetic. He is right that "we do not need the term 'aesthetic' in order to label a set of ideals simply insofar as they do not belong to morality" (265) and that "there seem to be non-moral ideals that are not illuminatingly described as aesthetic" (268). Harcourt reasonably criticizes various older interpretations along these lines. I wish Harcourt had addressed the following justification for the 'aesthetic' label: Nietzsche seems to reject objective value claims while favoring some subjective ones, and moral value is typically seen as objective while aesthetic value is often seen as subjective. Those interested in Aristotle interpretation, Conrad's Lord Jim, and Fuller's Marches Past will be pleased to find them discussed at length.
Much of Christine Swanton's recent work explores conceptions of virtue in different philosophical traditions. Here she characterizes the virtues constituting Nietzsche's "mature egoism"––assertiveness, justice, objectivity, mature generosity, independence, and discipline––and contrasts these with related vices. Even if "mature egoism" only explicitly appears in HH, and much of Swanton's elaboration of the virtues is drawn from later works, something like this seems to be part of Nietzsche's conception of human excellence throughout. Many recent volumes on Nietzsche include essays by ethicists who help us understand how his views fit into contemporary discussions, and Swanton's essay is an excellent example of this genre.
Aaron Ridley's essay concludes the volume with a discussion of GM III:6, where Nietzsche contrasts Kant and Schopenhauer's understanding of aesthetics from the spectator's perspective with Stendhal's understanding from the creator's perspective, and also the former philosophers' more ascetic views with Stendhal's view that "beauty promises happiness" (313). Ridley's interpretation of the section and his engagement with Daniel Conway's interesting views are insightful in many places. But his contention that Nietzsche sees Stendhal as "only as the best of a bad lot" requires a strained reading of the text (309). Perhaps the issue turns on how to understand Nietzsche's own quotation marks around "spectator" when first introducing Stendhal? I agree with Ridley that Nietzsche has "no reason left to reject Stendhal’s conception," but I think Nietzsche would agree, too (325).
National University of Singapore