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Christopher Janaway.Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy. Oxford

Oxford University Press, 2007. vi + 267 pp. ISBN 978-0199279692. $49 (cloth)

Reviewed by Mark Jenkins

More or less blow-by-blow guides to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals [GM] proliferate.[1] Christopher Janaway’s Beyond Selflessness, never mind its subtitle, is not one of these. Not that the book fails to offer guidance to GM; on the contrary, the book’s fourteen chapters are chock-a-block with almost always interesting and occasionally novel suggestions on how to read Nietzsche’s three increasingly well-known essays. Moreover, these suggestions are rendered in prose of exceptional clarity, featuring an especially engaging tone, with just the right blend of authority and humility in the face of Nietzsche’s daunting texts. Still, the book is neither a systematic nor comprehensive account of GM. In fact, the book reads like a cross between a monograph and a collection of essays, not surprising really, since no fewer than seven previously published papers have, in some form or other, made their way into the book. As Janaway readily acknowledges, “The work towards what eventually became this book began more than ten years ago and for a while remained somewhat piecemeal” (vii). Without taking anything away from its consistent insightfulness, the book remains somewhat piecemeal. Some chapters actually do offer blow-by-blow accounts of extended portions of GM, as in Chapter 2’s section-by-section discussion of Nietzsche’s Preface. Some chapters focus much more narrowly, as in Chapter 12’s explication of GM III:12’s notorious claim that “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing.’” And some chapters make but little contact with GM at all, as in Chapter 9’s discussion of will to power. Every chapter, then, may be appreciated in isolation, which is not to say that the book contains no overlapping themes. It does, and one of them, justifiably in my view, predominates.

Interpreters of Nietzsche, and of GM especially, tend to engage two potentially related distinctions. On the one hand, there is a distinction between what might be called Nietzsche’s descriptive and prescriptive, or his explanatory and therapeutic, aims. In GM I, for example, Nietzsche famously describes the so-called slave revolt in morality, explaining how the Christian values of morality, good and evil, came to supplant the aristocratic values of rank, good and bad. Here the interpreter needs a view on what prescription (if any) Nietzsche would have this description effect? In what way, and by what means, should Nietzsche’s genealogically informed explanations of contemporary Christian values and guilt-laden Christian psychology and Christian ascetic ideals impact readers going forward? On the other hand, there is a distinction between the substance and style of Nietzsche’s writing or—there may be no better way to put it—between Nietzsche the philosopher and Nietzsche the poet. Here the interpreter needs a view on the relation between the two, particularly on whether the philosophical substance of Nietzsche’s thought can be isolated and appreciated independently of its rhetorical trappings. Put another way, the interpreter must have a view on whether Nietzsche’s style is necessary to his aims: to, say, the (descriptive) genealogical investigation of contemporary moral values and, ultimately, to the (prescribed) revaluation of those values.

Janaway’s own view is that Nietzsche’s style is indeed necessary to the achievement of both his explanatory and therapeutic aims:

I give thematic prominence to questions about Nietzsche’s method of writing, and seek to show why we should not succumb to the analytical habit of sidelining such questions. To treat Nietzsche’s ways of writing—implicitly or explicitly—as merely modes of presentation, detachable in principle from some elusive set of propositions in which his philosophy might be thought to consist, is to miss a great part of Nietzsche’s real importance to philosophy. Nietzsche simply does not behave as a conventional philosopher.…Nietzsche’s way of writing addresses our affects, feelings, or emotions. It provokes sympathies, antipathies and ambivalences that lie in the modern psyche below the level of rational decision and impersonal argument. I argue that this is not some gratuitious exercise in “style” that could be edited out of Nietzsche’s thought.…Without the rhetorical provocations…we would neither comprehend nor be able to revalue our current values. (3-4)

Janaway’s allusion to the “analytical habit” that would detach Nietzsche’s philosophical propositions from their mode of presentation seems pretty clearly directed at Brian Leiter’s hugely influential Nietzsche on Morality[2] (indeed, Leiter has already picked up the gauntlet[3]), even if Janaway would ultimately agree with Leiter that “there is no principled reason why one cannot, as a commentator, state with excruciating clarity and precision what an author means, even as one determines that meaning by considering both what he says and how he says it.”[4]

What Janaway pursues with clarity and precision is an affirmative answer to the book’s “central question”: “Might ‘real history’, as Nietzsche conceives it, demand a personal, affective responsiveness in the investigator?” (44) It is not always clear, however, just what work Janaway sees the investigator’s or reader’s affective response doing. Mostly the idea seems to be this. GM is designed to initiate a revaluation of values by telling stories about the origin of current moral values that call the value of those values into question, most notably by showing that such values are historically conditioned, and that they lead to and reflect enervation rather than flourishing for those professing them. But it is one thing for the reader to understand what Nietzsche is saying and another to possess the psychological wherewithal to incorporate that understanding into a radical agenda of personal revaluation, especially since it is obvious that if Nietzsche’s genealogies show anything, they show just how deeply embedded moral values have become in the human psyche and, notwithstanding their contingency, how decidedly timeless and eternal, how immutable, they feel. This is where, according to Janaway, Nietzsche’s style kicks in, by shaking up the reader’s familiar patterns of emotional response.

The emotional upheaval produced by Nietzsche’s rhetoric creates space between values and their emotional concomitants, space in which new values might have some chance of taking hold. As Janaway puts it: “It is not far-fetched to say that Nietzsche sets out to embarrass, amuse, tempt, shame, and revolt the reader—to test our attractions and aversions.…If his reader has arrived at and adheres to his or her values in the manner hypothesized by Nietzsche’s moral psychology, then Nietzsche’s chosen way of writing is well calculated to begin the process of detaching him or her from those values and enabling the revaluation he prefigures in the Preface to the Genealogy” (91). So the idea here seems to be that simply understanding, for example, that compassion’s role as society’s paradigmatic moral value results from an historical process driven by hatred, and, moreover, represents a diminution of human vitality and potential, is not enough to undermine allegiance to it, cemented as it is in one’s psyche by emotional mortar that must itself be dislodged before any new values can take hold. Nietzsche’s “emotive” style, then, as Janaway occasionally refers to it, is intended to effect such dislodging, and so to allow his explanations to becomes therapeutically effective.

Sometimes, however, Janaway appears to advance a rather different, more novel, thesis: that even to understand Nietzsche’s genealogical explanations, forget their therapeutic benefit, requires the jumbling of one’s emotions by Nietzsche’s style. “It could be,” Janaway maintains, “that the very task of arriving at truths about the origin of my values demands the activation of my own feelings” (48). He elaborates:

… one can argue that arousing feelings helps our capacity to identify the true subject matter of the self-scrutinizing genealogical investigation. If the target explananda are my own moral values, and my personal affects are an essential rung on the explanatory ladder, then in order to understand the origin of my values I must recognize that these affects are explanatory, and that they have a cultural-psychological prehistory; and in order to recognize this about my affects I must recognize what my affects are, to do which, arguably, I would first have to feel them consciously. The argument would be that unless we feel specific affects we will be unable to identify them as ours, and hence unable to assign them any role in explaining the origin of our own moral evaluations. (49)

While Janaway stops short of claiming that a person failing to respond emotionally to Nietzsche’s explanations perforce fails to understand them at all, he insists it is a matter of degree: the more one feels, the more one understands. And presumably the more one understands, the better one’s shot at revaluation. Is there a whiff of Freud about this argument?[5] It is as though we have repressed the affective origins of our current values, much as, say, sufferers of hysteria were alleged to have repressed the memories associated with their current symptoms. Just as Freud’s “talking cure” enabled hysterics to revisit their original traumas and in so doing to relieve their current symptoms, so Nietzsche’s rhetoric enables his readers to revisit the emotions originally associated with their acquisition of moral values and in so doing to loosen their grip. Bottom line, as Janaway sees it, is that, for Nietzsche, “feelings themselves have cognitive potency” (210). This argument of Janaway’s, merely outlined here, merits careful study, assigning as it does nothing less than an essential, philosophically strategic role to Nietzsche’s style.

A second recurrent theme gives point to Janaway’s title, Beyond Selflessness, and might simply be summarized as follows: the best way to grasp the picture GM pushes for is to grasp the pictures GM pushes against, and the picture GM pushes hardest against, a picture of selflessness as the ne plus ultra of morality, is Schopenhauer’s. Janaway, of course, has authored numerous books and articles on Schopenhauer’s philosophy and is exceptionally well qualified to relate not only the familiar story of Nietzsche’s eventual disillusionment with Schopenhauer following a period of intense infatuation, but also that story’s particular relation to GM. In Chapter 4, Janaway offers an extended consideration of Nietzsche’s general objections to Schopenhauer’s valorization of selflessness. Where Schopenhauer deduces compassion as an ethical conclusion from certain metaphysical premises reflecting the illusoriness of the individual, Janaway convincingly demonstrates that Nietzsche’s objections go beyond simply pointing up the dubiousness of those premises, and so the deduction. Instead his objections point to compassion’s links with equality, self-effacement and the condemnation of suffering, three moral aspirations that Nietzsche rejects as, in various ways, life-denying. For Janaway, “Nietzsche’s reaction to Schopenhauer’s conception of value sustains his drive to find a manner in which to affirm life as absolutely as Schopenhauer says no to it, an antidote, or antipode, designed to consist in the avoidance of self-denial or self-rejection in any degree whatever” (70). Later, in Chapter 11, Janaway nicely lays out a Schopenhauerian subtext to much of GM III’s critique of the acetic ideal, maintaining that “Although Nietzsche’s critical conception of the ascetic ideal eventually subsumes almost every aspect of extant culture, Schopenhauer provides the most immediate and decisive model of the ideal—and also the most vulnerable” (196). Taken together, Janaway’s multifarious discussions of Schopenhauer, especially in conjunction with his discussions, in Chapters 2 and 5, of Nietzsche’s debt to, and distance from, Paul Rée’s ethical naturalism, valuably places GM in a broader intellectual and historical context.

Occasionally Beyond Selflessness appears to be fighting battles from previous wars. A good example of this is Chapter 10, “Nietzsche’s Illustration of the Art of Exegesis,” a reworking of an article of the same title, first published in 1997.[6] Here Janaway argues that the aphorism upon which, as Nietzsche tells us, all of GM III should be seen as exegeis (Auslegung) is not, in fact, the brief passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Z) that actually heads Section 1 (“Unconcerned, mocking, violent—thus wisdom wants us …”), but rather Section 1 itself (whose aphoristic content would be, roughly, humans would rather will nothingness than not will at all). In 1993, in the first class I took on Nietzsche, I remember a lot of attention being paid to this issue of just how the third essay of GM could plausibly be seen as even related to, let alone an extended commentary, on this epigram from Z. Since then, however, not only has Janaway argued against seeing this snippet as Nietzsche’s target aphorism on grounds of textual coherence and continuity, but others have introduced what seem to be conclusive archival considerations backing the same conclusion, such as that Nietzsche initially submitted the essay for publication without Section 1 or that the aphorism from Z was originally placed on a separate title page.[7] In any case, I was happy enough to concede Janaway’s case that Section 1 itself makes up the aphorism that the ensuing twenty-seven sections interpret, even before he began his extended treatment of certain stale views (Danto’s, Nehamas’s) to the contrary.

Beyond Selflessness concludes with a nice discussion of where Nietzsche would have (at least some of) GM’s readers go when it comes to revaluing values. Following an elegant restatement of his predominant theme, canvassed above, that “Nietzsche stimulates dormant affects in order to educate us about their explanatory role and lead us to suspend, question, and eventually transform our ways of feeling and valuing” (252), Janaway proceeds to extract from GM a nine-point “negative outline into which any new, superior mode of evaluation would have to fit” (253). To my mind, this outline, really a checklist against which to vet any putative replacement for today’s Christian morality of selflessness—really, in fact, a superb précis of GM as a whole—is one of the book’s finest moments, worth reproducing here in full:

1. It [a new, superior mode of evaluation] would not be adopted through passive reception from past cultural tradition, but created by agents themselves, and fitted to their own strengths of character. 2. It would not seek to found its values upon beliefs in anything supernatural or non-empirical. 3. It would not take it as given that human beings are essentially rational, psychologically unified, or self-transparent subjects. 4. It would not base value judgments of people on an assumption of their having absolute freedom to act. 5. It would not be motivated in reactive fashion by a drive to label and control others. 6. It would not expect a single criterion of value to apply across all human beings and all human actions. 7. It would not regard any of the human drives and instincts as intrinsically worthy of suppression or eradication. 8. It would not make the assumption that suffering is absolutely bad for human beings. 9. It would not evaluate people or actions in terms of the opposition between egoism and selflessness. (253)

That Janaway is able, in his final chapter, to distill from GM such a wide-ranging, penetrating and yet succinct summation of Nietzsche’s axiological strictures is testimony to the wide-ranging and penetrating analytical ability deployed in previous chapters.

This negative outline gives way to an interesting discussion of a seeming tension arising between two generally accepted aspects of Nietzsche’s positive agenda for revaluation. On the one hand, Nietzsche calls his readers to lives of self-affirmation, on the other, to lives of self-satisfaction. While self-affirmation requires, according to Janaway, “saying yes to one’s life in its entirety and in every detail,” self-satisfaction, an “aesthetic (or quasi-aesthetic)” state, requires “the shaping of one’s character so that every part of it contributes to a meaningful whole in the manner of a work of art” (254). Hence conflict appears inevitable, since self-affirmation involves brutal honesty, “the acceptance of the whole truth of one’s life…without flinching,” while self-satisfaction involves deliberate prevarication, “actively making one’s character pleasing by falsifying it” (261). Janaway’s illuminating discussion of four distinct philosophical attempts to accommodate this tension within a single life makes delightful reading, a fine end to a fine book.

Regardless of whether Janaway is right to call GM a “literary masterpiece,” it is quite probably the book that Nietzsche’s readers are most familiar with these days. Beyond Selflessness deserves equal familiarity; in fact, it deserves to join the handful of secondary texts that anyone wishing to transform familiarity into expertise should consult.

Johns Hopkins University


  1. See, for example: David Owen, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007); Daniel Conway, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum, 2008); Lawrence Hatab, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  2. Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality (London: Routledge, 2002), p. xiv.
  3. See Leiter’s own extensive on-line review of Beyond Selflessness at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (6/3/08), .
  4. Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality, p. xv.
  5. Janaway himself suggests as much on pp. 250-51.
  6. “Nietzsche’s Illustration of the Art of Exegesis,” European Journal of Philosophy 5 (1997): 251-68.
  7. See pp. 171 and 177 and their references to Colli and Montinari and to Clark, respectively.