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Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: A Critical Précis

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Ethics, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Western Civilization, Writing on September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers after knowledge, even to ourselves: and with good reason.  We have never sought after ourselves—so how should we one day find ourselves?  It has rightly been said that: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’; our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge.  As spiritual bees from birth, this is our eternal destination, our hearts are set on one thing only—‘bringing something home.’

                                             —    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche employs an aphorism to open the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (GM).  That approach seems fitting for this critical précis, the aphoristic epigram to which quotes none other than Nietzsche himself.

The opening declarative here—“We remain unknown to ourselves”—signals the ancient Greek imperative: “Know thyself.”  That Nietzsche converts the imperative to a declarative is suggestive.  The imperative expresses a command: the emphatic utterance of an authoritative demand (“do this”).  The declarative is a descriptive assertion: the positive utterance of fact or opinion.  The imperative, if issued by the right person and not meant as merely advisory, presupposes the power to enforce or induce the substance of the command.  A speaker that commands another to know himself assumes that the other will act, can act, or ought to act in accordance with what he, the speaker, orders.  The speaker of a declarative statement, on the other hand, conveys information; the transmission of data from the speaker to the listener does not necessarily signify a desire that the listener act, or refrain from acting, in accordance with the data or the speaker’s wishes. 

Nietzsche uses the declarative to describe our epistemic state or to posit an idea about our epistemic state.  His articulation necessarily undermines the idea that we already have answered the call to know ourselves.  Either we have ignored the command to know ourselves (“We have never sought after ourselves”), or we have failed to comply with it—or both.  To the extent that Western philosophy could, at Nietzsche’s moment, be reduced to these two words—“know thyself”—Western philosophy had, if we believe Nietzsche’s declaration, failed or decayed.  What Nietzsche seeks to posit, in more assertive or, one might say, more declarative terms, is a radical rewriting and reinterpretation of knowledge itself.  To know ourselves, we must know what we know and how we know it, or know what we think we know and how to overcome it.  We have blurred the distinction between knowledge and morals; we have internalized weak epistemic truth claims across time; a genealogy of morals is necessary to trace and thereby illuminate our understanding of ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »

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