Genealogy and Symptomatology

In order to appreciate Nietzsche's idiosyncratic adaptation of genealogy to the history of morality, we must situate genealogy in the shifting context of his critical philosophical project. In Beyond Good and Evil , Nietzsche claims as his critical task the preparation of a typology of morals (BGE 186).[1] In Toward a Genealogy of Morals , he explains that "all the sciences have from now on to prepare the way for . . . the solution of the problem of value , the determination of the order of rank [Rangordnung ] among values " (GM I:17n.). Nietzsche apparently understands this ambitious typological project as a prelude to the revaluation of values to be executed by the "philosophers of the future" (BGE 44).

Yet Nietzsche's devastating critique of objective validity calls into question the possibility of completing the normative component of the typo-logical project he describes. If all values are simply infra-objective moral prejudices, then how can he place them in a defensible order of rank? Among the moral prejudices to be ranked (and those of most interest to Nietzsche) are the metaphysical commitments that moral judgments ex-press-for example, estimations of the value of life. But even if we grant Nietzsche that these metaphysical commitments are simply ossified moral prejudices, how can he possibly judge any estimation of the value of life to be better or worse than its negation?

Acknowledging the self-imposed epistemic restrictions within which he must prepare this typology, Nietzsche avers that "the value of life cannot be estimated" (TI II:2). He later explains that one would require a position outside of life, and yet have to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be permitted even to touch the problem of the value of life: reasons enough to comprehend that this problem is for us an unapproachable problem. (TI V:5)

Despite his recognition of the epistemic difficulties involved in any attempt to estimate the value of life, Nietzsche nevertheless informs his typology of values with an order of rank. He argues, for example, that "for a philosopher to see a problem in the value of life is thus an objection to him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom" (TI II:2). In order to complete this typology, critics claim, Nietzsche must presuppose access to a privileged Promethean perspective, an epistemic gambit that he expressly disallows. Although he admits that no one can verify the validity of moral prejudices, he nonetheless presumes to pass judgment on their value.

As Nietzsche explains, however, he does not establish this order of rank by appealing to the objective validity of the metaphysical commitments he investigates. In order to discern the relative value of moral prejudices, while

circumventing altogether the question of their (objective) validity, we must view them semiotically:

Judgments of value, concerning life, for it or against it, can in the end never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are stupidities. (TI II:2)

Although epistemically illegitimate and therefore "stupid" in themselves, estimations of the value of life assume paramount philosophical importance when reinterpreted as symptoms of an underlying physiological condition. Nietzsche's typological project thus leads him to semiotics, as a means of establishing a defensible order of rank.

Nietzsche's interest in semiotics arises in conjunction with his campaign to emigrate "beyond good and evil." Although his distaste for morality is well known, the precise focus of his enmity is perhaps less clear. His attack on Western morality is specifically directed not toward its normative character per se but toward its metaphysical foundation—that is, its reliance on the metaphysical apparatus of free will, responsibility, blame, and guilt. In the Genealogy , Nietzsche identifies the voluntarist and intentionalist vocabulary of Western morality as a vestige of its origins in the slave revolt. In Twilight of the Idols he grounds his critique of morality in an insight into "the four great errors," all of which contribute to the transformation of human animals into moral agents —that is, causally efficient, endowed with free will, and responsible, both factually and counterfactually, for their actions. As a consequence of its propensity for these errors, the moral mode of evaluation not only is ill-suited to an analysis of the problem of modernity but also exacerbates the problem.

Nietzsche's deconstruction of the metaphysical foundation of morality thus exposes the moral mode of evaluation as not only hermeneutically deficient but also decadent: predicated on an egregious misinterpretation of certain physiological conditions, Western morality actually compounds the suffering it purports to ease.[2] Arthur Danto has drawn a helpful distinction between "extensional suffering and intensional suffering, where the latter consists of an interpretation of the former."[3] Although Nietzsche can do little to reduce the level of extensional suffering in the world, and in no event exhibits any inclination to do so, he can perhaps eliminate some degree of intensional suffering by providing an alternative, nonmoral interpretation of extensional suffering. Drawing on Danto's distinction, we might characterize the goal of Nietzsche's critical philosophy as the elimination of the surplus suffering engendered by Western morality.

As he matured as a philosopher, Nietzsche realized that his initial attacks on morality succeeded only in reinforcing the authority of its categories and vocabulary. In The Birth of Tragedy , for example, while attempting to implicate modernity in the hyperrationalism of Socratism, he unwittingly

endorsed the moral mode of evaluation by blaming Socrates for the "death" of tragedy. In blaming priests and moralists for introducing blame into the vocabulary of Western morality, Nietzsche perhaps succeeded in discrediting them , but only at the expense of validating their enterprise. His early attacks on Western morality may have defaced its edifice, but they failed to demolish (and in fact reinforced) its metaphysical foundation. Hoping to purge his critical philosophy of its residual metaphysical taint, and thus avoid the moralizing into which his youthful fulminations often degenerated, Nietzsche attempted to fashion a critical method that neither relies on the moral mode of evaluation nor reinforces its metaphysical foundation. To do so, he required an alternative critical vocabulary.

The typological project that occupies Nietzsche's later works thus sanctions his campaign to subject moral prejudices to a further, more rigorous, psychological interpretation. He vows, for example, to penetrate to "the origin of our moral prejudices" (GM P:2).[4] He consequently recommends that we interpret moral prejudices as symptomatic of the underlying drives and affects they manifest, proposing, in effect, a naturalistic reduction of morality: "In short, moralities are also merely a sign language of the affects " (BGE 187).[5] In Twilight , Nietzsche "officially" announces his adoption of symptomatology as his new model for critical philosophy:

My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath him. . .. Moral judgments are therefore never to be taken literally: so understood, they always contain mere absurdity. Semiotically, however, they remain invaluable: they reveal, at least for those who know, the most valuable realities of cultures and inwardnesses which did not know enough to "understand" themselves. Morality is mere sign language, mere symptomatology: one must know what it is all about to be able to profit from it. (TI VII:1)

Although Nietzsche never articulated his means of achieving this unprecedented emigration beyond good and evil, his repeated attempts to equip philosophers with a nonmoral critical vocabulary suggest his route of passage. He came to interpret moral prejudices as symptomatic of varying degrees of health and decadence, and to rank them accordingly. "A condemnation of life by the living remains in the end a symptom of a certain kind of life: the question whether it is justified or unjustified is not even raised thereby" (TI V:5).

Nietzsche thus moves beyond good and evil by translating his critical philosophy into the vocabulary and categories of symptomatology: "healthy" versus "sick" replaces "good" versus "evil" as the governing frame of philosophical evaluation. In Twilight , for example, he returns once again to "The Problem of Socrates." But in contrast to the argument of The Birth of Tragedy , he no longer blames Socrates for the death of tragedy,

or for anything else. No decadent, whether modern or premodern, can help but enact his physiological destiny. Socrates no more chose to privilege reason than a sick man chooses to run a fever: "neither Socrates nor his 'patients' had any choice about being rational: it was de riguer , it was their last resort . . .; there was danger, there was but one choice: either to perish or—to be absurdly rational" (TI II:10).

Nietzsche's symptomatological turn thus enables the immoralism that characterizes his later philosophy: because all values—even those that promote asceticism—further the interests of a form of life, no constellation of values deserves to be singled out as "evil." Operating free of the distractions of nausea and pity, Nietzsche is able to interpret signs of physiological decay without resorting to moral evaluations of the pathogenic agents he isolates. Symptomatology thus replaces morality; the sick are not to blame for their sickness. But Nietzsche's emigration "beyond good and evil" does not preclude the possibility of philosophical criticism. The "immoral" philosopher must continue to formulate normative judgments, preferences, and orders of rank, although no longer on the basis of moral criteria.

Having exchanged morality for symptomatology, Nietzsche now describes the crisis of modernity in strictly physiological terms, as the mutual clash of instinctual systems: "Our instincts contradict, disturb, destroy each other; I have already defined what is modern as physiological self-contradiction" (TI IX:41). Nietzsche thus concludes that, like the desperate hyperrationalism prescribed by Socrates, the governing values and sustaining institutions of modernity are symptomatic of physiological decay. He defines this decadence as the "instinctual preference" for "what disintegrates, what hastens the end" (TI IX:39). In the Genealogy , of course, Nietzsche locates the source of this physiological self-contradiction in the checkered career of the ascetic ideal.

Nietzsche's alleged emigration "beyond good and evil," and his concomitant turn to symptomatology, have generated little enthusiasm among philosophers. Even if we disregard the disturbing ease with which Nazi ideologues seized upon his "immoral" vocabulary, we still find it difficult to take seriously, much less implement. Surely the least Nietzsche must supply in his own defense is an account of the superior explanatory power of his revised critical method. Nietzsche's symptomatological turn may enable him to avoid various epistemological snares, but it raises equally vexing hermeneutic problems. For example, what philosophical advantage do we gain by exchanging a traditional moral account of "evil" for Nietzsche's "immoral" account of "sickness" or "decadence"? Does "immoralism" actually eliminate the surplus suffering inflicted by morality? These questions, I believe, lead us to the more basic question of the validity of Nietzschean genealogy; for Nietzsche's turn to symptomatology as a critical method makes sense only as presupposing the validity of genealogy.

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