Nietzsche, Hume, and the Genealogical Method

David Couzens Hoy

Genealogy is for Nietzsche a way of doing philosophy that shows not only the inadequacy of traditional metaphysics or "first philosophy" but also the prospects for nonmetaphysical philosophy. In the preface to the Genealogy of Morals (§4) he says his own adaptation of the method of genealogy was motivated by his reaction to Paul Ree's Origin of the Moral Sensations . This "upside-down and perverse species of genealogical hypothesis, the genuinely English type," is criticized for being too unhistorical, haphazard, or random. What is perverse is Ree's social-Darwinian hypothesis that the most recent product of human evolution is, because of the survival of the fittest, also the highest product of human evolution. Nietzsche parodies Ree cruelly in laughing at the idea that the fittest and highest human type is the modern "moral milksop" (Moral-Zärtling , GM P:7) who thinks of morality as "selflessness, self-sacrifice, or sympathy and pity" (GS 345). Equally perverse and "English" is Ree's own "refined indolence," his inability to take the problems of morality seriously.

In a manner that English-speakers tend to find typically "German," Nietzsche insists on taking extremely seriously the problems of morality, or more accurately, morality itself as a problem. I will assume that when Nietzsche criticizes Ree for being too much like the English psychologists, Nietzsche has the doctrines of Englishmen like Herbert Spencer in mind.[1] But the method of inquiring into the "origins" of moral ideas is presumably a general one, and more notable British philosophers are also genealogists. To show this, I take David Hume as a prime example. Commentators like Arthur Danto and Mary Warnock have noted similarities between Nietzsche and Hume on epistemological topics, but there is a more general methodological kinship between the two, particularly when their views on morality are considered as well.[2]

Nietzschean genealogy is like British genealogy in being a form of what Hume called "experimental reasoning," formulating hypotheses about what causes could have led to given effects. The method for Hume provides a common basis for doing both epistemology and ethics, and the Treatise on Human Nature is subtitled An attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects .[3] Comparing not their moral theories so much as their applications of the method to particular examples, however, there is an obvious difference in that Nietzsche does not imitate Hume's detached, observational tone or the British pretension to neutral, value-free description. On the contrary, Nietzsche wants genealogy to be as value-laden as possible. Not only does he want genealogy to investigate the question of the value of morality, he also intends for it to come up with a definite valuation of the traditional moral virtues and principles. In particular, he plans it to be not simply a descriptive but also a prescriptive (or at least critical) inversion of both the good-natured "English" pessimism of Ree and the world-weary German pessimism of Schopenhauer.[4]

Since Ree was already using the genealogical method, and since Nietzsche implies Ree was simply borrowing that method from the English, Nietzsche is not claiming to be the first to discover and use genealogy. Yet he does suggest in section four of the preface to the Genealogy that hitting on this method allowed him to bring together in a coherent framework points that were scattered in previous works. The method thus enables him to synthesize not only his views about the nature of morality, as in this work, but also his other systematic views insofar as they were to be unified by the hypothesis of the will to power as the principle for the application of the genealogical method.

Since the validity of genealogy as a method does not necessarily depend on the soundness of the theory of the will to power, however, in this essay I discuss two features of the method which undermine any pretensions of the will to power to be a quasi-metaphysical doctrine. I maintain that genealogy need not be affirmative in the sense of asserting specific substantive doctrines but in the sense of being heuristically feasible. First, drawing on recent French poststructuralist readings of Nietzsche (but with critical reservations), I will be considering how genealogy is a philosophical tool that is at once antimetaphysical and nonmetaphysical. Since the preface of the Genealogy singles out Schopenhauer as the crucial test of the method, the analyses of Schopenhauer's ascetic ideals in sections 4-8 of the third essay are of particular importance. Nietzsche there uses the method wittily to bring out the extent to which Schopenhauer's metaphysical longings and ideals were a product of sexual desires, of what Schopenhauer called "the vile urgency of the will" (GM III:6). Without supplanting Schopenhauer's metaphysics of the will with yet another metaphysics, then, Nietzsche will

use genealogy to destroy metaphysics altogether. Genealogy itself becomes a way to do nonmetaphysical philosophy.

Hume's own method of experimental reasoning is also intended to consign metaphysics to the flames, and to show reason to be the product of bodily instinct. The method allows him to inquire into the origin of morals without assuming as his contemporaries did that the virtuous dispositions were implanted in all of us by a divine creator. The degree of methodological similarity between Hume and Nietzsche is thus the second feature to be considered. In both cases the method is hypothetical, tracing ideas back to psychological impressions, and finding like causes for like effects. Perhaps an even better example of how close Nietzsche's use of the method comes to Hume's is the "genealogy" of religion offered by Hume's character Philo at the conclusion of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (part XII). There Philo traces the ideas and practices of religion back to the impression of terror, produced in states of illness and depression. Religion, suggests Philo, has little force and relevance in normal health and in the cheerful conduct of everyday affairs, Hume's insistence on which Nietzsche would again consider typically British. Of course, Nietzsche takes particular pains in the preface to distinguish his genealogies from those of the British, and he is especially right about Hume in remarking on the unhistorical character of their psychological studies. Nietzsche's own genealogies, however, do not provide the detailed historical studies the preface calls for, and I cannot see that they are less psychologically speculative than Hume's.[5]

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