“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” by Michel Foucault

Foucault, Michel. 1977. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews, edited by D. F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

  1. Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and re-copied many times.

On this basis, it is obvious that Paul Ree1 was wrong to follow the English tendency in describing the history of morality in terms of a linear development—in reducing its entire history and genesis to an exclusive concern for utility. He assumed that words had kept their meaning, that desires still pointed in a single direction, and that ideas retained their logic; and he ignored the fact that the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys. From these elements, however, genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history—in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. Finally, genealogy must define even those instances where they are absent, the moment when they remained unrealized (Plato, at Syracuse, did not become Mohammad).

Genealogy, consequently, requires patience and a knowledge of details and it depends on a vast accumulation of source ma­terial Its “cyclopean monuments”2 are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of ‘large and well-meaning errors. ”3 In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition. Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the mole-like perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the meta- historical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for “origins.”

  1. In Nietzsche, we find two uses of the word Ursprung. The first is unstressed, and it is found alternately with other terms such as Entstehung, Herkunft, Abkunft, Geburt. In The Gene­alogy of Morals, for example, Entstehung or Ursprung serve equally well to denote the origin of duty or guilty conscience;4 and in the discussion of logic or knowledge in The Gay Science, their origin is indiscriminately referred to as Ursprung, Entste­hung, or Herkunft. 5

The other use of the word is stressed. On occasion, Nietzsche places the term in opposition to another: in the first paragraph of Human, All Too Human the miraculous origin (Wunder-ursprung) sought by metaphysics is set against the analyses of historical philosophy, which poses questions über Herkunft und Anfang. Ursprung is also used in an ironic and deceptive manner. In what, for instance, do we find the original basis (Ursprung) of morality, a foundation sought after since Plato? “In detestable, narrowminded conclusions. Pudenda origo.”6 Or in a related context, where should we seek the origin of religion (Ursprung), which Schopenhauer located in a particular metaphysical sentiment of the hereafter? It belongs, very simply, to an invention (Erfindung), a sleight-of-hand, an artifice (Kunststück), a secret formula, in the rituals of black magic, in the work of the Schwarzkünstler. 7

One of the most significant texts with respect to the use of all these terms and to the variations in the use of Ursprung is the preface to the Genealogy. At the beginning of the text, its objec­tive is defined as an examination of the origin of moral precon­ceptions and the term used is Herkunft. Then, Nietzsche proceeds by retracing his personal involvement with this question: he recalls the period when he “calligraphied” philosophy, when he questioned if God must be held responsible for the origin of evil. He now finds this question amusing and properly characterizes it as a search for Ursprung (he will shortly use the same term to summarize Paul Ree’s activity). 8 Further on, he evokes the analyses that are characteristically Nietzschean and that began with Human, All Too Human. Here, he speaks of Herkunft-hypothesen. This use of the word Herkunft cannot be arbitrary, since it serves to designate a number of texts, begin­ning with Human, All Too Human, which deal with the origin of morality, asceticism, justice, and punishment. And yet, the word used in all these works had been Ursprung. 9 It would seem that at this point in the Genealogy Nietzsche wished to validate an opposition between Herkunft and Ursprung that did not exist ten years earlier. But immediately following the use of the two terms in a specific sense, Nietzsche reverts, in the final paragraphs of the preface, to a usage that is neutral and equivalent.10

Why does Nietzsche challenge the pursuit of the origin (Ursprung), at least on those occasions when he is truly a genealogist? First, because it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities, because this search assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession. This search is directed to “that which was already there,” the image of a primordial truth fully adequate to its nature, and it necessitates the removal of every mask to ultimately disclose an original identity. However, if the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, it he listens to history, he finds that there is “something altogether different” behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms. Examining the history of reason, he learns that it was born in an altogether “reasonable” fashion— from chance;11 devotion to truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition—the personal conflicts that slowly forged the weapons of reason.12 Further, genealogical analysis shows that the concept of liberty is an “invention of the ruling classes”13 and not fundamental to man’s nature or at the root of his attachment to being and truth. What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.14

History also teaches how to laugh at the solemnities of the origin. The lofty origin is no more than “a metaphysical extension which arises from the belief that things are most precious and essential at the moment of birth. ”15 We tend to think that this is the moment of their greatest perfection, when they emerged dazzling from the hands of a creator or in the shadowless light of a first morning. The origin always precedes the Fall. It comes before the body, before the world and time; it is associated with the gods, and its story is always sung as a theogony. But historical beginnings are lowly: not in the sense of modest or discreet like the steps of a dove, but derisive and ironic, capable of undoing every infatuation. “We wished to awaken the feeling of man’s sovereignty by showing his divine birth: this path is now forbidden, since a monkey stands at the entrance. ”16 Man originated with a grimace over his future development; and Zarathustra himself is plagued by a monkey who jumps along behind him, pulling on his coattails.

The final postulate of the origin is linked to the first two in being the site of truth. From the vantage point of an absolute distance, free from the restraints of positive knowledge, the origin makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it, but always in a false recognition due to the excesses of its own speech. The origin lies at a place of inevitable loss, the point where the truth of things corresponded to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost. It is a new cruelty of history that compels a reversal of this relationship and the abandonment of “adolescent” quests: behind the always recent, avaricious, and measured truth, it posits the ancient proliferation of errors. It is now impossible to believe that “in the rending of the veil, truth remains truthful; we have lived long enough not to be taken in.” 17 Truth is undoubtedly the sort of error that cannot be refuted because it was hardened into an unalterable form in the long baking process of history. 18 Moreover, the very question of truth, the right it appropriates to refute error and oppose itself to ap­pearance,19 the manner in which it developed (initially made available to the wise, then withdrawn by men of piety to an unattainable world where it was given the double role of con­solation and imperative, finally rejected as a useless notion, superfluous, and contradicted on all sides)—does this not form a history, the history of an error we call truth? Truth, and its original reign, has had a history within history from which we are barely emerging “in the time of the shortest shadow,” when light no longer seems to flow from the depths of the sky or to arise from the first moments of the day.20

A genealogy of values, morality, asceticism, and knowledge will never confuse itself with a quest for their “origins,” will never neglect as inaccessible the vicissitudes of history. On the contrary, it will cultivate the details and accidents that ac­company every beginning; it will be scrupulously attentive to their petty malice; it will await their emergence, once unmasked, as the face of the other. Wherever it is made to go, it will not be reticent—in “excavating the depths,” in allowing time for these elements to escape from a labyrinth where no truth had ever detained them. The genealogist needs history to dispel the chimeras of the origin, somewhat in the manner of the pious philosopher who needs a doctor to exorcise the shadow of his soul. He must be able to recognize the events of history, its jolts, its surprises, its unsteady victories and unpalatable defeats— the basis of all beginnings, atavisms, and heredities. Similarly, he must be able to diagnose the illnesses of the body, its condi­tions of weakness and strength, its breakdown and resistances, to be in a position to judge philosophical discourse. History is the concrete body of a development, with its moments of intensity, its lapses, its extended periods of feverish agitation, its fainting spells; and only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the dis­tant ideality of the origin.

  1. Entstehung and Herkunft are more exact than Ursprung in recording the true objective of genealogy; and, while they are ordinarily translated as “origin,” we must attempt to reestablish their proper use.

Herkunft is the equivalent of stock or descent; it is the ancient affiliation to a group, sustained by the bonds of blood, tradition, or social class. The analysis of Herkunft often involves a con­sideration of race21 or social type.22 But the traits it attempts to identify are not the exclusive generic characteristics of an in­dividual, a sentiment, or an idea, which permit us to qualify them as “Greek” or “English”; rather, it seeks the subtle, singular, and subindividual marks that might possibly intersect in them to form a network that is difficult to unravel. Far from being a category of resemblance, this origin allows the sorting out of different traits: the Germans imagined that they had finally accounted for their complexity by saying they possessed a double soul; they were fooled by a simple computation, or rather, they were simply trying to master the racial disorder from which they had formed themselves.23 Where the soul pretends unification or the self fabricates a coherent identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginning—numberless beginnings whose faint traces and hints of color are readily seen by an historical eye. The analysis of descent permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis, in liberating a profusion of lost events.24 25

An examination of descent also permits the discovery, under the unique aspect of a trait or a concept, of the myriad events through which—thanks to which, against which—they were formed. Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exists in the present, that it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form to all its vicissitudes. Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents. This is undoubtedly why every origin of morality from the moment it stops being pious—and Herkunft can never be—has value as a critique.26

Deriving from such a source is a dangerous legacy. In numerous instances, Nietzsche associates the terms Herkunft and Erbschaft. Nevertheless, we should not be deceived into thinking that this heritage is an acquisition, a possession that grows and solidifies; rather, it is an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers that threaten the fragile inheritor from within or from underneath: “injustice or instability in the minds of certain men, their disorder and lack of decorum, are the final consequences of their ancestors’ numberless logical inaccuracies, hasty conclusions, and superficiality.”27 The search for descent is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself. What convictions and, far more decisively, what knowledge can resist it? If a genealogical analysis of a scholar were made—of one who collects facts and carefully accounts for them—his Herkunft would quickly divulge the official papers of the scribe and the pleadings of the lawyer— their father28—in their apparently disinterested attention, in the “pure” devotion to objectivity.

Finally, descent attaches itself to the body.29 It inscribes itself in the nervous system, in temperament, in the digestive apparatus; it appears in faulty respiration, in improper diets, in the debili­tated and prostrate body of those whose ancestors committed errors. Fathers have only to mistake effects for causes, believe in the reality of an “afterlife,” or maintain the value of eternal truths, and the bodies of their children will suffer. Cowardice and hypocrisy, for their part, are the simple offshoots of error: not in a Socratic sense, not that evil is the result of a mistake, not because of a turning away from an original truth, but because the body maintains, in life as in death, through its strength or weakness, the sanction of every truth and error, as it sustains, in an inverse manner, the origin—descent. Why did men invent the contemplative life? Why give a supreme value to this form of existence? Why maintain the absolute truth of those fictions which sustain it? “During barbarous ages … if the strength of an individual declined, if he felt himself tired or sick, melancholy or satiated and, as a consequence, without desire or appetite for a short time, he became relatively a better man, that is, less dangerous. His pessimistic ideas could only take form as words or reflections. In this frame of mind, he either became a thinker and prophet or used his imagination to feed his superstitions.”30 The body—and everything that touches it: diet, climate, and soil—is the domain of the Herkunft. The body manifests the stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings, and errors. These elements may join in a body where they achieve a sudden expression, but as often, their encounter is an engage­ment in which they efface each other, where the body becomes the pretext of their insurmountable conflict.

The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by lan­guage and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.

  1. Entstehung designates emergence, the moment of arising. It stands as the principle and the singular law of an apparition. As it is wrong to search for descent in an uninterrupted continuity, we should avoid thinking of emergence as the final term of an historical development; the eye was not always intended for contemplation, and punishment has had other purposes than setting an example. These developments may appear as a cul­mination, but they are merely the current episodes in a series of subjugations: the eye initially responded to the requirements of hunting and warfare; and punishment has been subjected, throughout its history, to a variety of needs—revenge, excluding an aggressor, compensating a victim, creating fear. In placing present needs at the origin, the metaphysician would convince us of an obscure purpose that seeks its realization at the moment it arises. Genealogy, however, seeks to reestablish the various systems of subjection: not the anticipatory power of meaning, but the hazardous play of dominations.

Emergence is always produced through a particular stage of forces. The analysis of the Entstehung must delineate this inter­action, the struggle these forces wage against each other or against adverse circumstances, and the attempt to avoid degener­ation and regain strength by dividing these forces against them­selves. It is in this sense that the emergence of a species (animal or human) and its solidification are secured “in an extended battle against conditions which are essentially and constantly unfavorable.” In fact, “the species must realize itself as a species, as something—characterized by the durability, uniformity, and simplicity of its form—which can prevail in the perpetual strug­gle against outsiders or the uprising of those it oppresses from within.” On the other hand, individual differences emerge at another stage of the relationship of forces, when the species has become victorious and when it is no longer threatened from outside. In this condition, we find a struggle “of egoisms turned against each other, each bursting forth in a splintering of forces and a general striving for the sun and for the light.”31 There are also times when force contends against itself, and not only in the intoxication of an abundance, which allows it to divide itself, but at the moment when it weakens. Force reacts against its growing lassitude and gains strength; it imposes limits, inflicts torments and mortifications; it masks these actions as a higher morality, and, in exchange, regains its strength. In this manner, the ascetic ideal was born, “in the instinct of a decadent life which . . . struggles for its own existence.”32 This also describes the movement in which the Reformation arose, precisely where the church was least corrupt;33 German Catholicism, in the six­teenth century, retained enough strength to turn against itself, to mortify its own body and history, and to spiritualize itself into a pure religion of conscience.

Emergence is thus the entry of forces; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to center stage, each in its youthful strength. What Nietzsche calls the Entstehungsherd34 of the concept of goodness is not specifically the energy of the strong or the reaction of the weak, but precisely this scene where they are displayed superimposed or face-to-face. It is nothing but the space that divides them, the void through which they exchange their threatening gestures and speeches. As descent qualifies the strength or weakness of an instinct and its inscription on a body, emergence designates a place of confrontation but not as a closed field offering the spectacle of a struggle among equals. Rather, as Nietzsche demonstrates in his analysis of good and evil, it is a “non-place,” a pure distance, which indicates that the adversaries do not belong to a common space. Consequently, no one is responsible for an emergence; no one can glory in it, since it always occurs in the interstice.

In a sense, only a single drama is ever staged in this “non- place,” the endlessly repeated play of dominations. The domination of certain men over others leads to the differentiation of values;35 class domination generates the idea of liberty;36 and the forceful appropriation of things necessary to survival and the imposition of a duration not intrinsic to them account for the origin of logic.37 This relationship of domination is no more a “relationship” than the place where it occurs is a place; and, precisely for this reason, it is fixed, throughout its history, in rituals, in meticulous procedures that impose rights and obligations . It establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies. It makes itself accountable for debts and gives rise to the universe of rules, which is by no means designed to temper violence, but rather to satisfy it. Following traditional beliefs, it would be false to think that total war exhausts itself in its own contradictions and ends by re­nouncing violence and submitting to civil laws. On the contrary, the law is a calculated and relentless pleasure, delight in the promised blood, which permits the perpetual instigation of new dominations and the staging of meticulously repeated scenes of violence. The desire for peace, the serenity of compromise, and the tacit acceptance of the law, far from representing a major moral conversion or a utilitarian calculation that gave rise to the law, are but its result and, in point of fact, its perversion: “guilt, conscience, and duty had their threshold of emergence in the right to secure obligations; and their inception, like that of any major event on earth, was saturated in blood.”38 Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare ; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.

The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power. Rules are empty in themselves, violent and un-finalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.

The isolation of different points of emergence does not conform to the successive configurations of an identical meaning; rather, they result from substitutions, displacements, disguised conquests, and systematic reversals. If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity. But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and to subject it to secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpreta­tions. The role of genealogy is to record its history: the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts, the history of the concept of liberty or of the ascetic fife; as they stand for the emergence of different interpretations, they must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process.

  1. How can we define the relationship between genealogy, seen as the examination of Herkunft and Entstehung, and history in the traditional sense? We could, of course, examine Nietzsche’s celebrated apostrophes against history, but we will put these aside for the moment and consider those instances when he conceives of genealogy as “wirkliche Histone,” or its more frequent characterization as historical “spirit” or “sense.”39 In fact, Nietzsche’s criticism, beginning with the second of the Un­timely Meditations, always questioned the form of history that reintroduces (and always assumes) a suprahistorical perspective: a history whose function is to compose the finally reduced diver­sity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself; a history that always encourages subjective recognitions and attributes a form of reconciliation to all the displacements of the past; a history whose perspective on all that precedes it implies the end of time, a completed development. The historian’s history finds its support outside of time and pretends to base its judgments on an apocalyptic objectivity. This is only possible, however, be­cause of its belief in eternal truth, the immortality of the soul, and the nature of consciousness as always identical to itself. Once the historical sense is mastered by a suprahistorical per­spective, metaphysics can bend it to its own purpose and, by aligning it to the demands of objective science, it can impose its own “Egyptianism.” On the other hand, the historical sense can evade metaphysics and become a privileged instrument of genealogy if it refuses the certainty of absolutes. Given this, it corresponds to the acuity of a glance that distinguishes, separates, and disperses, that is capable of liberating divergence and mar­ginal elements—the kind of dissociating view that is capable of decomposing itself, capable of shattering the unity of man’s being through which it was thought that he could extend his sovereignty to the events of his past.

Historical meaning becomes a dimension of “wirkliche His­torie” to the extent that it places within a process of development everything considered immortal in man. We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the noblest and most disinterested, has a history. We believe in the dull constancy of instinctual life and imagine that it continues to exert its force indiscriminately in the present as it did in the past. But a knowl­edge of history easily disintegrates this unity, depicts its wavering course, locates its moments of strength and weakness, and defines its oscillating reign. It easily seizes the slow elaboration of instincts and those movements where, in turning upon them­selves, they relentlessly set about their self-destruction.40 We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is false. The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances.41 “Effective” history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men. The traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and for retracing the past as a patient and continuous development must be systematically dismantled. Necessarily, we must dismiss those tendencies that encourage the consoling play of recognitions. Knowledge, even under the banner of history, does not depend on “rediscovery,” and it emphatically excludes the “rediscovery of ourselves.”42 History becomes “effective” to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being— as it divides our emotions, dramatizes our instincts, multiplies our body and sets it against itself. “Effective” history deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millennial ending. It will uproot its traditional foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity. This is because knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.43 From these observations, we can grasp the particular traits of historical meaning as Nietzsche understood it—the sense which opposes “wirkliche Historie” to traditional history. The former transposes the relationship ordinarily established between the eruption of an event and necessary continuity. An entire his­torical tradition (theological or rationalistic) aims at dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity—as a teleological movement or a natural process. “Effective” history, however, deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations. An event, consequently, is not a decision, a treaty, a reign, or a’ battle, but the reversal of a rela­tionship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked “other.” The forces operating in history are not con­trolled by destiny or regulative mechanisms but respond to haphazard conflicts.44 They do not manifest the successive forms of a primordial intention and their attraction is not that of a conclusion, for they always appear through the singular random­ness of events. The inverse of the Christian world, spun entirely by a divine spider, and different from the world of the Greeks, divided between the realm of will and the great cosmic folly, the world of effective history knows only one kingdom, without providence or final cause, where there is only “the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”45 Chance is not simply the drawing of lots, but raising the stakes in every attempt to master chance through the will to power, and giving rise to the risk of an even greater chance.46 The world we know is not this ultimately simple configuration where events are reduced to accentuate their essential traits, their final meaning, or their initial and final value. On the contrary, it is a profusion of entangled events. If it appears as a “marvelous motley, profound and totally meaningful,” this is because it began and continues its secret existence through a “host of errors and phantasms.”47 We want historians to confirm our belief that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessities. But the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference.

Effective history can also invert the relationship that traditional history, in its dependence on metaphysics, establishes between proximity and distance. The latter is given to a contemplation of distances and heights: the noblest periods, the highest forms, the most abstract ideas, the purest individualities. It accomplishes this by getting as near as possible, placing itself at the foot of its mountain peaks, at the risk of adopting the famous perspective of frogs. Effective history, on the other hand, shortens its vision to those things nearest to it—the body, the nervous system, nutrition, digestion, and energies; it unearths the periods of decadence and if it chances upon lofty epochs, it is with the suspicion—not vindictive but joyous—of finding a barbarous and shameful confusion. It has no fear of looking down, so long as it is understood that it looks from above and descends to seize the various perspectives, to disclose dispersions and differences, to leave things undisturbed in their own dimension and intensity.48 It reverses the surreptitious practice of historians, their pretension to examine things furthest from themselves, the groveling manner in which they approach this promising distance (like the metaphysicians who proclaim the existence of an afterlife, situated at a distance from this world, as a promise of their reward). Effective history studies what is closest, but in an abrupt dispossession, so as to seize it at a distance (an approach similar to that of a doctor who looks closely, who plunges to make a diag­nosis and to state its difference). Historical sense has more in common with medicine than philosophy; and it should not surprise us that Nietzsche occasionally employs the phrase “historically and physiologically,”49 since among the philosophers’ idiosyncrasies is a complete denial of the body. This includes, as well, “the absence of historical sense, a hatred for the idea of development, Egyptianism,” the obstinate “placing of conclusions at the beginning,” of “making last things first.”50 History has a more important task than to be a handmaiden to philosophy, to recount the necessary birth of truth and values; it should be­come ä differential knowledge of energies and failings, heights and degenerations, poisons and antidotes? Its task is to become a curative science.51

The final trait of effective history is its affirmation of knowl­edge as perspective. Historians take unusual pains to erase the elements in their work which reveal their grounding in a particu­lar time and place, their preferences in a controversy—the unavoidable obstacles of their passion. Nietzsche’s version of his­torical sense is explicit in its perspective and acknowledges its system of injustice. Its perception is slanted, being a deliberate appraisal, affirmation, or negation; it reaches the lingering and poisonous traces in order to prescribe the best antidote. It is not given to a discreet effacement before the objects it observes and does not submit itself to their processes; nor does it seek laws, since it gives equal weight to its own sight and to its objects. Through this historical sense, knowledge is allowed to create its own genealogy in the act of cognition; and “wirkliche Historic” composes a genealogy of history as the vertical projection of its position.

  1. In this context, Nietzsche links historical sense to the historian’s history. They share a beginning that is similarly impure and confused, share the same sign in which the symptoms of sickness can be recognized as well as the seed of an exquisite flower.62 They arose simultaneously to follow their separate ways, but our task is to trace their common genealogy.

The descent (Herkunft) of the historian is unequivocal: he is of humble birth. A characteristic of history is to be without choice: it encourages thorough understanding and excludes qualitative judgments—a sensitivity to all things without distinction, a comprehensive view excluding differences. Nothing must escape it and, more importantly, nothing must be excluded. His­torians argue that this proves their tact and discretion. After all, what right have they to impose their tastes and preferences when they seek to determine what actually occurred in the past? Their mistake is to exhibit a total lack of taste, the kind of crudeness that becomes smug in the presence of the loftiest elements and finds satisfaction in reducing them to size. The historian is insensi­tive to the most disgusting things; or rather, he especially enjoys those things that should be repugnant to him. His apparent serenity follows from his concerted avoidance of the exceptional and his reduction of all things to the lowest common denominator. 52

Nothing is allowed to stand above him; and underlying his de­sire for total knowledge is his search for the secrets that belittle everything: “base curiosity.” What is the source of history? It comes from the plebs. To whom is it addressed? To the plebs. And its discourse strongly resembles the demagogue’s refrain: “No one is greater than you and anyone who presumes to get the better of you—you who are good—is evil.” The historian, who functions as his double, can be heard to echo: “No past is greater than your present, and, through my meticulous erudition, I will rid you of your infatuations and transform the grandeur of history into pettiness, evil, and misfortune.” The historian’s ancestry goes back to Socrates.

This demagogy, of course, must be masked. It must hide its singular malice under the cloak of universals. As the demagogue is obliged to invoke truth, laws of essences, and eternal necessity, the historian must invoke objectivity, the accuracy of facts, and the permanence of the past. The demagogue denies the body to secure the sovereignty of a timeless idea and the his­torian effaces his proper individuality so that others may enter the stage and reclaim their own speech.53 He is divided against himself: forced to silence his preferences and overcome his distaste, to blur his own perspective and replace it with the fiction of a universal geometry, to mimic death in order to enter the kingdom of the dead, to adopt a faceless anonymity. In this world where he has conquered his individual will, he becomes a guide to the inevitable law of a superior will. Having curbed the de­mands of his individual will in his knowledge, he will disclose the form of an eternal will in his object of study. The objectivity of historians inverts the relationships of will and knowledge and it is, in the same stroke, a necessary belief in Providence, in final causes and teleology—the beliefs that place the historian in the family of ascetics. “I can’t stand these lustful eunuchs of history, all the seductions of an ascetic ideal; I can’t stand these whited sepulchres producing life or those tired and indifferent beings who dress up in the part of wisdom and adopt an objective point of view.”54

The Entstehung of history is found in nineteenth-century Europe: the land of interminglings and bastardy, the period of the “man-of-mixture.” We have become barbarians with respect to those rare moments of high civilization: cities in ruin and enigmatic monuments are spread out before us; we stop before gaping walls; we ask what gods inhabited these empty temples. Great epochs lacked this curiosity, lacked our excessive deference; they ignored their predecessors: the classical period ignored Shakespeare. The decadence of Europe presents an immense spectacle (while stronger periods refrained from such exhibi­tions), and the nature of this scene is to represent a theater; lacking monuments of our own making, which properly belong to us, we live among crowded scenes. But there is more. Europeans no longer know themselves; they ignore their mixed ancestries and seek a proper role. They lack individuality. We can begin to understand the spontaneous historical bent of the nineteenth century: the anemia of its forces and those mixtures that effaced all its individual traits produced the same results as the mortifica­tions of asceticism; its inability to create, its absence of artistic works, and its need to rely on past achievements forced it to adopt the base curiosity of plebs.

If this fully represents the genealogy of history, how could it become, in its own right, a genealogical analysis? Why did it not continue as a form of demagogic or religious knowledge? How could it change roles on the same stage? Only by being seized, dominated, and turned against its birth. And it is this movement which properly describes the specific nature of the Entstehung: it is not the unavoidable conclusion of a long preparation, but a scene where forces are risked in the chance of confrontations, where they emerge triumphant, where they can also be con­fiscated. The locus of emergence for metaphysics was surely Athenian demagogy, the vulgar spite of Socrates and his belief in immortality, and Plato could have seized this Socratic phi­losophy to turn it against itself. Undoubtedly, he was often tempted to do so, but his defeat lies in its consecration. The problem was similar in the nineteenth century: to avoid doing for the popular asceticism of historians what Plato did for Socrates. This historical trait should not be founded upon a philosophy of history, but dismantled beginning with the things it produced; it is necessary to master history so as to turn it to genealogical uses, that is, strictly anti-Platonic purposes. Only then will the historical sense free itself from the demands of a suprahistorical history.

  1. The historical sense gives rise to three uses that oppose and correspond to the three Platonic modalities of history. The first is parodic, directed against reality, and opposes the theme of history as reminiscence or recognition the second is dissocia­tive, directed against identity, and opposes history given as continuity or representative of a tradition; the third is sacrificial, directed against truth, and opposes history as knowledge. They imply a use of history that severs its connection to memory, its metaphysical and anthropological model, and constructs a counter-memory—a transformation of history into a totally different form of time.

First, the parodic and farcical use. The historian offers this confused and anonymous European, who no longer knows him­self or what name he should adopt, the possibility of alternate identities, more individualized and substantial than his own. But the man with historical sense will see that this substitution is simply a disguise. Historians supplied the Revolution with Roman prototypes, romanticism with knight’s armor, and the Wagnerian era was given the sword of a German hero—ephem­eral props that point to our own unreality. No one kept them from venerating these religions, from going to Bayreuth to commemorate a new afterlife; they were free, as well, to be trans­formed into street-vendors of empty identities. The new historian, the genealogist, will know what to make of this mas­querade. He will not be too serious to enjoy it; on the contrary, he will push the masquerade to its limit and prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing. No longer the identification of our faint individuality with the solid identities of the past, but our “unrealization” through the exces­sive choice of identities—Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Caesar, Jesus, Dionysus, and possibly Zarathustra. Taking up these masks, revitalizing the buffoonery of history, we adopt an identity whose unreality surpasses that of God who started the charade. “Per­haps, we can discover a realm where originality is again pos­sible as parodists of history and buffoons of God.”55 In this, we recognize the parodic double of what the second of the Un­timely Meditations called “monumental history”: a history given to reestablishing the high points of historical development and their maintenance in a perpetual presence, given to the recovery of works, actions, and creations through the monogram of their personal essence. But in 1874, Nietzsche accused this history, one totally devoted to veneration, of barring access to the actual intensities and creations of life. The parody of his last texts serves to emphasize that “monumental history” is itself a parody. Genealogy is history in the form of a concerted carnival.

The second use of history is the systematic dissociation of identity. This is necessary because this rather weak identity, which we attempt to support and to unify under a mask, is in itself only a parody: it is plural; countless spirits dispute its possession; numerous systems intersect and compete. The study of history makes one “happy, unlike the metaphysicians, to pos­sess in oneself not an immortal soul but many mortal ones.”56 And in each of these souls, history will not discover a forgotten identity, eager to be reborn, but a complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis: “it is a sign of superior culture to maintain, in a fully conscious way, certain phases of its evolution which lesser men pass through without thought. The initial result is that we can understand those who resemble us as completely determined systems and as representative of diverse cultures, that is to say, as necessary and capable of modification. And in return, we are able to separate the phases of our own evolution and consider them in­dividually.”57 The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence, the homeland to which metaphysicians promise a re­turn; it seeks to make visible all of those discontinuities that cross us. “Antiquarian history,” according to the Untimely Medi­tations, pursues opposite goals. It seeks the continuities of soil, language, and urban life in which our present is rooted and, “by cultivating in a delicate manner that which existed for all time, it tries to conserve for posterity the conditions under which we were born.”58 This type of history was objected to in the Medita­tions because it tended to block creativity in support of the laws of fidelity. Somewhat later—and already in Human, All Too Human—Nietzsche reconsiders the task of the antiquarian, but with an altogether different emphasis. If genealogy in its own right gives rise to questions concerning our native land, native language, or the laws that govern us, its intention is to reveal the heterogenous systems which, masked by the self, inhibit the formation of any form of identity.

The third use of history is the sacrifice of the subject of knowl­edge. In appearance, or rather, according to the mask it bears, historical consciousness is neutral, devoid of passions, and com­mitted solely to truth. But if it examines itself and if, more generally, it interrogates the various forms of scientific conscious­ness in its history, it finds that all these forms and transformations are aspects of the will to knowledge: instinct, passion, the in­quisitor’s devotion, cruel subtlety, and malice. It discovers the violence of a position that sides against those who are happy in their ignorance, against the effective illusions by which hu­manity protects itself, a position that encourages the dangers of research and delights in disturbing discoveries?59 The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge60 reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice (that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth) and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious ( something murder­ous, opposed to the happiness of mankind). Even in the greatly expanded form it assumes today, the will to knowledge does not achieve a universal truth; man is not given an exact and serene mastery of nature. On the contrary, it ceaselessly multiplies the risks, creates dangers in every area; it breaks down illusory de­fences; it dissolves the unity of the subject; it releases those elements of itself that are devoted to its subversion and destruc­tion. Knowledge does not slowly detach itself from its empirical roots, the initial needs from which it arose, to become pure specu­lation subject only to the demands of reason; its development is not tied to the constitution and affirmation of a free subject; rather, it creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence. Where religions once demanded the sacrifice of bodies, knowledge now calls for experimentation on ourselves,61 calls us to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge. “The desire for knowledge has been transformed among us into a passion which fears no sacrifice, which fears nothing but its own extinction. It may be that mankind will eventually perish from this passion for knowledge. If not through passion, then through weakness. We must be prepared to state our choice: do we wish humanity to end in fire and light or to end on the sands?”62 We should now replace the two great problems of Nineteenth-Century philosophy, passed on by Fichte and Hegel ( the reciprocal basis of truth and liberty and the possibility of absolute knowledge), with the theme that “to perish through absolute knowledge may well form a part of the basis of being.”63 This does not mean, in terms of a critical procedure, that the will to truth is limited by the in­trinsic finitude of cognition, but that it loses all sense of limita­tions and all claim to truth in its unavoidable sacrifice of the subject of knowledge. “It may be that there remains one prodigi­ous idea which might be made to prevail over every other aspiration, which might overcome the most victorious: the idea of humanity sacrificing itself. It seems indisputable that if this new constellation appeared on the horizon, only the desire for truth, with its enormous prerogatives, could direct and sustain such a sacrifice. For to knowledge, no sacrifice is too great. Of course, this problem has never been posed.”64

The Untimely Meditations discussed the critical use of history: its just treatment of the past, its decisive cutting of the roots, its rejection of traditional attitudes of reverence, its liberation of man by presenting him with other origins than those in which he prefers to see himself. Nietzsche, however, reproached critical history for detaching us from every real source and for sacrificing the very movement of life to the exclusive concern for truth. Somewhat later, as we have seen, Nietzsche reconsiders this line of thought he had at first refused, but directs it to altogether different ends. It is no longer a question of judging the past in the name of a truth that only we can possess in the present; but risking the destruction of the subject who seeks knowledge in the endless deployment of the will to knowledge.

In a sense, genealogy returns to the three modalities of history that Nietzsche recognized in 1874. It returns to them despite the objections that Nietzsche raised in the name of the affirmative and creative powers of life. But they are metamorphosized; the veneration of monuments becomes parody; the respect for ancient continuities becomes systematic dissociation; the critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge.


  1. See Nietzsche’s Preface to The Genealogy of Morals, 4, 7— ED.
  2. The Gay Science, 7.
  3. Human, All Too Human, 3.
  4. The Genealogy, II, 6, 8.
  5. The Gay Science, 110, 111, 300.
  6. The Dawn, 102 (“Shameful origin”—Ed. ).
  7. The Gay Science, 151, 353; and also The Dawn, 62; The Genealogy, I, 14; Twilight of the Idols, “The Great Errors,” 7. (Schwarzkünstler is a black magician—Ed. )
  8. Paul Ree’s text was entitled Ursprung der Moralischen Empfindungen.
  9. In Human, All Too Human, aphorism 92 was entitled Ursprung der Gerechtigkeit.
  10. In the main body of The Genealogy, Ursprung and Herkunft are used interchangeably in numerous instances (I, 2; II, 8, 11, 12, 16, 17).
  11. The Dawn, 123.
  12. Human, All Too Human, 34.
  13. The Wanderer and His Shadow, 9.
  14. A wide range of key terms, found in The Archaeology of Knowledge, are related to this theme of “disparity”: the concepts of series, discontinuity, division, and difference. If the same is found in the realm and movement of dialectics, the disparate presents itself as an “event” in the world of chance. For a more detailed discussion, see below, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” pp. 180, 193-196—Ed.
  15. The Wanderer and His Shadow, 3.
  16. The Dawn, 49.
  17. Nietzsche contra Wagner, p. 99.
  18. The Gay Science, 265 and 110.
  19. See “Theatrum Philosophicum” below, pp. 167-168, for a discussion of the development of truth; and also “History of Systems of Thought: Summary of a course at the collège de France—1970- 1971,” pp. 202-204—Ed.
  20. Twilight of the Idols, “How the world of truth becomes a fable.”
  21. For example, The Gay Science, 135; Beyond Good and Evil, 200, 242, 244; The Genealogy, I, 5.
  22. The Gay Science, 348-349; Beyond Good and Evil, 260.
  23. Beyond Good and Evil, 244.
  24. See below, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” pp. 172-176—Ed.
  25. The Genealogy, III, 17. The abkunft of feelings of depression.
  26. Twilight, “Reasons for philosophy.”
  27. The Dawn, 247.
  28. The Gay Science, 348-349.
  29. Ibid., 200.
  30. The Dawn, 42.
  31. Beyond Good and Evil, 262.
  32. The Genealogy, III, 13.
  33. The Gay Science, 148. It is also to an anemia of the will that one must attribute the Entstehung of Buddhism and Christianity, 347.
  34. The Genealogy, I, 2.
  35. Beyond Good and Evil, 260; cf. also The Genealogy, II, 12.
  36. The Wanderer, 9.
  37. The Gay Science, 111.
  38. The Genealogy, II, 6.
  39. The Genealogy, Preface, 7; and I, 2. Beyond Good and Evil, 224.
  40. The Gay Science, 7.
  41. Ibid.
  42. See “What Is an Author?” above, p. 134, on rediscoveries— Ed.
  43. This statement is echoed in Foucault’s discussion of “differ­entiations” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 130-131, 206; or the use of the word “division” above in “A Preface to Transgression,” p. 36—Ed.
  44. The Genealogy, II, 12.
  45. The Dawn, 130.
  46. The Genealogy, II, 12.
  47. Human, All Too Human, 16.
  48. See “Theatrum Philosophicum” below, p. 183, for an analysis of Deleuze’s thought as intensity of difference—Ed.
  49. Twilight, 44.
  50. Twilight, “Reason within philosophy,” 1 and 4.
  51. The Wanderer, 188. (This conception underlies the task of Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic even though it is not found as a conscious formulation until The Archaeology of Knowl­edge; for a discussion of archaeology as “diagnosis,” see especially p. 131—Ed.)
  52. The Gay Science, 337.
  53. See below, “Intellectuals and Power,” p. 211—Ed.
  54. The Genealogy, III, 26.
  55. Beyond Good and Evil, 223.
  56. The Wanderer (opinions and Mixed Statements), 17.
  57. Human, All Too Human, 274.
  58. Untimely Meditations, II, 3.
  59. cf. The Dawn, 429 and 432; The Gay Science, 333; Beyond Good and Evil, 229-230.
  60. “Vouloir-savoir”: the phrase in French means both the will to knowledge and knowledge as revenge—Ed.
  61. The Dawn, 501.
  62. Ibid., 429.
  63. Beyond Good and Evil, 39.
  64. The Dawn, 45.

 

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