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Genealogical Thinking in Nietzsche's Wake (19th-21st Centuries)

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A fresh look at Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality

With his Genealogical thought project, Emmanuel Salanskis questions the origins and meaning of an approach that has been inspiring philosophers for generations.

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In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche took philosophers across the world by surprise with a genealogical approach to moral issues. With his ‘genealogy of morality’, he did not only give a whole new meaning to a notion that used to be strictly confined to family ancestry and natural history. He seemingly redefined what it meant to be a philosopher and, in doing so, inspired many others after him who started working on a definition of his ‘genealogical method’. “In the wake of Gilles Deleuze’s influential book ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’ published in 1962, many French scholars started theorising ‘genealogy’ as a specifically Nietzschean method. Deleuze’s double thesis was that Nietzsche had created the new concept of genealogy, and that Nietzschean philosophers should become genealogists,” explains Emmanuel Salanskis, associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. Fascinated by Nietzsche’s metaphor since he was a student, Salanskis eventually noticed how Deleuze, Foucault and other commentators all seemed to have a different understanding of what the genealogical method really is. As Nietzsche himself never answered this question, he decided to take a new approach under the Genealogical thought (Genealogical Thinking in Nietzsche’s Wake (19th-21st Centuries)) project. “My goal in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions project was to study post-Nietzschean genealogies in a more methodical way,” he adds. “I wanted to show how the word ‘genealogy’ has been successively reappropriated in ways that have substantially modified its meaning, in accordance with Nietzsche’s general historiographical principle that ‘the form is fluid, the “meaning” even more so’. In other words, the genealogical tradition is more a series of creative deformations – the first of which has been performed by Deleuze – than a continuous transmission of an identical concept.”

Different interpretations

After a thorough investigation, Salanskis made two interesting breakthroughs. The first was that, as highlighted by Peter Kail in 2011, Nietzsche never claimed to be the first to offer a genealogy of morality. He rather opposed himself to earlier versions of genealogy. The second finding was that not a single commentary of Nietzsche’s genealogy was published before Deleuze’s in 1962. “It seems extremely likely that Deleuze invented Nietzsche’s so-called ‘concept of genealogy’ in accordance with his own definition of philosophy as ‘the discipline that involves creating concepts’,” Salanskis notes. “Indeed, Deleuze’s commentaries as a historian of philosophy are themselves intended to be philosophy in the Deleuzian sense. In ‘Letter to a Harsh Critic’, Deleuze went as far as to speak ironically of a monstrous begetting: ‘I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous’.” Besides shedding light on the true origins of the genealogical concept, the Genealogical thought project also provides a better understanding of what genealogy actually meant to Nietzsche. Rather than claim paternity, the philosopher did his best to conceal it and apply the new concept to earlier authors he wanted to criticise. Salanskis also highlights the crucial difference between the genealogical receptions of Deleuze and Foucault: “Whereas Deleuze’s reading tends to de-historicise ‘genealogy’ precisely because Deleuze interprets it as conceptually distinct from history, Foucault refuses to oppose his own Nietzschean genealogical practice to history: On the contrary, he affirms in a famous 1971 paper on ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ that a well-conceived genealogy is nothing more than an effective history (wirkliche Historie). One can thus wonder if Foucault is not in fact a true continuator of Nietzsche’s original genealogical project.”

Extending the genealogical tradition

By showing that the genealogical tradition has not ceased to reinvent itself in the great authors who contributed to it, Salanskis suggests that this tradition remains open and alive today. He even has his own plans to extend the work initiated by Nietzsche and Foucault on the genealogy of Christianity in Greco-Roman antiquity, as well as pursue the genealogy of ‘guilt’ from antiquity to our contemporary world. “There are many contemporary political issues that can be addressed from a genealogical perspective, regarding gender, race or religion. So, the long-term contribution of my project should be to show the multifaceted relevance of philosophical genealogy to interpret and transform our current social world,” he concludes.


Genealogical thought, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault, genealogy, philosophy

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