One of the things I always spend less time than I should talking about in class is the different interpretations of Nietzsche’s Genealogy. This is partly tactical, as it is more than possible to get a 7 without doing so but it is also because, I know the students often struggle with it.
Now that I’ve revealed myself to be an awful teacher who is afraid of a challenge (and that a proper covering of this area would take a whole term, perhaps more), I’m going to make an attempt to rectify my failure.I do so with the caveat that what follows is a gross over simplifcation, but at the same time is about the right depth for an IB Philosophy student.
The best place for a student to start on this would be to listen to Brian Leiter on Philosophy Bites. Leiter is, in a way, at the naturalistic ‘end of the scale’ of Nietzsche scholarship, belivineg that the best way to read the German’s work is by … At the other end of this scale there are what have been commonly referred to as ‘post-modernist thinkers’ and I plan to post on these later.
Though Richard White is certainly towards the latter ‘end of the scale’ it wouldn’t be fair to say he was right at the end of it. In Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) he offers a brief interpretation of the Genealogy.
White thinks that we read Nietzsche best if we understand slaves and masters as ‘modes of being’ not as historiacal actualities. He defends this view by refering to the opening sections of the work where Nietzsche is highly critical of the ‘origins’ accounts of the ‘english psychologists’ amongst others. Having read the introduction, White suggests, it would be strange for the reader to accept what appears to be another ‘origins’ account simply because the origins are not as palatable. He encourages the reader to keep an ‘ironic distance’ from such a straighforward interpretation. That ‘slave’ and ‘master’ refer to ‘basic modalities of human existence’ is further supported with a referenct to the intruiging claim in the Preface that we must attempt to calculate the value of the values we have.
It is well known and widely agreed that Nietzsche has a concern with ‘perspective’ and White’s interpretation is related to the previous points. White understands ‘slave’ and ‘master’ as two ways of looking at the world. If this is true it does make sense for us to read Nietzsche as trying to inspire a ‘recollection’ of ‘mastery’ in human psychology, as White does. This position also seems to alleviate or simplify the question that is asked by most students on finished the Genealogy: how, then, should I live my life?
Quite consistently White reads the forst essay as a ‘mythical prehistory’ and so Nietzsche’s philology becomes understood as evidence for a shift in psychological states. To this he adds that Beyond Good and Evil seems to suggest that parents pass a tendency for either to their offspring – a doctrine rather similiar to contemporary readings of the Fall. This leads us to the ‘mixed blood’ that Nietzsche finds so distressing and predicts is capable of the extinction of the human race.
This interpretation fits very well with Nietzsche’s parenthetical, and seemingly passing, comment that
a prehistory which, by the way, exists at all times or could possibly re-occur (II§9).
This of course leads us to the question of action or what the ‘master’ should mean to us, Nietzsche’s readers. White interprets ‘slavish’ psychology to refer to any arrangement where individualism is impeded. He uses Nietzsche’s own examples of belief in God and science, claiming that the common emphasis on objectivity (both believed and sought) leads to what a psychologist might refer to as an eternal locus of identity. White claims Nietzsche thinks this is the position that ends in nihilism as it entails only a willing not to will. On the other hand a true ‘master’ would be characterised by ‘pure willing’, soveriegnty and autonomy. Finally this requires the complete rejection of teleology and embracing ‘artistc self determination’. This account is supported with reference to the ‘new philsophers’ of BGE. To become masterly we must
put…an end to that grusome dominion of nonsense and accident that has so far been called “history”. (BGE 203)*
*White R, The Return of the Master in Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) 75.