Nietzche’s Genealogy

| April 21, 2012

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (trans. Kaufmann and Hollingdale). New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

How have previous genealogists of morals set about solving these problems [of the origin and purpose of punishment]?  Naively, as has always been their way: they seek out some ‘purpose’ in punishment, for example, revenge or deterrance, then guilelessly place this purpose at the beginning as causa fiendi [the cause of the origin] of punishment, and -have done.  The ‘purpose of law’, however, is absolutely the last thing to employ in the history of the origin of law: on the contrary, there is for historiography of any kind no more important proposition than the one it took such effort to establish but which really ought to be established now: the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involve a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.  However well one has understood the utility of any physiological organ (or of a legal institution, a social custom, a political message, a form of art or in a religious cult), this means nothing regarding its origin.  However uncomfortable and disagreeable this may sound to older ears -for one had always believed that to understand the demonstrable purpose, the utility of a thing, a form, or an institution, was also to understand the reason why it originated -the eye being made for seeing, the hand being made for grasping.
Thus one also imagined that punishment was devised for punishing.  But purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function; and the entire history of a ‘thing’, an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.  The ‘evolution of a thing, a custom, an organ is thus by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and by the smallest expenditure of force -but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions.  The form is fluid, but the ‘meaning’ is even more so.