The Methodology of Genealogy: How to Trace the History of an Idea

by guest contributor Yung In Chae

We all know the story of Man the Hunter: thousands of years ago, cavemen went out and hunted food for cavewomen and cavechildren, who sat idly at home and depended on this masculine feat for survival. Physical strength was the most important attribute in primordial times, so it was only natural that men, whose physical strength surpasses and for the most part continues to surpass that of women, ruled the world. Even now, some people will refer to Man the Hunter in order to justify rigid gender roles: look, they say, evolutionary biology is on my side.

This, of course, is problematic: even if that had been the practice of cavepeople, we aren’t cavepeople. But Man the Hunter isn’t even true in the first place. In an article entitled “Shooting Down Man the Hunter” for Harper’s Magazine, Rebecca Solnit references a plethora of anthropological evidence that contradicts it. The nuclear family described in the story doesn’t so much resemble thousands of years ago as it does the gender norms of sixty years ago.

My point here is not about the Man the Hunter myth itself, but about something larger that it illustrates: the genetic fallacy. You commit a genetic fallacy when you appeal to the origins of an idea in order to make a claim about the truth of the idea. As Brian Leiter put it in a podcast I was listening to, “If you learn that your beliefs were arrived at the wrong kind of way, that ought to make you suspicious about them.” Similarly, Nietzsche, in writing The Genealogy of Morals, wanted to say that if morals come from a not-so-good place, the notion of having morals is not obviously good in itself. Genealogies, both true and false, can be and have been used to prop up and discredit, empower and oppress. Genealogy is a theoretical practice that has tangible consequences; it can be provocative and even dangerous.

How does one trace the history of an idea, anyway? We do it often, but it is unclear how to do it well and with methodological rigor. Nevertheless, in this post I wish to question what it means to go back to the “origins” of something, borrowing ideas from Nietzsche, Foucault, and Agamben.

In 1971, Foucault published an essay entitled “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” in which he discusses Nietzsche’s use of “origin” words: Ursprung, or “origin”; Herkunft, or “descent”; and Entstehung, or “emergence,” “the moment of arising.” For example, Nietzsche uses Ursprung or Entstehung for the origin of logic and knowledge in The Genealogy of Morals, and Ursprung, Entstehung, or Herkunft for the origin of logic and knowledge in The Gay Science. Some uses don’t seem to mean anything beyond “origin” in the general sense, and in those cases the terms are more or less interchangeable. But other uses of Ursprung, specifically, are what Foucault calls “stressed,” and at times have an ironic cast (e.g., for morality and religion).

At the beginning of The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says that his objective is to find the Herkunft of moral preconceptions. He started this project because he wanted to find the origin of evil, a question that he finds amusing in retrospect and calls a search for Ursprung. Later on, he refers to genealogical analyses as Herkunfthypothesen, despite the fact that in a number of his own texts that deal with the origins of morality, asceticism, and justice (starting with Human, All Too Human), he uses the term Ursprung.

Nietzsche, then, exhibits a good amount of skepticism about Ursprungen in The Genealogy of Morals, a rejection of his earlier views. According to Foucault, Nietzsche doubts that it is possible to find origins 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” (78). In other words, there is no singular point at which a pure and essential “morality” or “religion” popped up. To talk of origins is actually against the spirit of genealogy.

Foucault thinks that Herkunft and Enstehung are more appropriate terms, because they do not try to “capture the exact essence of things.” He describes Herkunft as such: “…the equivalent of stock or descent; it is the ancient affiliation to a group, sustained by the bonds of blood, tradition, or social status” (80-81). The problem with Herkunft is that it sometimes leads us to “pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of oblivion” (81), which he argues is the wrong way to trace the history of an idea. After all, many ideas have not come down to us in a coherent, unbroken chain—there are just as many discontinuities as there are continuities, if not more.

There is something especially attractive about Entstehung, because it neither assumes that an idea has an essence nor requires continuity. Instead, it allows for messy interplay in bringing something about. In fact, it is precisely this clash of forces that Foucault finds interesting:

Emergence is thus the entry of forces; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to center stage, each in its youthful strength. […] 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 (84).

I, too, think that Entstehung is appealing because it explains why writing the history of an idea is a fascinating but by no means neat process. If Entstehung means that an idea emerges without the pretense of being essential or linked to something that came before it, then I think this is a more honest reflection of how the history of ideas seems to work.

Perhaps when we do genealogy, we are looking for emergences, not origins, and when we claim to find origins we are from the beginning negating the very mission we propose to carry out. But I also find myself drawn to the argument Agamben makes in his discussion of Foucault’s essay on Nietzsche in The Signature of All Things. Agamben quotes the section in which Foucault says, “The genealogist needs history to dispel the chimeras of the origin.” He then points out that the French word that Foucault uses for “dispel” is conjurer (like the English word conjure). Conjurer, like “cleave” or “screen,” is one of those strange words that is also its own opposite—it means both “to conjure up” and “to dispel.”

Foucault probably meant to have the genealogist dispel, not conjure up, the chimeras of the origin, but the wordplay could not have been lost on him. “Or perhaps the two meanings are not opposites, for dispelling something—a specter, a demon, a danger—first requires conjuring it […] The operation involved in genealogy consists in conjuring up and eliminating the origin and the subject” (84), Agamben argues. Foucault more or less agreed, stating in a 1977 interview, “It is necessary to get rid of the subject itself by getting rid of the constituting subject, that is, to arrive at an analysis that would account for the constitution of the subject in the historical plot” (84).

When did things become different? What changed? It is the change itself that is important in tracing the history of an idea. But to speak of emergence is also to speak of a beginning, even if we do not lay claim to something as pure and essential as an origin. Agamben asks the question that Foucault does not answer:

But what comes to take [the origin and the subject’s] place? It is indeed always a matter of following the threads back to something like the moment when knowledge, discourses, and spheres of objects are constituted. Yet this “constitution” takes place, so to speak, in the non-place of the origin. When then are “descent” (Herkunft) and “the moment of arising” or “emergence” (Entstehung) located, if they are not and can never be in the position of the origin? (84)

So our investigation must go ad originem nevertheless, and expect to find something else. In professing to find origins, we deny they ever existed, and in order to deny they exist, we conjure up the origins.

Yung In Chae is a Master’s student in History and Civilizations at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, where she is writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s classical education. She graduated from Princeton University in 2015 with an A.B. in Classics. She is also a Research Fellow at the Paideia Institute and edits Eidolon, its online journal.

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