I have been rereading Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. The prose is moving, inasmuch as one is moved by prose (I am but very little), but the content seems to my eye poorly reasoned (relying heavily on rhetorical flourish and single examples instead of methodical dissection and consideration of possibilities) and highly anachronistic from a modern perspective (complete with what today seems like particularly odd racial/ethnic/cultural viewpoints and a generous helping of historical inaccuracies).

Given this, I simply don't know what to do with this as a body of work, aside from note its intriguing place in history and its influence on thinkers of the time. The Critique of Pure Reason, in contrast, sets out a clearly defined and carefully reasoned thesis and therefore has contributed a permanent and in some sense timeless approach to morality and knowledge and such (even though one may argue with the reasoning or assumptions in numerous places).

Thus the question is (quoted for emphasis):

Is there some consensus of what the lasting value* is of On the Genealogy of Morals? Where would one find a compelling argument in favor of this value? Or is it perhaps only comprehensible in the context of other of Nietzsche's works (which I have at best skimmed), which together contain a view of lasting value? Or is it best viewed not as part of the collected knowledge of the field of philosophy, but rather as an interesting but ultimately transient part of its history?

To expand a little further: my usual sources for these sorts of questions have not been as helpful as usual. Wikipedia summarizes the content, but has only a very sparse coverage of critiques and modern perspective. IEP covers Nietzsche in great depth, but barely mentions On the Genealogy of Morals. SEP has an article on Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy, but the discussion is so mixed between On the Genealogy of Morals and other works that I can scarcely recognize any of the Genealogy in it; this nonetheless makes me wonder whether when viewed as a whole the works of Nietzsche paint a clearer picture of which G.M. is an essential part. And in every case, the focus is more on what he said than was it true; a discussion or defense of the latter is what I am most sorely lacking because so often, even when attempting to take Nietzsche's use of terms like "aristocrat" into account, his claims seem so often blatantly wrong that I wonder why G.M. continues to be viewed with more than historical interest. Or maybe it is merely historical interest. Or maybe most everyone agrees that it was in large part blatantly wrong, but it was blatantly wrong in such interestingly different ways than intuitively obvious yet actually wrong views that came before (and keep arising) that it has value as sort of a buffer, a counter-narrative that undermines a tempting yet misleading view of human morality.

*To clarify what I mean about lasting value, since this is apparently not an intuitively obvious term: philosophy as a field attempts to study things the way they are or should be, both as the primary field for several types of inquiry (morality, comprehensibility of the world, etc) and as meta-analysis for others (philosophy of mathematics and science, for instance). Philosophy is not merely an expression of human creativity or artistry (we have art and literature and music and so on for that). Therefore, to study philosophy, one needs to be familiar with what philosophy studies, and what progress has been made in that study: what are the most natural questions to ask, and what compelling answers have been given? Are there counters to those answers, and so on? In this vein, for a philosophical work to have lasting value, it must either demonstrate something that is (at least approximately) true and relevant--either for the first time or as one of the best explanations yet, or it must raise a question or open up a new branch of philosophy (or close off an old one) and do so in one of the most compelling and clear ways that has been devised. It is not of lasting value, in the sense I mean, if it was merely part of a historical trend of moving in a new direction. For example, Giotto's painting Christ before Caiaphas was part of a trend towards improved perspective in paintings, but it is of no "lasting value" for accuracy in painting because the method used is wrong--wrong enough so that one shouldn't duplicate it--and because it is not terribly clear from looking at the painting what it was that he was doing.

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    just an aside here: Nietsche was interested in the presocratics. And one of them, Acusilaus of Argos wrote a book called Geanologies - of the origin of men & gods. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 10:52
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    The books are a diagnosis of certain tendencies in 'modern' forms of valuation and social exchange, and a study of their historical and or etymological conditions of emergence. Is it not satisfying to you to say their lasting value is in the use people have made of these insights? Can you be more specific about which part of the 3 theses do you find unclear?
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 11:21
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    @DrSister - Whether or not it is satisfying, if the only use is that other people made use of the insights as inspiration say something well-grounded and useful, then one would not recommend reading Nietzsche directly in most cases except as history of philosophy. It's not so much that I find Nietzsche unclear, at least in a plain reading. His ideas and arguments seem quite straightforward but sound quaint, to put it politely; I wonder whether buried under the non-analytic form and impassioned rhetoric there's a timeless core that I'm missing.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 12:23
  • @RexKerr just in passing, it may be easier to extract a kind of dynamic logic from the work than anything resembling a "rational system"; Nietzsche is after all concerned (even obsessed!) with unveiling, "making visible" rather than interpreting
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 18:49
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    The way you phrase the 'value' question, it seems likely you're after some consensus on the work in the theoretical community; but after all the views in the relevant communities may not really be coherent enough to identify a positive evaluation. I guess I am just wondering if I might be able to persuade you to clarify the meaning of the 'value' question a bit further, given that Nietzsche studies remain an active area of philosophical research, given his lasting and profound influence on modern literature and philosophy, etc.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 1:07

3 Answers 3


This is a great question, one that I've wanted to come back to for a while, but lacked sufficient time.

Framing the question in terms of lasting value, I think being overly focussed on the truth-value of TGoM's content may obscure what history has proved to be most valuable. In relation to your comments above I would say it must also be observed from the outset that Nietzsche had a deeply ambivalent orientation toward truth, and to judge oTGoM by standards of deductive or inductive veracity is loosely analogous to 'judging a fish by its ability to climb trees': his task is simply different.

The answer I would propose is that it instantiates and initiates a way of doing philosophy which, prior to oTGoM, did not exist. The genealogical method is one which has been taken up in various forms by a number of philosophers. Nietzsche never explicitly formulated its essential characteristics, and a number of Different definitions abound. Of all people, Judith Butler has a ripper: "genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin".

One fairly accessible entry point which I would recommend is Foucault's essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

One title which I would recommend is:

Jeffrey Minson (1985) Genealogies of Morals: Nietzsche, Foucault, Donzelot and the Eccentricities of ethics


Consensus is a hard thing to find about work that is supposed to be thought provoking. I guess I did just give my opinion about it to be honest. There is a highly respected novelist from Canada called Margaret Atwood and she wrote a piece of prose about debt recently that I consider to be in the Nietzschean vein but its relevance is due to the contemporary global economic downturn. Giles Deluze is a celebrated contemporary philosopher who wrote quite a famous text called Anti-oedipus in which he says that the GoM was intended by its author to be an attack on Kant's critique of pure reason. How accepted this has become among academics, I don't know.

Also a commentator (whose name I forget) said that Freud's last culminating book was called Civilisation and its discontents, but this entire book is a total plagiarism of GoM.

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    This is a pretty good answer in terms of content, and I would have +1'd but there are some fairly severe formatting/composition issues here -- is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to clean this up a little bit?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 23:32

Nietzsche is a highly self-styled warrior-poet. An heroic philosopher on a death-defying quest. The ancient latin poet Horace spoke of making his work "more enduring than brass" but this kind of ambition is surely realised for Nietzsche through his essays of the genealogy. To treat human history as a special kind of natural history (that is as without a narrative, narrator, providence, teleology) is entirely original. To remove the illusions imposed by scientists or theologians; namely order or organising principals of any type from our conceptions of the species development through time is bold and done in an effort to establish truth in this area and tantalising in its implications for further philosophical inquiry. What are 'punishment', 'justice', the origins of 'conscience' (with which all human beings over place and time seems to possess to varying degree and quality), the 'legal subject' (or maybe simply 'human subject'). The relationship between culture and the moral status of the people that comprise it has of course been touched upon by other philosophers but Nieztsche's brilliant analysis is both timeless and unforgetable. The bravery of the autonomous mind to reject easy explanations about the world or any morality to be found in it and not to assume the these dread questions can ever be settled for a human being is what I sense Nietzsche is trying to enjoy us to with this endlessly exciting book of his. I offer you now no more rhetoric but I as you a sensible question. Which will remain the longest philosophical accounts of ethics and morality that have been produced thitherto or Nietzsce's provocational questions?

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    How is this "the modern view"? I only see you providing your opinion here, and as a block of impenetrable text.
    – Ryder
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 21:45
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    I appreciate the attempt, so I won't vote it down, but this answer lacks (1) references that establish that this is a typical viewpoint, and (2) justification that it is either true or so fascinating in its falsity that we should study it as a work of philosophy (it may make great literature). In particular, if a work is boldly wrong, original yet confused, rejects easy and accurate explanations, etc., its primary value is as a manual of how not to do philosophy. Thus, while I gather from your use of superlatives that you like the work, it does not adequately answer the question.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 22:14

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