Genealogy Essay

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The appeal to “genealogy” as a general historical method is usually attributed to Michel Foucault, who contrasted it with both teleology and his own preferred archaeology,” which suspends the search for causation altogether in favor of treating socio-epistemic structures (or epistemes) as superimposed space-time strata, each of roughly coexistent events. (The palimpsest was thus Foucault’s model for historiography.) Foucault’s foil was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals resurrected worries of legitimate lineage that had dominated the reproduction of social life prior to the modern nation-state. Replacing traditional legal concerns that political succession might be based on fraudulent documents, Nietzsche argued that contemporary morality might rest on forgotten etymologies, whereby obligations” turn out to be strategies for making the strong feel guilty.

The contingency of origins is crucial for the genealogical method. Nietzsche wrote at a time -the final quarter of the nineteenth century – when the inexorability of human progress was a default position among intellectuals. Today the shock value of the genealogical method is not so strong, since under the influence of postmodernism, relatively few intellectuals take seriously Nietzsche’s teleological foil.

What led Nietzsche to think that a defunct method for establishing right to rule should provide the basis for a deep understanding of society? Here the appeal to biology is crucial. Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s staunchest German defender, famously declared, Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” by which he meant the biological development of the individual organism repeats the stages undergone in the evolution of all organisms. Nietzsche cleverly reworded Haeckel’s slogan for his own purposes: Ontology recapitulates philology.” Nietzsche, a prodigy in the study of classical languages, found Haeckel’s slogan appealing, especially when associated with a Darwinian sense of the arbitrary origin of life itself.


  1. Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Random House, New York.
  2. Richards, R. (1987). Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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