Perception and Self-Knowledge in the Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Preface to Genealogy of Morals provides an outline of the philosopher’s view of morality and how our moral values have been accepted blindly over the course of history. The individual is important in the overall scope of this critique; for how can one deconstruct morality without first identifying the effects of those morals on oneself? In discussing self-reflection, the first two sections of the Preface give a glimpse of what might be interpreted as the separation of ideas from the individual. Although ideas may stem from a person’s will to knowledge, they seem to develop beyond the will of the individual after their genesis.

In the first section of the Preface, Nietzsche argues that men are removed from themselves. He begins by saying, “We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge – and with good reason. We have never sought for ourselves – how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?” (15) In just the first two sentences, we are met with several intriguing statements. He seems to be addressing us, the readers, though it is not without irony. For “we men of knowledge,” he uses the term wir Erkennenden, which comes from the German verb “to recognize” or “to perceive.” While the translator may have taken liberties in the word’s meaning, Nietzsche himself implies that perception is somehow important in forming a genealogy. That these “men of knowledge” are unknown to themselves is also curious, as it implies that, while they search for knowledge, they lack self-recognition.

He uses two motifs common to his previous works: the bodily senses and bell imagery. Here, he uses bell imagery to illustrate man’s absent-mindedness. We seldom have the presence of mind to fully “be” in our experiences. Although the world moves around us, constantly changing, we are not cognizant of occurrences outside ourselves. Like a man who has suddenly realized the bell has chimed twelve times, we “count the twelve trembling bell-strokes of our experience, our life, our being – and alas! miscount them” (15). Not only are we removed from our experiences, but our vantage point is flawed because we misjudge them. Again, he finishes the section with the same phrase he uses at the beginning: “we are not ‘men of knowledge’ with respect to ourselves” (15). If, in reading the original German, we are to believe that “men of knowledge” are actually men of perceiving, then we lack the necessary perspective for observing ourselves. Perceiving is not merely looking, but understanding; and understanding only arises when we perceive ourselves from all angles.

Section two walks the reader through the noetic progression leading up to the subject of Genealogy. While it is effective as a brief history of Nietzsche’s ideas, it also continues the question of whether ideas are directly connected to a person, or if ideas and the body are two separate entities. Section two points to the latter. Nietzsche, as if observing his own mind (both in the Cartesian sense and as a “man of knowledge”), traces a change among his ideas, a progression with each book he publishes. Revealingly, he says, “Our ideas, our values… grow out of us with the necessity with which a tree bears fruit” (16). Since our ideas necessarily originate from ourselves, does this mean we are not alienated from them? Nietzsche seems to believe that, being removed from ourselves in our search for knowledge, we are also removed from our ideas.

How does the relation of ideas and the individual tie into the larger theme of genealogy? As he alludes in the second section, ideas have a lineage of their own. Their root cause is man’s will to knowledge, which, as he implies in the beginning, is directed toward the wrong objects. If it is possible to direct one’s will to knowledge toward oneself, then one will be able to observe one’s morality. As it stands, the fault of philosophers and other “men of knowledge” is that they rarely examine themselves and their own prejudices, seeking knowledge only outside themselves.  By viewing morality from the “inside,” only then can one critique morals at large.

One thought on “Perception and Self-Knowledge in the Genealogy of Morals

  1. Jennifer,

    I like this piece overall. I am not sure I agree with some of your interpretation, but that is much less important than the fact that you are trying to think things through for yourself.

    If Nietzsche is implying any kind of progression, I think the analogy is with the seasons, i.e., the language about winter in Sorrento, etc. I don’t think Nietzsche would say that he is progressively working his ideas out through his books. It is true that he changes his mind about Wagner, Schopenhauer, and the like but I am not sure he would see this as progress. It is hard to say with him. It is almost as if he is merely taking a different tack on the same problems. “I used to come at this problem from Schopenhauer–now let me come at it against Schopenhauer.” Maybe? I don’t know. The issue of Nietzsche’s “growth” as a thinker is something I’ve struggled with. He does mention in the Preface his hope that time has done his ideas good and “that they have become riper, clearer, stronger and more perfect.” Is this progress? Developing what was already there in some sense? I don’t know.

    I think Nietzsche is also suggesting that we cannot examine ourselves in the way proposed by Socrates et al. For one thing, this is unhealthy, and we shouldn’t do it. But it may be in fact that we cannot do it. If what we believe importantly stems from the unconscious, for instance, it isn’t clear at all that we can understand ourselves as traditionally proposed. “Everyone is farthest from himself” and that type of thing. Kant, for different reasons, would say that this project is impossible. Schopenhauer thinks it is possible through art–so what does Nietzsche think? Is he with or against Schopenhauer on this? Infinite are the arguments of philosophers.

    Solid work overall.


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