Genealogy - Nietzsche

RELATED TERMS: Critical thinking; Historicism; Ontological designing; Philosophy; Agonism and avant-gardism; Apparatus – Dispositif; Nihilism

Genealogy, as defined by Nietzsche, in as far as it is an approach to historicity, meaning-production and values, has great relevance for the design and analysis of narrative environments, as it permits a particular kind of understanding of what might be called non-linear narratives and it overcomes the limitations of historicism in understanding historical being and change.

Hoy (1991: 276) contrasts Nietzschean genealogy with Hegelian dialectic. In dialectic, history necessarily progresses towards and culminates in the standpoint of the historian narrating the story. With Nietzschean genealogy however, historical change is a matter of chance rather than necessity. Historical developments have both advantages and disadvantages. The category of universal progress is therefore no longer appropriate. The genealogist considers that the belief in progress serves the ideological purpose of confirming our complacence about the superiority of the present. Genealogical histories challenge other histories of the same events precisely to disrupt this complacency.

Nietzsche’s struggle with nihilism is at the centre of his thought (Gilbert, 1999) and it is a struggle which led him to develop his genealogical method. Nietzsche gave the name nihilism to his diagnosis of an unrecognised and very specific crisis within Western culture, a crisis which he saw as stemming from a triple loss: of human agency; of the foundations of truth; and of a ground of moral judgement. Nihilism created a culture cast adrift, existing with a strong but unexamined sense of loss. This was experienced as a loss of a world that rested upon fundamental meaning, whether vested in God, the absolute, truth or community. Living this loss created overt or repressed feelings of sickness, malaise and dislocation. He held two specific discourses to be responsible for this situation: Platonism and Christian morality, neither of which, he believed, provided an objective ground for moral judgement (Fry, 2012: 25-25).

It was the failure of Hegel’s attempt at a grand synthesis of Platonic and Christian thought that forced upon continental philosophy a radical rethinking and re-evaluation of both metaphysics and theology, what Heidegger has called the onto-theological tradition. Nietzsche’s re-evaluation of that tradition results in the thesis of philosophic nihilism, i.e. that philosophy itself, since Parmenides’ thesis of the identity of thought and Being, is complicitous in nurturing the modem sense of meaninglessness which Nietzsche calls European nihilism. In short, it is precisely the Platonic-Parmenidean persistent focus on ‘Being’ as a purified entity which Nietzsche sees as at the origins of nihilistic thinking (Gilbert, 1999).

For Nietzsche, philosophic nihilism denotes the awareness that our sense of the meaning and value of human life is grounded in a conception of either God or metaphysical truth, i.e. of a true world or one ultimate reality, which provided the context and the substratum for all meaning and value. Not only are all such substrata false or illusory, but they eventuate in a necessary denigration of this, the lived world of everyday experience by existing as standards by which this world is inevitably judged (Gilbert, 1999).

Nietzsche also saw that reason and logic are intimately tied to both metaphysics and Christianity. This sense of reason as the route to truth in philosophy, has led to constructions of ‘seIf’, that particularly in modernity beginning with Descartes, do not correspond to meaningful cultural and social practice. It is this disparity between meaningful experience-praxis and reason-philosophy, defined metaphysically and therefore abstractly, that Nietzsche viewed as leading to European nihilism.

Nietzsche responds to European nihilism with an exploration of the possibilities of history, foremost of which is the notion of eternal recurrence (Gilbert, 1999).

The dissolution of meaning resulted in the inability of individuals to mobilise their interpretive capability in ways that could appropriately inform or direct their actions. In a contradictory movement, conformity increased at the same time as the rhetoric of individualism proliferated. Nietzsche argued that what results from this loss of agency, the implied loss that nihilism named, was not just a sense of powerlessness but also a feeling of alienation from the individual’s creative capacity.

It was the work of Charles Darwin that sowed the seed of Nietzsche’s particular understanding of nihilism. In establishing that life was a process that depended on no agency other than itself, Darwin undercut the ground of the belief that life has a source of foundational meaning, i.e. a belief in the designing hand of God or a transcendent intelligence transcribed in nature (God’s creation). Nietzsche’s nihilism, however, has to be seen in the light of the rise of a secular society in which there arose an inflated sense of the foundational power of reason. For Nietzsche, then, there is no foundational source of meaning: not God, not nature and not reason.

Nietzsche proposed three ways of overcoming nihilism. The first is to show nihilism for what it is, i.e. the form of life that we have become. Second, he suggested that it was imperative for us to act to overthrow that which we have become, including how we view the world, ourselves and all that we understand. Third, he advocated the acquisition of historical experience, but historical experience not validated by metaphysics or religion. The first two actions, however, rely problematically on consciousness as the means to deliver the proposed changes.

History can be said to have a telos, i.e. temporal and directional drive; narrative, i.e. an ordering and interpretation of historical events; and power, i.e. that which mobilises and directs the narrative. The historicity of events does not become history until an act of narrativisation is undertaken. For Nietzsche, all history is perspectival; is not underpinned by reason; and is exclusive, arriving through processes of exclusion and inclusion. The perception of events is transformed by events in the present. We cannot escape our historicity as it constitutes our memory and experience. Against this background, Nietzsche makes a case for a genealogical method.

Genealogy is the sum of actions in situated local contexts with their own relations among logics, imperatives and practices. Genealogy seeks to attend to the connections among processes generated by socially connected actors and groups and the material events and actions that brought these social entities into existence. Genealogy arrives at the present by way of a particular mode of diagnostic history that explores critically the multiplicity of relational factors that intersect with and constitute events.

Genealogy does not accept history as received. It enacts a deep and symptomatic reading of power dispersed across plural situated practices which are not reducible to dialectical dynamics. Thus, genealogical accounts act to disrupt the notion of reason in history, while nonetheless affirming history as a source of meaning. Nietzsche, through his genealogical analysis, seeks to build an overall picture in the present that does not conceal gaps and omissions.

The genealogical method was brought into contemporary critical theory largely through Gilles Deleuze’s rigorous engagement with Nietzsche’s philosophy. It was then taken up by Michel Foucault, under the influence of Deleuze. Foucault’s later work adopted and extended the genealogical method.

The specificity of genealogical criticism as outlined by Nietzsche focused on, first, the logical, i.e. cultural formations and their ideas; the genetic, i.e. a way to name pathways, traces and relations; and the functional, i.e. the contextually specific agency of meaning. The past, as diffracted in the present, is constituted by memory and by history as a unified narrative. Very often, events, especially large, life-changing and world-transformative events, make little sense at the level of individual experience, existing as disjointed incidents amid chaos. In contrast, historical accounts arrive as a violent ordering or in contradiction to what was experienced.

Given this state of affairs, there is a need to refuse, rupture or condemn the grip of the past by subjecting its injustices and concealments to caustic criticism and judgement. Nietzsche recognised that history can cover over the past and that one has to find the force to disclose it. It is here that Nietzsche highlights the relevance of nihilism, because part of the loss of human agency which he diagnoses is evidenced by an inability to confront history critically. This inability extends the loss of agency.

We, as human beings, are the result of the confluence of our world, history and historical processes as they ontologically design the nature of our being, a relational determinate process without a single telos. To acquire agency is to be actively engaged in making history and in so doing creating that which ontologically designs the designing of a socio-materially fabricated world that in significant part designs what we are and can do. While such praxis is always against the grain of history, it comes equally from historically and culturally created resources and possibilities.

Given this characterisation, a loss of agency is a specific loss of capability to be an active, located and future-directive world-formative historical subject. This loss of agency has been compounded in the 20th and 21st centuries by the continuing instrumentalisation of reason and modern technology. The loss of agency announced in the term nihilism has been taken up in significant part in the inanimate world by technology, as mind and matter. Technology is becoming an ever-heightened means of the ontological designing of ‘being now’. Contestation centres on the designed and designing subject.

Against this, Fry argues, design, critically transformed and mobilised, can provide a re-directive mode of engagement with de-futuring technology, and as a means of regaining agency.

There may be lessons to be learned from such discourses on agency and historicity, in relation to actantiality and the formation of (societal) apparatuses, on the one hand, and in relation to design, particularly the design of narrative environments, on the other hand. The narrative environment designer, as genealogist, engages in a form of critical historiography by showing that the beliefs and values of the present, which are taken as eternal and true, are temporal, historical and subject to reinterpretation (Hoy, 1991: 278).


Fry, T. (2012). Becoming human by design. London, UK: Berg.

Gilbert, B. (1999). Nietzsche and nihilism [Doctoral thesis]. Department of Theory and Policy, Ontario hstitute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Available from [Accessed 6 February 2016].

Hoy, David Couzens, ‘A History of Consciousness: From Kant and Hegel to Derrida and Foucault’, History of the Human Sciences, 4 (1991), 261–81.