Both Nietzsche and Foucault have documented how the meanings of certain concepts transform as they progress through history. In Nietzsche’s case, this can be seen most vividly within his documentation of the changing concepts of morality presented in his work ‘On The Genealogy of Morals.’ This publication traces episodes within the development of moral valuations and, indeed, notes how changing concepts of good and bad have altered as history has progressed. Similarly, in ‘Madness and Civilisation,’ Foucault records how the meaning of concepts have changed over time, although he focuses on changing perceptions of unreason as a case study. Both Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s writings provide an in-depth documentation of shifting historical perceptions, and both suggest some intriguing philosophical lessons that can be learned.
Nietzsche’s first essay within ‘On The Genealogy of Morals,’ entitled ‘ Good and Evil, Good and Bad,’ outlines how the valuations of good, bad and evil came to be perceived as they now so are. He begins the essay by denouncing the ‘English psychologists,’ whose utilitarian value system coloured moral valuations of the time (Nietzsche, 158). Nietzsche criticizes these psychologists, claiming they ‘have been quite deserted by the true spirit of history (Nietzsche ,159).’ None-the-less, he acknowledges the potency of their views, recognising that their utilitarian ideals, among other things, lie ‘at the root of that value system which civilised man has hitherto regarded with pride as the prerogative of all men (Nietzsche, 159).’ Nietzsche, recognising the need to challenge what he sees as incorrect, widely held valuations of moral language, goes on to provide his own account of the development of moral valuations, different to the ‘flawed’ account provided by the psychologists (Nietzsche, 161).
The psychologists seek to describe moral genealogy by explaining altruism in terms of the utility of altruistic actions. The utility of altruistic actions, they contest, was gradually forgotten, so that ‘actions were felt to be good simply because it was the habit to commend them (Nietzsche, 159).’ This thesis is heavily criticized by Nietzsche, and he instead puts forward his own theory. According to Nietzsche, the judgement ‘good’ doesn’t originate with the beneficiaries of altruistic actions. Instead, it originates with the powerful, who themselves coin the term ‘good’ and attribute it to perpetuations of their own being (Nietzsche, 162). Let us elaborate further on this point.
The valuation of good, for Nietzsche, is derived from two distinct origins that are radically opposed in meaning. Initially, we had the noble valuations of ‘good,’ - the ’good’ to which I refer in the previous paragraph. These valuations were shaped by the noble class, who called ‘good’ the characteristics that they saw themselves as possessing. The valuations of ‘good’ created by the nobles acted as a reflection of nobility itself, so that the meaning of ‘good’ embraced nobility, and was indeed created by it (Nietzsche, 162). The meaning of good thus developed to represent everything the nobility represented, even going so far that ‘words and roots denominating good still, to this day, carry overtones of the meanings to which the nobility regarded themselves as possessing (Nietzsche, 163).’ This concept is also directly related to the valuations of bad, with the nobles valuing everything ‘common, plebeian and base (I.e. the opposite of nobility) into the notion bad (Nietzsche, 162).’ Etymologically, this is evidenced by Nietzsche from pages 162 through 165.
Clearly, the nobility had a huge role to play in developing valuations of good and bad. Nietzsche, however, also points out how another class, ’the priestly class,’ has changed the nobility’s valuations of good and bad. The priestly classes’ colouring of moral language has now, Nietzsche says, won out. It has, as he wrights, ’triumphed so completely (Nietzsche, 168).’ it is...
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