Armchair v. Laboratory

Amia Srinivasan

  • Intuition, Imagination and Philosophical Methodology by Tamar Szabó Gendler
    Oxford, 362 pp, £37.50, December 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 958976 0

‘Blessed is he whose mind had power to probe/The causes of things,’ Virgil wrote, thinking of Lucretius. But for many, knowing the causal origins of things can be reason for anxiety. Just as we might worry that tracing our family trees will turn up slave owners or madmen, we might also worry that genealogical investigation into our most cherished beliefs, values and practices will reveal what Nietzsche called pudenda origo, a shameful origin. We might even feel, in the light of our new knowledge, that we should try to abandon those beliefs, values and practices. The worry that origins will turn out to be shameful rather than noble, a source of discredit not vindication, might be called ‘genealogical anxiety’.

Thus while many philosophers – Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Hegel among them – believed that genealogical accounts could both elucidate and justify, for example, the existence of the state or the reliability of human reason, Nietzsche perceived a more corrosive dimension to genealogical thinking. In On the Genealogy of Morality, he argued that the origins of modern morality – including, among other things, our commitment to equality, justice and rights – lie in a crafty ‘slave revolt’ perpetrated by the weak and disenfranchised against the strong and admirable. This revelation played a crucial (if somewhat opaque) role in motivating his vision of a new, post-Christian morality. Nietzsche’s innovation prompted a huge cultural shift towards subversive genealogical thinking – what might be called the ‘Genealogical Turn’ – including Freudian analysis, 20th-century Marxism, Foucault’s historical epistemology, certain strands of postcolonial and feminist theory, and much of what goes by the label ‘postmodernism’. These ideological programmes operate by purporting to unmask the shameful origins – in violence, sexual repression, gender or racial hegemony and economic and social oppression – of our concepts, beliefs and political structures.

Despite all this, contemporary philosophy in the analytic tradition has seemed mostly untouched by genealogical anxiety. In the early 20th century, logical positivists took pains to point out that such thinking was undermined by the ‘genetic fallacy’: the mistaken assumption that ‘bad’ origins necessarily make for false beliefs or illegitimate practices. Obviously, a bad origin can result in a true belief. I might believe that the world will be destroyed by steadily rising temperatures because a lunatic told me so, but that doesn’t mean that climate change is not real. Somewhat less obviously, a practice might have a bad origin but be morally valuable. For example, the legalisation and dissemination of birth control has its origins in Marie Stopes’s eugenicist fantasies, but is thought by most to be a very good thing. This is not to say that origins are irrelevant to issues of value, truth or justification: finding out that you were on a hallucinogenic drug when you formed the belief that a goat ate your computer should certainly give you pause. But it is to suggest that the relationship between origins on one hand, and truth, justification and value on the other, is not nearly as straightforward as many proponents of the Genealogical Turn seem to think.

Nonetheless, sloppy genealogical reasoning has become a commonplace both in academic circles and in the wider culture. It has become standard dialectical form to rebut a claim with ‘you only believe that because …’, as if simply unmasking the origins of an opponent’s belief were sufficient to debunk it. This is unfortunate because, after all, we believe everything we do because of various background facts and factors; thinking carefully about genealogy requires sorting out when and why these things matter. While not all genealogical critiques offend against these requirements, many do, and this has provided analytic philosophers with an easy excuse for ignoring them.

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