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Episode 83: Bob Simpson discusses genealogical anxiety

This month, we discuss genealogical anxiety with Bob Simpson, lecturer in philosophy at Monash University. Click here to listen to our conversation.

simpsonIf you listen to this podcast, then for better or worse, you have likely been exposed to some Nietzsche (hopefully at a safe level!). In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche (perhaps notoriously) introduced an epistemological sense of genealogy — a genealogy of what we purport to know — by telling a story about how we have come to know the things we purport to know. Of course, many others have developed intellectual history — history of ideas — history of what and how people and communities have thought and developed. Such history can at least encourage scholarship to be self-aware. Well and good.

But Nietzsche made much more fundamental claims about knowledge. He argued for histories in which people do not so much discover facts about what is right or wrong as lead to their creation. This did, and still can, arouse anxiety, even alarm. For, philosophers have long taken moral knowledge to be timeless and universal: what is true today has always been true and is true everywhere. Thus understood, sure, philosophers have taken knowledge to be discovered over the course of history — intellectual history. But regardless of the particularities of the intellectual history that ended up playing out, knowledge seems bound be found out in accord with reality somehow or other. Not so for Nietzsche, or many since.

So think of Nietzsche’s genealogy this way: Your family’s genealogy develops histories of procreation, histories that were not bound to play out the way they have, but rather are meaningful because they were contingent on human relationships and motivation and even agency. Likewise, Nietzsche’s genealogy argues that our sense of what is right or wrong emerged as a result of some historical accidents. According to these views, our particular moral world view is contingent, upon relationships and motivation and agency — that is, history.

Nietzsche thus called into question the status of what we purport to know. Indeed, he called into question what knowledge is. For him, the rules of ethics could hardly be objectively correct or incorrect, much less God’s plan. (For a relatively accessible example of all this, check out Nietzsche’s polemic On the Genealogy of Morals, which includes argument that Christian truths, e.g. that “blessed are the poor,” are the product not of revelation, but rather of a slave revolt.)

Given all this, you might not be surprised to know that a philosopher, Amia Srinivasan, recently coined the term “genealogical anxiety,” to characterize a now-pervasive worry that our beliefs regarding ethics, politics, and identity may just be the result of arbitrary coincidences. Join us as Dr. Simpson helps us make sense of how we need (and need not) respond to our new awareness.

Dominic Surya

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