I had the opportunity yesterday to present a paper to the Nietzsche Society, which was meeting within a larger conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy. The people I met were generous, knowledgeable, and interesting, and my paper seems to have been well received. It was a good time.
At bottom, I was trying to figure out what the value is in works (like Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality and Hegel’s Philosophy of History) that seem like they’re supposed to be grounded in some kind of historical argument, but are obviously bad works of historiography. Nietzsche writes broadly as if he can stretch western civilization out on a couch and psychoanalyze it, and Hegel write as if every segment of history is focused on a nameable set of ideas in a nameable place (Athens, Rome, Berlin (*ahem*)). They are both seeing history as an expression of some sort of dynamic within the human spirit or psyche. They are fascinating works, but when they are held up in comparison to straight-ahead historiographical works – of the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries – they don’t look so well.
So why are they valuable? I think they’re not really meant as works of historiography. They are works of “philohistoriography” – attempts to construe the past and present in such a way as to motivate future actions. They are ideologies: distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications of the past for the sake of persuading readers to embrace a certain set of values.
We probably feel the urge to shrink away when we hear “ideology,” but in fact I think ideologies are necessary in order to get people to accept short-term, evident losses for the sake of long-term strategies. The problem, of course, is that we are not all that good at seeing the future, and there are complications, and ideologies often backfire. But what can we do, other than muddle along, and try to dream up illusions that guide us into a direction we think we ought to take?