13/13 | On “Critical Genealogy” with Bernard E. Harcourt

On Critical Genealogy

An Answer to the Question: “What Good Is Genealogy for Praxis?”

by Bernard E. Harcourt

June 11, 2022

University of Warwick

This closing lecture was presented as a keynote address at the University of Warwick on June 11, 2022 at the Continental Philosophy Conference 2021/2022, “Continental Philosophy and Global Challenges,” organized by Camilla Pitton, Raffaele Grandoni, Daniel Davis, and the Centre for Research in Post-Kantian European Philosophy.

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In this final session of Revolution 13/13, Bernard E. Harcourt explores the utility of genealogical critique for revolutionary praxis. This presentation serves as a conclusion to this year’s 13/13 seminar that has interrogated the relationship between critical theory and revolutionary practice by examining the written works of worldly, revolutionary philosophers.

This last seminar focuses precisely on the place where critique can nourish worldly activity—and vice versa. It explores the activist writings of Nietzsche and Foucault in relation to praxis. It locates specifically when, how, and where critical philosophy and worldly activism can work together productively.

“In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.”

It is with those words of Goethe, you will recall, that Nietzsche opened his untimely meditations on the value of history. Today, history has been eclipsed by the genealogical method, within critical circles. Foucault’s genealogical approach now dominates historically inflected critique. But not all genealogical work today encourages praxis. Not all genealogies, nor all philosophical debates over genealogy, directly invigorate our activity.

In part because of its proliferation and now ubiquity, the genealogical method has essentially become what history was in the nineteenth century. It is crucial now that we assess the value of genealogical critique for praxis. The proper metric against which to evaluate genealogical writings is whether they contribute to transforming ourselves, others, and society.

In this final session, Bernard E. Harcourt proposes that we use the term “critical genealogy” to identify those genealogical practices that nourish our activity and thereby advance the ambition of critical philosophy, namely to change the world. It is time, once again, Harcourt argues, that we test whether our historical critiques are productive or demobilizing. It is imperative that we knock on them to determine which are hollow and which are robust—which discourage and which nourish action. It is time, once again, that we do philosophy with a hammer.


[A more polished and updated draft of Bernard E. Harcourt’s lecture is available in open access at SSRN here. This lecture is also available as a podcast on Soundcloud here.]