Marcus Llanque

Genealogy in the History of Political Ideas


In the past two decades, an approach in historical research has emerged in the field of the history of ideas, intellectual history and the history of political thinking called „genealogy“. Sometimes the term „genealogy“ appears not to add anything to the concept of history and thus is used as its synonym. If anything, genealogy seems to give more attention to the assumed beginnings of a specific development of an idea, concept or practice. However, at the same time here is a fairly established concept of genealogy that refers to Michel Foucault or even goes further back to Friedrich Nietzsche and his „Genealogy of Morals“. In this case, using the term genealogy signals the researcher‘s belonging to Foucaultian post-structuralism based on the assumption that we find here a method in epistemology.

Before deciding which way to go, whether to treat genealogy as an insignificant term à-la-mode or to link genealogy to a theoretical school, I want to ask why we should transfer a term that derives originally from ancestral research to the much broader field of humanities at all. Can genealogy serve as an alternative to orthodox historical research by providing a different account of history?

Before and beyond Foucault it can be shown that genealogy establishes a perspective different from evolutionary, teleological, chronological or originalistic understandings of history. Genealogy cannot replace history as such but has its merits in analysing the paths and threads of theoretical thinking in the humanities. Genealogy treats theoretical thinking in the humanities as the human practice of interpreting interpretations. In the end the genealogical map of theoretical thinking brings a complex web of discourses to the fore, reproduced by interpretations which in turn are able to change the discourse they both lean on and contribute to.