I first heard the term “paradigm shift” in my Environmental Geology class earlier semester regarding the concept of continental drift. Paradigm shifts came up again in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, in respect to the history of extinctions. Our understanding of history, especially the history of the earth, can be told as a series of these fundamental changes in our underlying assumptions, or paradigm shifts. As Kolbert put it, “Crisis led to insight, and the old framework gave way to a new one” (93). Individuals can experience paradigm shifts in their own thinking as well. Throughout this past semester in Challenges of Modernity, we covered numerous pieces of literature which overall had a profound effect on my thinking. However, the reading which produced the greatest insight for me had to be Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.
Before we really delved into the text, Professor Briley asked us to take a moment and write down our answer to these questions: What is the difference between good, bad, and evil? What are examples of each? My answer was relatively simple. Good was anything that didn’t hurt people physically or emotionally, was for the betterment of society, and involved respect and fairness. My example of something good was sharing. Bad was selfishness and intentionally cruelty. Stealing came to mind as an example of something bad. Evil was innate wickedness. Ever since my AP Language class read Truman Capote’s true crime novel In Cold Blood, I associate the word evil with the murderers of the Clutter family because the killings were completely unwarranted and horrifyingly malicious.
After we jotted down our answers to those questions, Professor Briley asked us where these ideas came from and what makes us define these terms they way we do. The class came to a consensus that our perceptions of these values comes from our parents, the media, our education, and religious institutions. The way we define good, bad, and evil is a consequence of what we’ve been exposed to in life. However, who decided what was good, what was bad, and what was evil? I had accepted them as innate values before we explored Nietzsche, who was the first philosopher to question where our ideas of values came from.
The first line of the preface of On the Genealogy of Morality is:
“We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers: and with good reason. We have never looked for ourselves, – so how are we ever supposed to find our- selves?” (3).
The notion that we don’t truly know ourselves because we accept socially constructed norms as fact and have never questioned where our values came from caused a shift in my thinking. What does it mean that I consider myself a relatively good person? Why do people believe the things they do? What if what we considered good was bad and what was bad was good? As a consequence of reading Nietzsche and discussing his ideas in Challenges of Modernity class, I more readily question my own beliefs, as well as society’s. I used to think progress was a “good” thing, but the readings we read in Challenges made me question how “good” it really was, since progress has commonly been accompanied by both human and environmental exploitation throughout history. Even if society deems something good or bad, doesn’t mean I have to accept it as fact. I am also more critical of the way I understand the past. Nietzsche gave us a language to talk about why we acted the way we did, since history has been shaped by our beliefs, both the actual events and the way they were recorded.