NIETZSCHE—"On Truth and Lies"—Highlights 

 "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral [Ultramoral] Sense" (#.# = section#.paragraph#)


• A FABLE (of ANTHROPOCENTRISM—and a Lesson in PERSPECTIVISM): Nietzsche begins with a "fable" about "how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly—as though the world's axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself" (1.1). . . . "If but for an instant he ['man'] could escape from the prison walls of this faith, his 'self consciousness' would be immediately destroyed. It is even a difficult thing for him to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available." (1.9) . . . "if each of us had a different kind of sense perception—if we could only perceive things now as a bird, now as a worm, now as a plant, or if one of us saw a stimulus as red, another as blue, while a third even heard the same stimulus as a sound—then no one would speak of such a regularity of nature, rather, nature would be grasped only as a creation which is subjective in the highest degree" (1.10).

What if one imagined (or could imagine) another species as a perspectival center? (Would this be gnat-centrism?!)

• The human INTELLECT (& SELF-DECEPTION): "The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence. For this pride contains within itself the most flattering estimation of the value of knowing. Deception is the most general effect of such pride" (1.2). . .  . "As a means for the preserving of the individual, the intellect unfolds its principal powers in dissimulation, which is the means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves—since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with the sharp teeth of beasts of prey. This art of dissimulation reaches its peak in man" (1.3).

Note that the reference to the self-preservation of "weaker, less robust individuals" is no doubt influenced by Darwin.

• The UNCONSCIOUS!: "What does man actually know about himself? Is he, indeed, ever able to perceive himself completely, as if laid out in a lighted display case? Does nature not conceal most things from him—even concerning his own body—in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers! She threw away the key. And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous—as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger" (1.3).

This is one of those passages in which Nietzsche clearly anticipates Freud's notions of the unconscious and libido.

• The SOCIAL CONTRACT (& "TRUTH"): Because "man wishes to exist socially and with the herd . . . he needs to make peace," which includes agreements about what is "true": "that which shall count as 'truth' from now on is established. That is to say, a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth. For the contrast between truth and lie arises here for the first time" (1.4).

This description of the evolution of society no doubt alludes to Locke's "social contract" and Rousseau's "state of nature." But also note how it anticipates Foucault's notion of discourses of power and their "invention" & use of "truth"; and the "contrast between truth and lie" no doubt led to Foucault's historicization of what is (allowed to be) "true" ("dans le vrai") in different era & cultures.

"TRUTH" & INTERESTEDness: "It is in a similarly restricted sense that man now wants nothing but truth: he desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences; toward those truths which are possibly harmful and destructive he is even hostilely inclined" (1.4).

Again: Foucault (and Eagleton) will emphasize that "truth" is never disinterested. (In Freudian terms, one might say that the claim of disinterest & objectivity is a rationalization at work, not reason.)

"TRUTH" and LANGUAGE: "what about these linguistic conventions themselves? Are they perhaps products of knowledge, that is, of the sense of truth? Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?" (1.4).

These questions anticipate Saussure and structural linguistics, one main gist of which is that words—or signifiers—are inevitably arbitrary representations of the "thing"—or the referent.

• LANGUAGE (continued): "What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason. . . . We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! . . . The 'thing in itself' (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors" (1.5).

That the "'thing in itself'" is "incomprehensible" comes directly from Kant, of course. And that language really "only designates the relations of things to men" is more of humankind's inveterate anthropocentrism/morphism.

LANGUAGE as (a series of) METAPHOR(s): "To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image [i.e., a perception]: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one." . . . "It is this way with all of us concerning language: we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities." In sum: "the mysterious X of the thing in itself first appears as a nerve stimulus, then as an image, and finally as a sound" (1.5). . . . "the concept" is "merely the residue of a metaphor, and . . . the illusion which is involved in the artistic transference of a nerve stimulus into images is, if not the mother, then the grandmother of every single concept" (1.8).

How language arises from a whole SERIES of metaphorical transactions or "translations" is, in my mind, the most intriguing notion in the essay. To put it in the language of 20th-c. linguistics, sensation => perception => signifier (the word, either written or spoken ["sound"]) + signified (the concept).

• WORDS as "LIES" (of OVERGENERALIZATION): As for the "the formation of concepts"—"Every word instantly becomes a concept precisely insofar as it is not supposed to serve as a reminder of the unique and entirely individual original experience to which it owes its origin; but rather, a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases—which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept 'leaf' is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects" (1.6).

Nietzsche's critique of CONCEPTS themselves claims that they are all false generalizations, or essentializations. Thus it is also an attack on essentialism in general—including Plato's idealist theory of Forms, of some metaphysical realm in which the ideal "table" serves as a template for all particular & actual tables. In the terms of medieval philosophy, Nietzsche is a "nominalist," not a "realist." The former philosophers believed that abstract concepts exist in name only, while the latter claimed that such concepts actually pointed to a real "universal" (e.g., Plato's Form of the Good).

ANTHROPOMORPHIC LANGUAGE (vs. NATURE) I: "We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species[!], but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us. For even our contrast between individual and species is something anthropomorphic and does not originate in the essence of things; although we should not presume to claim that this contrast does not correspond to the essence of things: that would of course be a dogmatic assertion and, as such, would be just as indemonstrable as its opposite" (1.6)!

I love the (quite characteristically Nietzschean) disclaimer that, "although we should not presume to claim that" a particular human conception "does not correspond to the essence of things: that would . . . be a dogmatic assertion and, as such, would be just as indemonstrable as its opposite"! This precious quibbling via both sides of the coin sounds very much like Derrida—but of course it does, since Nietzsche was a major influence.

• "WHAT IS TRUTH?": "What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force" (1.7).

The heavily-Foucault-influenced postcolonial critic Edward Said found this passage quote-worthy, and I'm sure he was neither the first or the last.

• TRUTHS = "LIES": "to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. . . . this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone. Now man of course forgets that this is the way things stand for him. Thus he lies in the manner indicated, unconsciously and in accordance with habits which are centuries old; and precisely by means of this unconsciousness and forgetfulness he arrives at his sense of truth. . . . The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes" (1.8).

Social "truths" are not only "lies," but a "forgetting," an "unconsciousness"—something like a cultural Freudian repression of language's origins. . . . Also notable is the dependence of the meaning of truth and honesty upon—by contrast—"the liar." This anticipates Derrida's notion of supplementarity (by which binary terms like "truth" and lies" deconstruct themselves in part by not entailing "pure" meaning: they "depend" upon each other's meaning). And the passage (and entire essay) forecasts Foucault's discursive analysis of truth/reason and falsehood/madness (and therefore exclusion) as a culturally defined central binary of power.

• "TRUTHS" as SOCIAL FOUNDATIONS: For social order, then, there is "the construction of a pyramidal order according to castes and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, and clearly marked boundaries—a new world, one which now confronts that other vivid world of first impressions as more solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world, and thus as the regulative and imperative world." . . . "so every people has a similarly mathematically divided conceptual heaven above themselves . . . an unstable foundation . . . constructed of spiders' webs" (1.8).

As should be evident by now, that ideas and truths become a "pyramidal order with castes and grades, to create a new world of laws, privileges, suborders, delimitations" is also proto-Foucaultian, in its implications about the power of social discourses.

ANTHROPOMORPHIC LANGUAGE (vs. NATURE) II: "If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare 'look, a mammal,' I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be 'true in itself' or really and universally valid apart from man. At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. He strives to understand the world as something analogous to man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation" (1.8).

I need not remind you that all "anthropomorphic truths" are "interested" truths.

• "TRUTH" as FORGETTING (and "CREATING"): "Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency" (1.9).

Note that the fact that humankind is an "artistically creating subject" will receive a different spin in the second part of this essay.

• (A Pretty Kantian) SKEPTICISM: "After all, what is a law of nature as such for us? We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature—which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations. Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence. All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them—time and space, and therefore relationships of succession and number" (1.10).

Of course, we recognize this as pretty straightforward Kant in its reference to his a priori categories.


• "TRUTH" as "CREATING" (encore)—MYTH & ART: "The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally. This drive continually confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies. It continually manifests an ardent desire to refashion the world which presents itself to waking man, so that it will be as colorful, irregular, lacking in results and coherence, charming, and eternally new as the world of dreams" (2.2).

In this section's opening, Nietzsche now emphasizes the positive aspect of our lying—er, "metaphor-making"—capacities: such a prevaricating species should probably be pretty good at "myth" and "art"? (Indeed, my long impression has been that this section was an appended afterthought?) Note, too, how much more of a "poet" or "aesthete" Nietzsche seems to be in his very (almost Romantic) word choices about human creativity, compared to Kant & Hegel's treatises on art.

• The ARTIST as (WILLING/CONSCIOUS/CREATIVE) "LIAR": "But man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true, or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king. So long as it is able to deceive without injuring, that master of deception, the intellect, is free; it is released from its former slavery and celebrates its Saturnalia. It is never more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more clever and more daring. With creative pleasure it throws metaphors into confusion and displaces the boundary stones of abstractions . . . . The intellect has now thrown the token of bondage from itself. . . . now it has become the master and it dares to wipe from its face the expression of indigence. . . . That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect. And when it smashes this framework to pieces, throws it into confusion, and puts it back together in an ironic fashion, pairing the most alien things and separating the closest, it is demonstrating that it has no need of these makeshifts of indigence and that it will now be guided by intuitions rather than by concepts. There is no regular path which leads from these intuitions into the land of ghostly schemata, the land of abstractions. There exists no word for these intuitions; when man sees them he grows dumb, or else he speaks only in forbidden metaphors and in unheard-of combinations of concepts. He does this so that by shattering and mocking the old conceptual barriers he may at least correspond creatively to the impression of the powerful present intuition" (2.3).

Against the rigid regularity—the "scaffolding" and "framework" and "barriers"—of society's "pack o' lies" (and rationalist "abstactions"), the artist remains undaunted: against such forces of coercion (pardon the Foucaultian lingo), the artistic impulse "throws metaphors into confusion" and "speaks only in forbidden metaphors and in unheard-of combinations of concepts." (To sum up Nietzsche's general "artistic" attitude: if all discourse is a "lie," anyway, isn't consciously playing with language the best thing to do!? But not just art; ethics, too, now becomes an act of creation, of one's very values. The iconoclast in the passage above can thus be read as both the creative artist and Nietzsche's "philosopher of the future.")

• The ARTIST (vs. the RATIONALIST)—HISTORICIZED: "There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principal needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an 'overjoyed hero,' counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. Whenever, as was perhaps the case in ancient Greece, the intuitive man handles his weapons more authoritatively and victoriously than his opponent, then, under favorable circumstances, a culture can take shape and art's mastery over life can be established" (2.4).

The briefest glance at Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy reveals that ancient Greece is one of his favorite epochs, a culture in which the "intuitive man" was triumphant, resulting in "art's mastery over life."

• The ARTIST vs. the RATIONALIST—the CONTRAST continued: " the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption . . . . To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. . . . How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! . . . He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it" (2.4).

I've always found this finale very strange, tone-wise, although it seems a bit clearer in this translation. This "stoical man" (simply the "Stoic" in another translation) is obviously a reappearance of the "rational man" above, whose modus vivendi is contrasted with the pretty happy-go-lucky "intuitive man." But Nietzsche's tone here feels more like pity than scorn? . . . BTW, this "stoic" fellow is also very much related to the "ascetic" of The Genealogy of Morality. And another connection: the dichotomy here between the forces of "reason" and "intuition" is closely related to his more famous distinction between the "Apollonian" (the "light" of order & reason) and the "Dionysian" (the "dark" & wild & irrational) in The Birth of Tragedy. However, there the greatness of Greek art is argued to be more the product of the union of these two human types/faculties, which seems a more sophisticated treatment of the binary?


 —TCG, Sept. 2020