Interpreting Nietzsche

I read a collection of Nietzsche’s writings on truth and untruth, edited and translated, and it seemed contradictory.  Nietzsche seeks out the deeper motives of our pursuit of truth, and critiques the pursuit of truth on the grounds that it shatters the illusions we need to survive; but at other times he treats truth and knowledge as unproblematically good. 

One possibility is that he was criticizing the pursuit of truth as usually understood, and evaluating it according to a higher standard of truth.  He was using concepts like “truth” and “knowledge” and “good” in different ways when he critiqued them than when he used them as his own standards.  The other possibility is that he at some point becomes inconsistent.  To understand just how he was using these terms, I read back through the book (again, a collection of his writings on truth and untruth) and marked up each use of these concepts in a paradoxical or ironic way, and used a different marking for straightforward, unquestioning uses. 

Nietzsche’s questioning the value of truth, and seeking to find what drives the quest for it, is not by itself interesting- it could just be infinitely regressive (what is driving the quest to for truth about what is driving the quest for truth?  What is driving…etc.)  The source of interest must be in the answer he finds, or in the standard by which he makes his judgments.  And what standard could you possibly find that is external to truth?  After all, there are times when N. makes truth his own standard.  Below is what I concluded from this exercise; in some cases I was able to resolve the apparent contradictions, in others I doubt whether they can be resolved.


N. held that the intellect developed to help us survive, not to reveal the truth about things.  Truth and the understanding we need to survive are different things.  The intellect simplifies reality in order to grasp it, and thus falsifies it; it categorizes things for our convenience, when for N. two leaves, for instance, are by nature radically different. 

Philosophical concepts like Plato’s forms and the “thing in itself” and “pure knowledge” stem from this same basic error, as does Occam’s Razor and so all of science.  Kant’s view that we impose time and space and cause and effect on reality fits nicely here and N. draws on it.

Obviously, philosophers have long thought that truth isn’t immediately accessible, and that people naturally make errors, and obviously philosophers have sought to transcend these errors.  N., though, treats their efforts as more systematic extensions of the lies man naturally believes.

But things become less clear.  N. writes “The ‘thing in itself’ (which would be, precisely, pure truth without consequences) is utterly unintelligible…” (On truth and lie in a non-moral sense, 1) So is N. criticizing past philosophy by tracing it to the intellect’s natural falsifying of reality?  Or is he saying there is no ‘thing in itself,’ no truth apart from consequences, so that our natural intellect doesn’t falsify after all, and all reality concerns us?  To make him consistent, it has to be the former.  Thus, there is truth without consequence, it is just unintelligible by us, and the attempt to find it is fruitless.  Knowledge means recognizing our intellect’s falsifications as falsifications, not masking their falsity by going deeper into it through doctrines of forms and the like.

But how does N. really differ from modern philosophy about the “thing in itself”?  He says we can’t know the thing in itself, only how it affects us- well, don’t Locke and Kant agree?  Insofar as he holds that the observable world is all there is, he is vulnerable to his own critique that our intellects don’t exist to reveal the truth about things.  Insofar as he holds that reality is unknowable, he is potentially vulnerable to his own critique of people who devalue this world by judging it against another- the real world versus the observable world, in this case. (The Will to Power, 586) He, too, believes in a “thing in itself” that is more real than the world we experience, or at least believes this might be the case. 

Metaphysically, what may differentiate him from Kant and others who thought about the “thing in itself” is his belief that all possible worlds exist. (ibid.) It might follow that the “thing in itself” could be anything.  Ethically, the implication is that some are some better than ours, some worse, so there is no reason to use the “other world” to criticize ours.  Kant’s mistake was to conclude that the true world is unattainable, yet still treat it as imposing obligations on us. (Twilight of the Idols)

Yet N. at times seems to reject a “thing in itself” altogether, and thus to fall vulnerable to his critique of philosophy that assumes our intellects are so structured as to comprehend truth: “[A bad, ascetic philosophy] will seek error precisely where the real vital instinct finds truth most unconditionally.  It will…disparage bodily being as illusion, likewise…the entire conceptual opposition of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ – errors, nothing but errors!  Renouncing belief in its I, denying its own ‘reality’: what a triumph! – and not just over the senses, over appearances, but a far greater kind of triumph, a violation and cruelty to reason: this lustfulness reaches its peak when the ascetic self-contempt, self-ridicule of reason decrees, ‘There is a realm of truth and being, but reason is barred from it.’”


N.’s social contract theory is basically Hobbesian, with a different focus.  He believes we naturally lie to protect ourselves from the consequences of each other’s lies, we agree to a set of socially agreed-upon lies.  This is the origin of our belief in “truth.”  There is a Rousseau-like regret at this subduing of natural man, and giving him an erroneous, rigid concept of Truth rather than his natural spontaneity: “As a rational being he now submits his actions to the rule of abstractions: no longer does he let himself be swept away by sudden impressions, by intuitions, he first generalizes all these impressions into paler, cooler concepts…[I]n the realm of those schemata something becomes possible that could never be achieved by intuitive first impressions, namely, the construction of a pyramidal order of castes and degrees, creating a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, and boundary demarcations, which now stands over against the other intuitive world of first impressions as the more fixed, more universal, more familiar, more human.” (ibid.)

So natural and social man are both self-deceivers, but social man is more deeply deceived, believes more in fixed truth.  Natural man is superior both by the standard of actual truth and that of life or happiness or whatever N. thinks is morally good.  We’re back to the idea that truth is inaccessible to us, because our minds are structured to see it as fixed and to falsely simplify it.


So our senses and intellect falsify, and we can’t get beyond that falsification to the thing in itself.  We can transcend error enough to recognize that there is no actual reason the reality should correspond to our intellect, but not enough to know what reality actually is.  So what should we do?  Well, “[M]an as architectural genius far surpasses the bee: the latter builds with wax, which it gathers from nature; man builds with the much more delicate material of concepts, which he must first fabricate from out of himself.  In this, he is to be admired- but not on account of his drive to truth, to the pure cognition of things.”  So we should continue creating, without thinking our creation represents reality.

Art is the answer: “[W]aking man himself is clear that he is awake thanks only to the rigid and regular web of concepts and, for that reason, occasionally comes to believe that he is dreaming when that web of concepts is torn apart momentarily by art.…Owing to what myth takes to be the constant working of a miracle, the waking day of a mythically vibrant people, the ancient Greeks, for instance, is in fact more akin to dream than to the day of a sober scientific thinker.  If every tree can on occasion speak as a nymph; if a god in the disguise of a bull can abduct virgins; if the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen, accompanied by Pisastratus, driving a beautiful team of horses through the markets of Athens—which is what every honest Athenian believed—then at every movement, just as in a dream, anything is possible, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were the masquerade of the gods…” (On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense)

Now here, Nietzsche is using “honest” to mean roughly “accepting a socially agreed upon lie,” but he seems to treat that as a good thing.  This is the kind of social “truth” that enriches life, rather than making it shadowy and abstract.  “Man himself, however, has an invincible tendency to let himself be deceived and is enchanted with happiness when the rhapsode tells him epic tales as if they were true, or when the actor in a play plays the king even more regally than he is in reality.  The intellect, that master of dissimulation, is free and discharged from its other slavish duties, so long as it can deceive without harming.” 

But N. has made clear that when the intellect is also dissimulating when it is supposedly being truthful- it is, again, just telling useful lies.  So sometimes he’s saying “hey, these things you believe are truth are actually lies, so to hell with them,” and other times he’s saying “the intellect dissimulates, and that’s a good thing- that frees it from stultifying social truths.”  Dissimulation is good when it is creative, bad when it is “slavish” or utilitarian.  But ancient Athens united the two in a brilliant synthesis: the beliefs that held society together also made possible a great culture and vibrant life.

Continuing the contrast between hearing a story or watching a play, and the slavish duties of utilitarian life, N. writes: “Everything [the intellect] does now, in contrast to its earlier deeds, involves dissimulation, just as what it did before involves distortion…Those enormous beams and planks of concepts to which man clings needily his whole life long to save himself are for the liberated intellect merely a scaffolding and plaything for its most daring feats.


It follows from all this that when we’ve actually found truth, we have learned that the way to live is to consciously lie (because the truth is that truth and life have nothing to do with each other.)  In “The Gay Science,” N. is more explicit about the solutions to the problems he has posed.  “I awoke suddenly in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am still dreaming and that I must go on dreaming in order not to perish….among all those dreaming, I, too, the ‘knower,’ dance my dance…one who knows is a means of drawing out the earthly dance and in this way belongs among the masters of ceremony of existence.” (The Gay Science, 54)

Similarly, “Those exceptional thinkers, such as the [Presocratic] Eleatics, who, in spite of everything, fixed and held fast to the opposites of natural errors, thought it possible also to live this opposite…they were of the belief that their knowledge was also the principle of life.  But in order to assert all this, they had to deceive themselves about their own condition: they had to credit themselves with impersonality and duration without change to misconceive the essence of knowledge…and to conceive of reason in general as a wholly free, self-originating activity.” (The Gay Science, 110)

The Gay Science returns us to the question of whether N. is saying that there is no reality beneath our perceptions, or only that such a thing is unknowable.  “What is ‘seeming’ to me now!  Certainly not the opposite of some kind of being—what could I possibly say of any such being, other than the predicates of its seeming!”  (The Gay Science, 54)  Here a lie is not only more consistent with life.  It isn’t even just that truth is beyond human limits (what could I possibly say); rather, seeming is “certainly not the opposite of some kind of being”; seeming and being are not opposites, there is no reality independent of human interpretation, is at least one way of interpreting this passage.  So a “lie” even becomes more consistent with truth itself.  It isn’t any longer that we lie to ourselves, after all, but that we create truths. 

Only, some truths are better than others.  Some truths give us what we need only for mere survival, while others facilitate a higher life, free from necessity- as, again, those of ancient Athens did.  N. routinely gives the impression, though, that his criterion for judging things is by the standard of “life,” or whether a truth is life-affirming.  Doesn’t that just yield utilitarian survival?  N. seems to have believed, though, that in the long run utilitarianism doesn’t support life.  After all, “we have art in order not to die of the turth,” and “the will would rather will nothingness than not will,” and “we love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving,” and “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” and so forth.

Returning to the paragraph about the knower continuing his dream:  The knower sees “ that one who knows is a means of drawing out the earthly dance and in this way belongs among the masters of ceremony of existence; and that the sublime consistency and interconnectedness of all knowledge is and will be perhaps the highest means of sustaining the universality of dreaming and the understanding all these dreamers have among themselves, and so, too, even the duration of the dream.”  (Emphasis his)  But how can there be a “sublime consistency and interconnectedness of all knowledge?”  If reality is, after all, sublimely consistent and interconnected, aren’t we connected with it, too?  What is connecting things, if not some similarity, some rules of logic?  Can it still be true that subject and object, for instance, are “absolutely different” spheres, as in “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense” (1)?  Isn’t N. returning to the idea that should for him be hateful, that all truth is one?  (“Everything simple is merely imaginary, not ‘true.’  But what is real, what is true, is neither one nor even reducible to one.”  Will to Power, 536)


N. famously begins “Beyond Good and Evil” with “Suppose truth is a woman- what then?”  The answer is that dogmatic philosophers have taken the wrong approach to reach her.  Here N. more than ever indicates that he believes truth is attainable, and only wants a better route to truth than past philosophers, not to give up on truth altogether.  He wants to free us from past philosophers’ errors, like any other philosopher, really, or like Plato wanted to free us from the cave. 

Speaking of Plato, “the worst, the most protracted and most dangerous of all errors hitherto was a dogmatic error, namely, Plato’s invention of pure spirit and of the Good in itself.  Now that it has been overcome, however, now that Europe breathes free of this incubus and might at least enjoy a healthier—sleep, we, whose task is precisely to be awake, are the heirs of all the strength fostered by the struggle against this error.”  This contrasts with The Gay Science, quoted above, where the knower only awakes to the understanding that he is still dreaming, and must dream. 




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