Nietzsche – “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense”

This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape.


Nietzsche begins the essay on a misanthropic note. He rails against the arrogance of humanity in thinking so highly of our own intelligence and place in the vast space and time of the cosmos. He further insists that human intellect is originally used for “dissimulation” (p. 20), i.e. lying (of course his notion of “lie” is pretty liberal, as I hope will become clearer in the section below). He paints this within a Hobbesian view of a competitive, individualistic state-of-nature humanity. Truth comes second, as a social pact to use the same language in reference to an alleged access to the same bare reality.

Truth = Lie

All language is metaphor. Between subject and object is an “aesthetic comportment.” When we use language to comprehend and communicate about reality, it is an essentially creative, artistic process. As Kant described, we never have naked access to the thing-in-itself. Instead, we only have our representations, composed of linguistic metaphor. To the extent that we claim access to “truth,” we are in error if not outright lying. Either way, we are wrong. It is impossible to perceive correctly. The sense that we have of “knowing” reality in an immediate sense, is an illusion. All language, all representation, hence all experience and cognition, is metaphor. Metaphor which sticks around long enough, is adopted and repeated by enough people, is forgotten to be metaphor, and thus is felt to be truth. With repetition comes the impression of realness. Truth is aged metaphor, forgotten to be metaphor.

Concepts

To use a concept is to treat different things as if they were the same. Concepts are created by lumping together a collection of objects under some aspect or aspects that they have in common, while ignoring their differences. Then there is a kind of ideal version of this sameness which is extracted, and used to measure belonging of objects under the concept. Ironically, no object is ever a perfect replication of the extracted ideal. Of course we ignore that too.

For Nietzsche, concepts are far from being transcendental truths. Instead, they are “lingering residues of metaphors” (p. 32). There are no concepts in nature. Concepts come from us. We commonly maintain the arrogant delusion that nature really is patterned according to human concepts, as if our meager interpretations could encapsulate the workings of total reality.

Intuitive vs. Rational

With science, we attempt to fit everything into an ordered tower of concepts. Striving for rationality, we maintain a defensive orientation, stuck at the level of need. When we remain connected to metaphor – as in myth and art – we can live life with beauty and creativity. This ‘intuitive’ mode of living also brings with it greater suffering that the ‘rational’ mode. And it is worth it.

References

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2010 [1873]). “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral sense.” On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings. New York: Harper.

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock, PhD is an Adjunct Instructor of Sociology at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research focuses on political themes in biological horror and science fiction films. He is editor of Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism (University of Westminster, 2018).
Jeremiah Morelock

3 thoughts on “Nietzsche – “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense””

  1. Interesting; I have a question though. Nietzsche criticizes the rationalist because he treates man as the measure for everything hence thinking that there is an imminent object infront of him. Later on he is talking about rationalist who deals with laws of nature. Let me simplify by giving two concrete examples: let us look at a biologist and a physicist. The biologist categorizes organisms treating himself as the measure for everything. The point of critique is that this categorization lacks universality; this categorization is derived of any “point which would be true in itself”. To be more precise he criticizes the notion that we can categorize something without knowing the thing-in-itself. So in a sense we would be only categorizing metaphors. The physicist is invested in examining the laws of nature, e.g. gravitiy. The physicist creates concepts through mathematics which are completely inviolable, and yet these concepts arise from himself.
    To sum up: both of these scientists are rationalists, but differ on their methodology. Is this understanding “true” (heh)? I am quite unsure of my understanding of the “physicist”

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