Nietzsche and Truth


We first need to understand what theory of truth Nietzsche favours. There are two prima facie candidates: a correspondence theory and a pragmatic theory. I will outline what those theories are and show how he cannot be seen as a whole-hearted adherent of either. Rejection of both of those options leads to examination of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, and his aims in pursuing it.

What are the two primary theories? Correspondence theories of truth are tripartite; they will generally define a truth-bearer, a truth-maker and an appropriate relationship between the two. A truth-bearer would typically be a proposition, a truth-maker would typically be a fact in the world, and if the proposition corresponds to the fact, then the proposition is true.

A pragmatic theory on the other hand, will say that the truth is what works. This appears much less useful at first, because it seems to allow no defence against relativism. If someone believes in Santa Claus for the emotional benefits, one would have to allow the existence of that festive individual. However, noting that much of science proceeds on a variant of this basis, allows us to approach a stronger version. Here, predictive capability is key. If a theory makes better predictions than its rivals, then it more nearly approaches the truth.

Nietzsche begins his consideration of these questions by noting the strangeness of the fact that humans seek truth at all. After all, there is an immense asymmetry: the truth-bearers can only figure as mental elements in transient beings while the truth-makers exceed those beings in all dimensions. The human intellect viewed in the context of nature is “insubstantial and transitory, […] purposeless and arbitrary”.

This makes a number of very modern points. The mental may or may not be reducible to the physical, but certainly we do not observe physical minds. Each individual mind persists for a microsecond when viewed from the perspective of cosmic time. Our intellects have evolved solely in order to keep us alive, which aim is itself not grounded in any particular overriding aim. An understanding of the stars is of no relevance to survival, and so it is remarkable that we are able to achieve any element of such understanding. The addition of cognition to certain creatures for a certain time seems also to lack reason.

Under these circumstances, how could Nietzsche possibly support anything other than a pragmatic theory? Given such an all-encompassing list of severe limitations of the human intellect, how could one pretend to use such an unimpressive instrument to achieve any correspondence with the majesty of the external? And why should one even try when it may offer no advantage. McKay and Dennett give an array of practical disadvantages of knowing the truth, including loss of the placebo effect and the view that optimal mental health is associated with delusionally positive self-beliefs.

Further apparent evidence for Nietzsche favouring a pragmatic theory over a correspondence theory emerges from consideration of his ideas on the origination of the intellect. It must help us survive, and it must do so in social contexts: “[a]s a means for the preservation of the individual, the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals”. By this, Nietzsche simply points out that it is advantageous to lie, and the best liars are those who believe their own falsehoods.

And yet this is really a pragmatic theory of belief, not a pragmatic theory of truth. Nietzsche holds that what works is a good guide to what people will believe, but this in fact contradicts the idea that what works is true: people can really only lie in correspondence theories.

So what does Nietzsche say about correspondence theories? His question: “[i]s there a perfect match between things and their designations?” introduces his discussion. His answer is that even believing this requires forgetting the unbridgeable gap between phenomena and things-in-themselves. A correspondence could never occur, because “[w]hat is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds.” On this view, all we could ever do is correlate similar sense data, label them and observe correlations between the occurrences of the labels.

Thus we do not appear to see Nietzsche subscribing to either a pragmatic theory of truth or a correspondence theory of truth. What does he say when confronting the question directly? The following: “[w]hat then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike people as firmly established, canonical and binding”.

Here we can begin to see the source of our difficulties in interpreting Nietzsche’s views on truth. This paragraph appears to be a ringing expression of support for a pragmatic theory. And yet, once again, it is in fact not to be taken as such. Nietzsche is not here discussing absolute truth; he instead means ‘truth as people take it to be’. The entire line here is an echo of Hume’s contention that we tend to identify items that are in fact associated but not the same.

Nietzsche illustrates this by using the term metaphor instead of simile; we may use the metaphor ‘she is a rose’ when in fact we are only really licensed as far as the simile ‘she is like a rose’, which is already rather stretched. In any case, the import here would be ‘she shares a characteristic with a rose’; extending this to the relation between words and objects makes the correspondence theory much less plausible for Nietzsche. We cannot even manage to arrange for our words to match each other let alone the impenetrably shrouded things in themselves.

Likewise with metonymy, which idea covers a quite astonishingly wide array of methods whereby we routinely take one thing for a quite different thing. This might be a part for the whole, as in ‘headcount’ for total number of people, or a building for a function, as in ‘White House’ for the US Federal government. And the reference to anthropomorphism suggests our unceasing tendencies to see everywhere ourselves, complete with motivations and behaviours: since we are not everywhere and not in external items, this cannot be correct.

Worse, there is no standard for the meaning of each individual word. All language is poetry. The resonances in the mind two people hearing the same word will be vastly different depending on their experiences. Even a simple word naming a concrete object where no one disagrees on the referent will have this effect. Imagine the response to the word ‘cat’ evoked in someone who was injuriously scratched by a cat at a very young age, and the difference in someone who spends all their free time with a much-loved pet. Reference to this lack of standardisation is Nietzsche’s intention when he mentions poetics.

Once the army has ceased its mobility and entrenched itself, its resting places appear fixed and canonical: it is no coincidence that Nietzsche indicates his mistrust by employing a clerical term. One obvious problem for Nietzsche is that absent a correspondence theory of truth, he cannot make any statements about the world – at least, not ones that he expects us to relate to the world as it actually is. There is thus nothing in the world that corresponds to will to power, for example, even though he claims that this is what the world fundamentally is. He could alternately claim on a pragmatic basis that it is useful to assume that there is a will to power, even if it is false. But he surely wants to say more than that. His response to this trilemma will be perspectivism: he will say that multiple readings of the world are unavoidable and also essential and also all valid.

This term perspectivism is most simply understood as meaning the embrace of multiple perspectives; and is often resisted as the best place from which to oppose relativism. If there is a view from nowhere, then one view is privileged and objectively correct. If not, then anything is allowed. We should be careful to note though that Nietzsche can allow multiple perspectives without apportioning them all equal value. And to the extent that the multiple of perspectives are those of different people, it would be profoundly contrary to his firmly anti-democratic views for him to allow any such thing.

Strong makes the following suggestion for Nietzsche’s project in pursuing perspectivism: it is “Nietzsche’s attempt at replacing epistemology with an understanding of the self and of knowledge that does not posit any particular position (or self) as final.” Nietzsche has two approaches to argue for perspectivism. The first is via the denial of the unitary self, which he does using the very Schopenhauerian line that true self-knowledge because, by analogy, the eye cannot see itself. The fictional nature of the putative single viewpoint means that avoiding multiple perspectives is impossible. Secondly there is the Nachlass claim that this is not only unavoidable but preferable: Nietzsche writes “[t]he wisest man would be the richest in contradictions”.

This paradox again flirts with relativism, but we need not interpret it as meaning that all views are as good as each other. The wise man may instead possess the type of riches that means he can choose from among a wide range of perspectives. Of course, ‘choice’ is a loaded word here. While there may not be a single correct perspective, some may offer more value than others, and being in possession of a larger range may allow for the construction of better selection criteria for use among the views. These criteria may themselves include consideration of what they allow and what they exclude from the other perspectives. Once again, we must note the importance of not equating this with the democratic idea that if a view is widely held, it must be better: such a line would be anathema for Nietzsche who seeks rather some “grandiose harmony” of multiple views.

We should note how consonant this is with Nietzsche’s general opposition to binary oppositions, itself a claim not remote from paradox. His purpose in many of his works, notably GM , is not merely to attack the standard pairings that many assume: good/evil, true/false, subject/object, but to overthrow the entire system that includes such pairings. He is opposed not merely to a particular morality, but to all possible moralities; he opposes even nihilism because even the negation of morality is a type of morality. On this basis, he could scarcely be advocating multiple perspectives in order to find the one that is true. This is exactly not the aim, as pointed out by Schacht: “Nietzsche derives his models and metaphors from various sources […] precisely in order to play them off against each other, and to avoid becoming locked into any one […] of them”.

The value in truth on any model may be as a test of strength. Facing the indifference of the universe alone and unblinking may be too difficult for most individuals. From BGE : “It might be a basic character of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much ‘truth’ one could still barely endure”. Perhaps the perspectivist position offers two benefits here. It may alleviate the intensity of the raw truth by allowing that other views are possible if, say, the scientific picture of the distance between galaxies is too oppressive and diminishing of our precious selves. And secondly, perhaps it allows some strength in numbers to be accessed by carrying within itself a reminder that other individuals are looking at the same vastness with us as well as in different ways.

There may be a self-refutation problem with perspectivism. From which privileged single perspectice could it be seen as true or the right approach? Nietzsche’s response to this is to admit the point: he is not advocating perspectivism, merely stating that it is the case; an inevitable consequence of the multiplicity of selves. One piece of evidence for this may be seen – parodoxically as ever – from Nietzsche’s purpose in writing his autobiography.

We know from TSZ that we are to turn away from all prophets, including Zarathustra himself. Once we have rejected them and all their teachings, they may come back to us. Nietzsche’s ostensible project in writing Ecce Homo is dual. The phrase is that used by Pilate at the trial of Christ: thus Nietzsche sets himself up as a prophet. The message of the prophet in Ecce Homo derives from the description of a life as a unified whole. ‘Nietzsche’ appears singularly and with clarity in the text.

So the subtext is that all of this is to be negated. All of Nietzsche’s texts call themselves into question and the grand summary of all of them and his life is no exception. The irony in the various headings ‘Why I am So Clever’ and ‘Why I am so Wise” is unmistakable: we are supposed to react against it.

There is no one called ‘Nietzsche’. There are many, as many as there are readers. And far more, for each reader is multiplied. And there are many texts, many for each reader and many more for each reader at different times. The only name for this hermeneutical hall of mirrors is perspectivism: not as a truth, but as a solution.

“Does not one write books precisely to conceal what one harbours?” harbours its own truth precisely via the paradox of the liar. If the answer is yes, it is also no. The concealment hides a shape, which we can divine only from multiple sides and different visions.

F Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, in The Birth of Tragedy And Other Writings, Eds. R Geuss and R Speirs, Cambridge University Press, 1999 (“BT”), p. 141
R T McKay & D C Dennett, The Evolution of Misbelief, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press)
T Strong, Text and Pretexts: Reflections on Perspectivism in Nietzsche, Political Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 164-182, Published by: Sage Publications, Inc., Stable URL:
F Nietzsche, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, eds. G Colli, M Montinari, de Gruyter, 1968, (“KGA”), VII 2, pp. 179-80
F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998
B Magnus and K Higgins, eds., Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 166, orig, emp.
F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, s. 39
F Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2005
F Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,
KGA, VI, 2, 244


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