Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense: Summary

See also much more on the related topic of Nietzsche on memory in my free Ebook/iBook at:

1.  Deception and falsehood are ubiquitous and necessary in human existence.

Evidence: vanity, dreams, flattery, superficiality of perception, unbearable insignificance of humanity, `purpose’ of intellect is not truth but preservation, dissimulation preserves those human animals who lack fangs, pleasant ignorance of the unpleasant workings of our bowels

p. 142: “woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed” in detecting that it “rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous”

— A Darwinian insight combined with the Will to Power.  Nietzsche spends a lot of time attacking Darwin, but his understanding of the latter’s position is poor enough to allow us to claim that in fact Nietzsche is much in sympathy with Darwin’s actual position.  For example, Nietzsche thinks Darwin thinks superiority in combat wins out over e.g. subtlety, deception, which is far from true.  In any case, Nietzsche attacks most ferociously what he feels most close to.  Nietzsche’s point here is that we need to be ignorant — to lie to ourselves — about humanity’s place at in one sense the pinnacle of evolution, which means the most dangerous and deadly location.  We eat other animals because we can.

There may be survival value in error.  (Indeed there is, see McKay and Dennett on The Evolution of Misbelief, where they give many examples.  University students who have a falsely positive picture of their own prowess perform better in exams.  Patients `in denial’ of the gravity of their condition do better than those who accept it.)  Conversely, some truths may be harmful.

p. 143: The liar “misuses the established conventions by arbitrarily switching or even inverting the names of things”.  Many precursors here to later major themes of Nietzsche.  We have the revaluation of all values Nietzsche commends as an important attribute of the Ubermensch of Zarathustra.  This is necessary once the consequences of the death of god are realised.  We also have the Slave’s Revolt in morality outlined in the Genealogy of Morality (GM).  This switched good and evil and made humanity sick.  The mediocre morality of the herd decried in Beyond Good and Evil becomes possible.

NB — the necessity and ubiquity of lying makes it non-moral.

2.  We possess much less truth than we think.

Nietzsche on memory: Forgetfulness is the powerful active force; a strong memory is akin to crippling indigestion.  We need to forget a lot to survive e.g. the consequences of our acts must be forgotten to avoid paralysis (GM).

There may be analytic truths, but these are useless.  E.g., it is useless to invent a name (camel) for mammals that live in the desert and then say that it is analytic that camels are mammals (Nietzsche’s example later in the text).  No progress has been made.

p. 144: Any further truth is very insecure.  Names are metaphors.  Knowing the term `tree’ gives us no truths about trees.  We cannot get to the thing-in-itself (Kant).  This terminates science and philosophy (!)

Plenty of forgetfulness is needed to even name things.  We need to forget the differences between all the leaves even to apply the name to them.  The first leaf is used as a metaphor for all of the others.  Much truth is perforce discarded by this method.   Concepts come from words formed thus and are therefore treacherous.

This circular approach to assessing (indeed, detecting) the character of others leads to what modern psychology calls the Fundamental Attribution Error.  It is interesting that Nietzsche’s example is honesty because that is one that was first investigated empirically and shown not to exist. (Schoolchildren who cheat on exams are not more likely to steal the lunch money.  Likewise the Princeton seminary experiment shows that compassion is not a character trait: our behaviour is driven much more by the situation.  Nietzsche has a very far forward psychological insight here.  NB — big problems for Virtue Ethics if there is no character to improve.  NB2 — Sartre and existentialism; the doer is a fiction added to the deed.)

Qualitas occulta = virtus dormitiva

3.  What truth we have is not the way we think it is

p. 146: Truth is “ a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms” i.e. it is what we want it to be and has little connection to anything more fundamental.  Our truth is a function of who we are.  It needn’t even remain constant.  (How would we know if it did or didn’t?  Cf. the problem about `the speed of time’ — does it go past at a second per second…?

Truths look solid just because they have been around for a time.

Society produces a moral impulse not to lie, but Nietzsche despises existing morality and existing society, so he is then again unimpressed by truth. Society permits a rank order, which here Nietzsche denigrates.  This might be puzzling because elsewhere he favours rank ordering.  So he must mean that this is the wrong order.  A society ordered by truth telling could, we may surmise, allow the Priests and the Slaves to prosper.  This is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the corruption and degradation of modern society

4.  Perspectivism is true*

p. 148: “the question as to which of these two perceptions of the world is quite meaningless, since this would require them to be measured by the criterion of the correct perspective

Perspectivism is Nietzsche’s important doctrine, developed in GM, that there is only truth from a perspective.

“It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against.  

Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.  The Will to Power, §481 (1883-1888)”

— This is Nietzsche’s social model of the intellect as a collection of competing drives.  The self is an illusion.

A related ethical point: the strongest man is he who can assimilate the most perspectives on a topic, even (and especially) if they are contradictory.  Perspectivism is `the antidote to truth’.  GM III: there is no god’s eye perspective of absolute truth, just as there is no god.

Not relativism because there is still a rank ordering of perspectives.

*What does `true’ mean? Nietzsche has just spent an hour telling us there isn’t anything that is true the way we think it is. He doesn’t actually say `perspectivism is true’ for that reason. So he must mean something like `perspectivism is valuable’ or to be supported or useful. That of course leads on to further questions.

5. All language is poetry.

What we call truth is just a correlation of meanings in all people.

p. 149: An eternally repeated dream “would be felt and judged entirely as reality” — this may just about be seen as a very early reference to the important Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence but it’s a bit of a stretch. Not impossible though because that Doctrine first appears in The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882) and this essay is dated 1873. All of Nietzsche’s writing takes place in less than a 20 year period; the Birth of Tragedy is dated 1872 and he is insane by 1889. The German here is “wie ein Traum, ewig wiederholt”; cf. The Doctrine in German: “Die Ewige Wiederkunft des Gleichen”.

The will to truth is actually a drive to form metaphors.

Science is pretence as language was distortion.


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