Nietzsche – On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense

  • In this essay Nietzsche is claiming that all language is fundamentally metaphorical.  Language has no relationship with the “real” world and, therefore, is never literal – it is always a system that depends on arbitrary comparison: metaphor.  This has far-ranging implications because it means that truth – as a linguistic construct – is just that – constructed.  This is certainly a grammatological understanding of language/symbol use that prefigures folks like Derrida and highlights the intensely anthropocentric nature of truth claims.  What is a little darker about this theory is that language is constantly deployed toward deceptive ends because human beings are constantly in the process of self-deception – using language to describe a reality with a system of arbitrary signs.  This also means that the grammar that organizes language determines what is really possible insofar as it structures our ability to think and speak the possible.  This also means that language – insofar as we have it individually and use it to speak about the outside of ourselves organizes the entire subject-object conception of reality (Subjectivity is “the accumulated ancestral estate in which everyone has a share”).
  • Considering his vicious, deceptive nature, Nietzsche begins this piece by asking “Given this situation, where in the world could the drive for truth [in man] have come from?”  For N., it comes from the nature of language use.  Using language (an arbitrary system in and of itself) toward socially condemnable ends is to lie; however, using the same system of arbitrary symbols toward socially acceptable ends is to pursue and state truths.
  • Concepts are the shared, commonly consented language units that form the basis of “truth” and “knowledge”; however, every concept is arbitrary and never actually describes anything real.  So, Plato’s forms are merely deceptive, socially constructive language-based ideals.
  • So, “What then is truth?  A moveable 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” (84).  “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” (87).
  • How is skepticism possible?  It appears to be the truly ascetic standpoint of thought.  For it does not believe in belief and thereby destroys everything that prospers by means of belief” (94).  Even skepticism believes in logic (which is based in language, which is – of course – arbitrary!).  Logic is merely slavery within the fetters of language.

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