Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comments on Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense"

Commentary from Prof. Tom Leddy of San Jose State University on “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.”  Thanks to The Nietzsche Channel for the translation, which now appears here

Fragment, 1873: from the Nachlass.
Compiled from translations by Walter Kaufmann and Daniel Breazeale.
Text amended in part by The Nietzsche Channel.

N. begins by speaking of humans as a  "remote" species because we certainly are not as important as we think we are.  The “star” is the planet earth.  We are “clever” but we are only animals.  It was the "highest minute" perhaps in that we are pretty important anyway, but as we shall see, that knowledge itself is a lie.  Also, our star, this time the sun, will grow cold and our species will die, as so many others have.

The human intellect is even more shadowy, flighty, aimless, and arbitrary than that.  We think that its emergence is of great importance, but relatively speaking, nothing has happened, since the rise of intellect does not lead beyond human life. It is just that we give it importance.  We feel important, but the mosquito too sees itself as the center of the world!  The power of knowledge can make the least significant things seem overly important.  The proudest human of all is the philosopher, who thinks the eyes of the universe are focused on him.

Humans are the most unfortunate, most delicate, most evanescent of beings, and they were given intellect just to hold them in existence.  Men are deceived about the value of existence because of the haughtiness that comes with knowledge.  Knowledge itself is flattered (by itself).  The most universal effect of knowledge is deception (again, as to the value of man and of knowledge itself), but even particular effects (particular bits of knowledge) have something of this character.

We are most aware of the powers of intellect in simulation.  Weaker individuals (including humans, as opposed to other animals) preserve themselves with it.  The art of simulation reaches its peak in man.  There are various aspects of simulation:  deception, flattery, and so forth.  Humans are incredibly vain.  So it is nearly incomprehensible how you can have a pure urge for truth.  Men are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images. When N. speaks of men looking at the surface of things and merely seeing “forms” he is suggesting that even Plato, with his Forms, was only so interested.  But also he is suggesting that humans in their nature are interested in surface and not in truth (which is actually a point that Socrates made) focusing on stimuli rather than on things themselves.  Continuing on the theme of dreams:  man permits himself to be lied to in his dreams, and this does not even bother him morally.  (N. is perhaps the first to suggest that it ever should.)  [An interesting aspect of this paragraph is that N. is not here attacking truth.  He thinks that intellect is more designed for untruth than for truth, that’s all.]

N. is skeptical that man can know himself or even perceive himself completely.  Nature keeps him in the realm of consciousness, far from such things as the intestines or blood flow.  Consciousness itself is both proud and deceptive.  If you are curious to peer beyond consciousness you will see that man rests on such ugly stuff as lack of mercy and greed.  He is ignorant of all of this, but he is indifferent to that ignorance.  He lives in a dreamworld, but underneath him is a tiger [which reminds one of the Dionysian truth of BT].  So how do we get the urge to truth (i.e. given the importance of simulation)?

Intellect is mostly used for the simulation that is needed for self-preservation.  But for social purposes man banishes the Hobbesian war of all against all, or at least the crudest form of it is banished.  It is this peace pact that brings the urge for truth. The first laws of truth will be based on the names for things.  All people are obliged to call things by certain names (i.e. to preserve the peace.)  The contrast between truth and lie emerges here, for the liar violates the rules by misnaming, i.e. using the word “rich” when “poor" would be correct.  These rules are a matter of fixed conventions, and the liar violates them.  The liar thus can damage others and will therefore be excluded.   Men at this stage want not to be damaged by deception, and are concerned more with the consequences of deception then of deception itself.  The conventions of language themselves are questionably the produce of knowledge or a sense of truth.  It is questionable that language expresses all realities.  
N. goes on to discuss the illusion of possessing a “truth.”  It is notable that “truth” is in quote marks.  If you are deluded into thinking you possess truth then you do not really have it.  You might also have realized that it was not really truth, but then forgot.  There is one kind of truth which is simply an empty shell, a tautology.  This may satisfy some.  But those who are not satisfied with this will be satisfied with illusions taken as truths.  This leads to a discussion of words themselves.  A words is a nerve stimulus in sounds.  We infer a cause outside us, but this is an illegitimate use of reason.  (Here, N. is following Kant.)  Truth and certainty did not determine the origin of language, i.e. the meanings of terms.  Following Locke, “hard” is a totally subjective stimulation.  Thus to say the stone is hard is to be caught in an illusion.  We also see that language creates illusions in its arbitrary designation of some objects as masculine and others as feminine.  When we choose to designate some thing by a word we tend to do so based on preferring some one property of that thing, and not necessarily one that is exclusive to that thing.

Then when we consider that we have different languages, we see that each one works about equally well even though each is so different.  So maybe the purpose of language is not one-to-one accuracy or correspondence to reality.  Pure truth would reflect the Kantian thing-in-itself independent of our experiences.  But this is not captured by language and this goal was certainly not in the minds of the creators of language.  After all, language is more practical than that.  Language is there to deal with relations of things to man.  To do this, bold metaphors are needed.  A metaphor says that “A is B” where B really belongs to a different category of being. The first metaphor in our sequence is “Nerve stimulus x is image y.”  The second is “Image y is sound z”  The sound imitates the image.  I had said we are talking about different categories:  N. speaks of this as leaping from one sphere to another.  A deaf person might think he understands what is meant by “sound” by looking at Chadli’s sound figures, but he would be mistaken.  Similarly we think we know something about the things-in-themselves referred to by the word “tree.”  But the word is just a metaphor and corresponds in no way to its referent: “the mysterious X of the thing in itself first appears as a nerve stimulus, then as an image, and finally as a sound.”  So language does not arise from logic but from a series of metaphors.  So the material used by the scientist and the philosopher does not arise from logic or from the essence of things.
A word becomes a concept when it is not intended to remind us of the unique thing which gives rise to it.  When a word is supposed to fit many similar things, none of which are strictly equal, then we have a concept.  So concepts begin with us equating what is unequal.  So the concept “leaf” is an arbitrary abstraction from differences.  This is achieved through forgetting about these differences.  This gives rise to belief in things like Platonic Forms, i.e that there is something that “leaf” refers to, individual leaves all being inadequate copies of this.

A similar strategy is followed with respect to general human principles.  (Socrates and Plato, remember, were mainly interested in these.)  So we say that a person acted honestly because of his honesty, as though honesty were a thing inside him.  This is similar to saying that the essential leaf is the cause of individual leaves.  But we know nothing of some essence called “honesty” [here, N.s anti-essentialism is made clear].  We only know individual acts called “honest” all of which are different or unequal.  The name “honesty” refers to some hidden quality.  Nature however has no forms, concepts, or species.  It only has the inaccessible undefinable X.  Even the contrast between individual and species is human-centered, although it is still possible that this relation does still exist in the essence of things.
Truth then (or at least what we call truth) is nothing but a series, or really large collection of, metaphors.  (The “mobile army” metaphor needs sorting out.  One thinks first of a vast collection of metaphors, but also of one that moves about in the sense that there is flexibility to the system of metaphors that is truth.)  We should not forget some other things quite similar to metaphors, for example metonymy.  After all “metaphor” is just another concept and we should not ignore the differences between the things it covers.  Anthropomorphisms are important too since in a sense all the metaphors we have been talking about are anthropomorphisms:  they treat everything as an extension of man.   One difficulty here is that, previously, N. was speaking of truth as what metaphors fail to get at, i.e. the essence of things.  Now he is saying that what we call truth is really an army of metaphors.  Another way to put it is that the only truth that matters to us humans is what can be analyzed as an army of metaphors:  truth to essences or to things-in-themselves is impossible.  

N. goes on to speak of this army as “a sum of human relations,” which of course emphasizes that each metaphor is an anthropomorphism that focuses on how the object is related to man.  These relations are “enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically.”  N. doesn't mention it, but of course metaphor is essential to both poetry and rhetoric.  So, he is suggesting that we cannot separate the poetic/rhetorical dimension of language and meaning from the scientific dimension.  Why is this not obvious to us?  Because long use has made these metaphors canonical.   People are obligated to use words in this way, as was mentioned previously. 

“Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.” This means that what we call truths are these accepted metaphors insofar as they are seen no longer as metaphors:  we have forgotten their origins.  An example would be "That is a duck" and another would be "A duck is a bird." One feature of this process is that the metaphors, as they become rigid, lose their sensual power.  N. in a way is interested in retrieving this aspect of language…returning to the body and its sensual powers.  Another metaphor he uses to describe this process is that of coins that have lost their images (i.e. their metaphoricity) but still have a practical function in commerce.

We still have the question of where the urge to truth comes from.  The issue is now complicated because we are using “truth” in two senses.  One sense refers to the conventional illusions that all accept for practical purposes, and the other refers to the urge to break beneath these illusions.  The first sense refers to the obligation imposed by society, i.e. the customary metaphors and the unconscious lies made according to convention insofar as we are part of a human herd.  [Whether or not something can be a lie if unconscious is open to question:  maybe you need to be partially conscious of it for it to be a lie.] This is man’s “sense of truth.”  Also a kind of morality is connected with this:  one contrasts oneself against the liar, who is then excluded from society if caught.  (N. is setting us up however to have some sympathy for the liar who violates social convention, just as he did in the Birth of Tragedy.  There, he favors the sacrilegious violator of convention.)

N. here stresses the way in which abstractions control the behavior of those humans who consider themselves rational beings.  Such humans will not allow themselves to be carried away by impressions or intuitions.  They work with cooler (more Apollonian, to use his older language) concepts.  [We begin to see that metaphor, when still living, represents the Dionysian side of language and truth.]  N. is often seen as attacking correspondence theory of truth but he is also putting the pragmatist theory of truth in a certain place, and not the primary place.   That is, he is not a pragmatist with regards to truth. “What is true is what works” might well be the theme of the sense of truth that works only with “cool” concepts.  It is there to guide life, but not in all ways or respects.

N. goes so far as to see this truth as what distinguishes man from animals.  We are the ones who turn metaphors into schemata and dissolve images into concepts.  Animals just work with “vivid first impressions” but we can construct a systematic understanding and ordering of the world symbolized here by pyramids, castes, degrees, laws, boundaries, and so forth. This world is seen as being more solid, but also more universal and better known, and also more human.  It is opposed to the “immediately perceived world.”  [N. seems to confuse the immediately perceived world with the world in which metaphors are seen as metaphors.  It is not clear that he has shown that these are really the same.  For example, are animals going to see the world in metaphors.  N. seems to have argued previously that they do not]

This section of the paragraph takes us to a new idea.  In this case, we look at the pre-conceptual metaphors, what he calls “perceptual metaphors,” each one of which is individual.  This may be an attempt to resolve the issue I just raised.  Turning again to the “edifice of concepts” we find that it is rigid not only like a pyramid but like a Roman columbarium [public storage of cemetery urns]:  a formal collection of dead metaphors.  And of course it has relations both to logic and to mathematics in coolness as well as strength.  The concept is further characterized as being like a die, not only in being dead and rigid (“bony”) but also in being mathematics like and moral (“foursquare”).  Of course “die” makes reference to chance by way of craps.  So, again, truth of this sort is a matter of accurate counting and categorization, always keeping in mind the way this works in terms of social relations, i.e. in relation to “caste and class rank.”  N. is interesting (like Foucault, who followed him in this) in tying the question of knowledge close to that of class.  In fact every people mathematically divides up the concept heaven by where each conceptual god (the gods become the Forms or the abstract concepts that order our world, at least in a secular society.)  [This metaphor is interesting when you look at how people can refuse to move out of traditional categorical ways of thinking because they are safe.  Responses to my own work in aesthetics often arise from the fear that the merely pleasant will be confused with the aesthetic experiences of art.  Fear of confusion is the dominating mode, for example, in analytic philosophy in general, and in analytic aesthetics in particular.] 

This is a funny sort of admiration when one admires someone who constructing something infinitely complicated on an unstable foundation…a kind of back-handed admiration.  N. continues the metaphor through a spider (the construction must be both delicate and strong) and a bee (man is far above him since he builds from delicate, again, conceptual material from himself).  Although this is admirable, but N. thinks man is not to be admired for his drive to truth.  [Note that in both analogies the stress is placed on how we are similar to but different from other animals.]  He is not to be admired as he is just finding something where he previously hid it.  Here, “truth” has scare quotes.  The false truth is truth found in the realm of reason.  He follows this with the modified idea that it is truth but truth with a “limited value.”

At last N. makes it clear that he is distinguishing between what he calls “anthropomorphic truth,” i.e. this “limited value” truth, and “true in itself” which would be “universally valid apart from man.”   The first sort of truth is just “metamorphosis of the world into man.”  That is, the world-as-we-experience-it under this regime is only valid for man.   In being analogous to man, such a world is really, ultimately a metaphor for man.  The result of struggles to achieve such a truth is felt assimilation of man and world.  Another way he puts it is that the universe man’s echo, although of course, fractured infinitely.  An example of this way of seeing things is astrology in which everything that happens in the stars relates directly to our lives.  So, following the famous saying of Protagoras, the great relativist of ancient Greece, on this view man is the measure of all things, except in this case the things are thought, falsely, to be mere objects that are distinct from man.  This is the mistake of taking a perceptual metaphor falsely to be the thing itself.

One gains repose and security and consistency from this forgetting, i.e. from petrifying images that streamed from the human imagination “like fiery liquid.”  [N. is here speaking almost in a mystical way of the primal imagination.]  We have faith that the objects before us are examples of “truth in itself.”  So what we are doing here is forgetting that aspect of ourselves as “artistically crating” and in return we get repose, security and consistency.  Escaping from such faith would destroy human self-consciousness.  N. returns here to the idea that insects and birds perceive different worlds from us, worlds that, it is difficult for us to admit, are no less correct (or rather to ask the question of correctness is meaningless) since correctness would require a non-available criterion.

It is impossible to adequately express an object in a subject, i.e. in a correct perception, since the subject sphere is completely different from the object sphere, and there is no causality, correctness or expression-connection between these.  Instead there is only an “aesthetic relation” by which he means something more metaphorical or more related to judgments of taste or art, I presume.  He also talks of the relation as one of “suggestive transference” and “stammering translation.”  The next passage is quite puzzling, especially since he did not previously refer to an “I,” and so there is no reference for the phrase “which I.”  He may be suggesting that there must be some intermediate or mediating sphere (maybe constituted as an artistic or creative “I”) to carry out the translation between the realm of the subject and the realm of the object.  He also thinks it misleading to speak of the essence of things as appearing in the empirical world.

N. then continues with the idea of an artist doing the work of translation.  The point that a painter who, rather strangely, has no hands, and wishes to express the pictures in his mind in song, would substitute the song sphere for the sphere of pictures or images, and would reveal more of the essence of things than the empirical world does…this point is Schopenhauer’s.  Next, the relationship of nerve stimulus to generated image is not necessary but, through habit, it acquires a certain necessity, even as if it were strictly causal necessity.  This would be no different from believing in the reality of a dream merely because it was repeated eternally.  That a metaphor is hardened does not guarantee its necessity.
Belief that the hardened metaphor reflects reality is a form of idealism.  The laws of nature may be consistent, everywhere, and also quite fallible.  I find this paragraph quite puzzling.  Although N. is talking at first about someone who has a “deep mistrust of all idealism” he then talks seemingly of the same person as very convinced that what we can know is “secure, complete, infinite, regular, and without any gaps.”  This would be the kind of naïve idealist N. would normally criticize.  The next sentence also stresses science’s continued success and the non-contradictory nature of what it discovers.  One could say that here we are talking about the world-of-experience and not the thing-in-itself.  This is not easily seen as a product of imagination since we cannot easily tell which is illusion and which reality.  But it is not clear what “against this” refers to. What is the “this” the following sentence is against?  I think it is against the over-confidence in the scientific attitude.  The counter to this is the imagined situation that we could perceive things from widely different perspectives.  Under those conditions we could not speak of regularity of nature, and nature would be seen as subjective.

We are not acquainted with laws of nature in themselves, only with their effects, i.e. their relations to other laws of nature.  So, all of these laws are nothing but the sums of these relations.  We cannot understand them in their essence.  Kant believed that we bring space and time to experience.  N. adds that we can only know about laws of nature relations of succession and number.  What is marvelous about laws of nature and which leads us to distrust idealism [is idealism, then, something positive on N.s view in this essay?] is contained in the math of time and space, which we produce from ourselves, and so it is not really amazing that we only comprehend these forms.

So, again, the conformity to law we find in the astronomy and chemistry is based only on what we bring to things.  Also the very “artistic process of metaphor formation with which every sensation begins in us already presupposes these forms.”  So we cannot escape this just by turning to something artistic or artlike.    We can only construct “a new conceptual edifice from metaphors themselves” by way of the persistence of these original forms.  Is N. here talking about limitations for the tragic man? 

This paragraph makes explicit that language starts the process of constructing concepts and that science continues it.  He continues the metaphor of the columbarium and the construction of the entire anthropomorphic world.  He speaks of two types in their relation to the columbarium:  the man of action and the scientific investigator.  The later needs shelter there from “powers which continuously break in upon him” and pose different kinds of “truth.”  This passage is interesting but confusing:  how seriously should we take the scare quotes here?  There truths are probably the truths of mythology found in the Birth of Tragedy.  Are we speaking of poetic truths here?  Maybe the scientific truths require scare quotes as much as these?

The idea that we cannot dispense with metaphor in thought was taken up later for example by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By.  N. here insists that the drive to form metaphors is not even subdued by the columbarium of science.  It just seeks “another channel for its activity” and it finds this in myth and art.  Whereas the scientific impulse keeps categories separate, myth and art confuse categories through transferences, metaphors and metonymies.  It tries to make the world of making man “colorful, irregular…charming, and eternally new.”  This is the other “truths” referred to earlier.  We have finally got to the whole point of the essay.  We need the web of concepts to see that we are awake and when it is torn by art we think we are dreaming.  I think here of the passages on dreaming in the Birth of Tragedy.
Of course we would be as occupied with the dream if it was the same every night.   N. goes further and speaks of the ancient Greeks as an example of a people who are mythically inspired and who see the world as one in which “miracles are always happening.”  Their world is like that of the dream.  [In a way N. is suggesting that the artistic “truth” is as valid as the scientific “truth.” but in a different way.]   Nature then seems like a “masquerade of the gods.”   

There is another kind of self-deception, in which we are deceived by the story-teller, and the intellect, which always is deceiving anyway, is free, richer, etc., moving abstractions etc.

The framework that satisfies the “needy man” is just scaffolding for the “liberated intellect.”  He smashes it, and then puts it together again, pairing things previously thought alien, and separating things thought close.  So he will be “guided by intuitions rather than by concepts.”  There is not regular path from intuitions to abstractions.  
N. seems to be treating the rational man and the intuitive man as equals here.  [When I look at the literature it appears that no one stresses that in the end of the essay there are two “truths” in competition.]  The idea that both “desire to rule over life” makes one think of the will to power.  The second type is portrayed as a hero devoted to overjoy, beauty and illusion.  He is somewhat like the Apollonian naïve artist.  N. thinks that in ancient Greece the intuitive man took over and established a culture where art is master over life.  It seems that N. is forgetting that art has a Dionysian side as well.  This life is dominated by “immediacy of deception.”  All artifacts are intended to express not only happiness but “a playing with seriousness.”  The rational man, by contrast, does not gain happiness for himself by his abstractions.  The intuitive man [who seems favored here] harvests in his culture “illumination, cheer, and redemption” as well as “defense against misfortune.”

But he suffers more intensely when he does.  The reference is to Thales who fell into a ditch when looking at the stars.  This was always a symbol of the philosopher, but now N. uses it to symbolize the artist.  The stoical man is of course more admirable on one level, but he is also a great deceiver.  In misfortune he deceives himself and us.  He wears a mask of dignity.   The essay ends. 

The essay is obviously incomplete:  why would one end here?  N. of course, as someone who constantly suffers physically, has much to admire in the Stoic.

What then is N.s view of truth in this essay?  I think it is basically this.  Truth itself is mainly unachievable, although sometimes philosophers, like N. himself, have a glimmering insight into it.  It is unachievable because there is no match between language and the thing-in-itself, and we can never escape anthropomorphism.  However, there are two things called "truth" for humans, both of them illusions.  The first is that of the rational man, which is valuable for practical purposes, and is based on building a web of concepts based on dead metaphors.  The second is that of the artistic man, which depends on the existence of the web of concepts, but violates conventional categorization and, through imagination, creates a form of mythical truth that is actually closer (in keeping with the philosophy of The Birth of Tragedy) with the true truth.  Just as tragedy is the most valuable art form and comes from a combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, so too truth in its highest human form (and N. does not explicitly say this) will incorporate both the "truth" of the artist and the "truth" of the scientist.  I think this is true and that N. got it basically right. 

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