TRUTH vs. truth

Pardon me if this post ends up being obvious to everyone but me, but I’m trying to work out the relation between Nz’s perspectivism and truth, and I need to go back and retrace some steps.

Let’s start with a Kantian/Schopenhauerian division between the phenomenal and the noumenal. In other words, there is the apparent world — what we all take to be real when we’re not engaged in philosophy or religion — and the TRUE world, the real world, the ultimate reality that someone like God would know. Generally, there is a failure of correspondence between our beliefs and TRUTH. Perhaps we get some glimpse now and then, through the logic of pure concepts or through magnificent works of art or genuine moral insights. But on the whole, our beliefs are only metaphors for the TRUTH.

It shouldn’t take long (and historically, didn’t) before we begin to question just how sure we are that there is any TRUTH in this sense. After all, “TRUTH” could be just a concept we have invented, right? It could be a term we came up with in order (for whatever reason) to denigrate our own knowledge, our own experience, and the things we ordinarily value. It also could be a kind of security blanket, since it suggests that the things we love which change and die in our world are not significant in the Big Scheme of Things, and Better Things await when we shuffle off this mortal coil. And so, in this skeptical mode, we may well reject TRUTH.

But what are we left with? We are left with our own experience, and our own values and desires and fears. We may still desire truth, but now this means the kind of truth that we can see confirmed in our experience. And if we delve inward, into truths about the kinds of beings we are, we enter into psychology. Psychology delivers perspectivism. We discover that we, being the creatures we are, orient our beliefs and attitudes around the states we naturally crave — feelings of power, especially. Different people, with different backgrounds and prejudices, will cultivate different perspectives which promote in us the feelings we want to have. “Reason is slave to the passions,” as Hume said. And none of us, not even the scientists, is immune from this condition.

Perspectives are malleable. We can discover that a perspective doesn’t work for us, or no longer works, which means that we are not getting out of it what we want (subconsciously, in nearly every case). We can change perspectives, compare perspectives, and argue over them. As a rule, we take them very seriously, and not merely as perspectives, but as truth or even TRUTH.

But perhaps there are some values in us that are completely intersubjective, meaning all humans have them and try to accommodate them through their perspectives. Nz suggests that we all value truth, and we all value health. The first value, he thinks, leads to perspectives which in the end do not do sufficient service to the value of health. Truth leads to the ideal of asceticism, which both religion and science worship. So, in his revaluation of all values, he proposes that we give the value of health pre-eminent status, and we start building perspectives that encourage us to affirm existence and seek out the means for increasing our own power.

This does not mean there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is not valuable. After all, there are truths about what really is healthy for us and what is not. But it does mean that our intentions and focus needs to shift to something like, “What will this do for us? What effect will this human pursuit have upon our larger pursuit of health?” The result is a radical psychological pragmatism, grounded in a concern for psychological strength. It is rather like urging a new perspective on a suicidal patient, in hopes of giving the patient a reason to live. (And biographically that must have been exactly what Nz himself needed.)

So Nz sees philosophers more as clinicians than as theoreticians. We have seen what valuing truth yields: nihilism and despair. As organic beings, it goes against our nature to want that. So, to serve our nature, we should try out valuing health over truth, and possibly even invent some ideas (like the will to power and the eternal recurrence) with the aim of encouraging in us the great health which says Yes to all things.

But what is the status of Nz’s insights into us as organic beings? It seems like he is broadly accepting a naturalistic, Darwinian account of us, coupled with his own pre-Freudian human psychology, all of which must be regarded as empirical. Are these beliefs merely perspectival? And if so, is there room for an alternative perspective? And if so, does Nz have any reason for preferring his own perspective to another?

My guess is that Nz does not really provide any such reasons. In part 5 of TI (“Morality as AntiNature”), he argues that we cannot ever be in a position to question the value of life/health. We would have to be able to adopt a perspective outside that of being a live animal in order to compare it with our perspective, and we can’t do that. But this all presumes that he has got “the perspective of being a live animal” right. If some one objects that we aren’t live animals, but something else (like incorporeal inhabitants of a body), or that live animals in fact do not value life/health, then it seems to me all he can do is blankly stare at the objector and say, “What peculiar psychological malady is prompting you to say this?” In other words, he can only try to pull them back into his perspective of what human beings are. I’m not sure this puts him in a bad position, since I myself think he’s got our nature right.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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12 Responses to TRUTH vs. truth

  1. Mike says:

    If some one objects that we aren’t live animals, but something else (like incorporeal inhabitants of a body).

    I want to explore this one in a Kilgore Trout sort of way. Sarah just finished the “His Dark Materials” series last night.


  2. Chris Cauley says:

    I’ll try to discuss this in the best Nz (me likey abbreviations) way possible. Much like morality and punishment I believe that if you did a genealogy of truth you’d find that the initial reason why we value truth and the initial concept of truth has little resemblance to the truth of today. This implies there is no TRUTH. Look at it this way: When a sculpture comes up to a marble slab there is no statue yet. Once the slab is carved there is a statue. However, in the absence of a human this statue differs little from the original piece of stone. You could even say that there is no slab of stone until a human looks at the initial piece of marble. Before that it just is what it is, and is very much like any other object. The differentiation is one we make. Another life form could make another differentiation, calling a piece of marble and a piece of granite the same object. If we think in terms of TRUTH, that is to say God’s Truth, it may be there, but we did not evolve a sense organ to detect this. I would argue that if God had a form of Truth, it wouldn’t even be called truth because it would be a different thing all together. Meaning, purpose, and truth are values we assign to things, since we invented truth, we invent all truths. Therefore there is no truth outside of human existence. If there was a non-human truth it would be something other than truth.


  3. I call this the problem of deriving an ‘ought’ from an Id.


  4. vacuouswastrel says:

    Far be it from me (bachelor’s a couple of years ago) to intrude on an actual philosopher, but I think you’re missing an aspect when you wonder whether N. has anything to say to objectors. Perhaps he would have nothing to say that would convince people who disagreed with him in that way, and perhaps you’re right that he’s right anyway. But we should also ask: even if he weren’t right, would he care?

    I think that seeing N. through the lens of “is his argument going to be convincing to those who don’t accept his premises” is inappropriate to him – as he himself makes no effort to convince people. Again and again he adresses himself to ‘free spirits’, or more often just to those who are one of ‘us’ – and he expressly says (iirc) that it is vulgar to expect the truth appropriate to one kind of man to be appropriate to another kind of man. In other words, to expect that one argument will convince everybody, regardless of their perspective, or to think that how universal an argument is is a good measure of its strength.

    So I think that after the moment of bafflement on his part, he would walk away and not care – if someone thought like that, after genuine reflection, he simply wouldn’t be part of N.’s rather specific target audience.

    On a related point, when you ask whether his empirical truths are perspectival, whether there are reasons to adopt one perspective rather than another – I think the answer to both is yes. Perspectivism of course means abandoning the objective, but it doesn’t mean relativity. We can instead move to the intersubjective. Ultimately, choices between perspectives, to the extent they are possible, are, like moral choices, “matters of taste”. If we think that there are in general commonalities of taste, then we do indeed have reasons to adopt his perspective rather than another. If some people have an aberrant sense of taste, that is their problem. When we are considering N. we can no longer think about whether there “are” reasons for one thought rather than another – reasons no longer “are”, but are “had”, by somebody in particular. One person may have reasons to believe him while another person may have no such reason.

    Of course, we do not always have to walk away from people with aberrant tastes. We may seek to turn their tastes against themselves, making their tastes not to their taste, as it were. Sometimes this may be a rational process – but other times we may have to resort to a direct assault on taste through art. I think a lot of Nietzsche should be regarded less as argument, or an attempt to engage, and more as oratory, an attempt to change our perspective by making our old perspective seem ugly to us and his perspective beautiful, through the skill of the rhetoric and not through its reason.


  5. Huenemann says:

    This is a good and thoughtful objection. I sort of agree with it, and sort of don’t. I think you are clearly right that Nietzsche was not involved in an antiseptic, intellectual exercise of cranking out arguments from apriori or shared premises to incontrovertible conclusions. He’s much more impassioned than that, and is surely not above turning up the rhetorical force to make his point seem attractive, in some sense. Indeed, there is a real sense in which Nz was not writing for anyone other than himself — he was putting his own thoughts on paper, making them clear to himself, and tracing out implications he hadn’t yet made himself aware of. Isn’t there some Nzean quote to the effect of, “He who writes for someone other than himself deserves not to be read”? (It may have been Schlegel; who cares?)

    Then again, I believe this is all that philosophers ever do, or ever should do: they ought to use their writing as a way of making clear to themselves what they believe, and why they believe it. When other people read it, they should feel the pull; they should get a sense of why the author views things this way, and see the attraction of it. As authors, we like to see that happen, since rationally or not it helps us feel as if we have struck a deep or significant chord. If someone reads what I write and thinks, “My god, maybe I believe that too,” then I feel as if I am onto something. I think it is for this reason that Nz did want readers, and even disciples (in a special sense). When we go through the business of reconstructing arguments, we are in fact trying to figure out for ourselves whether we agree with the author we’ve just confronted.

    So, in all, I think you are right to read Nz in the way you do. And I’d add to that that perhaps every philosopher should be read that way — even when they explicitly protest otherwise!


  6. Charlie, have you read Leiter’s “Nietzsche’s Naturalism Reconsidered”? He distinguishes between the “Humean Nietzsche” and the “Therapeutic Nietzsche,” arguing, pace Christopher Janaway, that there is an analytic (well, Leiter wouldn’t use ‘analytic’, but anyway…) strain in Nietzsche that can be disentangled from the narrative structures Nietzsche deploys to effect his therapeutic project. Worth reading.


  7. Huenemann says:

    Yes, I have read it, and I think Leiter is right, though at the same time such an approach misses what is to me the most compelling feature of Nz’s philosophy — the way in which he employed his philosophy as a means for reconciling himself to his own miserable life. Even the “therapeutic” readers like Janaway seem to underplay the relevance of Nz’s own biography, in my opinion.


  8. Huenemann says:

    By the way, I love the “deriving an ought from an Id” comment! I plan to use it and pawn it off as my own.


  9. “I plan to use it and pawn it off as my own.”

    Fine by me; I’ve always been skeptical of the existence of “original work” anyway.

    But I do want a finder’s fee. Say, an advance of a quarter of first print run total royalties against 10 points.


  10. Rob says:

    Michael’s gift for the pungent and pithy is impressive. One of my recent favorites is on McGinn’s blog (“Who Rules America?”).

    An important part of what I think Nietzsche is up to, performatively, is inspiring readers by the force of his dazzling rhetorical skill into a craving to participate in, or elevate oneself to, the sensibility from which such performances issue. Although in fact I think he lays out arguments more than he tends to be given credit for, there are plenty of places (especially TSZ) where it’s as if he’s providing the alluring precipitate of a position that must be explicated in terms of an argument in order to satisfy the attraction it wields. This, at least, has been my recent experience with TSZ. (I read much of Bernard Williams’ work as a rendering of some of those Nietzschean precipitates into the reasoning from which they issued.)


  11. Rob says:

    And by the way, Janaway has two recent papers which take some account of Leiter’s “Naturalism Reconsidered” paper (or, at least, those aspects of it which are also raised in Leiter’s review of Janaway’s book) — one in the most recent European J of Ph, the other in the most recent J of N Studies.


  12. Rob says:

    Maybe it’s just a foretaste of his mental collapse, a lapse into a kind of euphoric platonism, but in EH Nietzsche seems to me to be trying to supplant or advance beyond the opposition you outline between the values of health and truth (which of course figures prominently throughout his corpus) with a vision or idealization of their coincidence or unity. For example, at the conclusion of “Destiny” 5:

    “…the kind of man that [Zarathustra] conceives, conceives reality *as it is*: it is strong enough for that — it is not alienated from it, not at one remove from it, it is *reality itself*, it has all its terrible and questionable aspects, too; *that is the only way man can have greatness*…”


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