Nietzsche’s View on the Self-Deception in Speaking About “Truth”

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In his 1873 essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche argues that there is a profound level of self-deception inherent in the way that humans employ language. The very “drive to truth” that we constantly exhibit, Nietzsche observes, is one that has been made manifest in a great deal of scientific and philosophical inquiry. He writes that the entire idea of achieving objectivity and disinterestedness in these disciplines, however, is illusory. Rather than getting access to the very nature of things in themselves, we are only capable of using certain designations for objects and concepts in the world around us. Such designations are what Nietzsche refers to as “the first laws of truth,” agreements that have been made over the use of language and which eventually have become fixed rules and norms. Ultimately, these are components within human language that act as convenient tools for communication and cooperation, but they are tools which have always reflected our own values and interests as a species.

It is after presenting his definition of truth— as a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms”—that Nietzsche goes into the greatest detail concerning his view of the nature of what we generally assume to be truths. In reality, he posits, these things are “illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions.” His comparison of truths to worn-away coins is especially instructive. The underlying assumption on Nietzsche’s part is that everything known to mankind has at one time or another been given a face, but that this particular identity has since worn away. For Nietzsche, in fact, the human assumption that objective knowledge is somehow able to be obtained is characteristic of man’s haughtiness as an animal from the first development of cognition. We tend to think far too highly, he argues, of our intellect and of our capacity for understanding the nature of things around us.

There is one important way in which Nietzsche’s arguments can be applied to the discipline of literary criticism. In contrast with other nineteenth century contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, who saw the textual critic as an individual capable of seeing things as they truly are, the task of criticism in Nietzsche’s view is one which ought to be seen as capable only of producing approximations and metaphors; we never encounter the realities themselves. Criticism can go only as far as language is capable of going.

To demonstrate this, Nietzsche has his reader consider the very development of language, something which begins with a stimulus that the mind translates into an image. That image, in turn, is eventually developed into an audible sound. In his own metaphor here regarding the transference of nerves to images, Nietzsche may be assigning the creation of linguistic thought to a purely mechanical and passive process. The origin of human language lies in such a process, where chemical reactions and electrical impulses did all of the processing of knowledge for us. The critic who relies on language to uncover truths, then, must remember that he or she is simply incapable of going beyond these metaphorical limitations of language. This is because the manner by which humans have always organized thoughts and categories of things cannot be separated from the initial stimuli that planted such conceptions in our ancestors’ minds. Those conceptions, Nietzsche argues, were always removed from the true “essence of things” themselves.

Ultimately, it is the realization of this particular process of language development and its shortcomings that prompts Nietzsche to question whether we can really come to an objective understanding of anything at all. Human language has always been built around such metaphors and invented concepts, things which are intended to articulate what is supposed to be the truth. That very fact, however, has been ignored by those who suppose themselves to be pursuing ultimate truth. It is precisely in this sense that mankind can be said to be deceptive, Nietzsche would argue, even though the species is not carrying out such deception in an immoral sense. Rather, humans have neglected to remember that all of these things originated from metaphors which were always sought to explain largely incomprehensible realities. Forgetting this was the only manner in which mankind could survive with at least “some degree of peace, security, and consistency.”

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