Nietzsche: Knowledge and Truth

June 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

Text: On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

Nietzsche’s view of the value of truth can be seen to be essentially anti-realist: in the sense that through being in touch with, or having knowledge of the world (intellect and sense) we impoverish experience through simplification of the things we are encountering. What corresponds to the thing-in-itself is unattainable; thereby we falsify the world when we try to define it. In On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense two specific lines of thought to express this position are clear. This position also attends to Nietzsche’s position on Tragedy: that is his conception of the Apolline and Dionysian sense of the world. Through this a larger implication for understanding Nietzsche’s grander scheme of philosophy can be viewed.

In On Truth and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense Nietzsche makes an argument based on the need for and construction of language for consciousness. He asserts that what matters about words is never truth. Language in this sense is first and foremost metaphor. It is disconnected to things-in-themselves. He argues that we create understanding through effects of our constructs. We can only recognize laws of nature in relation to other laws of nature. This is a system of difference, close if not exactly reflective of Saussure’s theory of a language of difference.

Nietzsche identifies that between the two absolutely different spheres of subject and object there is no causality or correctness, but an aesthetic attitude. This can be seen to correlate to his conception of the Apolline world of images. He is asserting that knowledge and understanding, as they arise through language, are constructs of an aesthetic and abstract attitude. For Nietzsche the construction of concepts is an aesthetic attitude, and a function of language and later, science. We intuit metaphors and transform them into abstract patterns.

Nietzsche favors a pre-consciousness life in which connection to the world has not yet become distorted or simplified. This idea in particular is connected to Nietzsche’s conception of, and favoring of, the Dionysian personality. The Dionysian experience is one without form, without images or constructs, is not dream like but primordial and sprouted from instincts and intoxication (by which one loses touch with the abstractions connected with consciousness) and is closely connected with music rather than dialogue or drama. This experience or way of being is connected to the things-in-themselves that drift under language constructs.

I use the word drift, as Nietzsche seems to be preempting linguistic studies, especially arguments made by Derrida, who claims that language, as signifier and signified, is entirely disconnected from referent. For Saussure and Derrida language is also a system of differences, as Nietzsche argues here in this chapter. However, Derrida’s concept of Differance which implies no hierarchical structure between writing, speaking or thinking, seems to be closer to Nietzsche’s conception as both philosophers disconnecting the actual act of consciousness from things in the world themselves.

Nietzsche finally makes a distinction between rational man and intuitive man. Intuitive man is irrational, just as rational man is inartistic. Rational man seeks to meet the greatest needs with foresight and regularity. The intuitive man regards life as real only when it is disguised as make believe and beauty. Whilst in contemporary times intuitive man might seem to resemble irresponsibility, Nietzsche argues that in Ancient Greece such a position yielded a continuous flow of illumination, comfort and redemption, and thus happiness in the face of the grand illusion of language and consciousness. Such Dionysian characteristics as intuition and scorn of abstraction draw a human closer to truth, to interacting with things in the world as things-in-themselves.

From this framework Nietzsche is able to claim that it is a moral prejudice that truth is somehow more valuable than mere appearance of truth. He goes as far as to question whether true and false are opposed, another development of a linguistic, dialectic argument. What is important for Nietzsche is that judgments be assessed on their appeal to and advancement of life. What is clear is that truth is not intrinsically valuable as any conception we have of it is built on abstractions and falsified.

Nietzsche’s argument about truth is a linguistic argument about the constructs of consciousness and disconnection from things-in-themselves. Strong similarities can be seen to later philosophies of language such as those of Saussure, through Derrida. Nietzsche is essentially arguing that constructs of language, which act as signs (signifiers and signified) are disconnected from their referents. The things-in-themselves, which are the truth of the world, could be seen to ‘drift’ under language and abstraction. Nietzsche favors a pre-consciousness existence, one that can be seen as an echo of his favoring of the Dionysian experience in his conception of tragedy. With regard to Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, this pre-consciousness, formless concept of truth is essential. Knowledge and understanding are abstractions and constructs that have little to do with such truth, but are valuable in their abilities to advance life. Truth, thus is not intrinsically valuable.


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