On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
Posted by Michael Kleen
In the essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche critiques the traditional concept of truth (as an objective descriptor). He explains the moral origins of truth, how language manufactures the illusion of truth, and shows the aesthetic connection between truth and illusion. In the end, Nietzsche argues all concepts are metaphors which do not correspond to reality.
Nietzsche claims the human propensity for deception developed in order to preserve “the weaker individual” because he was denied other natural defenses, and it was strange a drive for truth even appeared under these circumstances. The drive for truth developed from the human need to exist within a social group. This demanded an agreed upon truth, settling conventions to be accepted among all members of the group.
Liars violate this unspoken agreement by twisting conventions to their advantage at the expense of others. So, Nietzsche says, what we hate isn’t deception itself, but the “consequences of certain sorts of deception.” Therefore, the origin of truth is moral, because it regulates certain social behavior.
Language, for Nietzsche, plays a large role in how illusion is mistaken for truth. In the German language, nouns are arbitrarily assigned genders. There is no compelling reason why, for example, der Baum (the tree) was assigned the masculine “der” instead of the feminine “die” or neutral “das.” The gender pronoun is simply a convention and says nothing about the tree itself. This arbitrariness is particularly obvious when the words are translated to English.
Likewise, the German the word Schlange (snake) is similar to schlingen (twist), because clearly, a snake twists. A Wurm (worm), however, also twists in a manner identical to the snake. Why the similarity between schlingen and Schlange but not Wurm? Why did we pick that particular quality of a snake to describe it over anything else?
Words are really just metaphors for groups of sensory qualities. “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for these things…” he argues. When we see an object, that stimulus enters our brain and we assign an arbitrary symbol to it. So, when the scientist or philosopher thinks he or she is deriving truth from these “metaphors”, they might as well be taking the truth out of “never-never land.”
Concepts, like “leaf,” are created by taking similar objects and discarding any differences that make them unique. If you picked up a maple leaf and compared it side by side with an oak leaf, or even another maple leaf, you would see no two leaves are exactly the same. Yet in order to make sense of these objects, we consciously discard their differences and merge them into a single concept called “leaf”. Philosophers like Plato, who thought he discovered truth, mistakenly assumed there was some perfect form of a leaf out of which all other leaves were imperfectly derived.
The aesthetic connection between truth and illusion is one that appears the very moment we create concepts. Man is an artist, building with the conceptual material in his mind. Only because we forgot the metaphorical origins of truth can we live with any security in our ideas. “…only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency,” argued Nietzsche. If man realized the whole universe and all of its apparent truths were merely artificial mental constructions, it would destroy his “self-consciousness.”
All we really know about the world is what we ourselves bring to it. Scientists repeatedly manufacture new metaphors and solidify old ones, a purely artistic endeavor. This is why truth and illusion are inseparable for Nietzsche, because truth itself is an illusion created to explain our world. The same thing that drives art also drives science. Just as art has to keep changing to accommodate new tastes, science also reinvents its theories about the universe every so often in order to preserve the freshness of the illusion.
Nietzsche praised the ancient Greeks for living in a culture that artistically blurred the lines between myth and the natural world. In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” he appeals to us to enjoy life by realizing that everything is an artistic creation, and calls on us to live the life of an artist.