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On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

Friedrich Nietzsche

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.

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The Problem with Ideology

The National Dictionary of 1939 defines ideology as “the science of ideas.” Since then, ideology has taken on other meanings—specifically of dogma and a rigid, doctrinaire understanding of the world. After the Second World War, both communism and fascism were labelled political ideologies, but that label can be applied to a variety of political beliefs. Ideology today constitutes a rigid set of political or social doctrines and ideas that frame a ‘black and white’ worldview.

Ideology is harmful because it reduces the complexity of human life and society to ultimates. It substitutes conscious reflection and careful consideration with axioms meant to apply to all situations. To an ideologue, for instance, ‘X’ will always supply the solution for every problem. “One simply turns to the ideological vending machine,” Daniel Bell once wrote, “and out comes the prepared formulae.”

Ideologues believe in an interpretation of history that places them at the peak of a great historical project—the sum total of enlightenment and progress. Anyone who doesn’t agree is either ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous–a political enemy. He or she is unable to understand how anyone can see things a different way.

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Incrementalism vs. Revolution

In any political or social philosophy, there are those who believe they can achieve their goals all at once or in a series of large jumps, and those who believe broad-based change should be (or is most rationally) achieved through incremental change. Incremental change is the more pragmatic and beneficial method, and more likely to achieve long term success. Incrementalism is also more compatible with a voluntary society. Revolutionary change inevitably requires intrusive central planning, compulsory work systems, or violence to bring everyone immediately in line with its goals.

Most goals are achieved through incremental action–one step building on another. If you wanted to build a house, you can’t simply blink it into existence complete and all at once. Yes, you need a vision for how it will look, but you also need a blueprint and a plan of action. You need to raise funds, hire carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, and purchase raw materials. A frame needs to be erected, foundations poured, etc. Each step in the process is an incremental change toward your end goal.

Fundamentally changing society or government is a much more complicated process than building a house. It’s easy to forget there are many competing factions with their own ideas for how to govern. Some are large, some small, some with vast resources, and some that wield considerable political or social clout. None of them are going to just step aside and allow you to remake the country into something that fundamentally conflicts with their own vision and goals.

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Dewey and Husserl on the Western Crisis

In the early twentieth century, academics sensed a crisis in Western (European and American) thought. A profound skepticism and melancholy seemed to grip Western culture. People lost faith in traditional academic disciplines, like philosophy, to address social problems and provide a sense of purpose and direction. American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had different responses to this crisis. Dewey argued that philosophy must become practical, while Husserl believed philosophy must continually find new areas for science to investigate. That way, philosophy could be saved from the intellectual trash bin.

John Dewey
John Dewey

Dewey believed the crisis in Western thought, a crisis which leads to anxiousness and pessimistic uncertainty, originated in Platonic dualism―the separation of concepts like Truth, Being, and Value from the changing physical world, and their removal from empirical study. The growing complexity of such thought led it further and further away from practical application, and the brightest minds spent their time studying algorithms and abstractions instead of applying their knowledge to the practical world.

As a pragmatist, Dewey called for a reconstruction in philosophy along pragmatic grounds, which would eventually bring abstract thought back to a realm of usefulness. We should take our beliefs in concepts like truth and value and put them to the test just as we do with other considerations. If it turns out those concepts have some practical use, we should keep them. If they don’t, we shouldn’t waste any more time or resources theorizing about them. There is no longer any scientific support, Dewey claimed, for morality standing outside the natural processes of change. Nor can science deny morality is a realm open to scientific inquiry.

If the crisis is to be solved, science and philosophy must be reunited. Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy: “can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing… the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and exclusively human.” In other words, philosophy should be aimed at the natural, not the ‘supra’ natural of Plato’s forms, or the abstract spirit-driven historical method of Hegel.

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A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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Hegel and Kant on Art

Why is art beautiful? Does art reveal something about truth? Is truth identical to beauty? German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) both contemplated these questions, and they came up with different answers. For Hegel, truth and beauty are found in art. For Kant, truth and beauty are in the mind of the beholder.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

According to Kant, when we view beautiful art, we recognize it as beautiful (a judgement of taste) because of the feeling it arouses. Liveliness of the mind brought about by a “harmony of the cognitive powers” is the basis of tasteful judgment. This feeling of harmony shows us that beauty is in our minds, and is not a quality that an object possesses.

The two cognitive powers at work when we perceive the beautiful are imagination and understanding. Understanding allows us to recognize the universal. The “free-play” resulting from these two cognitive powers in harmony together is sensed by the effect it has on the mind and produces a sense of pleasure.

When someone recognizes beauty and experiences this feeling of “free-play”, they assume everyone else also feels that way about the object, since everyone has the ability to experience the interaction between imagination and understanding. The ability for everyone to experience that particular feeling is what makes it universally subjective. Because of this, for Kant, a judgment of beauty requires agreement between observers.

Form and design are both essential to beautiful art, according to Kant, because they each play a role in how we judge what is beautiful. Only from form can we “abstract from the quality of the kind of sensation in question.” Kant believed that all primary colors, which are kinds of forms, are beautiful because they have yet to be mixed together. He does not believe mixed colors are beautiful because “we lack a standard of judging whether we should call them pure or impure.” Purity is an important aspect of form.

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Quills: Madness in the Age of Reason

quillsQuills (2000), a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, France, wonderfully echoes the themes in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book, Madness and Civilization (1965). Michel Foucault (1926-1984) originally wrote Madness and Civilization as his doctoral thesis. It examines ideas, practices, institutions, art, and literature relating to insanity in Western history.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) was a French aristocrat imprisoned for crimes including blasphemy and sodomy. He became a revolutionary politician and anonymously authored several erotic novels, including Justine and Juliette. He spent his twilight years imprisoned in Charenton asylum after Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the author of Justine and Juliette, which he considered blasphemous and obscene. At Charenton, under the care of Abbé de Coulmier, de Sade had an affair with 14-year-old Madeleine LeClerc. These events formed the historical basis for the movie Quills.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. The film opens during the French Revolution. Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) witnesses the execution of a young aristocratic woman from the window of his prison cell in the Bastille. The executioner is none other than Bouchon, who later appears as the most disturbed patient at Charenton. “One day, Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man every bit as perverse as she, a man whose skill in the art of pain exceeded her own,” de Sade explained to the audience. Later, when his services were no longer needed, the poor wretch was locked up without any kind of treatment (because, as Foucault tells us, madness was not considered to be an ‘illness’ at the time). The implication was that justice in the “Age of Reason” was dolled out by the insane.

When Napoleon orders de Sade’s execution, an advisor suggests instead that he send Doctor Antoine Royer-Collard, “a staunchly moral man of impeccable character,” to appraise the situation at Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

“Welcome to our humble madhouse doctor,” de Sade says as Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) arrives at Charenton. “I’m sure you’ll find yourself at home.” Historically, Royer-Collard arrived in 1806. He did not believe de Sade was insane and petitioned to have him sent to a regular prison. In Quills, the character of the doctor symbolizes several themes in Foucault’s work. He presents himself as a purely rational and moral man. Because human passions were seen as a form of madness, the doctor shows his sanity by being totally dispassionate. He places an iron barrier between himself and those he considers insane.