Truth And Lying In A Non Moral Sense Philosophy Essay

What is Nietzsche’s account of truth in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”? Can we regard this account as true, and in what sense of the word ‘true’? For what might Nietzsche’s conception of truth be useful? Can you see any drawbacks to Nietzsche’s conception of truth?

Nietzsche is not concerned with a theory of truth, but rather the role it plays as a concept intrinsic to society. However as far as his account of truth is concerned, he essentially denies truth as being a human construction of metaphors rather then an objective, existing, truth. To hold this account is to be both at once liberated from the practicalities that limit harm, but are non the less metaphors, to live “free of spirit” in a world of myth an intuition. By the same token, to take this stance is to allow oneself to be vulnerable to pain, since one who regards truth as a object of scepticism cannot learn from their mistakes, and therefore are destined to be harmed over and over.

Truth, to Nietzsche, refers to a amalgamation of conceptions and metaphors that roughly mirror the world based upon the physical stimulus, or images, that a person has of any object. [1] The claims we make toward ‘truths’ are merely subjective perspectives, bearing little or no actual relevance to reality. [2] 

A key drawback to this conception of truth is that, if we accept it, then we must also accept that we have no real knowledge, or at least, most of that which we had previously construed to be truth is not so, and that anything we say or conceive cannot be taken to be truth either.

The initial reasoning behind Nietzsche’s conception of truth can be derived from an evolutionary nature. Indeed this is exemplified by drawing toward Darwinian concepts of the “clever animals [which had] invented cognition” [3] in the opening sentence to Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense. This immediately sets the precedent to two very important issues that Nietzsche goes on to elaborate throughout the piece. The first is, as I mentioned earlier, the Darwinian notion of evolution, which is utilized as both an explanation of the appearance of the ‘will to truth’ and the very concept of truth itself. The second idea expressed in the first sentence, albeit more subtly, is the notion of invention. There is an implication present that there is a certain slyness to the “clever animals who invented cognition” [4] , and that the ‘invention’ is specifically something that is fabricated, and, by implication, is deceptive to what we would commonly assume to be the definition of ‘truth’.

**Evolution is often summed up as ‘survival of the fittest’. This is because evolution apparently rewards the selfish first and foremost. This is exemplified with the example of a hunter who is faced with the option of sharing or hoarding his kill. As his most direct competition, in an evolutionary and therefore survival sense, is with his conspecifics, then hoarding would be the logical selection for evolution as it would lead to direct increase in fitness, and therefore the amount of hoarders present in a society, over generations, would increase with evolution selecting this specific gene set. This, however, is clearly not the case, as sharing, both in animals and humans, never seems to get extinct. Morality may provide no advantage to the individual, indeed it may posit a disadvantage by assisting a con specific, it does, however, provide a significant advantage to the group to which the individual belongs. As a whole, a group with a heightened sense of patriotism and morality is more likely to have fitter and stronger hunters and be healthier over all, which leads to greater protection from predators, more food and a distinct advantage over other groups of conspecifics, this is called group selection. In this way a tribe of moral people who share and care for one another is more likely to be selected over a tribe of selfish individuals who hoard at the expense of others. The biggest problem with the concept of group selection is that it would inevitably lead to selfishness within the group. Eventually individuals within each morally aware group would realise they can gain advantage over the others by maintaining the appearance of altruism but in fact being hoarders, and these people would therefore be selected above the others, resulting in the proportion of selfish people eventually outgrowing the altruistic from within the group.

From this we can see that evolution selects for “concealment and dissimulation” [5] and that a humans intellect exists only insofar as it serves to “preserve himself in relation to other individuals” [6] . However, the seeds to the “drive to truth” [7] can be found in the way in which humans inevitably “want to live in societies and herds” [8] . As pointed out earlier, selfish evolution inevitably leads to selfishness within the group, and if deception is the primary use of the intellect then a society would merely exploit one another and fracture, that is, unless there is some kind of “peace treaty” [9] . This is the fixation of the concept of truth between two parties, an agreement on what a concept corresponds to and is an attempt to “eliminate from the world at least the crudest forms of bellum omnium contra omnes.” [10] The benefits of living in a society far outweigh the negative effects of being shunned by one, so as a result it is an individuals intention to stay within the society, so, for the most part, they stick ‘truthfully’ to the preconceived conceptions. This is because to deceive is to exploit, and almost always leads to harm of the victim in some kind, as a result if someone within a society is found to be deception “they will no longer trust him and therefore exclude him from their ranks” [11] .

Nietzsche draws an interesting comparison between language and the process of interpreting nervous stimuli in support of his notion of truth being merely a construct. Language is consists of words, words which are, at their basis, symbols for certain concepts. These concepts, however, are not things which actually exist, rather they are result of “omitting what is unlike” [12] in objects. These concepts are a generalisation, brought about by “overlooking what is individual and real” [13] and instead grouping together a selection of entities under “arbitrarily drawn borders.” [14] This is to say that there is no essential essence of an object to which the concept or term corresponds. When we talk about a leaf we are not talking about one particular and unique leaf, instead we refer to a stripped down set of properties that describe a vast number of objects that have something in similar. [15] It is a metaphorical labelling, not an actual reference.

Although it may be tempting to see the categorising of things as revealing something about an “essential nature” based upon those similarities which we use to depict the groupings, Nietzsche points out that this is not the case. The borders that we draw to define these concepts are purely self serving. The categories are based upon what is relevant to humans, not on any essential property.

The connection between language and this process of interpreting nervous stimuli is steeped in the idea of a essential essence, or “the ‘thing-in-itself’ (which would be, precisely, pure truth, truth without consequence)” [16] . The “thing-in-itself” is impossible to know, to Nietzsche, because it is the “copy of a nervous stimulation” [17] . That is to say, much in the same way that language is a grouping of metaphorical constructs, the very things that we perceive in order to label are already removed from our knowledge by the translation of the nervous stimulus in the first place.

The notion of ownership of truth is one of Nietzsche’s key concerns, as the foundation for the reasoning behind the will to truth. Truth is created, not discovered, and it is created by this ‘artistic’ nature of humanity in the means of the metaphor. [18] However, humanity, as a whole, seeks to shirk the ownership of these conceptions of ‘truth’ and place them instead on a pedestal superior to themselves. [19] They, we, do not want to take ownership of the truths we create, for truth is intrinsically tied to the notion of belief, and is it not far more compelling to say ‘I believe this because it is true, wholly and completely’ then ‘I believe this because I want to’? It is in this will to truth that we are ironically attempting to eliminate the acknowledgement of the will in the first place. As ‘truth’ is a subjective construction, it is also one that is wilfully embraced and constructed, therefore making the second of the two statements the more valid.

It is not so much that Nietzsche is concerned with a theory or conception of truth, but rather that what he wants to say is that the notion of the truth itself is unimportant. What he explores is not the nature of truth itself, but rather the reasons behind why this concept has been given so much weight and importance as well as what impact and function it serves.

However, as we have seen that Nietzsche’s account of truth essentially amounts to truth being a constructed concept, entirely subjective, we inevitably come to the conclusion that there is no truth. In fact, this is something that Nietzsche states more explicitly as there existing “neither ‘spirit’, nor reason, nor thinking… nor truth: all are fictions of no use” [20] in his later work The Will to Power. Nietzsche’s apparent goal is to refute the existence of truth, but this is inherently problematic for “to deny the existence of truth is prima facie paradoxical” [21] . This leads to a somewhat problematic position, as the claim is know essentially that there are no truths. Therefore if this claim is true, then the claim itself is a truth claim and therefore truths exist, if it is not true, then by virtue of the statement then there must exist truths. This paradox does not bother Nietzsche overly, or at least he makes no real attempt to confront it

**So, we can regard Nietzsche’s account of truth to be true by means of his own accounting of what truth is. Nietzsche’s account is a construction of metaphor to describe the way he perceives others conceptions, a subjective view of others subjectivity. But the important factor in this conception is his clear ownership of the authoring of this claim, and the acknowledgement of its irrelevance as far as the actual truth claim is concerned. What is more important is to show that truth is not important, and, viewed in this light, we can take Nietzsche’s account to be both true and meaningless in its truthfulness.

One of the main goals of this account of truth is in relation to the effect that the notion of truth has upon people and society in general. In other words, it is an accounting of the utility and effect of a truth theory, irrespective of the validity of the truth itself.

We begin to see the roots to Nietzsche’s later dedication to the notion of the ‘life affirming’, the idea is that whether something is true or not, whether the concept of truth itself is accurate, it doesn’t matter as both are merely perspectives, what is of concern is which outlook affords the beholder the most fulfilling life. For the most part this would be someone who rejects truth, Nietzsche emphasises this with reference to the lives led by the ancient Greeks who lived in a world governed by myth rather then truth. He compares the “man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds thereby in warding off misfortune” [22] with the “man of intuition, standing in the midst of a culture, reaps directly from his intuitions not just the protection from harm but also a constant stream of brightness, a lightening of the spirit, redemption, and release.” [23] Nietzsche leaves little doubt as to which he considers to be the better path, but he does not make the claim that one is correct. Instead he gives an option to be “free of pain” or “free of spirit”. However to be “free of spirit” is to leave oneself open to the ravages of reality, for sacrificing the pragmatic concepts of truth is to also prohibit one from learning from ones mistakes. [24] There is no truth in an action, and no causal relation between that ‘truth’ and the outcome, therefore one cannot come to the conclusion that something is harmful to do and therefore not repeat it.

It is these notions of the effects on society and the role of truth within society as a construct that Nietzsche explores. He offers an accounting of truth, and in doing so refutes its existence, but this is not his primary goal nor concern, rather it serves as a tool to get him to this contrast of the man who is “free of pain” and the man “free of spirit”. To hold to Nietzsche’s account is to embrace a world “where anything is possible”, but it is also to leave oneself open to harm.

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