English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplementary Remarks about Nietzsche's
"On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense."

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

In "Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense," Nietzsche practices what will later come to be called "deconstruction." Namely, he examines the relationship between two terms ordinarily taken as binary opposites (in this case "truth" and "falsity") and strongly suggests that they are not in fact mutually exclusive, stable terms. This deconstructive analysis, it is clear from the essay, turns out to have implications broader than just the meaning of two terms-it has to do with the way in which human societies developed and how they continue to function. In this sense, Nietzsche writes as a kind of historian-or rather as a "genealogist" since, unlike some nineteenth-century historians, he is not content with any given society's description of its own origins or development and he does not work within an accepted framework of periods, eras, and so forth. For him, that is, history is not "the march of reason" or any such logical, teleological progression. Cultural self-descriptions must, after all, be conveyed by language, a human gift that, according to Nietzsche and a lot of writers after him, conceals and dissembles far more than it reveals. Nietzsche refuses to accept at face value the illusions or false oppositions that language harbors, and indeed he finds these false binaries an excellent place to begin his "genealogy" of human concepts and cultures.

To accept a culture's ideas without thinking twice how they developed, without seeing them as something other than natural and unmotivated, is to Nietzsche the most foolish kind of malpractice a philosopher can commit. To avoid perpetuating that kind of malpractice, Nietzsche exposes the primal "lie" at the heart of human speech and writing. To do that, he must begin with the process whereby the word arose from sensory perception: namely, primitive humans received nerve stimuli (one of his examples is that of a person touching a rock), and jumped from those stimuli to a "percept," which must be some kind of mental sense of the thing or quality in question. From that stage humans uttered "words," sounds attached arbitrarily and creatively to the percept. To function as signifying speech, of course, these words must become commonly accepted by way of repetition until all connection between the creative, primitive origin of the percept and word from nerve stimuli is lost. A percept is already a metaphor for something-let us call it "the world around us"-that we cannot know directly. And a word is a metaphor for the percept. To complete this process of abstraction and metaphorization, our words get combined into systems of ideas. By the time the process is well on its way, it is precisely the abstractness of the whole system that has come to seem natural and therefore beyond question. The connection between words and the world comes to seem a given and natural thing, whereas in fact that connection is arbitrary and unstable, very much a product of human activity.

So deep is this confusion and naturalization that it still seems scandalous when a writer like Nietzsche points out (though not in this essay) that even an innocuous-seeming subject-verb combination such as "lightning flashes" harbors just the sort of lie he is talking about: the noun or substantive "lightning" is a fictive cause we provide for the activity we mean when we say "flashes." We turn the activity into a secondary effect and impose order on the world with our substantives. So much, too, for our propensity to mean by "leaf" all those whatever-they-ares ("x," Nietzsche calls them) that presumably exist in unique individuality in nature.

If language is in fact such a shifty "mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms," if ideas are the primary means by which humans impose order and rationality on what seems better described as a fundamentally unstable and shifting universe that knows no permanent or solid place for us, there is little sense, according to Nietzsche, in the philosopher's acceptance of it as the bearer of such oppositions as "truth" and "falsity." He deals with this opposition by linking its origin to that much-loved hypothetical origin of human societies, "the social contract." Life before this contract, as Thomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan, must have been "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"-hardly an inviting environment for the weak and timid confronted by the harsh and strong. And so a tacit contract was arrived at whereby primal violence and chaos gave way to restraint and order. Truth and the lie arose together, and performed complementary roles allowing people to negotiate their way through life in conjunction with or regulated subordination to their fellows. The "liar" could now be named and deemed harmful to the community, while "truth" arose as that which was commonly agreed to be useful for the community. To describe truth in this way is really, of course, to suggest that it has nothing whatsoever to do with "reality" aside from the language that asserts human notions about reality. It is not the eternally valid "TRUTH" we usually mean when we use the term. Indeed, if the term "falsification" were not a bit confusing by now, we might well say that Nietzsche's "truth" is a useful kind of falsification, or at least that it bears much greater resemblance to its cousin "falsity" than it makes us comfortable to admit. It is by means of language-of concepts, ideas, spun ever further into abstract systems of logic and reason, that social hierarchy or rank arises and is maintained. We inhabit a world of our own linguistic abstractions, and construct thereby our social order. "Truth" and "falsity" are, of course, two of the most powerful and useful interlinked concepts.

I will leave for you Nietzsche's comments about science's role in connection with language, as well as his insistence (if in an ambivalent way) on the fundamentally creative quality of humans' first metaphoric connections between stimulus and percept and word. Does he at times rely on a kind of primitivism when he talks about early language use, one that privileges the primal (if arbitrary) linguistic operations of our ancestors? Or would that be a misunderstanding of his remarks? Also, what might Nietzsche be implying about the value of artistic creation in this regard? How does he oppose it to or connect it with science?