Saturday, July 26, 2014

Précis - "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" - Nietzsche


During the late 19th century, Nietzsche wrote extensively to challenge conventional ideas about everything from religion to truth to morality and to art. Like other greats before him, he advanced the breakdown of tradition and the status quo. As such, the foundational argument of “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” is that truth is essentially relative, unknowable because language cannot adequately express an object’s true essence - instead of a single and universal truth, there are many variations. To this end, Nietzsche famously writes that truth is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms-in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.” In a way that almost hearkens back to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave, we have been “immersed in illusions and dreams” because our eyes can only detect “forms”. Ultimately, Nietzsche argues that truth is a social construct, a pragmatic invention that, due to the limitations of language, does not stand up to scrutiny.


As the title of text almost suggests, truth can often be inverted to become a form of lie. Indeed, language necessitates an almost incomplete understanding of objects and this idea is clearly seen in Nietzsche’s discussion of a leaf. When an individual encounters a leaf, assumptions are immediately made: because the leaf has similar characteristics to other leaves the individual has seen, the person categorizes it as a leaf. When we chose to designate something by one aspect of its appearance, we elevate that aspect above others and potentially miss out on all the others. Similarly, we assume objects have an organization that appears logical. We do this so that we can pronounce our knowledge as truth and thereby make sense of the chaos. “Truth,” as Nietzsche eloquently explains, “means using every die in the designated sense … never violating the order of caste and rank”. After his discussion of the leaf, Nietzsche alludes to fetishism in his description of truth as “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”


Nietzsche's overall argument is more nuanced than a simple rejection of truth as a whole. Throughout the text, he negates absolutist conventions of Truth but instead recognizes a truth that is, essentially, more realistic (here, capitalization does matter). He writes that “only in the invincible faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency”. This argument seems to suggests that we ought to reject a grand, universal truth and focus instead on what is right in front of us. In doing so, Nietzsche strikes down the old metaphors in favor of a reality that exists in the now, a reality in which truth that does not exist as an ideal standard does not collapse. This focus on the temporal is directed towards us, as impressionable human beings, and asks us to consider if language is truly "the adequate expression of all realities”.

While the argument against truth as an absolute has been made many times since "On Truth and a Lie" was written, Nietzsche's philosophy is still a fairly controversial topic. The text clearly has radical implications for the status quo because it asks us to imagine that our designated meanings ring false -- but Nietzsche raises the question of what, besides our apparently flawed or incomplete assessments of objects, could be used to denote meaning. As such, it could probably be argued that the meaningless truth is necessary to maintain order, that the deconstruction of the metaphor will lead to the breakdown of all we've ever known. Despite its limitations, language is indeed the only method available to us to express our realities, even if it isn't entirely adequate. Not matter how flawed, reliance on truth - in all its forms - is still so deeply embedded in society. It's a difficult idea to swallow that all we think we know - which is all we've ever known - is actually an illusion. But if it is even possible to overcome the problems that language has in denoting meaning, we must ask ourselves how that would work out in the long run. Ultimately, it would seem that Nietzsche deconstructs the status quo but does not construct an alternative.

13 comments:

Erick Berrios said...

I really enjoyed your precis on "On Truth and Lie". I always thought it was interesting how Nietzsche wanted us to reject the traditional names of objects and focus more on the individual experience of a "thing". I agree that we lose a lot of personal and individual pieces of information by grouping all things into one group or name, for example all leaves are leaves. However, I got a question for you. How would you answer your own question at the end of your precis, "how will it work in the long run?', to me it just feels as if you have to give up individual traits when you are grouping something nominally. It just can not be practical or possible for the whole world to give up on names for things.

Leah Daoud said...


Thank you! You’ve hit on precisely all the right points in your comment, as well. Though it may be a lie, our method of assigning truth is enormously practical. To be fair, Nietzsche deconstructs the metaphor quite well - but he doesn’t really give us an everyday alternative solution. If we don’t decide to call a leaf, well, a leaf, then what is it? How can refer to things if not in terms of how we classify them?

I can’t give a definite answer in terms of how it will work out in the long run but it seems pretty obvious that there are kinks to work out.

Neil Griffey said...

Thanks Leah! I really appreciate your dually succinct and thought provoking work here. Without a doubt, I now have a better understanding of On Truth and Lie I can credit entirely to you. In my personal reading, I'd focused most of my attention and energy into digesting Nietzche's claims of language often synonymous with truth actually being an elaborate web of misleading metaphor. Having not been particularly familiar with Nietzsche's works or his ideas before this class I appreciated your apt observation where "Nietzsche alludes to fetishism in the human activity of meaning-making and our obsession over the ideal" I'd originally missed.

What would you propose as "different ways of considering a matter" devoid of language and how do you see this rejection of dependence on illusion beneficial to the individual or to society?

Leah Daoud said...

Thank you for the kind words!

When I wrote about “different ways of considering a matter”, I meant that once people realize the extent to which language is inadequately used to classify objects - the extent to which our classifications are subjective methods of organization - Nietzsche’s text will more widely be seen as plausible.

At the same time, the illusion of truth is useful because it helps make sense of the world. Individuals might benefit from a deeper understanding but society as a whole remains blissfully unaware of reality.

I hope this answers your question. If not, feel free to let me know.

Aaron Baum said...

Hi Leah,

Wonderful precis, it very well summed up Nietzsche's argument. I loved your interpretation of the quote "only in the invincible faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself...".

However, I have a similar issue to those who have come before me in the comments, though I will be making an opinion rather than a question.

In your piece, you seem to allude to the fact that someday people will create a new order with a far truthier way of interpreting and expressing the world. I believe that the current system is the best.

In regards to the leaf metaphor, yes, leaves are all different. And yet, at the same time, a leaf is called a leaf because that leaf over there is the most similar object to this leaf over here. If we lose something in this identification, it can be made up with more extended use of the language. For example, let's say this leaf is round and that leaf is pointy. Then, we can call this leaf not just a leaf, but also a round leaf, and we can call that leaf not just a leaf, but also a pointy leaf. The wonder of language is that it can be used and applied and reused and reapplied in an infinite number of combinations until one pinpoints so exactly what that leaf is, that the differences cease to matter.

Furthermore, our language is far from arbitrary. It has developed over millennium to fit the needs of those who use it, and it will continue to do so. As humans evolved through natural selection, so did their ability to use language. We even have portions of our brain devoted to the interpretation of the the world, the necessary stripping away of certain differences, and the reproduction as language.

Now, this is not to say that language is truth, for I agree that it is not, and at times language can fail us. However, this is the reason why no language stagnates, it forever changes. We do not speak or write the same way we did 200 years ago, or even 20 years ago. New words and groupings are always added to account for how the times change. And this will be the way of the future. We will not replace this system with a new, more enlightened one, but rather, the status quo will grow in and of itself.

Clinton Barnes said...

This is a very thoughtful precis, one that effectively distills the essence of Nietzsche's argument.

I do want to point out one error that exists not in your interpretation but in your choice of language. You state that Nietzsche's text "begs the question of what an alternative system would look like." I just want to point out that "begs the question" does not mean what you think it means.

Begging the questions is a rhetorical term for a logical fallacy where the conclusion of an argument is used as the initial premise of the argument. For example, the argument "Gay marriage is wrong because two people of the same gender should not be married" begs the question because the conclusion ("two people of the same gender should not be married") is the same as the initial premise ("Gay marriage is wrong").

A more appropriate choice of language for what you are saying would be "raises the question" or "brings up the question;" these phrases do not mean the same thing as "begs the question." Although I will admit that language evolves just as Aaron points out in his comment, I have no problem with digging in my heels and fighting the pointless fight against the constant systematic misuse of begging the question, especially in a rhetoric class.

Clinton Barnes said...

This is a very thoughtful precis, one that effectively distills the essence of Nietzsche's argument.

I do want to point out one error that exists not in your interpretation but in your choice of language. You state that Nietzsche's text "begs the question of what an alternative system would look like." I just want to point out that "begs the question" does not mean what you think it means.

Begging the questions is a rhetorical term for a logical fallacy where the conclusion of an argument is used as the initial premise of the argument. For example, the argument "Gay marriage is wrong because two people of the same gender should not be married" begs the question because the conclusion ("two people of the same gender should not be married") is the same as the initial premise ("Gay marriage is wrong").

A more appropriate choice of language for what you are saying would be "raises the question" or "brings up the question;" these phrases do not mean the same thing as "begs the question." Although I will admit that language evolves just as Aaron points out in his comment, I have no problem with digging in my heels and fighting the pointless fight against the constant systematic misuse of begging the question, especially in a rhetoric class.

J Seagull said...

Hi Leah, I enjoyed reading your précis, but I have to disagree with you on your interpretation of one of Nietzsche's statements. You wrote:

"Truth,” as Nietzsche eloquently explains, “means using every die in the designated sense … never violating the order of caste and rank”. At this point in his writing, Nietzsche alludes to fetishism in the human activity of meaning-making and our obsession over the ideal. "

I don't think he is alluding to fetishism here. Rather, he is claiming that in one sense truth is merely a matter of convention -- using words according to their conventionally prescribed designations. I would like to ask: what about this quote gives you the impression that he is talking about something like fetishism, i.e. the mistaking of something that is a substitution for the thing that it is a substitute for? (If we use Dale's definition... Sorry Dale!)

Angela Jiang said...


In your concluding paragraph while explaining why Nietzsche’s philosophy is controversial topic you ask what an alternate universe would look like and "how society could arrive at that place of enlightenment". However, further down the body of that same paragraph you say that "ultimately, this deconstruction of the social norm will have a major destabilizing effect" and then you question how this would work out in the long run. I feel that you have already answered your own question earlier in this text by saying that it would be a "place of enlightenment", however slowly it may take to reach that stage.
Overall your precis was a very interesting read and I highly enjoyed it!

AC said...

@Angela I think Leah still poses a valid question in asking what would happen if society was deconstructed, but I do agree that it might be too much to assume that an alternate system is even possible, let alone it be a place of enlightenment. (We would probably never know anyway.)

Leah, this was a great read! I could definitely relate to this: "Indeed, with the exception of places like universities, the concept of truth, in all its forms, is still so deeply embedded in society. It’s a difficult idea to swallow that what we think we know - which is all we have ever known - is actually an illusion." After reading Nietzsche I definitely experience bouts of emo-teenage-boy-cynicism and space out during class wondering just what professors are trying to sell me when truth might be an illusion. This might just be me, though...

Leah Daoud said...

Thanks, everyone, for your very helpful comments! I've revised my precis by incorporating your suggestions as well as developing my own thoughts - I'm definitely more pleased with the results.

Anonymous said...

Interesting précis! I was engaged throughout the whole reading. You state, “Despite its limitations, language is indeed the only method available to us to express our realities, even if it isn’t entirely adequate.” I am wondering, since it does not seem realistic to eradicate language and come up with a whole new system, if making the system of language more precise would lead us to more truthful representations. For example, the language of Arabic is a very complex and rich language. I spoke with a person who is both fluent in Arabic and English and they said for example English has maybe 40 words for happy whereas Arabic has 100 words for all the different moment a person feels happy. This suggest Arabic has words that are more specific to each unique moment. If we could alter language’s expressive power basically adding words that are specific to each individualized moment, do you think we could arrive at more accurate representations? Obviously, I could see where it could get extremely problematic, but just a thought.

-Samiha Baseer

Samiha Baseer said...

Interesting précis! I was engaged throughout the whole reading. You state, “Despite its limitations, language is indeed the only method available to us to express our realities, even if it isn’t entirely adequate.” I am wondering, since it does not seem realistic to eradicate language and come up with a whole new system, if making the system of language more precise would lead us to more truthful representations. For example, the language of Arabic is a very complex and rich language. I spoke with a person who is both fluent in Arabic and English and they said for example English has maybe 40 words for happy whereas Arabic has 100 words for all the different moment a person feels happy. This suggest Arabic has words that are more specific to each unique moment. If we could alter language’s expressive power basically adding words that are specific to each individualized moment, do you think we could arrive at more accurate representations? Obviously, I could see where it could get extremely problematic, but just a thought.