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NOTES ON “ON TRUTH AND LIES IN A NONMORAL SENSE”

Gülizar Karahan

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We observe that the perspectives of preservation and expenditure are the organizing ideas in
Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”1 We are already familiar with
these terms from his book On the Genealogy of Morals,2 where the radical moments of
preservation and expenditure find their expression in noble and slavish types. Here in this
essay these moments find their expression in different terms, which are “rational man” and
“intuitive man” (TL, 90). The rational human being I associate with the slavish type (thus
with preservation) and the intuitive human being with the noble type (thus, with expenditure).
We will see that Nietzsche distinguishes between these types according to the value they
attribute to the intellect, knowledge and truth.

A crucial aspect of the essay is how Nietzsche applies the perspective of preservation and
expenditure to our ideas of truth and knowledge. And I think what he does can be
characterized as a genealogy of truth, because he deals with the concept of truth and observes
it meticulously, as Foucault says, without losing the historical sense.

Nietzsche criticizes our ideas of truth and knowledge first of all depending on his view that
these ideas are loaded with anthropomorphic meanings. According to Nietzsche,
anthropomorphism is inherent in our way of thinking, behaving, in short, in our way of living.
We take ourselves to be the centre of all existence and we think that we, human beings, are
the “measure of all things” (TL, 86). But Nietzsche thinks that this is only self-deception
brought about by the pride we have in our intellect and the knowledge we attain through the
intellect (TL, 79-80). That is, this pride in no way indicates that we are the most superior
beings on earth or that the kind of knowledge we attain is ultimate and shows us the truth. On
the contrary, Nietzsche emphasizes the transience, the momentariness of the intellect, thus
transvalues it and says that “there were eternities during which [the intellect] did not exist”
(TL, 79) and that “only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly (pathetisch) – as though
the world’s axis turned within it” (ibid.). According to him, knowledge is an invention of
1
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from
Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Ed. and tr. Daniel Breazeale. New York: Humanity Books, 1990.
Hereafter TL.
2
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Ed. and tr. Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1966. Hereafter GoM.

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human beings, that is, “clever beasts” (ibid.). I think it is worth noting the sarcastic tone in
Nietzsche’s use of the word “clever”. In fact, we are also familiar from GoM with Nietzsche’s
interpretation of this word. There, in GoM, Nietzsche claims that people of resentment
become ultimately cleverer than any noble race and that they respect cleverness to a great
extent as a first condition of existence. On the other hand, for noble types cleverness is less
essential as compared to the unconscious instincts by which they are possessed (GoM I, 10; p.
24). We find the same interpretation in TL: those individuals who are deprived of the natural
characteristics of the powerful beasts of prey develop an alternative mechanism to preserve
themselves, that is, in them the intellect develops to a greater degree and they become cleverer
in order to survive. In short, Nietzsche considers the growth of the intellect as a symptom of
deprivation. This is how he transvalues the value of the intellect and knowledge.

As we know, in Western culture human being has been traditionally defined with regard to its
intellect, its possession of reason, its ability to know, and it has not only distinguished itself
from animals through those characteristics but also regarded itself as superior to them due to
them. But I think his genealogy of the intellect and knowledge is Nietzsche’s way of resisting
this definition. According to him, human being’s intellect and knowledge in fact being a sign
of deficiency, they do not render human being superior to other species.

Nietzsche says that the basic characteristic of the intellect is dissimulation (TL, 80) and as I
said it serves the purpose of preservation. But according to him there is something strange in
this picture. Although our life is so much mingled with dissimulation and it is preserved
through acts of dissimulation, we still look for pure truth (ibid.). How can that be? Where
does this drive for truth come from?

Nietzsche sees the source of the drive for truth in human being’s social life and in language.
“To exist socially and with the herd” (TL, 81) human beings need to make peace which brings
together with it the use of language. Language, for Nietzsche, is a contract to use “uniformly
valid and binding designations…invented for things” (ibid.). And “[t]his legislation of
language…establishes the first laws of truth” (ibid.). The legislation of language dictates that
one has to abide by the designations of shared language if one is to exist within the herd. So,
one aspect of how the drive for truth emerges is that we have a moral obligation to use
common words in their common meanings and not to deceive other members of the herd.
Nietzsche characterizes the moral obligation to be truthful as follows: “to be truthful means to

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lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon
everyone” (TL, 84). Thus, Nietzsche associates truthfulness with our social existence and our
use of language, which he depicts as a set of lies.

At this point Nietzsche warns us that in being truthful human being is not seeking truth itself
but only the pleasant consequences of truth (TL, 81). That is, in introducing this contract (that
is, language) human being is in fact trying to avoid the bad consequences of lying/deception.
In other words, it is not deception itself that is being avoided. This is obvious because as long
as it is predominantly life-preserving human being is ready to be deceived (how we form our
concepts is proof of this, as I am going to explain below). The same principle applies to truth:
what human being desires is not truth itself but “the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of
truth. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences; toward those
truths which are possibly harmful and destructive he is even hostilely inclined” (ibid.).

But why does Nietzsche think that language is a set of lies? Why does he think that truth is far
from being an issue in language? His characterization of language as metaphorical plays a
major role in the answer to this question. Nietzsche thinks that our words are nothing but
“metaphors for things” (TL, 83). He regards the transference of the nerve stimulus to an
image and then the transference of the image to sound as metaphorical, because all these
spheres are totally different from one another (TL, 82). And then he deals with the formation
of concepts. The basic characteristic of a concept is that it is representative for countless
particular phenomena. However, the phenomena to which a certain concept refers are never
equal to each other. Thus Nietzsche concludes that our concepts arise “from the equation of
unequal things” (TL, 83). This radical reduction and “assimilation” (TL, 86) are the bases for
identity formation as well. I think Nietzsche’s critique of language is a critique of the doctrine
of self-identity. He is pointing out the fact that we think in terms of identities, though actual
things are not identical to one another or even to themselves. Identity is formed “by
discarding the individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects” (TL, 83).
He also criticizes the Platonic understanding of forms on the same basis. He says that once
differences are disregarded we come to believe that besides particular things there really exist
in nature concepts (Platonic forms), according to which the particulars come to existence. So,
for Nietzsche, Plato’s theory of forms is in fact a reflection of our assimilative, reductive
linguistic habits.

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For this reason Nietzsche concludes that all language is composed of lies or illusions and that
there is no truth in language. But then truth is nowhere, because what we have thought to be
truths are in fact “illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that
have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force” (TL, 84). This being the
case, we forget that language is a directory according to which we lie and deceive ourselves.
Since this deception is life-preserving we do not desire to get rid of it. It is life-preserving
because thereby the world is less complicated, it is ordered to a greater extent and familiar
(and even “known”), that is, the world is now “more human” (ibid.). Therefore, it might be
better to say that we are ready to adopt as truth that which is in fact only deception or illusion.
Our “unconsciousness and forgetfulness” (ibid.) play the major role in the emergence of this
“anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be ‘true in itself’ or
really and universally valid apart from man” (TL, 85). Now, as rational beings capable of
transforming “the immediately perceived world” of “vivid first impressions” into “the
regulative and imperative world” of abstraction (TL, 84) we run after truth and, what is more,
we think we find it. However, what we find is only what we ourselves have put there in the
constitution of truth. And there is nothing amazing here: “When someone hides something
behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not
much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking
and finding ‘truth’ within the realm of reason” (TL, 85).

There emerges another sense of anthropomorphism. I interpret Nietzsche’s term


“anthropomorphic truth” as transcendentally constituted truth. Therefore, I take his analogy of
seeking and finding to be Kantian in the sense that it refers to our constitution of truth. So in
this respect I think Nietzsche agrees with Kant. That is to say, both think that human
experience, that is, the world human beings live in, is constituted. But whereas Kant takes this
transcendental constitution as the departure point for explaining experience and for arriving at
universal and necessary knowledge, Nietzsche is more interested in its genealogy and the
value of it for life. He is saying that we take this world to be true because thinking, behaving,
living this way is life-preserving, although it is a constitution or an illusion. On the other
hand, Kant claims that we take this world to be true because it is the only way we can
constitute and know the world (there is no other way we can know the world).

Another point is about the self: while Kant posits the necessity of the identity of
consciousness (transcendental unity of apperception) as a condition for the possibility of

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experience, Nietzsche emphasizes its illusory character and declares that this illusoriness in
the form of “an artistically creating subject” (TL, 86) must be forgotten in order to live in the
secure world of concepts. While Kant regards consciousness as a necessary condition from
the perspective of epistemology, Nietzsche considers it as makeshift from the perspective of
life.

2.
Thus, contrary to what had been held in Western thought hitherto, Nietzsche claims that what
is fundamental in human life is not truth but lies (illusions). Everything that we claim to know
is in fact an illusion and the drive for truth is in fact the drive for illusion, which is
fundamental for preservation. However, as we know from GoM, Nietzsche does not think that
preservation is the only tendency within life. Together with it is the tendency for expenditure.
And it is this tendency towards expenditure that manifests itself in intuitive human being and
which makes possible “completely different kinds of ‘truths’” (TL, 88).

Nietzsche thinks that the conception of truth in Western thought is one that is necessarily
bound with rationality, which implies rigidity and fixity (TL, 90). As the expression of our
fundamental “drive toward the formation of metaphors” (TL, 88) this rigid and fixed
construction of rationality is a shelter for us and in that sense it is indispensable. Nietzsche
says to dispense with this drive would mean to dispense with human being itself (TL, 88-9).
On the other hand, he regards this shelter as a prison where the same drive searches for a way
out “for its activity” (TL, 89). And this new realm it finds in myth and art (ibid.) where the
intuitive human being, or the drive for expenditure, expresses itself without reference to
inflexible conceptual frameworks. Through art and myth the human intellect surpasses its
boundaries. Thus the intuitive human being is liberated from the guidance of preservation as
its intellect is liberated. Now the intellect does not exhibit any characteristics of deprivation in
order to make possible the survival of a poor being within existence. It is no longer the
obedient servant of preservation. On the contrary, it becomes the master of flourishing,
richness and courage (TL, 90).