Nietzsche and Truth

“Truth” for Nietzsche – the No and the Yes of truth – traced through “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” and beyond to that autobiography of a mind and a body — the two inseparable — that is Ecce Homo. Truth traced to understanding what Nietzsche meant by truth.

The No of truth:

The “senses nowhere lead to truth” (TL, 80) – how can they when our bodies deceive us about our own bodies, masking and thus making us forget about “the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers!” (TL, 80)?

Does truth exist outside of man? No. Truth was invented so we can live together socially (TL, 81). Truth: “a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth” (81).

Are words truth? No. “What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus” (81). The designation of certain sounds to certain objects or, more accurately, concepts, is arbitrary (82), that is: “truth alone” is not “the deciding factor in the genesis of language” (81).

“With words, it is never a question of truth” (82).

“The thing in itself” — a Kantian concept — is this the truth? “The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for” (82). Words, therefore, do not correspond to “the thing in itself,” and “the thing in itself” is itself a pointless pursuit – why pursue what, by definition, you cannot know? And what of the “would be”? Does not this “would be” require an “if”? If, perhaps, there were such a thing as “pure truth?” In any case, “pure truth” is something Nietzsche sees as “something not in the least worth striving for” since words do not correspond to pure truth, to “the thing in itself.” The “genesis of language” is “not derived from the essence of things” (83).


“We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities” (83).

What is a metaphor? Saying one thing is another. Words, therefore, themselves are metaphors. What are words for? Particulars? No. Words are for concepts. We cannot name each particular, unique object. Therefore, words “correspond in no way to the original entities.” More: “a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases” (83). And what is a concept? “We obtain a concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts” (83).

Concepts are created in the human mind: “our contrast between individual and species is something anthropomorphic and does not originate in the essence of things” (83). “Concepts, forms, etc. is based upon” “an equation between things that are unequal” (94). There is no perfect “original model” of things, like leaves “according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted” (83), presumably be a deity –- the only thing capable of such weaving, sketching, etc. This is a truth that does not need a god. This is a truth found only in the mind of man. The “essence of things” does not appear “in the empirical world,” (86), but only in the mind of man, since artists “reveal more about the essence of things than does the empirical world” (87). It is we who bring “truth” into existence (87-88), “truth” as “the essence of things.”

So, “What then is truth?” (84). What, indeed, is the Yes of truth? Truth is:

A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are not considered as metal and no longer as coins (TL, 84)

That is: “to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors” (84), which means that it “is the duty to lie according to fixed convention” (84). We have forgotten that these are lies, and that is how we have arrived at our “sense of truth” (84). Truth means using things “in the designated manner” (85).

Truth, therefore, is mere convention – the way things have been done. Truth, therefore, is not permanent. “New truths” are possible – new truths are merely new ways to do things. But these are all”anthropomorphic truths,” which means we have designated concepts with words, and then act surprised when we find something else that fits that category, and so declare the concept we originally created as “truth” (85).

Is all truth anthropomorphic? What about the “true in itself”? Is there something “really and universally valid apart from man” (85)? By forgetting metaphors and being particular – “this sun, this window, this table” – do we come to “truth in itself” (86). Knowing “truth in itself” is knowing the world as a place, not of concepts and forms, but as a place of unique particularities.

So, can we get away from anthropomorphic truths and get at the “true in itself”? “The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive” (88), and the mind “seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally” (89). Indeed, “it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn apart by art” (89).

We prefer our anthropomorphic truths to the “true in itself,” they create comfort, convince us we are awake. It reflects the regular, the rational – and it is in fact the rational man who wants to use the usual metaphors. But it is the intuitive man, the “liberated intellect” who creates new concepts and shatters (by dividing up) old ones (90). This is the artist, the creator of new metaphors, the creators of untruths, without which “there can be neither society nor culture” (92).

“His nose wrinkled into a prune” creates a new concept – one that includes human noses and prunes – and therefore creates a new truth. It is also a particular – a particular nose, “his,” that is associated with this thing, “prune,” to make his nose have a particular look – thus making it unique and, therefore, a “truth in itself” as well as a “new truth.” The new metaphor creates a new concept (new grouping of objects) that results in a “new truth” in the anthropomorphic sense, while bringing us closer to “truth in itself” by unveiling the particularity of the wrinkled object.

How does it do this? Because art admits it is a lie: “Artistic pleasure is the greatest kind of pleasure, because it speaks the truth quite generally in the form of lies” (96), and therefore comes closest to revealing itself as truth. “Art works through deception – yet one which does not deceive us” (96). Why? Because “art treats illusion as illusion; therefore it does not wish to deceive; it is true” (96). “His nose wrinkled into a prune” – an artistic statement, and therefore closer to truth than anything else in this protokoll. Why? “Truth cannot be recognized. Everything which is knowable is illusion. The significance of art as truthful illusion” (97). A redundant statement: “truthful illusion”: since truth is identified by Nietzsche as “illusion” (93). Thus art is an “illusionful illusion,” and, as such, like love and religion, one of “the truest things in this world” (95).

This then leads us to Ecce Homo, to the autobiography of an intellect. In keeping with the theme of truth, I thought we should see how Nietzsche’s ideas on truth have evolved. A lifetime of philosophizing has passed, and this immoralist, this Anti-Christ, has come to proclaim that “Overthrowing idols (my word for “ideals”) –- that come closer to being part of my craft (EH, 218, 4). (I give first the pg. of the Kaufmann translation, then the Hollingdale) And what are ideals (idols)? “What is called idol on the title page is simply what has been called truth so far. Twilight of the Idols – that is: the old truth is approaching its end” (EH, 314, 86).

He shows the old truths –- the anthropomorphic truths –- are what have been called “ideals.” He reiterates that the world of ideals, what he is now calling the “true world,” or what philosophers past have considered the true world, is really the invented world (218, 4), the world invented by man, through concepts. Only Nietzsche’s words have now become stronger: “The lie of the ideal has so far been the curse of reality” (218, 4). And not only this. “Error (-belief in the ideal-) is not blindness, error is cowardice . . . Every acquisition, every step forward in knowledge is the result of courage, of severity towards oneself, of cleanliness with respect to oneself . . . I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence . . .” (218, 4).

So, error is “belief in the ideal,” and, not only that, but cowardice as well. Naturally, courage is the opposite of cowardice, meaning courage is disbelief in the ideal. For Nietzsche, only those who do not believe the lie of the ages – truth, ideals, “the thing in itself” – are courageous. He sees this “truthfulness as the highest virtue; this means the opposite of the cowardice of the “idealist” who flees from reality” (328, 98). “Cowardice in face or reality” is “cowardice in face of truth” (320, 91).

But Nietzsche here, as in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” refuses to be dogmatic -– that has not changed. This is why, despite his saying those who do not believe in ideals have courage, Nietzsche says “I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence . . .” Why gloves? He does not want to be soiled by the filth of “ideals.” This, despite his acknowledgment that “ideals” had been “the real fatality in my life, the superfluous and stupid in it, something out of which there is no compensation, no counter-reckoning” (241, 25) –- ideals have been difficult for Nietzsche himself to rid himself of –- they are “the fundamental irrationality of my life” (242, 26).

Looking back, Nietzsche realizes that it is difficult to shed ones life of the lies one is raised with. “We all fear truth” (246, 29), undoubtedly because we fear change – and we fear the world unmasked of truth. At best, ideals have been frozen by Nietzsche, if not truly refuted (284, 60). He hopes he has gotten us to see, as he has, that “all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity” (258, 38), while acknowledging that most are not capable of seeing: “‘where you see ideal things, I see -– human, alas all too human things!’” (281, 59). Truths remain mobile. There are “my truths” (259, 39), and Zarathustra “creates truth” (307, 76). And if truths can be created, they are impermanent, changeable, “a moving army of metaphors.”

While the “true in itself” comes “upon every image (metaphor),” while “words and wordchests of all existence spring open to you; all existence here wants to become words” (301, 73) because words, concepts, are more comforting than “truth in itself.” Only when we realize that “Nothing that is can be subtracted, nothing is dispensable” will we be able to realize that “precisely by this measure of strength does one approach truth” (272, 50) –- again, it is the particular that is the “true in itself,” not words, not concepts, which require that something be subtracted in order to be conceptualized, in order to be given a sound tag –- that is, a word to represent it. And the more conceptual –- the further from reality -– something is, while claiming to be truth (unlike art, which admits to being a lie), “Those things which mankind has hitherto pondered seriously are not even realities, merely imaginings, more strictly speaking lies from the bad instincts of the sick, in the profoundest sense injurious natures –- all the concepts ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘sin,’ ‘the Beyond,’ ‘truth,’ ‘eternal life’” (256, 36).

Why do we do this? “The concept of the “beyond,” the “true world” [was] invented in order to devalue the only world there is –- in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality” (334, 103). In fact, “Twice, at precisely the moment when with tremendous courage and self-overcoming an honest, an unambiguous, a completely scientific mode of thinking had been attained, the Germans have known how to discover secret paths to the old ‘ideal’, reconciliations between truth and ‘ideal’, at bottom formulas to a right to reject science, for a right to lie” (320, 91).

So now science, in addition to art, is a path toward the truth, since the “right to reject science” is seen here as the “right to lie.” The “true in itself” now seen as achievable through both art and science, through the breaking apart of the old metaphors and the realization of the particularity of the world, that the world is first perceived, then conceived, and not vice versa. This is now Nietzsche “was the first to discover the truth by being the first to experience lies as lies” (326, 96). This is how Nietzsche can say ” –- the truth speaks out of me. –- But my truth is terrible; for so far one has called lies truth” (326, 96), and he has shown us the lies we live by.

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