I really like Nietzsche, and this essay–rich, dense, exciting, and considered seminal by major postmodern critics–is one of the reasons for that. I suspect I am butchering it, and I know I’m not addressing it in its totality. BUT.
I chose to write about it because it articulates the aspect of the theory called postmodern that drives me battiest–suspicion of the concept of truth.
Below, I will describe a chunk of the essay as I understand it.
Human efforts to discover “truth” are based on sense perceptions and the categorization of those perceptions through language. But we have no way to know that these sense perceptions have anything to do with the real world, or that the translation of them into language lets anything at all through. Honestly (though Nietzsche doesn’t go there explicitly here) we have no idea if there is a real world beyond ourselves (or rather myself, as the rest of you could be figments of my imagination), and if there is whether it has any definable attributes.
For example, I examine a school desk. What do I see? A fake wood top, a blue plastic chair, shiny, silver legs. To produce this image, light bounces off the chair (at least, so science says), enters my eye, and stimulates neurons in my brain. Do I see the desk as it really is? No, Nietzsche answers. I see an image that is a (possibly completely terrible) translation of nerve impulses that occurred for reasons I cannot know. I have no way of knowing how much or how little this representation of a desk really has to do with the true essence of some desk outside of me. The desk is a mystery.
Furthermore, Nietzsche says that language puts us at yet a further remove from this putative reality. To keep talking about the desk, consider desks as a whole. We call a great number of very different things “desks”—a teacher’s desk full of drawers and papers, a desk that has just a tray and a chair and an aluminum frame, and a desk that opens to have room for books, to name some. Nietzsche claims that we disregard the infinite variations of actual desks—actual sense perceptions, themselves separate from reality as mentioned above—in order to create the conventional concept of “desk.”
As far as I can tell–and perhaps I’m misreading–Nietzsche thinks that the boundaries between and makeup of these categories is arbitrary–that one could just as easily say all brown fake wood things are desks, including some things we now call boxes and houses, whereas something that we would now call a desk, if it’s made from real pine, would be (say) a “tree.” But in order to feel as though they live in a dependable and consistent world, people have developed a set of metaphors that they agree are the truth. Certain things are “desks.” Certain things are “leaves.” Certain things are “honest.” Certain things are “evil.” These categories or ideas (e.g., “desk”) do not necessarily have any relation to the possibly illusory reality they claim to translate, and they may divide up the sensory impulses they translate more immediately in a completely arbitrary way.
But by forgetting that they are metaphors–the term Nietzsche uses for these imperfect translations, first the nerve impulses, next the images, and finally the words–most people believe that the metaphors are “true.” (“True” in some sense I don’t quite understand; I guess, true in that the word desk in some inherent way expresses the full concept of all desks).
What one believes—the metaphors and ideas one chooses—are not related to the absolute truth but rather are an act of creation. Most people, Nietzsche claims, consent as a herd to accept the traditional set of metaphors, categories, and ideals, an edifice that Nietzsche compares to a castle of cobwebs built on water that nonetheless remains intact. Intellectuals seek truth within the framework of the traditional metaphors, not realizing that the metaphors are not the truth.
Some, however–the people Nietzsche admires–either disregard the truth entirely or recognize the impossibility of finding truth. Thus, instead of conforming with previous metaphors they create their own. They believe and do many things outside traditional notions of truth—things that are, as far as we know, neither truer than the beliefs of the herd nor less true, but are more beautiful and vital. These people are artists, creators, and leaders.
I suspected a lot of what Nietzsche is attacking here is the lingering remains of Platonism–the idea that (as I understand it) there really is an independently existing Idea of desk, that can be apprehended intellectually, that is where our ideas of desks come from, and of which all corporeal desks are imperfect instances. I (and most of you, I expect) fully agree with Nietzsche that these Platonic remnants are BS.
I also agree with Nietzsche that we have no idea what’s really out there, that what we see when we look at a desk is an imperfect and extremely incomplete image of something that may or may not be there at all in some sense as yet unknown. I agree too that language does much more than directly translate sense impressions, and that there are multiple possible functional ways of categorizing those sense impressions.
But I think Nietzsche–or perhaps just my, and possibly others’, easy misreading of him–goes too far. First, it’s easy to agree that thought is essentially metaphorical, and that probably a lot more is lost from the translation of thing to nerve impulse (for example, all the quarks and the electrons and the protons and neutrons and molecules and….), nerve impulse to image, and image to word, than we realize instinctively. But (I can picture someone waving their arms at the end of an arty foreign film shouting this) something was not lost.
In college I read Francis Ponge’s The Nature of Things, translated by Lee Fahnestock, and found, in “The Cycle of Seasons,” this great line: “‘There’s no getting away from trees by way of trees’” (26). It’s because of seeing the monotony of their summer profusion of leaves and thinking this that the saddened trees lose their leaves in autumn.
From the strength with which Nietzsche emphasizes that the word is a totally different medium than the image–and the image is a totally different medium than the nerve impulse–and the nerve impulse is a totally different medium than the outside world–it seems he finds it hard to believe that one can get away from pictures by way of pictures or away from words by way of words (Paul de Man, if I remember correctly, actually does argue this explicitly about words, saying literature can be about nothing but language). But I think we can get beyond one medium by means of that medium, and we do, constantly.
Forget about words, for a second, and about the vexed thing-in-itself, the unreachable external reality about which Nietzsche so despairs of learning. Let’s think about ones and zeroes. If you can’t get beyond leaves by means of leaves or beyond language by means of language, surely you can’t get beyond two stupid numbers by means of those two numbers.
And yet, here you are, reading this post, full of words, with an image at the top of it, also containing, I’d argue, ideas based on sense perceptions and intuitions of reason, on a machine that understands nothing but ones and zeroes.
Or let me try again. I think that, in saying that metaphors are not truth, Nietzsche forgets something about metaphors–they are based not only in difference but in similarity, and the similarity is the useful part of them. I believe that it is possible (no shock here!) for two unlike things to be similar in some ways, and for us to create a thing that, while not like the thing we’re trying to describe, is like it in key ways. And, so, I believe that a pattern in one medium can be replicated in another. Does Nietzsche…not believe this? Does he not believe there’s such a thing as a pattern at all?
I think there’s a strong possibility we know a truly enormous amount, more than we could ever know sheerly intellectually, about the real world we live in, because we’ve been evolving for millennia to translate the world into understandings of the world that allow us to not be killed by the world.
Whew. Moving on to language. Just as I believe in patterns, I believe in categories. Objectively existent categories. I believe that some objects are more similar to each other than they are to other objects.
I believe that you, reader, and I have more in common with one another than either of us does with a quark, or a desk, or even a squirrel. Nor does the fact that a distinction has tricky border cases render it generally invalid.
If I have a room full of tons of red squirrels and blue squirrels but there are three purple squirrels and a green squirrel, it doesn’t mean that it would be meaningless to have one word for “red squirrel” and one word for “blue squirrel” (though some squirrel should probably come up with a word for “purple squirrel” and “green squirrel” too, and make efforts to make sure the red and blue squirrels don’t ostracize the differently colored squirrels, and maybe see if they can get the red and blue squirrels to interact with each other in a friendly and rational way while they’re at it, and let the squirrels dye themselves different colors if they aren’t okay with their current color, and maybe someday I will have a room of pretty, sparkly rainbow-colored squirrels instead of opposing tribes of red and blue squirrels that are sure that there’s something fatally wrong with any squirrel that isn’t red or blue. But I digress.)
Obviously, the word we choose for members of a particular category is arbitrary (there would be nothing in the sound or look of the word desk that brought to mind a thing that I sit at to do work if I hadn’t been taught to call such objects desks), but I don’t think the categories themselves are arbitrary. (And yes, we could, as in my example where desks are brown things made of fake wood, base our language on different sets of objectively existent categories, but I think the ones we have are based on their real usefulness to us on a variety of levels as well as on the whims of the builders of systems of “truth.”)
So, I think Nietzsche’s arguments against truth are flawed. But, more deeply, I think that there are real problems with the possibility that there is no such thing as truth.
When Nietzsche discusses the source of the drive to truth, he proposes interesting things, but as I read him he neglects (perhaps humorously or perversely–I do not trust Nietzsche to be serious) that even though we can’t reach the earth with our perceptions, the earth can most assuredly reach us. Or, more concretely, that whether we have words for or knowledge of “big, hungry saber-tooth tiger” or “global warming “ or not, it would behoove us to know whether those things are out there.
I realize that there is some chance that if a tiger eats me, I won’t really die–it will just seem as if I did to people who pay attention to consensus reality. Still, I don’t want to risk it–though I do want to risk writing fiction about it someday.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on truth and project updates!