Nietzsche, Truth, and Untruth

Evaluating whether Truth is Better than Untruth

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The advantages of truth over untruth, reality over falsehood, appear so obvious that it seems inconceivable that anyone would even draw it into question, much less suggest the opposite - that untruth may, in fact, be preferable to the truth. But that is just what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did - and so perhaps the advantages of truth are not as clear-cut as we normally assume.

Nature of Truth

Nietzsche's delving into the nature of truth was part of an overall program that took him on investigations into the genealogy of a variety of aspects of culture and society, with morality being among the most famous with his book On the Genealogy of Morals (1887).

Nietzsche's goal was to understand better the development of "facts" (moral, cultural, social, etc.) taken for granted in modern society and thereby achieve a better understanding of those facts in the process.

In his investigation of the history of truth, he poses a central question which he believes that philosophers have unjustifiably ignored: what is the value of truth? These comments appear in Beyond Good and Evil:

The will to truth which will still tempt us to many a venture, that famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect - what questions has this will to truth not laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! That is a long story even now - and yet it seems as if it had scarcely begun. Is it any wonder that we should finally become suspicious, lose patience, and turn away impatiently? That we should finally learn from this Sphinx to ask questions, too?

Who is it really that puts questions to us here? What in us really wants "truth"?"

"Indeed we came to a long halt at the question about the cause of this will - until we finally came to a complete stop before a still more basic question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?"

What Nietzsche is pointing out here is that philosophers' (and scientists') desire for truth, certainty, and knowledge instead of untruth, uncertainty, and ignorance are basic, unquestioned premises. However, just because they are unquestioned does not mean that they are unquestionable. For Nietzsche, the starting point of such questioning is in the genealogy of our "will to truth" itself.

Will to Truth

Where does Nietzsche locate the origin of this "will to truth," the desire for "truth at any price"? For Nietzsche, it lies in a connection between truth and God: philosophers have bought into a religious ideal which has caused them to develop a blind reference for truth, making truth their God. As he writes in Genealogy of Morals, III, 25:

"That which constrains idealists of knowledge, this unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself even if as an unconscious imperative - don't be deceived about that - it is faith in a metaphysical value, the absolute value of truth, sanctioned and guaranteed by this ideal alone (it stands or falls with this ideal)."

Nietzsche thus argues that truth, like the God of Plato and traditional Christianity, is the highest and most perfect being imaginable: "we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato's, that God is truth, that truth is divine." (Gay Science, 344)

Now, this might not be such a problem except that Nietzsche was a staunch opponent of anything which turned human valuation away from this life and towards some other-worldly and unattainable realm. For him, this sort of move necessarily diminished humanity and human life, and thus he found this apotheosis of truth to be unbearable. He also seems to have become annoyed at the circularity of the entire project - after all, by placing truth at the apex of all that was good and making it the standard against which all must be measured, this quite naturally ensured that the value of truth itself would always be assured and never be questioned.

This led him to question whether one might effectively argue that untruth were preferable and cut the tin god of truth down to size. His purpose was not, as some have been led to believe, to deny any value or meaning to the truth at all.

That would itself be a circular argument as well - for if we believe that untruth is preferable to the truth because that is a true statement, then we have necessarily used truth as the final arbiter of what we believe.

No, Nietzsche's point was far more subtle and interesting than that. His target was not truth but faith, specifically the blind faith that is motivated by the "ascetic ideal." In this instance, it was blind faith in the truth that he was criticizing, but in other instances, it was blind faith in God, in traditional Christian morality, etc.:

"We "men of knowledge" have gradually come to mistrust believers of all kinds; our mistrust has gradually brought us to make inferences the reverse of those of former days: wherever the strength of a faith is very prominently displayed, we infer a certain weakness of demonstrability, even the improbability of what is believed. We, too, do not deny that faith "makes blessed": that is precisely why we deny that faith proves anything - a strong faith that makes blessed raises suspicion against that which is believed; it does not establish "truth," it establishes a certain probability - of deception. (Genealogy of Morals, 148)

Nietzsche was especially critical of those skeptics and atheists who prided themselves on having abandoned the "ascetic ideal" in other subjects but not in this one:

"These nay-sayers and outsiders of today who are unconditional on one point -- their insistence on intellectual cleanliness; these hard, severe, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honor of our age; all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists, these skeptics, ephectics, herectics of spirit, ... these last idealists of knowledge, within whom alone intellectual conscience is today alive and well, - they certainly believe they are as completely liberated from the ascetic ideal as possible, these "free, very free spirits"; and yet they themselves embody it today and perhaps they alone. [...] They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth. (Genealogy of Morals III:24)

Value of Truth

Thus, faith in the truth which never questions the value of truth suggests, to Nietzsche, that the value of truth cannot be demonstrated and is probably false. If all he were concerned about was to argue that truth did not exist, he could have left it at that, but he didn't. Instead, he moves on to argue that at times, untruth can indeed be a necessary condition of life. The fact that a belief is false is not and has not in the past been a reason for people to abandon it; rather, beliefs are abandoned based upon whether they serve the goals of preserving and enhancing human life:

"The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to a judgment: it is here that our new language perhaps sounds strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding; and our fundamental tendency is to assert that the falsest judgements (to which synthetic judgments a priori belong ) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live - that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, would be to deny life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself , by that act alone, beyond good and evil." (Beyond Good and Evil, 333)

So if Nietzsche's approach to philosophical questions is based not upon distinguishing what is true from what is false, but rather what is life-enhancing from what is life-destroying, doesn't that mean that he is a relativist when it comes to truth? He did seem to argue that what people in society usually call "truth" has more to do with social conventions than reality:

What is Truth?

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, 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 people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which 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 now considered as metal and no longer as coins. ("On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense" 84)

That does not, however, mean that he was a complete relativist who denied the existence of any truths outside of social conventions. Arguing that untruth is sometimes a condition of life implies that truth is also sometimes a condition of life. It is undeniable that knowing the "truth" of where a cliff begins and ends can be very life-enhancing!

Nietzsche accepted the existence of things that are "true" and appears to have adopted some form of the Correspondence Theory of truth, thus placing him well outside the camp of relativists. Where he differs from many other philosophers, however, is that he abandoned any blind faith in the value and need for truth at all times and in all occasions. He did not deny the existence or value of truth, but he did deny that truth must always be valuable or that it is easy to obtain.

Sometimes it is better to be ignorant of the brutal truth, and sometimes it is easier to live with a falsehood. Whatever the case may be, it always comes down to a value judgment: preferring to have truth over untruth or vice-versa in any particular instance is a statement about what you value, and that always makes it very personal - not cold and objective, as some try to portray it.