NIETZSCHE ON PHILOSOPHY AND TRUTH
NIETZSCHE ON PHILOSOPHY AND TRUTH
D. R. Khashaba
A preliminary confession : When I thought of writing this paper it was my intention to comment on Part I of Nietsche’s Beyond Good and Evil to highlight the agreement between Nietzsche’s views and mine on the nature of philosophical thinking and on truth but I soon found out that, since there are profound differences between our overall philosophical positions, even when the superficial agreement in our views is marked, our grounds for those views are widely different, and to represent our agreement as identity would be a falsification. I realized that the accord between Nietzsche’s views and mine is much more complex than I had thought. Thus instead of commenting on Nietzsche’s text I found myself tracking a parallel path, mostly giving my own views on the problems triggered by the text. I give my notes as I wrote them down while reading with minimal editing. The whole of section (I) below was written while I was reading Rolf-Peter Horstmann’s ample Introduction and before I delved into Nietzsche’s text and reflect my original intention.
I venture to say that of all modern philosophers it was Nietzsche who divined the true nature of philosophical thinking. He was the only one who clearly understood that philosophy is not about ‘truth’, not about ‘what is the case’ in the natural world, not about any objective knowledge. Next to Socrates-Plato he was the philosopher who plainly saw that philosophy is wholly concerned with what we are and what we should be. Like Socrates he was in the first place and in the truest sense a prophet. In Also Sprach Zarathustra he delivered his message; in Jenseits von Gut und Böse he gave his theoretical underpinning of the message: It is significant that he subtitled it “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future”. I am now re-reading this latter work and will try to develop and highlight what I have said in these lines. I will concentrate mainly on Part I since in this paper I am not dealing with Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole but only with his conception of philosophical thinking. (I am using the English translation, edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, translated by Judith Norman, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, 2002. All quotations below are from this version; all emphases are in the original.)
Those who failed to understand Nietzsche’s approach to philosophizing – radically opposed to mainline academic convictions – accused him of irrationality and of advancing nonsensical proclamations. They could not see that it was his merit and his strength that he saw through the error that marred all philosophical works from the earliest times down to the daunting Hegel (and continues to mar philosophical endeavours to the present day). Nietzsche saw what only Socrates clearly saw, what even Plato falteringly grasped, and what Kant only half glimpsed, namely, that philosophy has nothing to do with establishing facts nor has it anything to do with attaining apodeictic inferential truths. It is the delusion that philosophy is concerned with objective knowledge or with logically demonstrable truths that has made philosophy the butt of Hume’s ridicul and the source of Wittgenstein’s despair. People found and still find it hard to grasp this because they fail to free themselves from the false view perpetrated by the learned from Aristotle to the present day. Lau-Tzu and the ancient sages of India would have understood Nietzsche better. I am wrestling against the same failure of understanding. Philosophical statements, like poetic visions, are not meant to be true but to be meaningful, to intimate ineffable insights mythically. (See “Philosophy as Prophecy” , The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009, and most recently Eternity and Freedom.)
On the basis of the conception of the nature of philosophical thinking I attribute to Nietzsche and which I myself advocate, we should not expect argument to have a role, expect marginally, in his works. Argument in philosophy, as I have repeatedly stated in my writings, has only an ancillary role to help in exposition and elucidation, not to prove or to convince. In the Phaedo, the most argumentative of Plato’s works (in the Parmenides the demonstrations demonstrate the futility of demonstration), all the arguments are confessed to be inconclusive. The philosophical substance of the Phaedo is in the ideal of the philosophical life; in the notion of the intelligible forms as the source of all understanding; in the vision of the divinity (eternity) of the soul; and in the conception of philosophy as wholly concerned with the intelligible, not with the world of things. The Phaedo, like the Parmenides, has been a closed book to the erudite. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil has met with the same fate.
There are those who are shocked by Nietzsche’s views on truth, namely (1) that there is no absolute truth; and (2) that so-called truths are essentially fictions. I have been, independently of Nietzsche, asserting both these views throughout my writings. These views are not paradoxical. Those who find them hard to grasp simply cannot free themselves from conventional beliefs and from the conventions of language. Let me try to elucidate this.
What truths are we speaking of when we say there are no absolute truths? Certainly not the ideal of Truth that all thinkers, all poets, all artists, and all individuals of goodwill aspire to as a goal constantly to be approached but never to be actualized. The truths we say can never be absolutely true are statements, propositions, judgments formulated in determinate thought and language. By the very nature of thought and language there can be no complete accuracy or certainty or fixity in these. I have written repeatedly and extensively on this and obviously I cannot repeat here what I have expounded in many books and essays.
The second view, that all our truths are fictions is of the nature of a corollary to the first. All of our most precise sciences involve unexplained and unexplainable concepts. Mathematics and logic give us the illusion of correctness and certainty, qualities that they display only as long as they are empty artificial forms. As soon as they are contaminated with any actual content they are infected with the imperfection of all actual existence. Of this too I have written repeatedly and extensively and have no desire to expand on it here. (See “Why 2+1=3 is nonsense” in Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015.)
(In the above two paragraphs I have been speaking for myself. I believe that Nietzsche;s position agrees basically with mine but I am not confident that Nietzsche would endorse my exposition.)
Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is subtitled “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future”. Thus we should expect that book to show Nietzsche’s conception of philosophy. In this paper I am not concerned with the whole of Nietzsche’s conception of philosophy but mainly with the views advanced in Part I, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers”, which are much akin to views I have been putting forward in all my writings concerning the nature of philosophical thinking and concerning the notion of truth.
Already in the opening lines of the whimsical preface we find Nietzsche mocking the dogmatic philosophers for failing to understand the womanly ‘truth’. It is odd that Nietzsche does not give Kant credit for combating dogmatic metaphysics. When Nietzsche goes on to depict what he sees as the cornerstone of dogmatic edifices I am no longer with him but this is not the place to go into that: it deserves separate treatment. Indeed Nietzsche’s misunderstanding of Plato and of Kant deserves an extensive answer.
The ambiguity of words is the vicious trap for thinkers. The ambiguity of the words truth and truthfulness is responsible for much confusion and error in philosophical thinking. The truth that a philosopher seeks, if we are to name it truth, has nothing to do with the truth that an empirical scientist seeks. Hence I say that a philosopher seeks understanding or intelligibility, not truth. This is consistent with my holding, with Socrates, that philosophy is not concerned with how things are in the external (natural, phenomenal) world. Philosophy is solely concerned with the intrinsic coherence of the thoughts in our minds. The intelligibility of a philosophical vision is its reality. To live in intelligible visions, in intrinsically coherent myths, is to live on the plane of metaphysical reality. That is the total sum of philosophy. It is because philosophers have for long erroneously thought they were required to reach the kind of truth as the scientists that philosophy has been exposed to suspicion and mocery.
In §4 Nietzsche says that “the falsest judgments (which include synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable to us”. In what sense are synthetic a priori judgments ‘false’ and in what sense are they indispensable to us? I believe these two questions elude our academic philosophers. (1) These judgments cannot, strictly speaking, be ‘true’ because they can neither be logically justified nor empirically verified. They are what I call creative propositions, pure creations of the mind. (2) They are most important to us because, together with synthetic a posteriori judgments, are the whole content of our positive meaningful thought. Analytic a priori judgments are empty. (They say nothing: Wittgenstein.) Synthetic a poeteriori jusgments without the pure creations of the mind are dumb or, more truly said, are impossible. This is Kant’s transcendental system in a nutshell. With Kant and with Plato I maintain that mathematical propositions are synthetic a priori. They are only analytic ‘after the fact’ so to speak. Thus Nietzsche is justified in saying that “without constant falsification of the world through numbers, people could not live” (§4). As I have been affirming in all my works, we, as human beings, live, strictly speaking, in a world of our own creation. Nietzsche chooses to put it paradoxically: “a renunciation of false judgments would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life”. That is part of his transvaluation of all values.
I see that I had much exaggerated the area of agreement between Nietzsche’s views and mine. Nietzsche’s mockery of both Kant and Spinoza (§5) is cruel. I have radically criticized the theoretical structure of both these great minds but I find Nietzsche’s castigation as unperceptive as it is unjust. . Spinoza and Kant were not deceptors but were themselves deluded and harmed themselves, burying their essential insights under heaps of bric-a-brac. Nietzsche shows greater perception when he characterizes “every great philosophy” as “a confession of faith on the part of its author” (§6), though he goes on to give this true insight a sinister dressing.
Perhaps it was only his debunking of the fetish of philosophical ‘truth’ and ‘certainty’ that gave me my deluded enthusiasm for Nietzsche\s views on philosophy and truth. My admiration of his aphoristic, poetic, prophetic style is a thing apart. The greatest merit of Nietzsche as a thinker is that, by shockingly contradicting common beliefs and common evaluations, he disturbs the stagnation of our received convictions and jolts us into rethinking our assumptions and presuppositions.
In the long §11 Nietzsche goes back to Kant and to German philosophy following Kant with the habitual mixture of perception, malice, and misunderstanding. It is true that the answer given by Kant to the question “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” is no answer. It is enough glory to Kant that he drew attention to the fundamental role of synthetic a priori judgments in human knowledge. The question is unanswerable because this ‘faculty’ is part of the mystery of the reality of the mind and the creativity of the mind. Schelling’s designating it as “intellectual intuition” while still providing no answer is yet appropriate. The merit of Plato’s myth of reminiscence is that it is not an explanation but an affirmation of the creativity of the mind as the source of all intelligibility and all understanding. Without this and without acknowledging the reality of synthetic a priori judgments we are left with Locke’s passive receptor of impressions that cannot yield any knowledge or any understanding; without this we are reduced to the inanities of empiricist reductionism and the wild-goose chase of neuroscientists.
In §13 Nietzsche introduces his doctrine of “will to power”: he says, “Life itself is will to power”. But does not this view involve an unnecessary restriction? Why ‘to power’? Why not simply say that life is will as Schopenhauer said the world is will? Nietzsche does not accept self-preservation as “the cardinal drive of an organic being”. He says, “Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength.” Fair enough. A living thing wants to pour out its energy: life itself is outflowing energy; let us say it is ‘power’, but not necessarily power over other than itself; this is only a derivative and, we may say, pathological variation. Plato said that all things are nothing but dunamis (power, energy). I say that reality (let us forget about ‘things, ceding them to empirical science) is ultimately nothing but activity, creative activity, sheer creativity. And I do not say that this view is true or rationalistically justifiable, let alone empirically verifiable: I say this is how the world makes sense to me, or as I usually put it, it is the only way I find the world intelligible.
§14 shows how far more perceptive Nietzsche was than the academics of his time and of our time, both scientists and philosophers. I cannot refrain from quoting the opening lines: “Now it is beginning to dawn on maybe five or six brains that physics too is only an interpretation of the world (according to ourselves! if I may say so) and not an explanation of the world.” This should have been plain from Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’, but despite Kant and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein scientists and philosophers still speak of scientific theories as ‘explaining’ the world. — But Nietzsche for all his perceptiveness persists in distorting views that are not to his taste, not only Plato’s but also Schopenhauer’s with whom he has much affinity.
Nietzsche asserts that “’immediate certainty,’ like ‘absolute knowledge’ and ‘the thing in itself’ contains a contradiction in adjecto” (§16). While this is true in a restricted sense, we cannot deny that immediacy is certainty and there is no certainty other than the certainty of immediacy. While “I am I”, like Descates’s “I think”, can be riddled with contradictions, my certainty of my being is assured, though it cannot be expressed in any ‘absolutely true’ formulation of thought or language, Again, the notion of ‘the thing in itself’ is problematic when applied to external things, but we have the secure source and model of the notion in our subjective awareness of our subjectivity, our awareness of our creative will.
Nietzsche’s insights regularly come with a twist. In §17 speaking of the “superstitions of the logicians” he says that “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, and not when ‘I’ want”. It all depends of course on what we mean by ‘I’. The exteriorization of the ‘I’ breeds multitudinous errors. We do not think of what we think; we think what we think. Thought, which is a species of will, has the essential spontaneity of will. Watch two persons engaged in discussion. A person does not think what to say; it is a falsification even to say that a person thinks. The thought flows out in speech. Thus far Nietzsche’s “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants” is justified. Where does it flow from? From the reality of the person, from the creative mind that is our inner reality. This is the way I find the mystery of knowledge, understanding, thought, intelligible.
Nietzsche penetratingly says that even the ‘it’ in ‘it thinks’ “contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself” (§17). This points to the falsity inherent in all determinate thought, a lesson that Plato’s spells out most clearly but which the erudite still find hard to grasp.
Nietzsche repeatedly asserts the absurdity of the causa sui concept. Strictly speaking of course it is nonsensical. But as used by Spinoza it has a valid meaning. It refers to that which has no cause outside itself. In this sense it is an inescapable fundamental notion, since ultimately Reality (Being) must be thought of as having no external cause. And since all things in the world are interdependent and are therefore determined by what is other than they are, Spinoza consistently maintains that the causa sui in this special sense must be the one Substance. It is the same with ‘free will’ which Nietzsche ties up with the causa sui. Since there is becoming, since things do happen in the world, what is ultimately the ‘cause’ of becoming? What is the primal origin of becoming? To my mind, the only intelligible origin of all being and all becoming is Will. That primal Will cannot be anything but free and creative. And our will is part of that Will.
Nietzsche then moves to ridicule the “mechanistic stupidity which would have the cause push and shove until it ‘effects’ something” (§21). He goes on to say that “we should use ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, which is to say as conventional fictions for the purpose of description and communication, not explanation”. There I agree with him entirely. Indeed I have been saying this repeatedly and emphatically but both scientists and philosophers will not listen. Nietzsche continues: “We are the ones who invented causation, succession, for-each-other, relativity, … this is the way we have always done things, namely mythologically.” I believe it was these lines more than anything else that had previously made me think there was complete congruity between Nietzsche’s views and mine regarding philosophical thinking and truth:
D. R. Khashaba
December `0, 2016