On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
In the following I will consider Nietzsche’s essay ‘On truth and Lies in a nonmoral sense’. First I will look at a small section of this to work out his views on language, then I will examine the whole of the essay in order to consider his use of metaphor, metonymy and anthropomorphisms in detail.
This examination will lead, by way of a consideration of the ways in which he uses metaphor and other devices, into a consideration of his arguments regarding the nature of language. I will put forward the view that his interpretation of the nature of language undermines itself as it seeks to put itself forward as a truth while denying that truth exists as such.
2. Truth and Language
First, I consider the passage which starts “What then is truth”. In this passage, Nietzsche wants to convey the flexible and changing quality of language. The statements which we take as truth, straightforward and easy to understand, were in fact originally more akin to poetry in their relationship with how things really are. Language which was originally used in a metaphoric, metonymic or anthropomorphic way has lost the vital force of the original statements, the original power of the symbolic use of language has become lost and only a shell remains.
Over time the non-literal original sense has become literal so we take the words as a straightforwardly true or false statement. In the original use of language, people could understand that the terms were not meant literally but a rich and evocative picture of how things are. This richness has become lost and we are left only with the empty structural force of the language, which we interpret as simple truth.
This is my overall understanding of this paragraph. However it is difficult to paraphrase accurately, due to the richness of the language Nietzsche uses. We could in fact say that his contention that “truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” is couched in terms which are in themselves heavily metaphorical, rather than the propositions which would be easy to paraphrase.
Truth, in the paragraph in question, is ‘a movable host’, an ‘illusion’, something which is ‘drained of sensuous force’ and a ‘coin’. The associations of these are rich, but not necessarily reconcilable. A coin, for instance, is not an illusion as it is an everyday part of economic exchange. Therefore, the most important facet of Nietzsche’s argument would seem to be that it is not a conventional argument; rather he uses poetry and metaphor to demonstrate the nature or language, rather than explain it in a step by step way.
I now turn to the larger essay of which this quotation is a part. There are a host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms in it, and as pointed out in the question it is easy to overlook these. I will pick out a few of these to discuss why it is easy to overlook them. Part of the reason would seem to be that the text is simply so dense with them. In some sentences, several of these devices being crammed into it. Take, for example, the first few sentences (1). “World history” is described as “arrogant and mendacious”; an anthropomorphic device ascribing human characteristics to an abstract notion.
Nature, likewise, is said to “draw a few breaths” which combines anthropomorphism with the metaphor of taking a while to pause. Later in the same paragraph, nature is said to “swell up like a balloon” which again combines metaphor and anthropomorphism. As well as the denseness with which these devices are packed, it is also the case that a more obvious device masks one in the same sentence which is less flamboyant. For example, in the sentence quoted immediately above, nature is also described as “reprehensible“: a quality which properly speaking should really be ascribed to humans only. This less noticeable anthropomorphism somehow comes across as a literal statement. I suspect this is part of Nietzsche’s intention, as it shows the way in which language can slip from being thoroughly poetic to less obviously so.
The structure of his essay works to underline this. Passages of a less metaphorical or metonymic nature occur in between passages where the use of these devices, together with anthropomorphism, is dense. For example, Nietzsche discusses (4) how metaphor is involved in every step of verbalization and conceptualization from sense perception to abstract terms. This discussion is couched in reasonably straightforward language without obvious use of metaphor and the like.
Passages such as these are, however, set against ones in which the language is dense with poetic devices, where, as Nietzsche says there is “a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms” (5). Such poetic passages require a different type of reading, one in which we are forced to recognize language as the dense and image-packed structure Nietzsche would have us believe it is in its entirety. In other words, I would contend that the mixing of metaphorical passages with more ’straightforward’ ones is a device intended to remind us of the inherently metaphorical nature of all words.
Another way in which Nietzsche uses the devices reinforces the above. The metaphorical, metonymical and anthropomorphic passages provide a vivid and strong illustration of his points in the more straightforward sections. For example, he talks about man’s need for deception (2) “a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity”. The visual image thus constructed powerfully reiterates the later points he makes about the nature of truth and the value it plays for mankind. He appeals, as it were, to both our intellect and our senses.
Section two of the essay is rich in unusual use of metaphor and other devices. Perhaps the most dense passage occurs at the end, where Nietzsche talks about intuitive (as opposed to rational) man. He piles device upon device to reiterate the way he portays intuitive man. He is said to “reap” “a harvest” from his intuition, but Nietzsche takes the unusual step of elaborating this metaphor in another direction, for what man reaps is “continually inflowing illumination”, a metaphor one would associate with a river, not a harvest.
I believe Nietzsche compounds metaphors in this way in order to demonstrate that the sense of what he is saying is not straightforward but has depths and resonates in different directions. It is also unusual that these two metaphors hide another, at the beginning of the sentence, where man is said to be “standing in the midst of a culture”. Here one could almost overlook the metaphoric nature of the expression, as it is close to a common-sense expression. I’d suggest that here Nietzsche is using the more unusual figures of speech as a way of alerting us to the metaphorical nature of all expression, including cases like this where the metaphor has almost passed into ordinary use.
Another remarkable passage starts section two. Here the scientist is described as building his “hut”, which is equated with his understanding of the world. The imagery here is particularly rich and evocative, drawing up a visual image of a towering structure. It would seem that Nietzsche uses such particularly visual imagery to introduce his discussion of dreams, for the words evoke images akin to dreaming consciousness.
A final point I would make about the use of metaphorical devices centers on his use of different metaphors (in this case with an animal theme) to reinforce his points. For example, when talking about the development of conceptualization, he compares it to both building upon a spider’s web and to a bee’s building with wax (7). Earlier in the same passage he talks of this conceptualization in the context of the Roman gods. Because he repeats metaphors taken from levels ‘above’ and ‘below’ that of man, it is as if he is creating an over-metaphor which draws attention to man’s nature and its distinctness from the animal kingdom and that of the gods, which in turn serves to reinforce his notion of the subjectivity of language and perception.
I now turn to the general points made about language in the essay as a whole. Firstly, I will give an overview of the essay itself before turning to a critique of Nietzsche’s points. The essay divides into two parts, and the tone of each is slightly different. The first contains more argument of a philosophical nature, although in the context of rhetorical passages, whereas the second is more lyrical in tone throughout. In part one, Nietzche discusses man’s intellect. We think we are the centre of the universe, and that our knowledge is a special thing, but so do the most lowly members of the animal kingdom.
Our nature is inherantly deceptive, not aimed towards truth, however due to social constraints we feel it necessary to embrace truth in order to become part of a social world. He then turns to the nature of truth, which for Neitzsche is inherantly illusionary and based on metaphor. Looking at the way in which we come to understand the world, this is based not on an actual coherence to things in themselves but an illusion, even at the most basic perceptual stage. Likewise concepts and abstractions have no inherant connection to the ‘real’ state of the world.
The moral impulse towards truth is nothing more than a Darwinian survival of the fittest. Man cannot escape the trap of his inherantly metaphorical viewpoint, which is also specific to the human species alone. However, to give ourselves a sense of security, we have to forget the metaphorical nature of understanding and take our experience as an experience of how things really are. Nietzsche concludes part one with a summary of the subjectivity of man’s experience.
Part two has a different tone, being more poetical overall. He starts by dismissing the claims of science to impart general truths which hold for all time. He reiterates that the drive to metaphor is the most important. Dreams are a way in which we can begin to understand the richness of the creative and metaphorical drive for what it is, a drive which is distinct from the scientific, rational one. In this section, Nietzsche seems to be hinting, against the first section, that through dreams and art man can perhaps come to an understanding of the role metaphor plays in language and truth.
Nietzsche makes several general assertions about the nature of language in his essay. His foremost point is that language is inherently metaphorical. As pointed out, he reiterates this by use of the type of device he believes is a model of language. This, I think, is the central theme of his essay, and one which, by his use of language, he puts across most subtlety. However, there seems to be a problem with his view point. He seems to be taking the viewpoint of someone who can say what is true and what is not.
He wants to say that truth as we perceive it is an illusion, but does not explain why we should believe his illusion rather than any other. He does not merely want to suggest by poetic devices that truth is an illusion, but to argue that this is the case. He wants to do philosophy, not poetry, and philosophy is concerned with using rational argument to put forward ones own case, and dismiss opposing views. The problem is that any argument he uses to support his own view also works against this view.
I believe Nietzsche’s other points are flawed also. Man’s nature, he contends, is to deceive himself, and this, he postulates, is for a Darwinian end, the survival of the individual (2). The first instinct of the individual is self-preservation, and hence to deceive. However, social forces come into play; if man wants to exist happily with others he cannot be seen to tell lies, that is, to disagree with the herd. Therefore the desire for truth comes into play.
Truth is useful to society. Man does not desire truth for his own sake, as the philosophers say, rather he “desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth” (3). Nietzsche thus postulates a socially driven theory of truth, where the quest for knowledge is an illusion, and social reality the only reality. My argument with this would be it fails to explain cases where individuals act in a way which they know will make their position in their social group uncomfortable and unpleasant, and do so because they want to find the truth.
Nietzsche talks about the way in which humans develop language to argue that metaphor is always present from original sense perceptions (3-4). He says “a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor“ (4). After this, he says, each subsequent stage is also built upon metaphor. However, I would argue that in order to distinguish a metaphor as such, we need to have a concept of how things really are, in order that we can know when descriptions are metaphorical (that is, not literal). If, as Nietzsche argues, metaphor exists from the very first act of perception, then how can we make sense of a distinction between metaphor and non-metaphor?
There is also, I believe, a confusion in the essay about the status of what Nietzsche proposes. He suggests that man had to erase the understanding of the metaphorical nature of language from his consciousness in order to live with any sense of security, and also that if man could escape from the confines of this prison-like viewpoint, “his “self-consciousness” would be immediately destroyed” (8). This suggests that man is permanently trapped in the view of language as a truth bearing vehicle, unable to see things as they really are.
This is problematic in two ways. First, that Nietzsche obviously thinks he can stand outside this language trap in order to explain how others are bound by it. Secondly, he seems to suggest at the same time that man can come to the realization that the nature of language and indeed life is other than he believes it to be, which assumes that the prison of language is one that can, and should be overcome. This confusion seems at least partly to derive from the two sections of the essay, which are different in tone. In the second section he seems to be saying that art is one way in which man can free himself from the confines of language and “confuse the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies” (10).
In the above, I have attempted a brief analysis of Nietzsche’s essay. I have attempted to bring out his central point, that language is essentially metaphorical, and also to look his other discussions of the nature language and truth plays for man. I have looked at the ways in which he uses metaphor, metonymy and anthropomorphism in different ways, each of which underline his central ideas about language. I have tried to show that, for me, his arguments although subtle and dense are ultimately not coherent, as he tries to step outside the framework of metaphor to explain how things ‘really are’.
I also suggest that although Nietzsche is attempting philosophy, to convince the reader that he has a valid thesis and to present the argument for this, it is difficult to answer his case fully as he uses the resources of a poet as well as a philosopher. It is not within the brief to use poetry and metaphor to answer Nietzsche, so there’s a sense in which I am unable to answer him on his own terms.
 briefly, a metaphor is when one thing is compared to another by saying “a is b” or similar, for example “my heart is a fountain”, where b is something which a is not normally literally said to be. Metonymy is where a feature of something is used as a shorthand for the thing itself. For example, a school child might refer to a particular teacher as ’big nose’. Finally anthropomorphism is when human characteristics are ascribed to animals: Nietzsche’s use seems also to include the ascription of specifically human traits to an impersonal non-human world.