>In his essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche paints a picture of humanity “deeply immersed in illusions and dream-images” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition, 765).
He calls into question language’s capacity to relate truths. Nietzsche’s “liar” is only lying insomuch as he is subverting the agreed-upon naming system of society. Nietzsche goes on to deconstruct this naming system, pointing to language’s tendency to generalize experiences and thus disconnect the language of them with the experiences themselves. He goes on the explain the genesis of language in terms of two metaphors.
The first metaphor occurs when “[t]he stimulation of a nerve is first translated into an image” (767). It seems easiest to imagine this metaphor in terms of visual stimuli, where photons of light travel to our visual cortex, and our brain receives and interprets the stimuli as some set of images. We “see” a chair because our brain interprets the set of photon data as a specific image. This could apply equally to other senses, though we perhaps have to modify our understanding of the term “image.” Sound waves activate nerve sensors within our inner ear, and our brain resolves these waves into some semblance of order and intelligibility. This order would be the “image” of sound. Thus also for smell, taste, and touch.
Nietzsche’s second metaphor occurs when “[t]he image is then imitated by a sound” (767). This is the creation of language. The nervous receptors of the original stimuli transfer the image data to our verbal centers, which create a verbal representation of the image.
An interesting aspect of this process of language creation as described by Nietzsche is the necessary break between each step in the process. Translating nervous stimulus into image, and then image into sound, the human brain must encounter some very difficult choices. An analogy might be found in the difficulty translators have in capturing the essence of a passage in another language. Some data will be lost. Some amount of meaning will be distorted. Indeed, many hold that translation even between languages is impossible to accomplish effectively. And this between systems of thought designed to accomplish the same or similar tasks (i.e., the verbal representation of real experiences, of Nietzsche’s “nervous stimulation”). Nietzsche puts the difficulty thus: “…[E]ach time there is a complete leap from one sphere into the heart of another, new sphere” (767). As humans, we tend to gloss over the difficulty that occurs when one type of stimulus is translated into an entirely different sort of data (by way of not one, as Nietzsche points out, but two leaps) so long as this translation is as familiar as that which accompanies language formation. We are more uncomfortable with other forms of the same phenomenon; for example, the experience of tasting colors, which has been attested to by many who have experienced LSD, seems entirely foreign to us. Perhaps a closer examination of such “nonstandard” data translations would help us become aware of just how much of reality is lost in translation.
Nietzsche goes on to discuss “concepts” as the uses of language for individual cases which “must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases” (767). He gives the example of “leaf” and “honesty”, which words do not designate a particular entity in reality, but only a generalized concept of reality which is “formed by dropping…individual differences arbitrarily” (767). Nietzsche asserts that, by way of these generalizations, we create for ourselves a concept of something which does not exist in nature, a prototypical leaf from which all other leaves are designed in our minds. It’s interesting to note that this generalization necessarily begins in (and may take place entirely within) the creation of the first metaphor. When our nerves in our eyes are stimulated by some photons, our translation of this data into image must necessarily draw on the image data already stored in our brains. It is a simplification, to be sure, but it seems as though this sense data may be compared with the experiences of past nervous sensation, and when an alignment is found (between this sensation and others which are associated with the image-concept of ‘leaf’) a generalizing concept is applied. Language, then–the second metaphor–has less work to do.
Nietzsche uses this classification of experience in order to call into question humanity’s relationship with the concept of “truth,” which he calls
A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical and binding… (768)
He (somewhat humorously) returns to the liar with which he began the discussion, stating that humanity’s obligation to “truth” is no more than “the obligation to lie in accordance with firmly established convention, to lie en masse and in a style that is binding for all” (768). This construct of humanity, which he acknowledges as “a mighty architectural genius,” nevertheless has no real connection to the world as it is, to Kant’s “thing-in-itself,” and Nietzsche calls on man to again awaken to the knowledge of himself “as an artistically creative subject,” though this awakening necessarily means the loss of such “degree of peace, security, and consistency” as is achieved within the dream-image of constructed reality (770).
Nietzsche explains that humanity’s continued employment of specific images to relate to specific neural activity, over many generations, has created in our minds a sense of causality, “as if it were the only necessary image” (770). He likens this experience to a dream from which one never wakes, and so takes the dream itself to be reality. The idea of dream-image is intimately taken up by Benjamin, whose phantasmagoria suggests that we are continually caught up in a false understanding of the continuity of reality. Benjamin, too, points to language’s tendency to dissolve the concept of flux which is inherent in any concept of reality which attempts to exclude human consciousness. Things as they are do not have continuity, and only in the employment of language do I become an entity which is independent and unchanging.
By calling into question humanity’s access to universal truth, Nietzsche anticipates Postmodern relativism. It’s funny: it seems like I have, for most of my life, been aware of language’s limitations as Nietzsche outlines them, and I am attracted to his theory as foundational partially because it strikes me as somewhat odd that the concept of language’s constructedness could have ever been “new.” My feeling must necessarily stem from my own embeddedness in a set of cultural assumptions which has begun to internalize Nietzsche’s theory. This brings up a certain double paradox of the theory. First of all (and rather plainly), by making his claim that language does not relate to reality, that it distorts truth, Niezsche automatically undercuts his own argument (by virtue of the fact that it, too, is made using language). It’s the philosophical equivalent to saying “nothing I say is true.” But even more paradoxical to me is the idea that Nietzsche’s theory is embedded in a history of philosophy that makes him the inheritor of a great deal of ground work regarding our capacity for reason. It would seem, in other words, that Nietzsche’s own theory denouncing reason could only be reached through a superior employment of reason. Only through a superior self-consciousness can man become conscious of his own self-consciousness.
Nietzsche distinguishes between the man of concepts, regularity and reason, and the man of pretense, myth and immediacy. Modern, enlightened man, he says, will “no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions,” but must rather “generalize all these impressions first, turning them into cooler, less colorful concepts in order to harness the vehicle” of his life to them (768). Nietzsche blames science, which “works unceasingly at that great columbarium of concepts” for removing humanity into a world of metaphors based on metaphors, and so distancing us even further from any sense of reality. The drive to form metaphors, which Nietzsche acknowledges as a “fundamental human drive,” is not realized in a world structured by science, which hands down its own prepackaged metaphors and gives them the name Truth. This drive, however, might still be realized “in myth and in art generally” (771-72). He turns to pre-Socratic Greek society for an example of man for whom, “thanks to the constantly effective miracle assumed by myth…anything is possible at any time, as it is in a dream, and the whole of nature cavorts around men as if it were just a masquerade of the gods” (772). Modern man rarely considers just how much of his life and society functions based on the assumptions that trees will not talk and things, when dropped, will fall to the ground. By calling to mind a people for whom these assumptions did not hold, for whom at best trees usually didn’t talk, Nietzsche challenges us not to start looking for talking trees, but to recognize our position within the construct so that we might realize our own embeddedness in Nature (and thus, perhaps, gain perspective on ourselves as a species). He doesn’t seem to call so much for a total subversion of reason, but for a re-evaluation of reason in relation to its opposite: intuition.
Nietzsche’s hope for art and intuition as a force for revealing new metaphors, for subverting the normative framework of “reality” presented by science and reason, calls to mind Shelley’s assertion that poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (From A Defence of Poetry, excerpted in my Norton, p. 596). When Nietzsche’s artist, his “man of intuition[,]…wields his weapons more mightily” than the man of reason, “a culture can take shape…and the rule of art over life can become established” bringing humanity “a constant stream of brightness, a lightening of the spirit, redemption, and release” (773). Unlike Schiller or Coleridge, who set the imaginative capacity of man over and against natural phenomenon, Nietzsche suggests that our imaginative capacity, our metaphor-drive, is most active when we are closest to nature. When we allow ourselves to abandon the distinction that reason creates between “man” and “nature”, we are most attuned to the magical possibilities that the mysteries of nature present.
Nietzsche is interested in reembedding man in the great family tree of the animal kingdom. He seems to say to humanity, “Get over yourself. You are just a big dumb animal who has distinguished yourself from all other animals only because you happen to be a little less dumb.” He sets his task at the beginning of the essay, when he claims that what is needed is
…a satisfactory illustration of just how pitiful, how insubstantial and transitory, how purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature; where were eternities during which it did not exist; and when it has disappeared again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that might extend beyond the bounds of human life. (764)
Nietzsche characterizes human intellect as nothing more than a Darwinian evolutionary tactic for “dissimulation”–for trickery, deceit, and cleverness–made necessary by our lack of “horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence” (765). From a scientific standpoint, this is probably a relatively accurate (if vastly oversimplified) portrayal. Again, Nietzsche himself must have seen the irony of the situation: His own theories about man’s over-reliance on Science are made possible and given “teeth” (so to speak) only through the advancement of Science. Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which deems to delineate all of life into an historical organizing apparatus, must represent for him a supreme example of Science’s propensity for the columbarium, and yet it is only Darwin’s theory which finally, and irrevocably, repositions mankind as nothing more than one possible outcome of a complicated natural phenomenon.
In describing man’s propensity for constructing metaphorical relationships, Nietzsche finds analogies in some of the more complex constructions found in nature (e.g., cobwebs, honeycombs). These analogies give rise to the question, how much of humanity’s “web” of metaphors results from our embeddedness in nature? Nietzsche would have us believe that our metaphorical tendencies, piling metaphor upon metaphor and building an “infinitely complicated cathedral of concepts on moving foundations…on flowing water” are in many ways subverting our natural tendency, dividing us from intuition and mystery (769). However, as he himself admits, “if we could communicate with a midge we would hear that it too floats through the air with the…feeling that it too contains within itself the flying centre of this world” (764). This seems to suggest that the tendency to center the universe around oneself is a natural tendency, which implies that a rejection of the constructed concept–a rejection in large part called for by Nietzsche–would represent more of a domination of man’s reason over nature than the original construction itself. Though it is our nature that we construct metaphors to dominate nature, Nietzsche seems to say, now we must begin the process of dominating (by abandoning) our natural tendencies to do so.
I am supremely interested in the limitations of language put forward by Nietzsche. I have been intrigued by the futility of the phrase, “do you know what I mean?” for some time, and I am excited to see where his theories lead. However, it seems essential to recognize Nietzsche’s suspicion of human intellect as an essentially intellectual suspicion, as well as to remember that, when all’s said and done, we are still left with language and action as our only recourse as unifying and organizing social forces.