On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense

by Stephen Gilb

The 1873 “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (“Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn”) was one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s early works, and he was originally unable to have it published. Though it precedes many of his more well-known writings, it is considered by some scholars to be a cornerstone of his thought. In this essay, Nietzsche attempts to view the entirety of human existence from a great distance and concludes by rejecting altogether the idea of universal constants. The essay is an investigation of the epistemological nature of objective truth and, most extensively, the formation of concepts through the generalization of unique stimuli. In many ways his argument reflects the influences which he encountered during his time at the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig where he studied philology, the interpretation of ancient and biblical texts. Other strong influences include John Winckelmann’s History of Art, which lauds ancient Greece as the exemplar of simplicity, rational serenity, and artistic vision, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s atheistic The World as Will and Representation which presents a turbulent world view and rejects religious constraints. The influence of these works is clearly present in Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the rational man (a Kantian construct) and the intuitive man found in “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The essay is divided into two sections.

Section 1

Nietzsche begins his essay with a brief allegory of the creation of knowledge, which he follows by stating, “One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature” (1). Nietzsche highlights that there was a universe that existed before man and his intellect, and there will continue to be the same universe, almost entirely unaffected, after man has died out. The intellect operates out of preservation to deceive man into believing he has an importance in the universe which he simply lacks. Man is “immersed in illusions and dreams” because the eyes detect only “forms” but do not seek truth. Nietzsche describes the establishment of “truth” as a “peace pact” created between individuals because humans are, by necessity, social creatures. These individuals set conventions of “truth” in order to establish any means of interaction. Therefore, those who adhere to these constraints speak the “truth”, and those who do not are “liars”. However, it is only in forgetting that these designations were made arbitrarily that man can believe himself to possess any notion of truth. Even language, proposes Nietzsche, is lacking in truth because words are merely imperfect metaphors for a unique stimulus. Likewise, the concepts of time and space which govern the empirical sciences are manmade inventions, but do not necessitate truth. Thus, in the first part of his essay, Nietzsche proposes that there is no universal objective truth, and that the concepts of language are powerless to communicate total truth.

Section 2

In the second section of the essay, Nietzsche compares the actions and lives of two hypothetical figures: the rational man and the intuitive man. The intuitive man is one who lives outside or free of the concepts which the rational man regards as truth. Drawing on elements of the Greek mythology he studied in his university years, Nietzsche credits the intuitive man as the source of creativity which in turn allows for the establishment of civilization. Though he acknowledges the intuitive man is susceptible to greater disappointment, Nietzsche proposes that while the intuitive man is vulnerable to deeper suffering, and even more frequent suffering, the rational man will not experience as great or frequent of joys as the intuitive man.

Interpretations and Analyses

The importance of Nietzsche as an author and philosopher is undeniable, and the vast amount of secondary literature on his writings has elevated him to an echelon of few peers. Writing in an age of rapid technological advancement and increased faith in empirical sciences as well as man-made catastrophes such as the Great Depression in the United States, Nietzsche calls into question the merit of these developments. His explicit critique of language has been seen as a drastic turn from the increased faith man put in language’s ability to adequately represent and quantify reality.[1] Primordial language was an instrument of man because it was an individual experience originating in artistic impulse, but as conventions took the place of impulses, language gained an autonomy previously reserved for man. Such lines of thought are foundational to other important philosophers such as Michel Foucault, whose book, The Order of Things (1966), asserts that man has become the servant of language. This turn, argues Foucalt, actually signified “the end of man”.

Others have seen Nietzsche’s critique of linguistics as so complete that it discredits the study of metaphysics entirely by stripping all arguments of their assertions of truth. However, others have asserted that Nietzsche’s primary focus was the issue of interpretation. By analyzing “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” in conjunction with Nietzsche’s views of art, one can draw the conclusion that there are indeed superior metaphysical arguments, though a perfect representation of truth through linguistics is impossible. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s writings suggest that while no one interpretation may be completely satisfactory, there are interpretations which do the subject of interpretation more justice.[2] Thus, Nietzsche refrains from rejecting entirely the progressive trends of his era, but suggests that a certain skepticism and autonomy of the individual should be preserved in order to prevent the end of man described by Foucault.

Other issues raised in the essay shift the nature of Nietzsche’s argument from the standard epistemological questions of the nature and value of truth to a third issue: where does the desire to seek truth originate? This question seems to have been ignored by more empirical studies of Nietzsche’s time which sought scientific discoveries and applications for these discoveries without questioning the more humanly essential issue of where this explorative drive is rooted. For Nietzsche this issue is foundational to the other two and must be answered first.[3] Nietzsche’s account of the empirical sciences as a beehive built upon itself without roots in truth suggests that the empirical studies which characterized the modernist period were rooted in self-serving vanity and thus could not uncover any truth rooted outside the accepted confines of existing “knowledge”. “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” asserts that the proper search for truth should originate in the artistic impulse, which strikes man in a unique and novel way, rather than the rational progression of science, which merely builds upon and seeks to further justify existing science.

Nietzsche’s assessment of the impulse for truth and of the validity of language reflect his studies of classic texts which heralds pre-rational society, as well as several preceding authors, namely fellow German author, Heymann Steinthal. Steinthal, founder of a journal entitled Journal for Comparative Psychology and Linguistics and author of Grammar, Logic, and Psychology: Their Principles and Relations to Another (1855), asserted that the evolution of various languages was rooted in unconscious and pre-rational psychological drives. Two years prior to Nietzsche’s writing of “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Steinthal wrote that these drives and their resulting tongues are formed, “without a logic that is foreign to it.”[4] Nietzsche’s later rejection of modern language, with its rigid structure and standardized rules, as an adequate method of describing truth obviously reflects this influence. Nietzsche finds truth in the unique stimuli which man encounters, but scientific progress and exploration seek to rationalize these stimuli into clearly defined laws in the same way man rationalized language into a historicized and scientific study. Thus, for Nietzsche the issues of human autonomy and the uniqueness of one’s experience are of utmost importance in a modernist age of increased mechanization and standardization.

  1. ↑ See Tuska Benes, “Language and the cognitive subject: Heymann Steinthal (1823–1899) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900),” Language and Communication, 26 (2006), pp. 218-230.
  2. ↑ R. Schacht, Nietzsche on Philosophy: Interpretation and Truth, Noûs, 18:1 (1984), p. 75.
  3. ↑ See Jeffrey Brian Downard, “Nietzsche and Kant on the Pure Impulse to Truth,” Journal of fckLRNietzsche Studies 27 (2004), pp. 18-41.
  4. ↑ Heymann Steinthal, Einleitung in die Psychologie und Sprachwissenschaft, Abriss derfckLR Sprachwissenschaft vol. 1, Ferdinand Dümmler’s Verlagsbuchhandlung (Berlin, 1871), p. 68.