By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, November 25, 2010)
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) has influenced much contemporary philosophy by pushing it in a skeptical direction. How? Via his denial of objective truth and his emphasis on personal perspective. Today I will look at Nietzsche's views concerning truth and knowledge plus I will offer a critique.
Famously, Nietzsche asserted that "God is dead" and "we have killed him." The idea is not only that God doesn't exist but also that we have made Him irrelevant to our lives.
While some people might despair in facing an atheistic and ultimately meaningless universe, Nietzsche affirmed life. Indeed, according to Nietzsche, onto the flux that is the world, the human mind constructs order—invents interpretations—to serve the life interests and values of the individual. Moreover, there are only interpretations, no facts. Also, these interpretations are not for truth’s sake, but for survival, health, and the increased domain of our "will to power." In other words, our interpretations—i.e., our perspectives (interpretive judgments concerning facts and values grounded in our interests, background assumptions, conceptual schemes, languages)—do not correspond to reality; they are merely useful.
Appropriately, Nietzsche addresses the concept of truth: “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms….Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” Nietzsche adds: “Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” Moreover, Nietzsche writes: “There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes—and consequently there are many kinds of ‘truths,’ and consequently there is no truth.”
Because different people have different styles of survival and health, which arise from their various subjective aesthetic values (tastes) coupled with the exercise of their will to power, the result is a plurality of perspectives, but no truth. Whatever interpretation serves one’s aesthetic interests in the project of affirming and enhancing one’s life is the way to go. Or so Nietzsche would have us think.
Should we agree? Surely not. Thinking people should be skeptical about Nietzsche’s denial of truth and Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Consider the following problems for Nietzsche's views.
Nietzsche’s denial of truth self-refutes. On the one hand, when Nietzsche says truth is mere metaphor or illusion, then Nietzsche’s claim, which purports to be true, is mere metaphor or illusion—i.e., not true. On the other hand, if truth is not mere metaphor or illusion, then Nietzsche’s claim is false. So if Nietzsche's claim is true, it's false, and if it's not true, it's false. Either way, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is guilty of a direct self-refutation charge—and so should be rejected.
Also, when Nietzsche says God is dead and not relevant, Nietzsche presumes that these non-existence and non-relevance claims are true—so Nietzsche’s claim about God indirectly refutes his denial of truth. Moreover, when Nietzsche sets out his will-to-power theory, he is presuming a truth position about this theory/interpretation actually being either simply true or pragmatically justified, which again indirectly refutes his denial of truth. Furthermore, when Nietzsche claims that there are only interpretations and no facts, he presupposes this claim to be in fact true, once again indirectly refuting his denial of truth.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism is similarly problematic. On the one hand, if there is no truth, then perspectivism isn’t true. On the other hand, if there are only perspectives (interpretations), then the thesis that there are only perspectives is a perspective too—one among many. So why go with it?
In other words, as philosopher Paul Copan points out, perspectivism faces a dilemma: “The perspectivalist either (A) says something trivial and thus not worth paying attention to (‘it’s all perspective, but that’s just my own individual perspective’), or (B) contradicts himself (‘it’s all perspective—and I’m speaking for all perspectives—so if you disagree, you’re wrong’).” Either way, perspectivism falters.
But perhaps Nietzsche (or a present-day postmodern disciple of Nietzsche) might reply that there is a missing option: (C) it’s all perspective, but it’s pragmatic for us all to accept perspectivism, for the sake of life. It turns out that this option is problematic too.
First, if C is set out as a truth and not merely a useful claim, then C self-refutes. That is, C would be set out as a non-perspectival truth claim about the usefulness of perspectivism, a claim that transcends perspectives, which C precludes (because, according to C, it’s all perspective).
Second, if C is not set out as a perspective-transcending truth, then the result is a debilitating infinite regress. That is, for us to accept C, C too must presume a perspective that makes it pragmatic for us all to accept it; but, then, that perspective must presume another perspective which makes it pragmatic for us to accept the perspective about perspectives; but, then, that other perspective…and so on. In other words, there is an infinite regress that makes C unintelligible.
So, if option C is the case, then either there is a self-refutation or an infinite regress. Either way, C falters too.
In other words, Nietzsche’s claim that it’s all perspective, all interpretation, doesn’t hold.
Therefore, Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not block our knowledge of the world. As a matter of fact, the obvious remains: there are truths, there are facts, and many of these can be known (albeit fallibly and non-exhaustively).
Significantly, these known truths and facts serve as the ground for interpretation to occur in the first place, and this allows us to do science, history, natural theology, etc.—and apologetics.
P.S. The above column is a slightly revised excerpt from my article, "Awakening from the Nightmare: A Critical Overview of Friedrich Nietzsche's Philosophy," which will be published in Christian Research Journal, Volume 34, Number 01 (January/ February 2011):34-41. If Apologia readers are interested in reading the whole of my article on Nietzsche (along with some additional apologetics-related articles), please be advised that Christian Research Journal can be purchased here.
NOTE: My article "Awakening from the Nightmare: A Critical Overview of Friedrich Nietzsche's Philosophy" is now available online.
Apologia columns on radical skepticism:
- Radical Skepticism (Part 1 of 1): Funky/Pop Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 2 of 4): Sensory Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 3 of 4): Kantian Skepticism
- Radical Skepticism (Part 4 of 4): Linguistic Skepticism
- Skepticism Concerning Colours?
- Nietzsche's Skepticism
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)