Friday, September 24, 2004

Nietzsche, Truth, and Pragmatism

What is Nietzsche's doctrine of truth? Whatever it is, it is not a pragmatic theory. Or at least that is what this post will argue.

It is tempting to read Nietzsche as a sort of pragmatist about truth: what we call 'truths' are conventions established in accordance with the pragmatic or instrumental considerations that make up the conditions of our life. (See R. Schacht, Nietzsche, RKP, 1983, pp. 72-82.) Numerous passages can be cited in support of this pragmatic interpretation, e.g., "The criterion of truth resides in the feeling of power." (WP #534) This could be construed as saying that a belief is true if and only if it is life-enhancing or life-promoting, where "life-promoting" does not mean merely life-preserving, but something like life-augmenting. Nietzsche frequently remarks that the will to power is not a mere will to survival. Hence on this criterion he would be saying more than that true beliefs are true in virtue of their survival value. But if this is a sort of pragmatism, it is not a pragmatism along the classical lines of William James or C.S. Peirce. There are at least three reasons for this.

There is first of all Nietzsche's repeated insistence that "untruth is a condition of life." (BG&E sec. 4) This makes it difficult to assimilate Nietzsche to the Jamesian view that "the true is whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief..." (Pragmatism, p. 76); that the true is "only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our behaving..." (p. 222) For Nietzsche seems to be saying precisely the opposite. The sense of "untruth is a condition of life" seems to be that the holding of false beliefs is a necessary condition of human flourishing. Thus in his polemic against Kant (BG & E, sec 11) Nietzsche does not deny that there are such synthetic a priori judgments as that every event is caused; his claim is rather that "such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they might, of course, be false judgments for all that!" He goes on to say that they are false, and that although we "have no right" to them, they belong nevertheless to the "perspective optics of life."

Logic and mathematics are also falsifications of the world. "Logic...depends on presuppositions with which nothing in the real world corresponds, for example on the presupposition that there are identical things..." (HAH 16) The radicality of this should not be missed: Nietzsche is saying that nothing in the real world is self-identical at a time or over time. All such identities are linguistic fictions that falsify the real world. If so, the concept of number is a fiction, and with it the whole of mathematics. (HAH 22)

Nietzsche's position thus seems to be that there are certain beliefs (e.g., 'Every event has a cause,''Everthing is self-identical') that are perspectivally true but non-perspectivally (absolutely) false. The holding of such non-perspectivally false beliefs is necessary for our preservation and flourishing, and to this extent good for us. The difference from James' pragmatism should now be obvious. Whereas James identifies "the true" without qualification with the "the good in the way of belief," i.e., what it is good for us to believe, Nietzsche identifies the perspectivally true with what it is good for us to believe. This implies that, while for James it is the true that is good for us to believe, for Nietzsche it is the false that is good for us to believe. This, I take it, is the sense of "untruth is a condition of life."

A second reason why Nietzsche is not a pragmatist is that he does not share the typical pragmatist faith that objectivity is attainable at the ideal limit of inquiry. James speaks in this connection of the absolutely and unalterably true as the "ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge." (pp. 222-3) Peirce waxes eloquent about the "great hope" "embodied in the conception of truth and reality," namely that truth is "the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate..." (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, p. 38)

Recently, Hilary Putnam has sounded this theme: the true is what is rationally acceptable at the ideal limit of inquiry. (Reason, Truth and History, p. 55) But surely Nietzsche has neither faith nor hope in the ultimate convergence of all perspectives at the ideal limit of inquiry. He would most likely see such an epistemological eschaton as a secular substitute for a soteriological eschaton: yet another vestige of Christianity that cannot survive the death of God.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, Nietzsche would deny that convergent truth and objectivity are even values, something that James, Peirce and Putnam take for granted. This is what makes his scepticism so radical and so fascinating. Nietzsche doesn't merely question whether nonperspectival truth is attainable; he questions whether the attaining of it would be good for us. His attitude toward truth is similar to his attitude toward Christianity. His point is not that truth would be a good thing if it could be had, but that it is not a good thing whether or not it can be had. The related point against Christianity is not that the values it enshrines cannot be realized, but that these values are anti-life, hence ought not be realized.