Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Han on Nietzschean Truth

As I do more work on Heideggerian authenticity, I've recently finished (for the second and a half time) Béatrice Han's "Nietzsche and the 'Masters of Truth': The Pre-Socratics and Christ," in Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity, 165-186. Han's analysis is useful because she provides a convincing account for how Nietzsche does not delve into either nihilism or contradiction in his understanding of truth by grounding his view in a pre-Socratic understanding of truth. This has direct ties to my summary/commentary on Guignon, which should be kept in mind, particularly his distinction between a "means-end" approach to actions and a "constituent-end" approach to actions. It also has a few thoughts relevant to the question of the supposed primacy of logic and reason by directing us to something that is prior to both.

Han begins by bringing up the usual interpretations of Nietzsche:

Nietzsche's position would be threatened either by a nihilistic and generalized leveling of all values, or by the argument used against the Skeptics from Antiquity: any proposition that denies the existence of truth reasserts by definition the reality of what is negated by it--either a universal relativism, or a contradiction between the propositional content and the very existence of the proposition. (165-166)
One common tactic by Nietzsche's interpreters is to distinguish between different levels of truth. Heidegger, however, is the first to propose that Nietzsche was not arguing against metaphysics, but was bringing it to its fruition. Still, Heidegger agrees with the other commentators that Nietzsche implicitly assumes the correspondence view of truth, which he is opposing. The other assumption, in discussing Nietzsche's understanding of truth, lies in Nietzsche's denial of the existence of a 'thing-in-itself'; all truths are found solely in one's active living and are true in virtue of their pragmatic value. But even this doesn't work as Nietzsche denies any pragmatic understanding of truth: even if something works, that doesn't mean that it is right.
In fact, the real meaning of genealogy is to denounce the unconscious pragmatism of science and of metaphysics, precisely by unveiling its original occultation by the adequationist understanding of truth: what we see as (adequationally) true is, to take up William James's favorite expression, what "works."
This is something that hasn't quite occurred to me: that the adequationist/correspondent view of truth might actually have a pragmatic basis. From a Heideggerian perspective I imagine that this could be interpreted in the following way: some notion of correspondence works in various situations, particularly those of scientific categorization; because it works in this way, then the correspondence view must be adequate. If we cannot understand Nietzsche's notion of truth through either correspondence or pragmatism (on which the former seems to rest), then how can we understand it?

Han proposes that we understand Nietzschean truth, not through invoking different notions of truth, but through Nietzsche's analysis of the rise of metaphysics and the adequationist understanding of truth. By doing so, Nietzsche sees truth in its prehistory in pre-Socratic thought: as founded in ethics, in the personal greatness of the individual.

I have selected those doctrines which sound most clearly the personality of the individual philosopher, whereas the complete enumeration of all the transmitted doctrines, as it is the custom of the ordinary handbooks to give, has but one sure result: the complete silencing of personality.1 (168)
Here Nietzsche's psychological side comes through: one integral part of any philosophy is the personality of the philosopher; the two cannot be separated, even in principle. As such, one important part of the truth of any claim lies in the speaker's identity, not necessarily on some 'objective' state of affairs. "There is no impersonal access to truth: aletheia depends on ethos" (169). Drawing from the pre-Socratics, this ethical dimension is found in the "severe necessity between their thinking and their character."2 The pre-Socratics were integrated individuals who have harmonized the various drives/humors and thoughts that are part of their lives: what they have is theirs, they exist authentically. Furthermore, for the pre-Socratics this harmony occurred naturally, without will or conscious decision. Modernity, by contrast, is driven by conscious reflection; any harmony that may be possible must occur through thorough self-reflection and conscious change. Furthermore, the modern scholar sees no necessity in the continuity between their being and their thought: that relationship is seen as arbitrary and inconsequential to their claims. This is a natural consequence when truth is thought to be found within propositions, such that one can speak truthfully regardless of one's personal excellence. Nietzsche is revolting against this view: "The man is the incarnation of what he thinks, and his thought, the necessary expression of his character" (170).

With this ethical element, the philosopher is the incarnation of his word, he embodies his work. Rather than the philosopher's system being metaphysically abstract and 'objective,' the genuine philosopher's system is grounded in their being: "Far from being abstract, the systematization now becomes organic, its totalizing aspect being referred to the individual as a living, concrete totality (they 'bring themselves into a system')" (171). The modern self, in its reflective attitude, is divided in this regard: they cannot ground their propositions in truth and thus are fundamentally ungrounded, disjointed, and unintegrated. In their ethical excellence, the Greek philosophers are "tyrants of truth": being self-secure in their possession of truth and fully integrated in their being (having integrity), their authority and command is sufficient for their words to be believed because they are truthful. This self-assurance would soon be replaced by the Socratic/Platonic dialecticians, whose focus on the abstract theoretical world as divorced from the philosopher's being transmuted the tyrannical element--being believable because one exists truthfully--into a poison. Being incapable of grounding their truth in their mode of being, they grasp for whatever 'external' justification they can find.

In discussing the historical precedence of Nietzsche's understanding, Han brings in Marcel Détienne's The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece. There Détienne also addresses the adequationist understanding of truth: "In archaic Greece, [the Masters of Truth] have the privilege of dispensing the truth simply because they are endowed with the qualities that make them special."3 The poet and the king are to be believed because of their exceptional qualities, not because they can adequately argue for their beliefs through some application of reason. Han points out that, according Détienne, the individual's position was functional according to socio-cultural institutions, but still the connection between the character/being of the speaker and what they speak is a necessary element in the truthfulness of their claims. This is an important point: Nietzsche was not simply pulling a new view of truth out of thin air, but he drew on a genuine understanding of truth that existed prior to the adequationist/correspondence view.

Nietzsche describes the decline of the archaic understanding of truth in three stages. First, "the 'great concepts' seem to benefit from the metaphysical turn in that they are freed from the magisterial relationship (they become 'liberated ideas')" (173). Thought becomes separated from the individual to some intelligible realm, but in doing so they lose their "local source," they are like plants taken out of their soil, leading to a "phony autonomy" (174). Second, concepts become the "foci of truth," which Han describes as "the reactive character of Platonic nihilism" against the archaic understanding of truth as grounded in one's integrity (174). This reversal of nihilism--where Platonism is seen as nihilistic, despite its professed realism--is interesting: it is because of the way that Platonism seeks to ground meaning in some transcendental realm that it is nihilistic, that it loses its meaning and cogency. Third, and lastly, a new world wherein these falsely liberated concepts is created. Because of their inauthentic living and the disconnect between their personal excellence and their philosophies, truth needs to find a new home elsewhere, so the transcendental world was created to ground their nihilism. Most philosophy textbooks characterize this change as the move from a world steeped in authority to a world where reasons and arguments are needed to be believed. Nietzsche's point is that such a focus on reason and argument as an improvement on 'blindly' following authority in fact misses (and in fact buries) an important part of ancient authority--its being grounded in the excellence of the individual speaking.

This covering-up dynamic, which insensibly transforms the concrete deep-rootedness of values in the contingency of a spatio-temporal set of conditions (the "soil") into a transcendent foundation, is thus the hallmark of the slowly emerging metaphysics. (174)
Han quotes Nietzsche (174):
This degeneration of the archaic model is accompanied by the birth of a new type of man, the "abstractly perfect man," who is the ethical counter-part of the "theoretical man" already exemplified by Socrates in the Birth of Tragedy.

One had need to invent the abstractly perfect man as well--good, just, wise, a dialectician--in short, the scarecrow of the ancient philosopher: a plant removed from all soil... The perfectly absurd "individuum" in itself!4 (174)

The individuum in itself is absurd because, as with the universalized concept, it loses its nature by being so universalized: its particularity (its alterity) is lost and the magisterial relationship is covered up or even denigrated. Dialectic essentially spoils the magisterial relationship by disassociating the speaker from what is spoken and focusing exclusively on the latter. The truth had by the "Master of Truth," by comparison, is accepted because of his authority by virtue of the kind of person he is. Socrates, incapable of attaining the level of integrity had by the Master of Truth, becomes tyrannized by the abstract reason that he has 'released.' No longer able to naturally harmonize his life, he is dominated by his need for rigorous thought rather than the natural authenticity, majesty, and nobility that the Master possesses.

Nietzsche sees the same opposition in Christ and Paul. Here it would be good to state the common truism: you often learn more about the interpreter of a thinker than you do about the person interpreted. I, for one, think that Paul does not ignore the existential aspects in his writing, as Nietzsche proposes, such as in Romans 8. Still, Nietzsche's analysis is useful for accentuating his claim. It is also informative to show Nietzsche's relation to Christianity: he had enormous respect for Christ, but little respect for the abstract understanding that traditional Christianity developed, which he first sees in Paul.

Nietzsche sees three magisterial aspects of Christ's life: first, "one of the Messiah's most prominent characteristics is the impossibility of dissociating the content of his teaching from his person and from his life" (176). Christ did not present theoretical reasons or analytical demonstrations of his authority; rather, he showed us a way of being, a way of living, he performed good works and essentially answered arguments with, "What fault do you find in my life?" Second, "Christ is endowed, like the ancient Masters, with the internal harmony that allows him to ground in his personal ethos the truthfulness of his words" (176). In short, Christ knew how to live a divine life, a life which is lived and not argued for. Thus, he possessed the magisterial and noble mode of life that made him believable: he was, or existed as, the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Jonathan Erdman has an interesting paper, titled Aletheia and the Correspondence Theory of Truth, where he discusses the Gospel of John's multiple uses of aletheia, one of which has affinities with the magisterial understanding Nietzsche is espousing. Third, quoting Nietzsche, "Dialectic is equally lacking: the very idea is lacking that a faith, a 'truth,' might be proved by reasons"5 (177). One more useful quote by Nietzsche: "Christ's faith is not set in formulas--it lives, it is diffident of formulas... The experience of 'life,' as he alone knows it, is adverse to any kind of letter, formula, law, faith, tenet"6 (177). This is particularly seen in the Gospel of Mark, where knowledge is only possible from divine sources, from inspiration rather than argument, from regeneration rather than syllogisms.

Christ is the incarnate Word (Logos) and thus his being and his words are inextricably combined and fully integrated--he is to be believed because of who he is, of the excellence he exhibits in his life. This has two consequences: first, Christ is incomparable with anyone else and, thus, his words have more credence. Not because he can give reasons for his words, but because of the excellence of his being. Second, Christ's life is exemplary. Like the famous book by the same title, the imitation of Christ is our goal: "For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps" (1 Peter 2:21). Hence Nietzsche's claim: "Christianity is a way of life, not a system of beliefs"7 (177). By thus imitating Christ (imitatio Christi), the disciples are then able to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), thereby partaking in the magisterial relationship. Put one more way, Christ's true disciples exemplify Christ's ethos and thus dwell in the truth, are the truth incarnated in their lives. It is because of this exceptional existential mode of being that they are to be believed, not because they are skilled dialecticians (see Acts 4:13; see also Ephesians 4:16, 18).

Paul, in comparison, is described by Nietzsche as "passionate" and "violent," demonstrating the unintegrated nature of his being. As a paradigm Modern, he is introspective and sees himself as preyed upon by his natural desires rather than finding harmony in them. As with the Dialecticians, Paul then seeks to validate his views by demonizing that which is out of his grasp. Furthermore, according to Nietzsche, Paul becomes "obsessed" with a single question: "what is the Jewish law really concerned with? And in particular, what is the fulfillment of this law?"8 (178). Rather than seeing Christ's death as something to be imitated, Paul sought to explain it, to give reasons, thus giving it a formal meaning divorced from the ethos of the individual. By taking this approach to Christ, Paul "proceeds by inventing 'counterfeits of true Christianity,'9 formal counterfeits that are best characterized by their impoverished existential content" (179). By thus formalizing Christianity, Paul betrayed the life of Christ by making it into an abstract "motif."

By reversing the former priority of the practical over the theoretical, or more precisely by abolishing the necessity of grounding an individual's ability to speak the truth on his ethos, Paul--ironically enough--"annulled primitive Christianity as a matter of principle."[10] (180)
The above shows the reasons behind Nietzsche's disrespect for his contemporaries: the lack of respect for individual philosophers (rather than just their thought) has led to a lack of respect for philosophy as a whole. "The main evil that Modernity suffers from is the loss of the magisterial relationship" (180). Philosophy is now reduced to a theory of knowledge, a theoretical web of propositions and beliefs, which itself lacks genuine efficacy. In such a state, "the exaggerated manner in which the 'unselfing' and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself and redemption and transfiguration"11 (180). I should point out that this is not merely taking account of a philosopher's moral or immoral actions, but rather in reuniting the primordial relationship between what a philosopher thinks and the kind of person they are. Eclectically bringing together ethics and epistemology/metaphysics is not sufficient as the tie needs to be seen as essential.

Nihilism has now come into its own: "the individual, instead of being the living proof of the virtues expressed by his discourse, becomes the point in which these virtues, unable to root themselves in his ethical substance, degenerate and perish" (181). Against this depersonalization of thought, we must regain the magisterial relationship and understand that truth is, in fact, rare. "This ideal of a scarcity of truth...is the only way truth can recover its value: the greatness of philosophical conceptions must become again the reflection of the achievements of the individual... Theoretical comprehension must be rooted in existential experience: understanding something means living it" (181). Correct beliefs do not allow for ethical living; rather, ethical living must proceed and ground correct beliefs. Thus, rather than proclaiming, as does Descartes, that I will endeavor to not be deceived, I should endeavor never to deceive anyone, myself included. It is only from this determination that truth can be spoken.

This return to a magisterial relationship between ethos and truth requires a self-making: "one must become worthy of truth in order to be able to found it as true" (183). As with the pre-Socratics, one must integrate all aspects of one's life into a harmony wherein truth can appear and dwell. Reminiscent of my own thoughts, we must enter into a receptive state whereby we can see properly; this existential ground for the appearing of truth needs to receive again the importance that it lost after Socrates.

Thus, Nietzsche's reconstruction of the pre-Socratic understanding of truth plays an architectonic part in the Nietzschean corpus: going back to the very origins of our history, it enables us to grasp the common point between such diverse events as the invention of metaphysics and of adequationist truth by Socrates, on the one hand, and the reformulation/betrayal of Christ's teaching by Paul on the other. In both cases, the truth-speaking power that the Master derived from his personal excellence is brought down. In both cases, the principal cause of this fall is ressentiment: because they were by definition unable to enter the magisterial relationship, Socrates and Paul turned against it and replaced it by an abstract, impersonal understanding of truth. Moreover, the ideal horizon outlined by the possibility of recovering the archaic conception of truth allows for a better understanding of the importance devoted by Nietzsche to the theme of self-creation and to such heroic figures as Goethe or Zarathustra. (184-185)
To summarize, it will not do to force Nietzsche into one of the traditional theories of truth: each option still lies within the stark dissociation of what is spoken from the speaker. It is because we try to force Nietzsche into one of these moulds that his views appear relativistic or contradictory. Instead, we should see Nietzsche as a champion of an older view of truth: the magisterial relationship wherein someone speaks the truth because they are truthful. We are asked to reverse our 'common' conception: one is not truthful because they give true propositions; rather, one speaks true propositions because one is truthful. Given our modern reflective attitude, we cannot fully return to the pre-Socratic understanding, nor is such a complete return desirable. What is needed, however, is a new emphasis on the existential relationship between what is spoken and the speaker, of seeing the importance of this relationship in tandem with our modern reflectivity.


  1. Early Greek Philosophy, quoted in Leslie P. Thiele, Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 25.
  2. Ibid, 79.
  3. Les Maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque, 7.
  4. The Will to Power §430, 235; emphasis supplied.
  5. The Antichrist, §33, 607.
  6. Ibid, §32, 606.
  7. The Will to Power, §212, 125.
  8. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, §68, 40.
  9. The Will to Power §169, 101.
  10. Ibid, §167, 101.
  11. Beyond Good and Evil, §207, 122-123.

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Anonymous Jake said...

"the magisterial relationship wherein someone speaks the truth because they are truthful. We are asked to reverse our 'common' conception: one is not truthful because they give true propositions; rather, one speaks true propositions because one is truthful."

Isn't that Kierkegaard's view that truth is subjectivity, where it is not the WHAT, but the HOW of truth; how the speaker relates himself to the truth?

2:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Yes, there certainly are commonalities, though I would be slow to equate the two. I've done very little with Nietzsche and so cannot really say much more. I did find Han's article to be informative, though.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

One problem is that the stereotype of pragmatic truth is very misleading since it is typically divorced from its background. i.e. what does "works" mean? Even in William James things are a tad more complex than typically portrayed. In other pragmatists (especially Peirce) things are very complex.

That's not to deny a quasi-correspondence. But it is more a kind of stability held up because of something more fundamental. One has to acknowledge that for at least Peirce truth is found in community inquiry and not correspondence by an individual.

Regarding the kinds of truth I know Schatch in his influential Routledge book on Nietzsche goes through that. I found him fairly persuasive. While I enjoy Heidegger's Nietzsche it does seem more than a tad "influenced" by Will to Power over the books themselves. i.e. I'm not sure Heidegger's Nietzsche is Nietzsche any more than his Kant is Kant.

The parallels to Christianity were very interesting though. Very good post.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

I should add that I think often Paul is abused in all this. While I agree completely that he takes a theoretical basis for a lot - there is a lot of appeal to reasons of various kinds depending upon the audience - it seems that for Paul this is at best a means to an end. That is Paul's focus is on the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. The arguments at best are a place to provide an experience where one can have Christ in oneself. So while Nietzsche (and others) are completely right in that what Paul presents are counterfeits, I'm not sure Paul would disagree in the least.

The error (and I think N gets this) is to confuse the sign with the signified.

And this is where pragmatism returns since it focuses in on the experience. That's why phenomenology is interesting as well since it does as well. (The distinction in the middle Heidegger between the inauthentic and authentic modes of being)

1:20 PM  

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