Monday, May 7, 2012

Nietzsche: on truth and lies in a nonmoral sense

To: John D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nietzsche: on truth and lies in a nonmoral sense
Date: 16 August 2007 12:35

Dear John,

Thank you for your email of 9 August, with your essay for the Metaphysics program in response to the question, 'Explore one example, based on any reading you have done, of a problem that you see as raising a question about the nature of truth, or a question about the nature of existence.'

You have chosen to look at the questions raised by Nietzsche in his essay, 'On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.' This is an interesting choice of topic.

It could be argued that there are not one but rather notions of truth that we need to consider (and corresponding notions of falsity): truth with a small 't' and Truth with a capital 'T'. What Nietzsche is talking about is Truth, not truth.

In the Metaphysics program, a case is made truth is indefinable, on the grounds that any substantive definition would violate the 'Tarski' principle,

   For all propositions P, 'P' is T if and only if P.

Any predicate that one substitutes for T in the above formula may be viewed as equivalent to truth, provided that the equivalence between the left hand side and right hand side always holds. So, for example, if one attempts to define 'is true' as, 'is the result of a thoroughgoing verification test', the claim becomes,

   For all propositions P, 'P' is the result of a
   thoroughgoing verification test if and only if P.

But we know that this principle is sometimes violated. Sometimes, despite our very best attempts, we get it wrong. Therefore the proposed definition must be rejected.

However, the formula holds the key to a possible definition of truth: 'is true' simply IS the predicate that can always be substituted in the above formula. Whenever you can say, P, you can say 'P' is true. If you are not allowed to say, 'P' is true, then you are not allowed to assert that P, full stop.

Why have a predicate, 'is true' if its meaning is clearly redundant? Simply because it allows us to generalize. One can say, 'Peter said something true,' without having to state which proposition or propositions that Peter asserted is/ are the proposition(s) which one would be willing to assert.

This view is known as the 'redundancy theory', or 'minimalism about truth'. (These two positions are not exactly the same, but we can ignore the difference for present purposes.)

The point is that none of Nietzsche's arguments count against the use of 'is true' in this sense, unless we take him to be arguing for the radical conclusion that it is wrong to ever make an assertion about anything. He is talking about something else, Truth with a capital 'T', the erroneous belief (as he sees it) that human beings have the capacity to gain knowledge of 'things in themselves' or ultimate reality.

It is possible that Nietzsche would find much to agree with, in the characterization offered in the Metaphysics program of the debate between realism and anti-realism about truth. In these terms, he is an anti-realist.

However, I think that there is something more remarkable in Nietzsche's position than merely an expression of the anti-realist standpoint. The debate between the realist and anti-realist is characterized against a background of a common language which we accept as being capable of being used to 'assert truths', the only question being whether, as the realist holds, there 'exist' truths which cannot in principle be verified, or whether such an assertion, as the anti-realist holds, makes no sense.

But what if doubt is cast on the very language itself? What if our so-called 'concepts' are merely 'metaphors that have been handed down the ages and so become fixed, binding'? The question Nietzsche is putting is, really, what reliance can we place on our conceptual scheme?

A response which a contemporary philosopher of language is likely to give (see, e.g. the writings of Donald Davidson, W.V.O. Quine) is that we can only use the language that we use. At any given point in time, we are afloat in a ship which we may attempt repair here or there, but we don't have the option of abandoning ship and building a new one from scratch. The very idea is indeed incoherent.

From this perspective, Nietzsche is the one cast in the position of a 'believer in ultimate Truth' while the sailors on the ship are happy to make do with the only thing available, namely truth. It only makes sense to question whether anyone ever succeeds in stating the Truth, if you believe that there is a Truth out there in the first place. This casts Nietzsche, not just in the position of the metaphysical realist but indeed as a holder of Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena. We are stuck in the phenomenal world, while the noumenal world remains forever out of reach.

Nietzsche would of course abhor this characterization. I would like to think that after reading Quine and Davidson, he would be happy to accept talk of truth with a small 't'. The targets of his rhetoric -- the fanatics and dogmatists who believe that they, and they only, have the ultimate Truth -- don't escape critique. The advantage is that there is no danger, when the critique is reformulated, of Nietzsche being included amongst the believers in Truth.

All the best,

Geoffrey