On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense by Nietzsche


I will outline Nietszsche’s important essay On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, situate it in the context of his work and raise some questions.

On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense: Deception

Deception and falsehood are ubiquitous and necessary in human existence

Evidence: vanity, dreams, flattery, superficiality of perception, unbearable insignificance of humanity, ‘purpose’ of intellect is not truth but preservation, dissimulation preserves those human animals who lack fangs, pleasant ignorance of the unpleasant workings of our bowels.

p. 142: “woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed” in detecting that it “rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous”

— A Darwinian insight combined with the Will to Power.  Nietzsche spends a lot of time attacking Darwin, but his understanding of the latter’s position is poor enough to allow us to claim that in fact Nietzsche is much in sympathy with Darwin’s actual position.  For example, Nietzsche thinks Darwin holds that superiority in combat wins out over e.g. subtlety, deception, which is far from true.  In any case, Nietzsche attacks most ferociously what he feels most close to.  Nietzsche’s point here is that we need to be ignorant — to lie to ourselves — about humanity’s place at in one sense the pinnacle of evolution, which means the most dangerous and deadly location.  We eat other animals because we can.

On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense: The Benefits Of Error

Photo by George Becker on

There may be survival value in error.  (Indeed there is, see McKay and Dennett on The Evolution of Misbelief, where they give many examples.  University students who have a falsely positive picture of their own prowess perform better in exams.  Patients ‘in denial’ of the gravity of their condition do better than those who accept it.)  Conversely, some truths may be harmful.  See: Are There Useful Errors?

p. 143: The liar “misuses the established conventions by arbitrarily switching or even inverting the names of things.”  There are many precursors here to later major themes of Nietzsche.  We have the revaluation of all values Nietzsche commends as an important attribute of the Übermensch of Zarathustra.  This is necessary once the consequences of the death of god are realised.  We also have the Slave’s Revolt in morality outlined in the Genealogy of Morality (GM).  This switched good and evil and made humanity sick.  The mediocre morality of the herd decried in Beyond Good and Evil becomes possible.

NB — the necessity and ubiquity of lying makes it non-moral.

Truth Is Scarce  

We possess much less truth than we think

Nietzsche on memory: forgetfulness is the powerful active force; a strong memory is akin to crippling indigestion.  We need to forget a lot to survive e.g. the consequences of our acts must be forgotten to avoid paralysis (GM).

There may be analytic truths, but these are useless.  For example, it is useless to invent a name (camel) for mammals that live in the desert and then say that it is analytic that camels are mammals. (This is Nietzsche’s example later in the text.)  No progress has been made here.

p. 144: Any further truth is very insecure.  Names are metaphors.  Knowing the term “tree” gives us no truths about trees.  We cannot get to the thing-in-itself (Kant).  This terminates science and philosophy (!)

We need plenty of forgetfulness to even name things.  We need to forget the differences between all the leaves even to apply the same name to all of them.  The first leaf is a metaphor for all of the others.  Much truth is perforce discarded by this method.   Concepts come from words formed thus and are therefore treacherous.

On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense: Honesty

It is interesting that Nietzsche’s example here in the arena of personal characteristics is honesty because that is one that was first investigated empirically and shown not to exist.  (Schoolchildren who cheat on exams are not more likely to steal the lunch money.)  Likewise, the Princeton seminary experiment shows that compassion is not a character trait. The situation drives our behaviour much more.  Nietzsche has a very far-sighted psychological insight here into what psychologists now term the Fundamental Attribution Error: The Psychology of Successful Trading.

Certainly, there are significant problems for Virtue Ethics if there is no character to improve.  NB2 — Sartre and existentialism. The doer is a fiction. We add the doer to the deed.

Qualitas occulta = virtus dormitiva

Truth Is Not What We Think It Is

What truth we have is not the way we think it is

p. 146: Truth is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms” i.e. it is what we want it to be and has little connection to anything more fundamental.  Our truth is a function of who we are.  It needn’t even remain constant.  (How would we know if it did or didn’t?  Cf. the problem about `the speed of time’ — does it go past at a second per second…?)

Truths look solid just because they have been around for a time.

Society produces a moral impulse not to lie. But Nietzsche despises existing morality and existing society. So he is then again unimpressed by truth.  Society permits a rank order, which here Nietzsche denigrates.  This might be puzzling because elsewhere he favours rank ordering.  So he must then mean that this is the wrong order.  A society ordered by truth telling could, we may surmise, allows the Priests and the Slaves to prosper.  This is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the corruption and degradation of modern society.

Perspectivism Describes The Actual State Of Things  

Perspectivism is true*

p. 148: “the question as to which of these two perceptions of the world is the more correct is quite meaningless, since this would require them to be measured by the criterion of the correct perspective”

Perspectivism is Nietzsche’s important doctrine, developed in GM, that there is only truth from a perspective — and also that the strongest individual or the most penetrating intellect can entertain multiple perspectives on the same topic or idea simultaneously.  This is not just true when those perspectives are also contradictory of each other, it is especially true then!

“It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against”

This adds to Perspectivism the idea that the different perspectives are favoured by individual drives that we have.

Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.

The Will to Power, §481 (1883-1888)’

Social Model Of The Mind

This is Nietzsche’s social model of the intellect as a collection of competing drives.  The self is an illusion.  It is a parliament. On this model. the self is a fractious, polarised and tendentious Congress. Each element has its own truths. For Nietzsche, the strong or valuable self is a parliament in which all the members/drives can be heard at once. None are silenced by an overbearing Speaker. All move towards expression.

Perspectivism is “the antidote to truth.”  This is a consequence of the major GM III idea: there is no god’s eye perspective of absolute truth, just as there is no god.  However, Perspectivism is not relativism because there is still a rank ordering of perspectives.  This means that in fact, Nietzsche is not a nihilist, despite frequent claims to the contrary.

*What does “true” mean?  Nietzsche has just been arguing at length that there isn’t anything that is true the way we think it is.  He doesn’t actually say “perspectivism is true” for that reason.  So he must mean something like “perspectivism is valuable” or useful. That of course leads on to further questions, such as “what are the drawbacks of Perspectivism?” and “How can we prove that Perspectivism is true?”

Language Is Poetry

What we call truth is just a correlation of meanings in all people.

p. 149: An eternally repeated dream “would be felt and judged entirely as reality”

This is a very early reference to the important Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.  That Doctrine first appears in unambiguous form in The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882.)  This essay of Nietzsche’s, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” dates from 1873 so it would be a new result to show that he had already mentioned the Doctrine by this point.  We should remember that all of Nietzsche’s (published) writing occurs in a period of less than 20 years really. The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872 and Nietszche becomes insane by 1889. The German here is “wie ein Traum, ewig wiederholt’’; cf. The Doctrine in German: “Die Ewige Wiederkunft des Gleichen.”

The will to truth is actually a drive to form metaphors.

Science is pretence as language was distortion.

See Also:

Nietzsche on `What I Owe the Ancients’: Summary

#Proust: An Argument For #SimulationTheory

Nietzsche’s Account Of Truth

Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.