#2 Thing-in-itself, Will and Truth 

This weeks reflections are based upon Nietzsche’s earlier works, namely:

On Schopenhauer and On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

Nietzsche and the Problem of Metaphysics – D.Tilsley

Nietzsche’s On Schopenhauer is a critical essay that shows the holes in Schopenhauer’s metaphysical philosophy, and how his development of the World as Will is fundamentally flawed. However, this essay has a far deeper purpose than a critical evaluation of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but it acts as a vessel by which Nietzsche may draw attention to the fundamental issues of metaphysical philosophy in general. The issue at stake is why the metaphysician chooses to think like this, a question to which we may find answers in On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral sense.

Nietzsche is questioning the metaphysical line of thinking through Schopenhauer, who attempted to characterise the ‘real’ world (the thing-in-itself) as Will, and also to show how the apparent world of representation (things we perceive) actually arises out of the Will. This sort of thinking characterises the metaphysician; they are concerned mainly with a world that is divided between the real and the apparent. Schopenhauer’s metaphysics represents a sort of break from Kant, who argued that the real world cannot be understood. Kant postulates that in order for us to have experiences of anything, the conditions of experience (intuition and concepts of understanding) need to be brought together. These are the cognitive faculties for our experience. Therefore, metaphysics should focus on understanding our experiences rather than the unknowable thing-in-itself. For Schopenhauer, this creates unnecessary problems- so he does away with the distinction between intuition and concepts. Space and time are the conditions of experience for Schopenhauer, and allow us to have representations.

Nietzsche explores the metaphysical need to understand the worlds of representation and reality.

The Will is the underlying foundation of the world, it exists beyond representation beyond space and time. Schopenhauer predicates the Will as being united, eternal and free. This is how the thing-in-itself is characterised for Schopenhauer, whereas other philosophers, especially Kant, argue that metaphysical philosophy should not and cannot describe the thing-in-itself, as it is beyond our cognitive understanding. But unlike Kant, this thing-in-itself is not unknowable, in fact we are able to experience the Will. Through internal experience of the causation that goes on inside our body, we come to know the will as the foundational driving force of the world. But how can we distinguish the Will if it exists beyond representation? Through the principle of individualisation- we perceive things as being individual or separate by virtue of the possibility of gaining knowledge about things. If there were no separate thing, there wouldn’t be anything to gain any knowledge about. It is through these separate things that the Will manifests itself to us, through representations. We have evolved the intellectual capacity to be able to perceive these representations as manifestations of the Will. For example, we perceive a chair as a manifestation of the will to be a chair. This is how Schopenhauer’s metaphysical project perceives the real and apparent world, but as shall become clear, it is deeply problematic for Nietzsche, and characterises the problem of metaphysical thinking.

Nietzsche doesn’t make an attempt to disprove what Schopenhauer is saying- mainly because nothing substantial is really being said. Essentially, what Schopenhauer says makes very little sense. His Will, the thing-in-itself, is supposed to be the eternal, united and free foundation of the world, beyond representation. This opens up very damaging contradictions. How can such descriptions of the thing-in-itself be valid, if we are able to distinguish manifestations of the Will in separated representations? The faculties that allow us to perceive and have experiences are space and time- knowledge of causation and duration. But the Will, by virtue of being eternal, united and free, is supposedly beyond these intellectual faculties. How then is it made possible to be able to use them to perceive the Will? Schopenhauer’s response would be that we have evolved the capacity to be able to experience the manifestation of the Will.

But this contradicts the very concepts that the Will is predicated upon; the Will cannot be eternal if it has evolutionary stages, it cannot be free if its possibility of being perceived relies upon the perception of others (namely creatures with intellect), and it cannot be united if it can be perceived in separate experiences and representations. In his move away from Kant, Schopenhauer opened up new ways of thinking about the ‘real’ world, new possibilities. However, as these possibilities expand, they ultimately descend into impossibilities.

This, for Nietzsche, is characteristic of the problem of metaphysics. Schopenhauer has taken on accepted fact about the word (that there is will), and attempted to use that to explain the whole world. Metaphysicians take facts and concepts and attempt to make the whole bigger picture fit into this narrow perspective, which ultimately leads to contradiction and impossibility. Metaphysical claims are empty and pointless, attempting to expand them to construct a world view tells us nothing about the true way to see the world. So what should we do with metaphysics? Should we cast it out and move towards a new way of thinking? Not exactly, for Nietzsche, metaphysics has its uses in that it is a valuable source that exposes the deeper nature of human thought. This view of his is stated in On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense. It possibly suggests a natural tendency or drive to construct illusions, an interpretation of what the ‘truth’ is. Metaphysics constructs accepted views on truth, forgetting that its doctrines are built out of metaphors. Metaphysics is the comforting illusion that hides the philosopher from the reality that they cannot capture the truth, and that we humans with our intellects are merely insignificant when confronted with the realities of the universe.

‘Poetic Intuition’ – E. English 

In On Schopenhauer, Nietzsche outlines four criticisms of Schopenhauer’s approach to metaphysics – including objections to way in which the ‘Will’ as Thing-in-Itself is communicated:

That which he [Schopenhauer] puts in the place of the Kantian x, the will, is only born with the help of a poetic intuition, while the attempted logical proofs cannot satisfy […][1]  

The below will explore whether or not Nietzsche’s use of poetry and metaphor in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (hereafter Truth) is contradictory to his criticism of such methods in his earlier work – On Schopenhauer.

The quotation above suggests that Nietzsche objects to Schopenhauer’s use of poetry when it becomes detached from the logical proofs, or philosophical arguments, being outlined.  In this way, the criticism lie not solely with the use of poetry in writing, but its use to mask a lack of, or an unsuccessful attempt at, argumentation.  Therefore, when referring to the ‘dictatorial tone’ of Schopenhauer’s writings, Nietzsche is highlighting the link between style and logical argument.[2]  In short, Schopenhauer should not be dictating his metaphysical system as it is not based on a successful logical proof – there is a disparity between the text’s style and the position it maintains.

Moreover, Nietzsche describes truth as ‘a moveable host of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms […] which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified’.[3]  Thus, one interpretation leads to the notion that truth can only be obtained through the use of metaphors.

In On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense Nietzsche describes the place of human knowledge within the universe.

Because of this, it would be contradictory for Nietzsche not to use metaphors and poetry in his work.  Practically the whole of Truth is a poetically told metaphor of the development and value of human knowledge.  As a result Nietzsche is not contradicting his earlier criticisms of Schopenhauer as:

  1. Poetry and philosophical argument are linked. Therefore Nietzsche requires stylistic mechanisms in order to develop and communicate his argument.
  2. Metaphors are required for the formation of a truth, and Nietzsche presumably wants his approach to be taken as true.

However, by making use of poetry and metaphor, there are ways in which Nietzsche may still be contradicting himself.  For instance, if poetry/metaphor is merely a representation of the currently accepted ‘truth’, then it would be hypocritical for Nietzsche to make use of them.  If it is not possible to communicate truth as notions of truth are constantly changing and uncertain, what is the point in trying to express it?  Hence, if Nietzsche’s opposition to Schopenhauer is a criticism of poetry itself (rather than the link between style and argument), then it would be contradiction.

In summary, whether or not Nietzsche does use the same linguistic techniques he has criticised, he may be contradicting himself either way.

Truth and Language – E. Burt 

In On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche’s discussion centers on the concept of truth, as well as humans’ understanding and relationship with this concept. The innate human drive to seek truth which can be considered the project of most philosophers throughout history is often considered a natural extension of our rational disposition and desire to understand the world around us, something that humans have been striving for since the earliest thinkers. Yet in this text Nietzsche asks why we consider this such a characteristic aim for humans, as everywhere we allow ourselves to be deceived. From the ease with which we allow our subconscious to deceive us in our sleep to the much more dangerous impact our pride of our own knowledge has, humans are riddled with vanity and deceit. Nietzsche asks ‘Given this situation, where in the world could the drive for truth have come from?’[1]

This is a somewhat jarring question to be presented with; as a species we presume ourselves to be at the forefront of issues concerning knowledge and in so possessing this monopoly on knowledge and communication we presuppose the universe is ‘telescopically focused upon [our] action and thought’.[2]

Nietzsche here develops a key philosophical influence of his, Schopenhauer’s idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’, yet instead of being pure will, as it is for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche applies it to mean pure truth independent of language. It is this relationship between truth and language which Nietzsche presents which is perhaps most striking in this work, as they are both typically considered such inherently human ideas yet, for Nietzsche, work in opposition to one another. Nietzsche’s claims that it is our language itself that sets up the relationship between truth and lie or that our formulation of countless languages and variation in expression is problematic for our notion of truth, are fundamentally inconsistent with our ideas of our perceptions of our own nature.

What is the relationship between truth and language? Can we ever know the nature of such a relationship?

His discussion is particularly thought- provoking as it proposes that our truths are built from illusions and metaphors which we perpetuate by forgetting they are illusions and metaphors, implying all truths we hold are simply considered so due to the language we use. This makes it necessary to ask whether or not there can be objective truth in the universe outside this anthropomorphic truth, or are all truths simply the product of how we view the world as human-centric and the subsequent language we formulate to express this understanding of the universe?

In response to this, although perhaps not the most satisfying answer to this question, it is my contention that there is no way of knowing whether or not objective truths exist in the world outside our language and experience, therefore perhaps the issue Nietzsche poses cannot be solved. However, I would add to this that his analysis of truth does not give enough credit to truth as we understand it and the positive reasons we understand it in this way. Although it is a fundamentally human-centric and almost biased view of truth, there is no other way we are able to view truth in the world, therefore surely our understanding of truth should be seen for its explanation of human nature and not necessarily a criticism of it.

Read #3 Here >>>


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 115

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 114

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Schopenhauer’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 25

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Schopenhauer’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 27

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 117

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