“Supposing truth to be a woman,” Nietzsche famously asserted in the opening of his classic work Beyond Good and Evil. For just as the “dogmatists” fail to understand women, says Nietzsche, so they fail to understand truth. Perhaps nothing has been more influential in shaping post-modern thought than the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; but how does one classify Nietzsche’s theory of truth? Is he a strict pragmatist, does he hold to a coherence theory, or can he be placed in any category at all? This paper seeks to define and explain Nietzsche’s theory of truth while defending a correspondence view. To accomplish this task it will (1) summarize the major theories of truth within traditional Philosophical thought, (2) determine Nietzsche’s theory of truth by comparing his thought to other truth theories, and (3) explain the problems with Nietzsche’s theory which necessitate its rejection.
Philosophical Theories of Truth
Until the 20th century philosophers subscribed to two primary theories of truth: correspondence and coherence. However, due to growing problems in epistemology, linguistics, and other areas of study, the number of truth theories significantly increased. Today, there are a plethora of theories crowding the philosophical scene. In the interest of time and space only a selection of these theories will be surveyed.
The Correspondence Theory of Truth
The correspondence theory of truth is often traced to Plato’s classic works Theaetetus and Sophist, and has a long list of adherents, including: Aristotle, the Stoics, various medieval philosophers, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Moore, and Russell. However, it can be argued that correspondence was assumed by writers predating the works of Plato. For instance, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland argue that the Bible, while not explicitly articulating a correspondence theory of truth, “regularly presupposes” such a theory. Therefore, it can safely be said that the correspondence theory of truth, “is both the commonsense view and the classic position embraced by virtually all philosophers until the nineteenth century.
In its most basic form, the correspondence theory states that, “a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to facts or the world.” In other words, a proposition is true if, and only if, it “corresponds” to reality. Thus, it presupposes realism; that truth is absolute or objective; that, “people discover truth, they do not create it, and [that] a claim is made true or false in some way or another by reality itself, totally independent of whether the claim is accepted by anyone.” In this system man is not the, “measure of all things,” as Protagoras famously stated; but asserts there is a concrete reality which can be discovered and understood by man.
The Coherence Theory of Truth
In the 19th century a new theory of truth began to take shape. Espoused by the continental rationalists, J. G. Fichte, G. W. F. Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and other well known thinkers, the coherence theory approached truth from a completely different angle. Contrary to the pre-modern view of correspondence, the coherence theory was predicated on antirealism and nominilism. Nominilism rejects the existence of “universals” or “forms” and says that only concrete particulars exist. Thus, discovering the truth of a proposition was relegated to the realm of epistemology; more specifically rationalism.
Simply put, the coherence theory states that, “a true proposition is one that belongs to some designated coherent set of propositions.” However, these propositions or “beliefs” do not necessarily have anything to do with reality. Thus, one’s system of belief could be the product of their imagination, and this would not be a problem; what matters is whether it is coherent.
By “coherent” it is generally meant: “(1) [that] each member of the set [i.e. proposition] is consistent with any subset of the others and (2) [that] each is implied (inductively if not deductively) by all of the others taken as premises.” Essentially, a coherence theory of truth is a circular chain of propositions which may or may not actually represent reality. In addition, it must contain no contradictions within itself, that is, each proposition within one’s belief system must entail the other. However, this is not to say that one’s “coherent” system of belief will not contradict another’s. In this sense, truth is relative, varying from person to person, because it is not based upon any absolute standard; rather, it is based upon the coherence or consistency of one’s thought.
The Pragmatic Theory of Truth
From the mid-19th century and into the 20th the pragmatic theory of truth also began to take shape. Like the coherence theory, pragmatism is predicated upon nominilism and antirealism. Early proponents of this view include, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Currently, the most notable adherents are Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty.”
The pragmatic theory is quite simple to understand, “[it] implies that a belief P is true if and only if P works or is useful to have. P is true just in case P exhibits certain values for those who accept it.” In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth is very practical; built upon utility, as opposed to objectivity. It is also relativistic, “Pragmatism . . . must be formulated relativistically, since whether it is useful to believe a proposition evidently varies from one believer to another.”
Postmodern Theories of Truth
Postmodern Theories of truth can be broken down into three basic categories: Phenomenological, Structural, and Pragmatic. Do to the constraints of this paper, only a broad survey will be made about postmodernisms overall view of truth; there will not be an in-depth presentation of each of these theories. However, it is difficult to confine the movement to any one set of truth theories anyways. A postmodern philosopher may also utilize coherence or pragmatic theories of truth, or some modified form of them, if he so desires. That being the case, it is difficult to describe attributes of postmodern thought with any level of certainty.
What can be said with certainty is that postmodernists reject the correspondence theory of truth. In their view, “truth is relative to a linguistic community that shares the same narrative.” In other words, truth is determined by one’s community (i.e. culture, language, social environment). This may be represented by any one of the afore mentioned theories, as long as they are consistent with a subjective view of reality.
Like the coherent and pragmatic theories, postmodern theories are built upon antirealism and nominalism. Even more foundational, is their rejection of absolutes or dichotomous thinking. Dichotomous thinking occurs when, “someone divides a range of phenomena into two groups and goes on to claim that one is better than the other.” Examples of dichotomous thinking include distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, or true and false.
Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth
Now that the primary theories of truth have been defined, we can properly asses Nietzsche’s interpretation of truth. Whether it is possible to ascribe to Nietzsche a specific theory of truth remains to be seen; for, in his own writings he “vacillates between the denial of truth and its affirmation.” However, for the sake of clarity, it must be attempted. Consequentially, this section will attempt to synthesize Nietzsche’s thought with each theory of truth; eliminating each one that fails to adequately conform to his views.
Nietzsche and the Correspondence Theory
Traditionally, interpreters ascribed to Nietzsche the classic view of truth as “correspondence to reality,” believing that his own views were true in a correspondence sense. There are several important advocates of this interpretation; however, only two will be examined in this paper: Kaufmann and Wilcox.
“Kaufmann’s strategy . . . [was] . . . to show that the contradiction in Nietzsche’s position is merely apparent, that Nietzsche does not deny the existence of truth, and that he does not put forward any metaphysical theories.” He argued that Nietzsche did not reject the existence of empirical truth but merely certain interpretations of it. For instance, Kaufmann explained Nietzsche’s apparent denial of truth, “as a denial of . . . [the] eternal world of the Platonic forms or the Kantian thing-in-itself.” Further, he argued that Nietzsche only denied metaphysical statements of truth, but acknowledged the existence of empirical truth. For instance, Kaufmann maintained that Nietzsche’s own doctrines of “eternal recurrence” and “will to power” were put forth as “empirical truths.”
Kaufmann’s interpretation was later advanced, with slight modifications, by John T. Wilcox. Like Kaufmann, Wilcox recognized the apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought, namely that it appeared as though Nietzsche both affirmed and denied the existence of truth. To address this problem, Wilcox had to make a distinction between the type of truth that Nietzsche rejected and the type of truth that Nietzsche affirmed.
Whether or not there is a contradiction depends upon whether “truth” is used in the same sense when Nietzsche writes in these two ways, upon whether the “truth” whose possibility he rejects is the same “truth” that he criticizes the Christian for refusing to face. And it is fairly clear that they are not the same. Nietzsche rejects transcendent truth; but he believes in perspectival truth and hopes for a kind of man who can live in that truth.
Wilcox, like Kaufmann, maintained that Nietzsche primarily rejected “metaphysical truths” but accepted the existence of empirical truth. However, he hastened to point out that the type of empirical truth Nietzsche accepted did not have the “status” that Kant maintained for science. Thus, Nietzsche rejected the type of empirical truth, founded upon a priori knowledge, which Kant attempted to prove, believing, instead, that empirical truth was grounded in the individual.
According to Wilcox, Nietzsche’s brand of truth was, “this-worldly, fallible, hypothetical, perspectival, value-laden, historically developed, and simplifying truth.” In other words, truth was based upon reality, and the reality was that truth was interpreted differently by each individual’s senses. In his mind, Wilcox saw no contradiction between Nietzsche’s “advocacy” of perspectival truth and his rejection of absolute or “transcendent” truth.
Recently, however, Maudemarie Clark challenged the traditional interpretation of Nietzsche’s theory of truth. Clark notes, “if one interprets will to power . . . in traditional terms – as straightforward claims about the nature of reality, as claims that are supposed to correspond to reality – it seems implausible to deny their metaphysical character.” In other words, to accept this interpretation of Nietzsche’s theory leads one into contradictory thinking.
To argue that Nietzsche rejected metaphysical truths but also to maintain that he accepted certain “empirical truths” which “correspond to reality” is to ignore the problem of absolutes. That is, to ignore that fact that metaphysical truths are generally considered “absolute” or “universal” truths about the nature of reality. If Nietzsche believes that certain empirical truths “correspond to reality” he, by definition, accepts that an absolute “reality” exists. This would make him a metaphysical realist, in which case he would maintain that both universals and particulars exist.
Nietzsche, however, is clearly not a metaphysical realist
Indeed, what compels us to assume there exists any essential antithesis between ‘true’ and ‘false’? Is it not enough to suppose grades of apparentness and as it were lighter and darker shades and tones of appearance . . . why could the world which is of any concern to us – not be fiction?
For, as both Kaufmann and Wilcox affirm, he denies the existence of metaphysical truths and by doing this rejects the notion of universals. Hence, to accept this interpretation of Nietzsche is untenable.
Nietzsche and Coherent/Pragmatic Theories of Truth
If Nietzsche’s theory of truth is not based upon correspondence, then perhaps a coherent or pragmatic theory best describes his thought. After all, both of these theories are based upon antirealism and nominalism which are compatible with his worldview. However, these are not the only two conditions which must be met in order to establish his theory of truth.
Of the two systems, it is harder to argue that Nietzsche held to a coherent theory of truth. As we have seen, there is debate as to whether or not Nietzsche’s view of truth is “coherent” at all; seeing as how he appears to, “make claims to metaphysical truth while at the same time rejecting all such claims.” Hence, it seems more profitable to examine the pragmatic theory of truth.
As was established above, the pragmatic theory states that a belief is true if, and only if, it “works” or is useful to the individual. In a sense, the pragmatist view of truth is not unlike the utilitarian’s view of morality. A utilitarian gages what is right or wrong on the amount of pleasure or pain an action might confer upon him and those around him. Similarly, the pragmatist gages truth on the usefulness of a proposition. In other words, if an idea “works” or seems useful to an individual it is true, but if it fails to achieve the desired result, it is false. Thus, truth, for the pragmatist, is based upon utility; not objectivity.
On a surface level this theory might seem to be compatible with Nietzsche because of its focus on the individual. However, there are grave problems with this interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought. Namely, the fact that Nietzsche despised utilitarianism,
This way of reasoning smells of the mob, which sees in bad behavior only its disagreeable consequences and actually judges ‘it is stupid to act badly’; while it takes ‘good’ without further ado to be identical with ‘useful and pleasant’. In the case of every utilitarian morality one may conjecture in advance a similar origin and follow one’s nose . . .
Nietzsche challenged the idea that “usefulness” or “pleasantness” was equivalent to what was good or right, because what was useful or pleasant was determined by society. Hence, utilitarianism was a form of the “herd” mentality of which he despised.
Similarly, pragmatism, with its assertion that truth is what “works” or “is useful to procuring happiness” carries with it the potential for “mob” mentality. For, one is inevitably tied to a community, a culture which defines one’s ideas of happiness or usefulness. One could conceivably believe that something is useful because everyone else believes it to be useful.
Beyond this, however, lies a more serious objection, “why couldn’t a false belief make us happier than a true one?” Why couldn’t “untruth” be what works or what is useful to the individual? “Nietzsche, in fact, insisted repeatedly that knowledge of the truth may conflict with the satisfaction of practical interests.”
Hence, upon a closer examination, the pragmatic theory of truth, despite its predication of antirealism and nominalism, and his semi-commitment to individualism, does not seem to be the perfect fit. Of all the theories of truth, Nietzsche’s theory must fall somewhere within the realm of post-modern thought.
Nietzsche and Post-Modern Theories of Truth
Post modern theories of truth completely reject the idea of absolute truth or objective reality. As was noted above, post-modern theories of truth also reject dichotomous thinking, which makes distinctions between contrasting ideas (i.e. good/bad, right/wrong, truth/falsity). Having abolished dichotomous thinking and having rejected the notion of absolute or objective reality, post-modern theories of truth, in the end, place truth upon the individual. What is right or wrong, good or bad, true or untrue is ultimately a matter of one’s perspective.
In his book, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche ponders, “What really is it in us that wants ‘the truth’. . . why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance?” At the core of his philosophy is a deep and unbending skepticism. Nietzsche questions our need for absolute truth by challenging its very existence. Throughout all of his writings, he attempts to break down distinctions between right and wrong or truth and falsity, denying that such distinctions are valid . . .
It is quite clear that the world is not good and not bad (to say nothing of its being the best or the worst), and that the terms “good” and ‘bad” have only significance with respect to man, and indeed perhaps, they are not justified even here in the way they are usually employed.
Upon reflection, one cannot help but notice that Nietzsche’s mode of thinking is entirely consistent with post-modern theories of truth.
His emphasis on the perspective of the individual in interpreting reality is another key aspect of Nietzsche’s thought. He believed that, “the essence of man-the sole form of cognitive life with which we are acquainted—has emerged in the course of universal becoming as a unique way of interpreting being.” In other words, the way in which man apprehends the world, by means of sense perception, is the consequence of the his intellect. Thus, concluded Nietzsche, “every single kind of intellect must have its own way of understanding the world.” Consequentially, individualism, in the realm of truth and morality, is a key component of post-modern thought.
Structuralist’s recognize that there are multiple truths (ways of viewing the world), and believe that truth is ultimately about power. This too, is compatible with Nietzsche; especially his doctrine of the “superman” and the idea of “will to power.” It also fits well with his conception of a great philosopher; one who is a “free-spirit,” able to place himself beyond good and evil and create his own values.
While it may not be possible to attach Nietzsche’s view of truth to any one post-modern theory, it is apparent that Nietzsche’s theory of truth is best understood in light of post-modern ideology. Everything from his rejection of absolute truth to his concept of the “superman” fits nicely within the post-modern framework.
The Problem with Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth
This paper seeks to defend a correspondence theory of truth against Nietzsche’s post-modern critiques. Instead of building a case for the correspondence theory as a defense, it will cut straight at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy, placing correspondence on the offensive line. Now that Nietzsche’s theory of truth has been properly defined, this task will be much easier to accomplish.
Nietzsche’s theory suffers from the same ailment that all post-modern theories of truth do: it is self refuting. If absolute truth does not exist, if all perspectives and all interpretations of the world are equally valid, then truth is an empty term. If truth is everything, then it is nothing; but this is precisely what Nietzsche’s rejection of dichotomous thinking accomplishes. It bypasses the fundamental rules of logic; rendering any statement of value superfluous.
Although Nietzsche, and other post-modern thinkers still use the term “truth”, as if it carried with it some existential value, by their own definition truth does not exist. Truth, by its very nature, is absolute; otherwise it is no truth at all. Hence, by rejecting absolutes they reject truth and here in lies the problem: their rejection of absolutes is itself an absolute. Consider carefully, the proposition; “there is no truth.” For, is it not, in and of itself, a statement of truth? Is not, such a proposition, itself and absolute statement about reality?
How, then, can anyone seriously consider such a problematic theory of truth? A truth theory that rejects truth! This is pure and unadulterated nonsense! I summit that any system that fails to acknowledge the existence of objective reality or absolute truth is unlivable. One can believe such nonsense in a theoretical realm, far removed from the day to day happenings of life, but in the real world, one must operate in accordance with a correspondence theory of truth. All other systems simply break down.
Upon examining most of the major theories of truth it becomes clear that Nietzsche is best described as a post-modern thinker. His rejection of absolute truth and dichotomous thinking, and his aversion to metaphysical realism all play a major role in making this distinction. However, it seems that no existing philosophical theory of truth perfectly aligns with Nietzsche’s thought. So, in this sense, in can be said, that Nietzsche was truly an original thinker; far removed from the theorizing of his own day.
Ultimately, despite attempts to claim otherwise, Nietzsche’s theory is a complete rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, and as such, is subject to enormous flaws. In spite of his brilliance as a writer and thinker, Nietzsche’s theory of truth is inconsistent and contradictory; and consequentially must be rejected.
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