Darwin and Nietzsche: Part II: The Essence of Truth as Representation

Friedrich Nietzsche

“To stamp becoming with the character of Being–that is the supreme will to power.” — Nietzsche, Will to Power # 617

“The apes are too good-natured for man to have originated from them.” — Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Knowledge: what is it? What are we really asking about when we ask about the “essence of knowledge”? These questions are questions that relate to the essence of Western human beings, what we think we ourselves are. How was this question understood by both Darwin and Nietzsche? What were the paths that they tread and what were the maps that they were using in their journeys on these paths?

In the 19th century, the question of knowledge focused on scientific inquiry: it becomes a psychological and a biological investigation due to the progress made in these sciences, the foremost being the discoveries of Charles Darwin. “Theory of Knowledge” becomes focused on “theory formation”, how we form theories and why we form theories. In Western history, knowledge is taken to be that behaviour and that attitude of representing by which what is true is grasped and preserved as a “possession”, an “owning”. The correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth are caught up in this grasping, possessing behaviour through representation. What is representation?

To “represent” is ‘to place something, make it stand’ ‘before, in front of’, ‘to bring, move forward; to put something in front of something else’, hence ‘to represent, mean, signify’ and ‘to introduce, present a person’, etc. Other meanings are ‘to represent to oneself, imagine, conceive’ – in a ‘performance, presentation, introduction’ and ‘idea, conception, imagination’. These many meanings are interrelated. We will try to understand how ‘representation’ relates to what Kant called “transcendental imagination” later in these writings.

Representation occurs, that is, it is an “event”, but this event is ‘letting something be seen’, not something that is itself seen, like a picture. Seeing a picture, and seeing something in a picture, are quite different from seeing things in the flesh. Seeing does not involve a mental picture: ‘Nothing of that sort is to be found; in the simple sense of perception: I see the house itself. Seeing is permeated by language and categories: ‘We do not so much primarily and originally see objects and things; at first we speak about them; more precisely we do not express what we see, rather we see what one says about the matter’. In this quote from Heidegger’s Being and Time we have the introduction of the primacy of the logos or language when it comes to understanding and representing things to ourselves so that we may be able to perceive them as what they are. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, also asserts the primacy of the logos in the understanding of Being. There is a close affinity between the representational theory of perception and the correspondence theory of truth: both involve ‘representations in the soul copying beings outside’.

Representation goes with a view of the self as a subject: in Kant ‘the “I” was forced back again to an isolated subject, which accompanies representations in an ontologically quite indefinite way’ (Heidegger, Being and Time, 321). This view of representation is a misrepresentation of our being-in-the world, but it adequately represents our human-centred attitude to the world. Two features of representation help to put human beings at the centre. First, ‘to represent something’ in the sense of ‘to count, stand for something’, that is calculability. Second: ‘Every human representing is by an easily misinterpreted figure of speech a “self-representing”’. This converges with Descartes’ view that whenever I think about anything I also think that I think. In representation the representing and the representer are always co-represented as well. In defining a thing/being we are also defining ourselves as human beings.

In our ‘visible thinking’, our efforts are ‘to make something stand (fast) in advance/ before us’ and to ‘produce’ or ‘bring forth’ the results of our efforts. Thus, it expresses Nietzsche’s view that, in what we call ‘truth’, we bring chaotic becoming to a standstill, converting it into a ‘static constancy’, our stamping becoming with the character of Being, the primary dichotomy of permanence and change. Representation can also mean ‘to bring before’ a court. Then it suggests that Human Being is a judge who decides what being is and what qualify as beings, who lays down the law and applies it to beings. To be is then to-be-represented. This is Descartes’ main achievement, that he equated being with being-represented by a subject. It does not matter whether the subject is a pure ego or, as Nietzsche believes, an embodied self. What matters is that everything comes to human beings for judgement. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole, the subject to which the beings/things are all referred, and that ‘the beingness of beings as a whole is conceived as the being-represented of the producible and explainable’. ‘To produce’ or ‘bring forth’ indicates the relationship of Cartesianism and technology and how it is rooted in what has come to be called “humanism”.

Representation gives a new sense to the understanding of being as presence. For the Greeks being was ‘presence’, ousia or parousia. Greek presence concerns the ‘presencing’ of beings into the realm of the unhidden. The closest Greek counterpart to what we understand as representation is noein, ‘to think, intelligibility, intelligence, etc.’ It was ‘dwelling in the unhidden’, receptive, contemplative rather than intrusive, and concerned the whole, unhiddenness as such, and not only individual entities/things. Representation as it is understood in the modern sense is the human autocratic interrogation of and jurisdiction over entities/things, whose presence is now understood as correctness and correspondence rather than ‘presence’ as the Greeks understood it. It is the domineering, commanding stance of human beings over beings/things.

In the question of what is knowledge we are really asking about truth and its essence. In the TOK guide, it is sometimes recommended that the question of truth be avoided altogether! This is one of the reasons why this alternative approach is required and made necessary. Knowledge and truth are intimately related to each other and cannot be discussed separately. Without questioning our understanding of what truth is we are simply left with a pre-determined “system” that has pre-determined “robust” answers which are what we perceive truth to be based on calculation.

In the question of what knowledge is we are basically asking about truth and its essence (its “whatness”). What is true means what is. This is sometimes confused with the notion of facts. To grasp what is true means to take beings/things in representation and assertion (judgement) and to repeat, pass on and retain them as they are. What is truth and true stand in intimate relation to beings/things. The question of knowledge, about its essence, is a question about beings/things—what they are as such. As has been asserted many times in this blog, the question of what is knowledge is a metaphysical question and is prior to the questioning of knowledge as an epistemological question, a “theory of knowledge”.

In Nietzsche, the essence of truth must be defined in terms of “will to power”. Truth grants beings to human beings in such a way that human beings relate to beings. This relation we have called logos. Truth is what human beings strive for in all their doings and thinking. It is what is “valued”. But Nietzsche in Will to Power (#602; hereafter referred to as WP) says that truth is “the consequence of an illusion”. Yet if a will to truth is vital for our “life”, and if life is enhancement of life, the ever higher realization of life and the vitalizing or giving life to what is real (“quality of life”), and if truth is only “illusion”, “imagination”, thus something unreal, truth then becomes a de-realization, a hindrance to and destructive of life. Truth then becomes an “unvalue”. “Truth” is the fixity or permanence which we impose on the “chaos” of becoming in order to “secure” the “enhancement” or “quality of life”. This securing is what Nietzsche called “justice” and it related to his concept of “perspectivism”.

But modern science tells us that all “values” are of equal value i.e. valueless, and   therefore the appropriate response in action is “tolerance” of all values. What is this but nothing more than the nihilism that Nietzsche points out? It is Nietzsche’s desire to overcome nihilism since will to truth belongs to life and life enhancement, and nihilism is ultimately “deadly”, that Darwinism is, at bottom, nihilistic. But, as Nietzsche fully realized, since will to truth belongs to life then truth, since its essence is “illusion”, cannot be the highest value. There must be a “value”, a condition of perspectival life-enhancement (quality of life) that is of greater value than truth. Nietzsche says “that art is worth more than truth”. (WP #857)

Art arouses the quality of life through its vitality in the possibilities of life’s enhancement against the power of truth: “We have art in order not to perish from the truth”. (WP #822, 1888) For Nietzsche, art is considered as a condition of beings/things not merely as aesthetically pleasurable, not merely a biologically/anthropologically expression of life and humanity (culture), and not merely politically as proof of a position of power (possession). Nietzsche’s notion of art goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics as in a metaphysical opposition to truth as illusion.  But is this not saying that art and truth are both….illusions? Shall we not say that if Nietzsche is to be “consistent” his statement about truth is also an illusion and we needn’t bother about him any longer (as, in fact, was said by many Harvard and Oxford “philosophers” following WW2)? This circular argument is not a refutation of Nietzsche.

How is truth connected with illusion? A refutation of Nietzsche’s statement cannot be based on its incorrectness. Nietzsche’s statement is prior to conceptions of truth as correctness of representations. For the ancient Greeks, what “shows itself” is taken as what is. To be “in being” means to “grow”, “phyein”.  The rise to presencing, what comes to a stand as present, is physis—what we call Nature. Plato’s “Idea” is what is most in Being of all beings: to be in Being is the self-showing that arises to presence: presenting an outward appearance (eidos) which makes up the appearance (idea) that something has. This appearance or image is not a fabrication. By image the Greeks meant what “comes to the fore”, what comes to presence. Truth was imaging for the Greeks.

When Nietzsche says that truth is an “illusion”, he is speaking about what is still happening in the history of the West: in the past, in the present, and what is to come. This event is the essence of truth. Beings/things show themselves and are grasped as this self-representing in representation. Representation is what we understand as thinking. When Nietzsche says that “truth is illusion”, the initial fundamental decisions concerning thought are transformed in this definition; but also, the dominion of this thinking in the modern age is established. One need not look far to see the spurious sophistry that has entangled Nietzsche’s original thinking. We shall make an attempt to clear some of this intentional obfuscation so that we shall see the praxis, the “doing”, that is the making the techne and the logos that is the “knowing” of the techne logos that is technology.

Many of the ideas expressed here will be further developed in later writings in this blog.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

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