“Quid est veritas?” (2) Scepticism, Nihilism, and Lógos

In the first part of this inquiry, we introduced the subject of truth (or lack thereof). We considered truth in respect to its etymological relation to “tree,” and explored the symbolic resonance between these two concepts. We concluded that, among myriad other connections that the resonance between “truth” and “tree” might disclose, that both of these concepts stem from a common meaning as “something that one can depend on” and “a central point of orientation.” These two meanings initially appear different, but closer consideration reveals they are very similar. We discovered corroboration for this connection through a brief survey of various mythological depictions of the World Tree. The above indicates that to live in the post-truth era is to live in disconnection from this core of meaning; that there is nothing to depend on, that “the centre cannot hold,” to quote the poet William Butler Yeats. Reality, or being, is naturally just such an epistemological foundation, and it is no surprise to discover that the post-truth era entails a disconnection from this ground:

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? (The Gay Science, 1882)

Friedrich Nietzsche captures the post-truth sentiment with his usual poetic acuity in the excerpt above from his 1881 “The Parable of the Madman.”* Nietzsche’s words naturally invoke a connection the Socrates’ famous “Parable of the Cave,” in which the Sun appears as the symbol of intellection—”as goodness stands in the intelligible realm to intelligence and the things we know, so in the visible realm the Sun stands to sight and the things we see,” (Republic, Book VII, 508c) Socrates declares. He then proceeds to explicate the connection:

Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of Good, and this you will deem to be the cause of knowledge, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the Sun, and yet not to be the Sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the Good…(508e)

As the Sun is to the eye is to sight, so the Good is to knowledge is to truth. Nietzsche announces our severance from the Sun, which he notoriously calls “the death of God.” The connection between God and the Good may initially appear to be no more than an orthographical one. A brief excursus into Cartesian scepticism, however, will immediately reveal the connection to be far deeper than this. We will join René Descartes in medius res of his 1641 Meditations on the First Philosophy. Following his exercise in methodological doubt, Descartes would seem to have entirely dissembled all hope of true knowledge, and severed all sure connection to truth beyond the dimensionless point of cogito. After formulating the threat of solipsism that would sunder him from all knowledge of being beyond his own subjectivity, a ray of hope appears with the promise to deliver Descartes from his dubitum:

I think I can see a way forward to the knowledge of other things….To begin with, I recognise that it is impossible that God should ever deceive me…I know by experience that there is in me a faculty of judgement which, like everything else which is in me, I certainly received from God. And since God does not wish to deceive me, he surely did not give me the kind of faculty which would ever enable me to go wrong while using it correctly.

By “God,” therefore, Cartesius means, among other things, “that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower.” In other words, what Descartes means by “God” and what Plato means by “the Good,” coincide. Suffice is to conclude, therefore, that the “the death of God” is a sufficient condition to concluder that we live in the post-truth era.

We should consider, however what the proposition that we are living in the post-truth era really means, since its truth might seem to depend on its falsehood. If I write “this statement is untrue,” for instance, any interpretation of it would seem to end in contradiction. Still, we will attempt to carry on. Three different ways to understanding the meaning of “we live in the post-truth era” are (1) that truth once existed but now it doesn’t, or (2) that people once enjoyed knowledge or experience of or belief in, truth, but now they don’t, or (3) that truth may or may not exist be it is beyond the scope of human experience to know one way or the other. Nietzsche, whom we have already heard from, and Immanuel Kant, whom we have not, both set forth ingenious arguments for the first and last of the positions above, respectively. Ultimately, we will pursue the second of these possibilities as the single viable alternative, since it is the only statement that is not a performative contradiction. The reason to reject the assertions of (1) Nietzsche and (3) Kant is that they draw the strength of their arguments from the very principle that they both, in their own ways, seek to controvert. We will briefly consider each of them, beginning with the latter.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant famously set forth his second “Copernican Revolution” of epistemology. We can consider the post-truth era as the consummation of an evolution that began with the medieval Nominalists and continued through the Copernican Revolution proper. Kant thus represents a critical figure in this development. Great thinkers before had “dogmatically” presupposed that the intellect possessed the potency to apprehend reality, and that truth was an actualisation of this potency. Aristotle, for instance, writes that “[t]hought thinks itself according to participation in the intelligible…so that intellect and the intelligible are the same; for intellect is what is receptive of the intelligible, of reality.” (Metaphysics XII. 7, 1072b20–23) Thomas Aquinas famously called this communion of thinking and being “adequatio:”

Veritas est adequatio intellectus et rei.
Truth is adequation of intellect and thing.” (De Veritate 1,2)

Breaking with the Aristotelian, Platonic, and Scholastic traditions, Kant asserted that, rather than the mind conforming to reality, that “reality” had to conform to the mind. More specifically, Kant argued that reality had to appear in the form of such a priori conceptual categories as space, time, and causality in order for it to appear at all. Thus, the latter were necessary preconditions for experience as such. Kant then concluded that, because these categories condition how reality must appear to us but that they do not necessarily condition reality outside of our experience of it, we could never know how reality was in itself. As is so often the case, Nietzsche portrays both sides of a situation—the one we have associated with Kant (1) as well the one which we have identified with his own name (3). One may reasonably wonder why we do not allow Kant to speak for himself. The answer is probably self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the writing of these two philosophers. Still, aesthetic preference alone should not prevent us from allowing philosophers to speak for themselves, and thus any concerted study of a given philosopher’s work, which this is not, will include primary citations. Therefore, Nietzsche on Kant:

It is true, there could be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it is hardly to be disputed. We behold all things through the human head and cannot cut off this head; while the question nonetheless remains what of the world would still be there if one had cut it off. (Human, All Too Human, 1878)

Nietzsche employs the term “metaphysical world” to mean the truth of things, a world of noumena, or “things-in-themselves,” as Kant would write. Nietzsche uses the metaphor of the “human head” to signify all of the necessary conditions of experience that Kant delineated including the human sensory organisation as well as the a priori categories to which Kant held that intelligible experience must conform. “We behold things through the human head” means that we experience the phenomenal world (which it would be senseless to contest, though this does not seem to discourage some philosophers; after all, how could it in the post-truth era?). “What of the world would still be there” means the noumenal world outside of the conditions of phenomenal experience. Put another way, we can only know objects in relation to ourselves as subjects (together with all of the conditions that this entails) and we cannot know objects themselves irrespective of ourselves as subjects that are knowing them.

Aside from establishing the a priori conditions of experience, Kant also stipulates a very specific definition of knowledge. In an elaboration of the Peripatetic maxim, which Aquinas expressed as “Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu” (“Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”) (De veritate 1,2), Kant asserts that the only immediate relation of knowledge to objects is through the senses:

[I]ntuition (Anschauung) takes place only in so far as the object is given to us….Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions….[A]ll thought must, directly or indirectly….relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us. (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781)

Kant‘s motivation for restricting knowledge to intuition and intuition to the senses is very straightforward. Indeed, without limitations of this sort, any arbitrary fantasy that a feverish mind should dream up might count as knowledge. Still, by restricting immediate knowledge to the senses and prescinding the intellect from such intuition, it is hardly a surprise to discover that we can know only appearances and not the reality of what is appearing. Presenting appearances is just what the senses do. Aquinas expresses the situation with his usual clarity:

Cognitio sensitiva occupatur circa qualitates sensibiles exterioris, cognitio antem intellectiva penetrat usque ad essentiam rei; objectum enim intellectus est quod quid est. (Summa Theologica, 22a, q. 8. n. 1.)

This is obviously not clear at all to someone, like me, who doesn’t read Latin. In our understanding of truth, we will have to account for the fact that, though the proposition above is potentially intelligible, for it to become actually intelligible demands a capacity on the part of the reader. Specifically, it demands an adaequatio, or our parts. We will take up this theme in the next chapter of this exploration. Now, however, we will return to the issue at hand with an English translation of Aquinas’ statement from above:

Sensitive cognition is occupied with external, sensible qualities, but intellectual knowledge penetrates to the very essence of the thing, for the object of the intellect is the quiddity of a thing.

The senses relay how something appears while the intellect intuits just what it is that is appearing. Kant, in accordance with the spirit of his time, adopted a radically different position in respect to cognition. By rejecting the possibility for intellectual intuition, Kant’s doctrine transcendental idealism is tantamount to “unchaining of the Earth from the Sun,” and rejecting “that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower” (as quoted from Plato above in description of the Good, Republic 508e). Kant certainly did not consider himself to be advancing a position of atheism. Still, as Nietzsche recognised, atheism is the natural conclusion of Kantian epistemology. In any case, Kant was well aware of the consequences of his doctrine: “I had to get rid of knowledge in order to make room for faith,” he wrote.

This manner of faith is precisely what Nietzsche assumed as his philosophical project to demolish. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche defined faith as “not wanting to know what is true.” Indeed, Nietzsche directs many of his fiercest invectives against an opiated faith in “Platonism for the masses,” by which he meant adherence to the Christian creed. Since our exploration concerns truth and not faith per se, let us inquire into Nietzsche’s conception of the former and leave the latter for future explorations. In “On Truth and Lying in the Extra-moral Sense,” one can read the following from the prophet of post-modernism:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (1873)

Nietzsche clearly conceives of truth differently than Kant. It is of little use to analyse Nietzsche’s propositions for consistency since it was largely his disregard for such consistency that constituted his revolutionary impact. Suffice it to note, however, that while for Kant, truth was a question of fact, for Nietzsche truth was a question of meaning. As he wrote in a notebook in 1887 (exactly one hundred years after Kant published the Second Edition to the Critique of Pure Reason, in the “Preface” to which he likened his transcendental idealism to the Copernican Revolution):

Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying “there are only facts,” I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations….

Truth, for Nietzsche, therefore, is a question not of syntax, but of semantics, ontologically speaking. On a side note, it remains one of the many ironies of this greatest of philosophers that he expressed such profound antipathy for the same religion which, at its heart, just is the theophany of the Lógos. Taken together, the two excerpts from Nietzsche above allow us to paraphrase Nietzsche’s conception of “the death of God” as “the death of the metaphor of metaphors.” Since a metaphor is a “bearer” of meaning (i.e. phorein, “to bear,” cognate with “ferry,”) we could also say that the death of a God is the death of the condition for meaning, or Lógos. It is tempting to assume that Nietzsche is disparaging the belief in God and that he therefore would have welcomed the advent of the post-truth era. This assumption would be untrue in both respects. Nietzsche was a thinker of much greater depth than Kant, despite the latter’s incontestable brilliance. Unlike Kant, Nietzsche did not naïvely equate truth with the reality of the physicists and knowledge with quantifiability. Instead, Nietzsche recognised that the world is made of meaning, that meaning is its ground, and the world of extended objects and natural laws is just a single, rather bland, aspect of the world’s superpotency of interpretations, or logoi. Nietzsche recognised, therefore, that the consequence of people’s inability to experience the world through a theistic interpretation heralded an inevitable descent into nihilism. Nihilism does not mean a physical vacuum; it means meaninglessness.

Anyone who counters that secular liberalism and modern consumerist culture offer deliverance from the threat of nihilism and have somehow rendered Nietzsche’s warnings irrelevant, has simply failed to understand the nature of the question. In fact, these impulses, that many of us hail as the ideals of human achievement, are intrinsically nihilistic in that they strive to reduce all relations to instrumental transactions and to reduce all value to pleasure. Ironically, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stewart Mill are “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” in this manner, and Nietzsche was in fact merely announcing the advent of what was to come. (He signed many of his final letters “the Crucified.” He ought to have signed them “Johannes.”) As a result of the (anti)philosophy above, everything becomes a means towards a nebulous future destination that is supposed to have something to do with happiness but which we fail to conceptually differentiate from mere enjoyment. Means are no substitute for meaning. Post-truth, therefore, signifies post-meaning. Thus, we can conclude that (2) we once enjoyed knowledge or experience of meaning, but now we don’t. Instead, we think it is the same as pleasure. Therefore, we have lost our connection to meaning and truth, which are the same.

Cheer up, all is not lost. If nothing else, we can shoulder the cross of utilitarian nihilism and resolve to bear witness to the truth of the matter. What could be more meaningful than this?

In the next chapter, we will continue our exploration of truth as meaning, which implies truth as λóγος (lógos) and truth as αληθεια (aletheia).

Thank you to all of my readers and to Nietzsche, Kant, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and many others.

The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), A19/B33.

The Portable Nietzsche (1954) by Walter Kaufmann, p. 458

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. This was very, very good, Max, and I’m looking forward already to the next installment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Scott. I will try not to disappoint! These take me some time though; to think through the connections and what they reveal.

      Like

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