On Truth (3): Nietzsche, Plato, Cartesius, Kant

Both in the introduction of this theme and the introduction to the dissertation itself, we introduced the subject of truth, or lack thereof. We considered, in the former case, 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, which grows from roots in the metaphysical heart of the world. The above indicates that to live in the post-truth era is to live in radical disconnection from this center and ground 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 an eradication 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?

Friedrich Nietzsche captures the post-truth sentiment with his usual poetic acuity in the passage above from his 1882 “The Parable of the Madman.” Nietzsche’s words naturally hearken back to the dawn of Western Philosophy and invoke a connection to 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,” 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 the 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…

As the Sun is to the eye is to sight, so the Good is to intelligence is to truth. Nietzsche announces our prescission from the Sun, which he notoriously calls “the death of God.” The connection between God and the Good may initially appear to be little 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 medias res of his 1641 Meditations on 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 subjective reflections, an incident 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. We can, with confidence, assert, therefore, that the “the death of God” is a sufficient condition to conclude that we live in the post-truth era and that the OED’s selection of “post-truth” as the “word-of-the-year,” which we indicated in the Introduction to this dissertation, may have been made an hundred and thirty years earlier if it were intended as an harbinger of its advent rather than a signal of its height.

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 falsity. If I write “this statement is untrue,” for instance, any interpretation of it would seem invariably to end in contradiction. Similarly, if I proclaim the advent of post-truth, it is unclear how my statement is to be interpreted in the context of its utterance, since if it is true, then it cannot be. Still, we will attempt to carry on because such a fundamental objection must have occurred to an intelligent proponent of a post-truth view, as Nietzsche, for instance, certainly must be regarded. Three different ways to understanding the meaning of “we live in the post-truth era” are (i) that people once enjoyed knowledge or experience of, or belief in, truth, but now they don’t, or (ii) that truth once existed but now it doesn’t, or (iii) that truth may or may not exist but it is beyond the scope of human experience to know one way or the other. Nietzsche, whom we have already heard from in this chapter, and Immanuel Kant, whom we have not, both set forth ingenious arguments for the second and third of the positions above, respectively. Ultimately, we will pursue the first of these possibilities as the single viable alternative, since it is the only statement that is not a performative contradiction and reality does not contradict itself. The reason to reject the assertions of (ii) Nietzsche and (iii) Kant is that they draw the strength of their arguments from the very principle that they both, in their own ways, seek to controvert. To justify this assertion, we will briefly consider each of them, beginning with the latter.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, Kant famously set forth his second “Copernican Revolution” of epistemology. We conducted a more thorough study of Kant’s epistemological work in the eighth chapter of Part II of this dissertation. 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 (Nietzsche representing perhaps either the apical or abapical figure, according to one’s manner of conceptualisation). Great thinkers before had, according to Kant, “dogmatically” presupposed that the soul or intellect possessed, to employ the terms of the Aristotelians, the potency (“dynamis,” δύναμις) to apprehend reality. Truth was an actualisation (“energeia,” ἐνέργεια) of the same potency. In Aristotle’s famous phrase from De Anima, “the soul is, in a manner, all things.” Aristotle elsewhere explains 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.” Thomas Aquinas, working to refine and perfect the notions set forth by Aristotle, notably called this communion of thinking and being “adaequatio:”

veritas est adequatio intellectus et rei.
“Truth is adequation of intellect and thing.”

From the tradition of Classical philosophy and its continuation through the Middle Ages, therefore, we are left with the picture of the mind as integral to the world, and not an onlooker to it. We may recognise the latter condition to be an hallmark of the particular stage in the evolution of consciousness that Barfield called “Onlooker Consciousness” and which began in earnest with the Scientific Revolution.

By Kant’s time, “Onlooker Consciousness” had fully established itself as the de facto mode of perception and conceptualising the relation of mind and world. Indeed, breaking with the Aristotelian, Platonic, and Scholastic traditions, Kant asserted that, rather than the mind conforming to reality, perception of reality had to conform to the mind. Of reality in itself, according to Kant, nothing could be known. Given that reality must enter our experience for us to become conscious of it, Kant supposed that how reality was before it entered our experience must remain unknowable to us. 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. Because, however, they were categories of the understanding and not of the world, and because the mind was itself separate from the world, therefore the estrangement that Descartes had memorably introduced was fortified by Kant. The latter 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 (i) as well the one which we have identified with his own name (iii)—without the slightest concern for consistency. 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 serve as their own advocates, and thus any concerted study of a given philosopher’s work, which this is not, will include primary citations. Furthermore, we conducted a more focused study into the insights of “The Sage of Königsberg” in Part II. 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.

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 such a trifling quibble as logical consequence deter certain thinkers 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 a priori 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, and perhaps idiosyncratic, 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”), 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.

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 bristle up the crest of its veracity and dispute itself 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.

This is obviously not clear at all to someone like the present author, who is only scarcely competent to decipher even the most pristine Latin prose of The Angelic Doctor. In our understanding of truth, therefore, we will have to account for the fact that, though the proposition above is potentially intelligible, for it to become actually so demands a capacity, and also an activity—a “spiritual activity,” to invoke Steiner’s preferred translation of “freedom—of that capacity, on the part of the reader. Specifically, understanding demands an adæquatio on the reader’s part. 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 occupies itself 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, which relation we explored more thoroughly in Part II. 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 of 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 Nietzsche above on his exhortation on the death of God, and Plato in his description of the power of the Good. 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 because the latter does away with a belief in the very ground of relation between knower and known that God was understood to provide. 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,” which is, of course, a rather suggestive statement in the context of our present study. In any case, 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 is on veritem and not fidem, 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.

It is characteristic of Nietzsche’s perspicacity that the metaphor of the coin which he offers is singularly illuminating to the issue at hand. In analogy to our study of Helmholtz’s metaphor of the “mechanics” in contrast to “the beautiful show” which we explored in Part II, Nietzsche draws attention to this absolute difference in Vorstellungsarten between materialism and realism. “What is a coin?” one might ask. The materialist has no way to answer such a question because if he should say “metal,” then one must come again with “What is metal?” Similarly, if he should say that “a coin is two halves of a coin,” he will inevitably succumb to the same analytic abyss that Nietzsche so exquisitely characterised as “the breath of empty space.” In principle, a bottom-up explanation—from matter to form, in Aristotle’s terms—is impossible without presupposing the very top down—from form to matter—one for which the former ostensibly sets itself forth as an alternative. Realistically, the coin is what it is, not what it is made of.

Aristotle and philosophers of the Classical tradition, together with Goethe, Barfield, and Steiner clearly conceive of truth differently than Kant. Nietzsche, who is the chief concern of our present inquiry, does as well. 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. Thus, when the latter asserts that faith is “not wanting to know what is true,” in order to meaningfully interpret his statement, we must simply suspend our judgement as to the obvious inconsistency of defining something by contrasting it to another thing whose existence one has expressly denied. Of course, at the very outset of this dissertation, we suggested the similar difficulty that arises in the postmodern notion of “post-truth.” Since Nietzsche, together with many postmodern philosophers, disregard the principle of logical consequence, however, an attempt to engage them in terms that they reject will be of only very limited utility so we will largely ignore this issue. Returning to the contrast between Nietzsche and Kant: suffice it to note, that while for the latter, 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 the latter likened his doctrine of 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 λóγος, as well as the apotheosis of man. (“[T]he Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.” Clement of Alexandria 150-215 Chapter 1, Exhortation to the Heathen) 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 “fare,” and “ferry,”) we could also say that the death of God is the death of the condition for meaning, which is the same as λóγος. We will explore this connection more thoroughly in the final chapter and Epilogue. 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 incorrect on both counts. 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, nor, in the same vein, did Nietzsche conceive of knowledge as quantifiability, as Kant did. Instead, Nietzsche perceived that the world is made of meaning, that meaning is its origin and 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 like that from which some physicists suppose the universe emerged from. Nihilism means meaninglessness, and thus it is nihilism whether an universe or no so long as we lack the lifeline to truth.

Anyone who counters that secular liberalism and modern consumerist culture offer deliverance from the threat of nihilism and have somehow rendered Nietzsche’s warnings obsolete, has simply failed to understand the nature of the question. In fact, these impulses, which many of us hail as the ideals of human achievement are perhaps better conceived of as idols of the same. Indeed, such impulses are intrinsically nihilistic in that they strive to reduce relations to utility and 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,” though this was largely a trick of his narcissism. He may have more fittingly referred to himself as “The Messenger.” 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. “‘We invented happiness’ say the last men, and blink.” Means are no substitute for meaning. Post-truth, therefore, signifies post-meaning. Thus, we can conclude that (ii) 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. And yet all is not lost. What could be more meaningful than attempting to free ourselves from this fugue of nihilism?

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