(Summation and rephrasing of the points that interest me from Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”)
Firstly the title interests me. It doesn’t address his main point; it serves as a disclaimer on what the essay is not about: morality. The point for which he builds a case is that truth, as an absolute, is not possible. We need to believe in a truth in order to navigate our existence, but that ‘truth’ is an arbitrary designation, implicitly agreed on by groups, even generations, of people, not a fixed point that is beyond question.
Knowing that Nietzsche “was a philologist first– interested in the history of language and words” helped me hone in on his examination of words in making his case.
“We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty!”
He refers to how the Romantic languages apply male or female gender to all nouns. English and many other languages don’t, although grammar in Japanese depends upon the gender of the speaker- women speaking to men use one tense, men use another. If knowledge is contained in the words themselves, not just the meaning, then cultures with gendered language have a ‘dual transmission’. For instance, in Spanish a chair (la silla, feminine) is not just a chair, it communicates a message (a passive, receiving message) about femininity. A knife (el cuchillo) is not just a utensil, it contains a message (a proactive, powerful) message about masculinity. The Japanese grammar tenses I mentioned are meant to demonstrate subservience; when Japanese women speak to each other in a female only situation, they dispense with that grammar and speak the same way men speak to each other. The subservience that this grammar teaches isn’t even poetic or subliminal.
What I take from the lecture and this reading combined; the meaning of words is not just the abstract idea each represents, but also the word itself. A word is not a disposable styrofoam cup made to be discarded once we have consumed the content, but an ancient goblet handed down from generations, continually annotated with the markings and wear from use. This is a rich idea to inform artwork. I've often felt that objects contain multitudes, and could be read the way some read books; now I'm thinking about how language and words might be experienced as objects.
There are two ways of creating our abstract knowledge from or lives; by grouping experiences and dividing them. The grouping activity as Nietzsche describes it reminds me of pattern recognition, an innate ability to perceive related, but not identical, things (faces being a specialization of this, speed reading another).
“We know nothing whatsoever about an essential quality called "honesty"; but we do know of countless individualized and consequently unequal actions which we equate by omitting the aspects in which they are unequal and which we now designate as "honest" actions. Finally we formulate from them a qualities occulta which has the name "honesty." We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual”
How we have created the abstract idea of honesty, which is not anything tangible, is by sensing from of a wide range of actions a recognizable element that we value (it's not lies that we resent as much as the negative effects of lies), that we note as important to our survival and comfort. We know honesty not from picking it up off the ground and examining it, but in the comparison of a thousand actions witnessed or described. When we remove the extraneous individual details, what is left is this abstract idea that we recognize when we encounter it. Honest people are helpful, and isolating this quality helps us.
Differentiation between concepts is also arbitrary. An example would be the story that Inuits have an exponential amount of words for different types of snow. While it isn’t exactly true, that myth demonstrates a deeper truth, that our experience can be divided up into differently sized chunks or categories. For a Floridian, one category, snow. For the Canadian, wet snow, sticky snow, fluffy snow.
“Just as the Romans and Etruscans cut up the heavens with rigid mathematical lines and confined a god within each of the spaces thereby delimited, as within a templum, so every people has a similarly mathematically divided conceptual heaven above themselves and henceforth thinks that truth demands that each conceptual god be sought only within his own sphere.”
Another example- the spectrum of visible light is what it is.
The eight standard colors ROY G BIV
Or a whole lot more.
In order to live our daily lives, we need to forget that we are dealing with arbitrary groupings, divisions and abstractions. We would be unable to grocery shop for celery if we saw each and every stalk as a unique entity, much less more important tasks. To ‘know’ anything, we have to forget that we only achieve our knowledge of categories by ignoring the tiny details. If you've ever spent time with someone on the autism spectrum, part of the condition is this ability to generalize. Categories, themes, abstract ideas like honesty or white lies are difficult to grasp. The see and hear all the details, all the time, and that is what causes the difficulties they have interacting with the rest of us.
The excerpt from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil addresses the assumptions made by philosophers, and, like a student putting different variables into a math formula, he changes some of those assumptions to see if the theory still holds. Surprise, they don’t. Assumptions are part of the culture in which philosophers live, they don’t fully recognize them; like fish who don’t know what water is.
“That individual philosophical ideas are not something spontaneous... but develop connected to and in relationship with each other, so that, no matter how suddenly and arbitrarily they may appear to emerge in the history of thinking, they nevertheless belong to a system just as much as do the collective members of the fauna of a continent…”
His explanation for this again stems from his interest in language and grammar, (also used as evidence in On Truth and Lies) and how they structure thinking, not the other way around.
“...thanks to the unconscious mastery and guidance exercised by the same grammatical functions—everything has been prepared from the beginning for a similar development and order of philosophical systems, just as the road to certain other possibilities of interpreting the world seems sealed off. There will be a greater probability that philosophers from the region of the Ural-Altaic language (in which the idea of the subject is most poorly developed) will look differently “into the world” and will be found on other pathways than Indo-Germans or Muslims…”
Think about two languages: one in which the subject is emphasized, and another in which the action is emphasized. According to Nietzsche, the philosophies that arise from those two cultures are predetermined by the language that formed the thinking of those philosophers, one philosophy perhaps centering on the self, or discrete entities, the other emphasizing groups, or actions as a basis for reality.
Perhaps Nietzsche would agree that learning another language helps create an awareness of cultural assumptions. Think again of the fish, but this time out of the water, who is suddenly, and intensely acute of water’s presence in the world when he sees it from the afar, and feels air in his gils.
“…the task of the human is to become more than human.” Recognizing that both our separations and groupings are arbitrary is the only way we can make conceptual breakthroughs in science and art. Rethinking a category (what is ‘art’? What if we adjusted our definition of an organism?) allows for new possibilities. Moving between knowing and not knowing is what makes both science and art powerful, if not possible. We humans need to group and separate our experiences for survival; it's innately human to do so. To step back and take notice that we do such things, makes us a bit more than human. To examine the human experience from both the inside and the outside makes us more than human. The role of the 'humanities', all of the arts, is to engage us all in a process of becoming more than human.