Supposing Truth is a Woman

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Supposing truth is a woman - what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman's heart?
That line starts Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (translated by Kaufmann), and is one running theme of the work: that truth may not be as straightforward as we think, that it may be as elusive and coy as a woman pursued by a fumbling man. Through most of history we've only fumbled with truth, with a pathetically simplistic, straightforward and naive notion of truth. Nietzsche elaborates in section 192:

Whoever has traced the history of an individual science finds a clue in its development for understanding the most ancient and common processes of all "knowledge and cognition." There as here it is the rash hypotheses, the fictions, the good dumb will to "believe", the lack of mistrust and patience that are developed first; our senses learn only late, and never learn entirely, to be subtle, faithful and cautious organs of cognition. Our eye finds it more comfortable to respond to a given stimulus by reproducing once more an image that it has produced many times before, instead of registering what is different and new in an impression. The latter would require more strength, more "morality." Hearing something new is embarrassing and difficult for the ear; foreign music we do not hear well. When we hear another language we try involuntarily to form the sounds we hear into words that sound more familiar and more like home to us: thus the German, for example, transformed arcubalista, when he heard that, into Armbrust [both mean crossbow]. What is new finds our senses, too, hostile and reluctant; and even in the "simplest" processes of sensation the affects dominate, such as fear, love, hatred, including the passive affects of laziness.

Just as little as a reader today reads all of the individual words (let alone syllables) on a page - rather he picks about five at random out of twenty and "guesses" at the meaning that probably belongs to these five words - just as little do we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color, and form; it is so very much easier for us simply to improvise some approximation of a tree. Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its "inventors." All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are - accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.

More generally, from section 34:

Whatever philosophical standpoint one may adopt today, from every point of view the erroneousness of the world in which we think we live is the surest and firmest fact that we can lay eyes on: we find reasons upon reasons for it which would like to lure us to hypotheses concerning a deceptive principle in "the essence of things." But whoever holds our thinking itself, "the spirit," in other words, responsible for the falseness of the world - an honorable way out which is chosen by every conscious or unconscious advocatus dei [God's advocate] - whoever takes this world, along with space, time, form, movement, to be falsely inferred -- anyone like that would at least have ample reason to learn to be suspicious at long last of all thinking. Wouldn't thinking have put over on us the biggest hoax yet? And what warrant would there be that it would not continue to do what it has always done?

In all seriousness: the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers; for example, whether it is "real," and why it so resolutely keeps the external world at a distance, and other questions of that kind. The faith in "immediate certainties" is a moral naivete that reflects honor on us philosophers; but - after all we should not be "merely moral" men. Apart from morality, this faith is a stupidity that reflects little honor on us.

[...] It is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than appearances; it is even the worst proved assumption there is in the world. Let at least this much be admitted: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of perspective estimates and appearances; and if, with the virtuous enthusiasm and clumsiness of some philosophers, one want to abolish the "apparent world" altogether - well, supposing you could do that, at least nothing would be left of your "truth" either. Indeed, what forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential opposition of "true" and "false"? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness and, as it were, lighter and darker shades of appearance - different "values," to use the language of painters? Why couldn't the world that concerns us -- be a fiction?

I've struggled with the whole concept of "true" or "false" for a while (e.g. truth in knowledge). At some point when investigating the world around us, we realize we can question basically all of it, and eventually we are left with little but our perceptions, "how we are appeared to," as they say. It is these subjective experiences on which we build up this entire world, the world, based on certain consistencies and apparent rules within it. Science is not the repeatability of events in an "external world", but the repeatability of perceptions. We are each, down to the most dull person, our own scientist (scientific facts and theories coming in from other people are just more perceptions upon our subjective experience, which may or may not alter how we build up our "external world").

Granted, behind all these consistent appearances is probably some sort of "external world." There is probably matter (though it may not fit our naive concept of such) and our own matter (body...brain) interacts with other matter in "lawful" or "law-like" ways that give rise to the consistencies of experience which allow us to have some faith in both everyday experience and in science.

But of course, as Nietzsche points out, even our perceptions are inaccurate (or shall we say "inconsistent", since accuracy implies some external truth which may or may not be there). Better yet: our perceptions are lazy. We have this mental world constructed (based on the perceptions sent to us by some "external world", perhaps), and then we don't even bother to evaluate incoming perceptions to see if they're still consistent - and thus to ever revise and improve our model - but rather assume consistency and force our perceptions to fit the model.

In other words, we're all at heart scientists, and bad ones at that. But, as he says, we're also master artists. We construct entire world-sculptures around ourselves, and then hide inside of them.

Originally Written: 06-16-07
Last Updated: 06-16-07