Episode 61: Nietzsche on Truth and Skepticism

On Friedrich Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" (1873).

What is truth? This essay, written early in Nietzsche's career but unpublished during his lifetime, is taken by many to make the extreme claim that there is no truth, that all of the "truths" we tell each other are just agreements by social convention.

The regular foursome are joined by a U. Texas grad school classmate, Jessica Berry from Georgia State University. She argues that Nietzsche is really just being a skeptic here: our "truths" don't correspond with the thing-in-itself, i.e. the world beyond our human conceptions. He wants us to understand that all knowledge is laden with human interests. Taken this way, the essay won't undermine itself; if he isn't saying "there is no truth," then that claim won't apply to itself.

What Nietzsche for sure does say is that the "will to truth" that philosophers so prize is puzzling, given how beneficial to our survival many mutually held illusions are: we're safe, things are stable, we understand our environment. When philosophers declare truth to be the most valuable thing, they're going beyond the mundane purposes for which the will to truth developed (e.g. communicating in a consistent way to our mutual benefit) and massively overestimating our capability to know the world as it "really" is.

Read more on the topic and buy the book. Wes has also created a guide to this episode that you can purchase here. You can also purchase a transcription of this episode (and read a big chunk of it for free).

End song: "Stupidly Normal," from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.

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  1. Ted says

    Apropos of not very much…

    I remember hearing an offhand mention on a podcast from way back that there are embarassing, crunchy jobs as ‘philosophers’ available to people with a philosophy MA, which I now have. I’ve tried the other available job for a phil MA (teaching at a community college), but I need something for the summer. If anyone a) knows what I’m even talking about and b) could point me in the right direction, it would be much appreciated.

    On topic: I was re-reading La Gaya Scienza recently, and came across a striking, succinct statement on truth: truth is merely an irrefutable error. An error that can’t be proven to be an error, but nevertheless is false.

  2. Ryan says

    It seems like a decent sentiment to shoot down dirty objectivist versions of truth, but it is also a statement which makes the same claim on our access to the real. What is this knowing with absolute certainty about truth or lack thereof that we are apparently able to perform when we talk about how it is really always rather this kind of irrefutable error? What does it mean to be false in this world where everything we perceive as coming into being is actually mistaken?

    Of course this is a constant antagonism running throughout Nietzsche’s work, one which I think he often deals with beautifully, however unfortunately many 20th century language/social philosophers influenced by him (say Wittgenstein and Rorty) have tended to focus their attentions on only one half of the relation between common opinion and truth, thereby perverting them in to a meaningless identity.

    From Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

    “And you tell me, friends, that there is no disputing of taste and tasting? But all of life is a dispute over taste and tasting. Taste – that is at the same time weight and scales and weigher; and woe unto all the living that would live without disputes over weight and scales and weighers!”

    According to him there are weights and scales, not just weighers. There could be no sense of any weighing occurring without them.

    • Vasili says

      Could you explain more what you meant by perverting truth and common opinion in to a meaningless identity?
      There is something interesting here about the way in which we view the relationship between “society” or “culture” and individual, as well as the relationship between convention and invention.
      Nietzsche of course represented to some extent heroic inventive individualism.

  3. dmf says

    some live commenting spurs:

    helpful perhaps to think of us in evolutionary terms as very limited tool-using (and language as a tool) critters who are always already in the position of trying to manipulate our environs to better suit our needs/drives/wants/interests.

    If we own our means/tools as such (and adjust or scrap them as needed) than we are creative/aesthetes if we are under the tyranny of those inherited means (act as if they were given/discovered/necessary, not made) we are slaves to our traditions/habits.

    who are the post-modernists who actually say that there are no things outside of texts, and where does Derrida say that any interpretation is as good as any other?

    perhaps a show on the recent debates over the correspondence theory of truth is looming.

    Is Nietzsche after truth or vitality/intensities (did he ever cast himself as a philosopher?)

    Might be helpful to look at Freud’s description of the fort-da game.

    from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, (trans. W. Kaufmann), ON SCHOLARS:

    As I lay asleep, a sheep ate of the ivy wreath on my brow – ate and said, “Zarathustra is no longer a scholar.” Said it and strutted away proudly. A child told it to me.

    I like to lie here where the children play, beside the broken wall, among thistles and red poppies. I am still a scholar to the children, and also to the thistles and red poppies. They are innocent even in their malice. But to the sheep I am no longer a scholar; thus my lot decrees it – bless it!

    For this is the truth: I have moved from the house of the scholars and I even banged the door behind me. My soul sat hungry at their table too long; I am not, like them, trained to pursue knowledge as if it were nut-cracking. I love freedom and the air over the fresh earth; rather would I sleep on ox hides than on their decorums and respectabilities.

    I am too hot and burned by my own thoughts; often it nearly takes my breath away. Then I must go out into the open and away from all dusty rooms. But they sit cool in the cool shade: in everything they want to be mere spectators, and they beware of sitting where the sun burns on the steps. Like those who stand in the street and gape at the people who pass by, they too wait and gape at thoughts that others have thought.

  4. dmf says

    I thought the late coming question of how to, or how not to, read Nietzsche was a key one that deserved more exploration, following Nietzsche we should expect that all interpretations serve the interpretor but maybe giving the author-itative word to someone who has a vested interest in reading Nietzsche in terms of the norms of modern American academy doesn’t quite catch the arc of the life/development of the man who would start writing his own myths?
    More coming from Seth?

    Goethe’s Delicate Empiricism

  5. NeilE says

    Hi Mark,

    I’m listening to this episode at the moment on my iPod and it’s terminating itself 27:16. If I skip to 28:00 then the rest of it plays properly.


  6. Justin Boyd says


    1. While “there is nothing outside the text” is indeed a quote from Derrida (from Of Grammatology), I don’t know why it’s invoked so often to discredit Derrida/deconstruction/’postmodernism’ as absurd prima facie, since even a five-minute google/wikipedia research session would explicate it as meaning something like, “there is nothing without context” (hardly a shocking statement).

    2. If Derrida did ever write that any interpretation is as good as any other, I’m not aware of it (though I’m far from an expert). Something about that smells strongly of straw to me…

    I don’t want to derail the conversation as it should be focused on Nietzsche (and I’ll have some comments about the more substantive parts of the episode later), so I’ll leave the Derrida discussion there – though I do look forward to a full PEL on his work.

    • dmf says

      yes thanks JB, I see that I could have been more explicit and and written that “there are no things” outside of texts but I was playing on the history of the use in philo of “thing”, hard to tell in comment sections what needs to be said or not.
      Derrida as usual (he is after all interested in demonstrating how words/phrases have multiple and evolving meanings/resonances) meant many things by that phase, I’m terrible at nutshelling these complex ideas/thinkers so I’ll leave it to a pro:

      “If realism means the affirmation of the transcendental signified, of some Ding an sich which is left standing when the play of signifiers collapses in a heap, if realism means that we are silently joined with “real being” without a trace of a sign in sight, then realism makes no sense. For the thing itself always slips away, just because it is the thing itself. The sign-less silence of such a realism is for quadrupeds, who, freed from the obstacles that language places between themselves and their world, are free to swing from reality’s trees and burrow beneath reality’s earth for shelter. For Derrida’s much abused observation, il n’y a pas de hors-texte does not mean there is no reference, but that there is no reference without difference, without différance, without the operations of textuality, differential spacing, and contextuality. “When I say there is nothing outside the text,” he tells the Dubliners, “I mean there is nothing outside the context” (QE, 79). That means not that there is no reference but that reference is not what it is cracked up to be, not what it passes itself off for, not the serene operation of an autonomous subject-archer picking out objects with unfailing accuracy by means of signs wholly submissive to its intentional aims. Reference is a much more slippery affair, caught up in the slippage of signifiers that continually slip into each other, producing effects within preconstituted chains of differential spacing, which make reference possible. We have to learn to cope with the inescapability of these differential chains, which have us every bit as much and rather more than we have them, like an archer trying to cope with powerful winds that not only threaten to blow him away but also give his arrows lift in the first place. We have to learn to respect the inaccessibility of the referent, which, in virtue of its very transcendence, always slips away.”

      Obviously that is written to honor the memory of Derrida but could perhaps have been written with few edits about the Nietzsche text at hand for this posting/podcast, no?

  7. Justin Boyd says


    I had no doubt you were ‘in the know,’ as it were – my comments were more intended to play off of yours for the benefit of those who might not be.

    I agree that that selection could be applied to the ‘Truth and Lies’ essay – though clearly there are some who would (energetically) disagree.

    • dmf says

      it’s all good whatever advances the conversation, was just trying to answer your reply as it was presented, I welcome energetic disagreement as long as it is well informed and not just gossip/slander. We certainly can’t have read/thought everything (one of the hopes I would think of a forum like this is to have access to others who might fill in such blanks/blindspots) and there are no Law-like limits that I can see to recontextualization/interpretation just social ones so manners matter I think, no?

  8. Tim says

    it’s funny – I’ve been reading a lot of cognitive science influenced film theory lately, and so much of it relies on examining all the subjective factors that go into what we intuitively think of as “raw perception.” and within the film studies community, there’s always been opposition to that kind of work from the old guard of post-structuralist/marxist/psychoanalytic/whatever “Grand Theory” scholars who throw around silly “epithets” like “empiricist” to try to discredit any attempt at using science to help explain how films work. obviously that older “Continental” school is heavily influenced by Nietzsche, and I suspect by this essay in particular, so it’s fascinating for me to hear that Nietzsche himself was drawing on a lot of pre-cog-sci thought!

  9. Tim says

    oh another thing… the discussion about, to paraphrase, whether scientists have always been pragmatists, or whether they’ve become more pragmatic, or whether they’re mostly naiive realists, was great, and I wish you’d stuck with it longer even if it was off topic. I’ve thought about that issue a lot in relation to the arrogance of current science popularizers like Dawkins and de Grasse Tyson, but don’t know enough about the history of science to be able to place it in a broader context.

    does anyone know of any (history of science? sociology of science?) books that specifically deal with this issue? (the issue being: what epistemological doctrines do working scientists tend to hold, if any, and how has this changed over time)

    this would also make a great blog post!
    *wink* *wink*

  10. Vasili says

    One simple example that I have sometimes used to describe the radical difference between cultural representations arising from different systems or practices is the difference between how a poet and a linguist view language. The linguist ascribes to some kind of scientific objectivity and formulates theories about phonemes, grammar etc. which capture something of the systemic nature of language, however incompletely. The poet has another kind of picture of language arising from a different kind of pragmatic competence. He can compose a poem without any knowledge of the analytic differences the linguist makes. We cannot really say that one has a truer account of language, they merely serve different practices and modes of being. Of course linguist may become a poet and vice versa, and though this may enlarge the person’s understanding of language, I do not think it would necessarily make them better at what they do. Certainly there is a tendency in the West to compartmentalize the aesthetic and the analytical. The obvious fact is that both operate through systems of signs and practices that have been passed on to them and neither has a truly disinterested attitude towards the object of their knowledge.

  11. Jeffrey says

    Oh man – the guest was talking wayyy too fast and was needlessly verbose. I like the terse dialog between you guys, occasionally extending some thought along a well manicured path which most can follow.

    I had to cut off at 20 minutes into it because she just wouldn’t quit!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Shame because I like Neitzche but I could not consume this.

    Let me be on the show one day it’ll be pretty funny.


    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Shame re. your level of tolerance, as she sure knows her shit and very much got into the spirit of what we do. Maybe drink some and try again.

      That said, there is a reason why we don’t routinely have on academics that know the material much much better than we do; it does make it hard to have a balanced discussion. Still, she was great about engaging us and certainly didn’t dominate things the way folks we’ve had talk about their own books do.

      • Jeffrey says

        Never said she didn’t – implied the opposite I suppose?

        That said, I’ve made some *great* consulting presentations that the end user just didn’t get. I’ve learned that entertainment value when dealing with advanced analytics comes from strategic storytelling, not a pristine depiction of a set of facts or interpretations.

        Can’t climb a polished rock unless you’re very skilled. Agreed re: not having purely academic discussion for that purpose.

        Just feedback is all.



  12. bc says

    loved the episode!

    i coincidentally just came across a bbc clip of capuchin monkeys that relates to the discussion about deception and misusing fixed conventions for selfish purposes. it’s interesting to see how this truth telling and lying behavior in other animals relates to nietzsche’s account of our establishment of the laws of truth.

    from the description: “Devious capuchin monkeys sound false predator alarms, in order to smuggle out previously stashed food, before higher-ranking members confiscate it.”

    • dmf says

      this is very much to the heart of the matter at hand, did such critterly behaviors come to be spun into whole cosmologies, legal systems, and such, and maybe to the point of Nietzsche as the “first” psychologist what is the difference between trieb and instinkt, and what does this mean for a philosophical anthropology?

      • Vasili says

        The interesting question here (heart of the matter if you will) is that when we locate nature in ourselves as the grounding of our cultural fabrications (illusions or elaborations), why does it so often seem to be a culturally specific nature, a reflection of our own cozy cosmology. Which begs the question that when we naturalize man are we actually anthropomorphizing nature? And since there are many forms of man, are there also many natures? Or do we keep imposing our own natures on the natures of others?
        Of course it was in the study and self-image of a historically specific society that Darwin found inspiration for analyzing natural processes (strictly speaking social Darwinism is a misnomer, it’s the other way around).

        It is the origins of truth that I find most disappointing in Nietzsche’s text, a speculative pseudo-history on par with Hobbes’ social contract or the musings of 19th century cultural evolutionists.

        Certain naturalized presuppositions are hard to shake, so blatantly ethnocentric generalization about agency, truth, and lies crop up with regularity:

        • dmf says

          “is that when we locate nature in ourselves as the grounding of our cultural fabrications”
          where does Nietzsche do this?

          • Vasili says

            Indeed Nietzsche does not (though this doesn’t make his historical account any more convincing). But when we turn to mischievous capuchin monkeys competing for food, I assumed that this was the turn the discussion was going to take. I’m sorry if I assumed too much (perhaps having just listened to Dennett my mind was on the issue).

          • Vasili says

            Now that I think of it there is a certain naturalism to N’s theory:

            “Insofar as the individual wants to maintain himself against other individuals, he will under natural circumstances employ the intellect mainly for dissimulation.”

            “What men avoid by excluding the liar is not so much being defrauded as it is being harmed by means of fraud. Thus, even at this stage, what they hate is basically not deception itself, but rather the unpleasant, hated consequences of certain sorts of deception. It is in a similarly restricted sense that man now wants nothing but truth: he desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth.”

            Though its not like we get a hierarchy of needs or anything of the sort…

  13. dmf says

    gotcha, this would be perhaps the “philosophical” part of philosophical anthropology (and may tie in to the question of fiction and philo in the upcoming podcast, the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, and the discussion around the Foucault episode on whether his genealogical project is best understood as straight history or as a kind of gestalt switch, intuition-pump), perhaps this fragment of “Homer’s Contest”
    might prove useful as we see that Nietzsche is not (and so really is unlike many contemporary evolutionary psychologists) really interested in making us feel at home in the world but rather is trying to dis-lodge us, give us the existential shock-treatment of recognition that we call the uncanny.
    “If we speak of humanity, it is on the basic assumption that it should be that which
    separates man from nature and is his mark of distinction. But in reality there is no such separation: ‘natural’ characteristics and those called specifically ‘human’ have grown together inextricably. Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny dual character in himself.”

    • Vasili says

      Yes, its that anti-utilitarian dislodging that I was expecting, not a neat functionalist account, which is why I was disappointed. Though it served as a basis of a critique of intellectual arrogance, I thought it lacked philosophical imagination. I suppose genealogical accounts are usually self-aware games, rather than naive attempts at historical reconstruction (something that Foucault is not particularly strong at, but he makes his point).
      Though I quite like Foucault in a limited reading, a similar problem looms: the diversity of social life is dissolved into generalized power.

      • dmf says

        well good perhaps to keep in mind where this particular work fits into the overall oeuvre and the degree to which he might be struggling to work his way thru existing models (not unlike perhaps the anxiety of influence) and habits of thought, following or perhaps to some degree possessed by an inchoate intuition, actually doing philosophy rather than acting as an underlaborer to scientists.

        I don’t think that Foucault actually does dissolve the many into One but certainly many of those who employ his author-ity certainly do (this may come up when they get to Deleuze here)

        Have you read Wittgenstein’s critique of Frazier? I think it is of a genre with Nietzsche’s line of thought that you might appreciate.

        • Vasili says

          “Frazer’s account of the magical and religous notion of men are unsatisfactory: it makes these notions appear as mistakes.”

          I’ve used that particular quote, though I should reread W. Ethnographically Frazer was onto something, though his evolutionary intellectualism influenced by Comte has been outdated for more than a 100 years.

          Foucault may not be reductionist, but legions that came after have been, which has marred F slightly for me. Of course all these critiques, including my dissapointment with aspects of N’s argument, are contextual

      • dmf says

        yes very good, I think that’s an open question and why above I was suggesting my inclination which is to entertain something along the lines of the difference between trieb and instinkt, which has echoes of discussions of phusis and techne and or phusis and nomos.
        The temptation of course is to read Freud and or Heidegger back into Nietzsche but I think that the error of treating Nietzsche as only a misinformed precursor to Dennett and co. is more like translating Freud’s “seele” into technical jargon like “ego”, not sure if they are going to do De Anima here or not but that would be an interesting addition to the mix.

        • Vasili says

          The trouble of extending these concepts beyond their original contexts is always there. Of course in philosophy we are perhaps allowed a little more metaphorical leeway, but once you get bogged down with specifics it becomes tricky. As long as we don’t end up looking for Oedipus complexes in matrilineal societies…

  14. Doug Pinkard says

    I take Nietzsche to be characterizing all assertions as agenda-driven or goal-oriented, motivated by care or concern, or by some similar trope explaining their inaccessibility to all and anyone incapable of escaping agendas, goals, cares, or concerns–a way of describing his thought which has the benefit of not coming undone by self-contradiction. I get that any simplification is, well, a simplification, but is mine actually incorrect? Or does it not provide the theme to all “mature” (i.e., post-Birth of Tragedy) Nietzsche? It can probably be said of the great work of aesthetics as well, only epistemological concerns do not appear to enter into his discussion of the Greek tragedians. I’m just sayin’.

  15. says

    Great podcast, thank you. Jessica was actually a fantastic guest who added much to the conversation, and drove you all to perform at a higher level. It think I detected actual sparks, there.

    The main question is interesting: why does our culture assert the primacy of truth when illusions have worked so well? But the illusions only work well when the fact that they are illusions remains illusory — i.e., they are taken as truth. Is this BECAUSE we assert the primacy of truth, or are the two things coincident?

    An interesting episode as I am currently reading Kathryn Schultz’s, “Being Wrong,” which explores this very topic.


    • Ron says

      That second paragraph is very insightful, I think. There’s a tug between illusion and truth.

      There’s also known illusion that’s promulgated by those who know it’s an illusion: Quoting St. Augustine: The pontifex maximus Scævola thought it expedient that the people should be deceived in religion; and the learned Varro said plainly, that there are many truths, which it is useless for the vulgar to know; and many falsities which it is fit the people should not suppose are falsities. Hence comes the adage “Mundus vult decipi, decipiatur ergo.”

  16. Jillian says

    This episode was threaded together brilliantly. Jessica’s grasp on Nietzsche was remarkable and she’s probably one of the most well-spoken individuals I’ve ever heard. Your podcast makes esoteric material accessible to the philosophic tourists who read with more of a casual approach, thank you!!

  17. gravyboat says

    F. N. must not have been much fun to be around, even before he got syphilis. It’s so unfair to take people to task for being human.

    Why do we have a drive to truth, and are we just fooling ourselves when we dream up scientific theories and talk about the true nature of stuff?

    In medicine, it’s common to try to discover the purpose of some thing by taking it away and seeing what happens, so let’s try to imagine the human race without any drive to truth. It’s not the human race any more, is it? Whatever it was probably would have died out millennia ago.

    The drive to truth is what inspires a baby in the oral phase to put things in her mouth. It’s the reason babies want to crawl, stare at you, and pull on your bottom lip. It’s the reason kids play with blocks, write stories, mix weird things together and eat them, take insects apart, etc. We’re born with it, and we need it to survive.

    Philosophers and scientists are not children, but they are playing. Play is representative, imaginative, creative, informative and educational. We train ourselves through play physically, mentally, and even emotionally. The pretension in philosophers and scientists is not in thinking they have a shot at elucidating the truth of things in themselves, rather, the pretentious are those practitioners who think they are doing something fundamentally serious and different from play. They pretend it’s work, but work is digging a ditch because you need water for your plants so you won’t starve, it’s not playing with ideas and investigating unanswered questions. If humans didn’t love playing with ideas, if they weren’t compelled to answer questions, the lower animals would have eaten us into extinction by now.

    Good scientists and philosophers don’t ever think they are finished in the search for the truth of things as they really are. And as for all the “delusions” Nietzsche disdained—I learned about the original atomic theory in 1969, and even way back then it came with a disclaimer: the electrons ARE NOT really in “orbit” around the nucleus. That’s just the only way we can describe it right now.” All the best theories are metaphors. They work great. They aren’t delusions or pretensions, they’re handles, and Nietzsche should have gotten a hold of one instead of writing this essay.

  18. Arjen Rookmaaker says

    Hi Mark and friends, I’ve been listening to your podcast for many months now, but this is the first time I visit your site. So, thanks for the entertaining and thought provoking listen.
    I must say, your latest episode on Nietzsche was a little to provocative for my liking. There’s this rule ‘no name dropping, or if only you had just read…’ The four of you seem to be doing something like that at nearly every podcast: you make a reference to ‘relativism’ as if this were something bad, and as if we all really know what you mean by it. I thought I did; I thought relativism meant that truth is relative to the perspective, context, subjectivity or what have you of the individual. So far, every philosopher you discuss turns out to be not relativist in your book. Not Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, James. And now, to my amazement, you try to suggest that Nietzsche himself is not a relativist, and even get a doctor to defend this claim. ‘The relativist’ seems to figure merely as a strawman. I suggest that this too ought to be taken as a kind of name-dropping: you mention a term, but never give a proper explanation of it. And no, ‘truth does not exist’ does not qualify as an explanation.
    In this podcast, there was another name dropped: ‘postmodernists’. Your doctor Jessica (or is it Jessa?) suggests there is some group of people who are known and know themselves to be postmodernists. They have all written something about this little essay on Nietzsche, but they just write down whatever they like, because there is no meaning to a text. Who are these people, and where did they write this? And what is this gratuitous referring to il n’y pas de hors-texte all about? This does not do any justice to Derrida (although he did write the worst book on Nietzsche I ever read – Eperons, The Styles of Nietzsche).
    And seriously, however you want to nail down the meaning of truth, Nietzsche surely gives us no argument to believe he is more right than others about his view of the world, and dr.Jessica has not presented any argument to make us think otherwise.

    Glad to have got this off my chest. Keep up the good work.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Yes, I think you’re right that thoroughgoing relativism, “this is true for me, but that is true for you,” is a straw man. It’s a lazy position that we have made fun of going back to our first episodes that I don’t know if any philosopher actually buys, but which is I think very common for undergraduates who don’t know any philosophy. What it would imply is that there is no fact of the matter regarding the truth of any proposition, which is to say that there is no truth, which as we said is a self-defeating view.

      This is exactly how people like Ayn Rand who don’t know much philosophy dismiss virtually any post-Kantian view, so it’s worth our continually reacting to.

      You’re also right that postmodernism has been to us so far on the ‘cast merely a bugaboo which we’ve not read much of any of or tried to give a positive account of. Pretty much, we just read that one Derrida essay in Ep 51 and couldn’t make a lot of sense of it and got irritated. So, we know we owe more on that score and will deal with it in a future episode. The focus of it in this discussion was its characterization in the Maudemarie Clark book, which mostly used Paul de Man as her whipping boy in this respect. I don’t know much about him at all and didn’t read that part of her book too carefully and so just couldn’t comment.

      I think you can ignore the labels and get the point re. Nietzsche at this stage. If relativism means that the way we cut up the world and make judgments is dependent upon human interests, then he’s a relativist. If it means that there’s a meaningful sense in which the law of non-contradiction is not true, or true only for creatures with intellects like ours or from our culture, then he’s not a relativist.

      • Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

        Well, the fact that no one will cop to the charge doesn’t make relativism a myth:


        It may be more a perjorative term used as a weapon by some academics against others, but that doesn’t make it an illegitimate charge. We can debate whether or not the “relativism” accusation is fair as applied to a particular writer. But I don’t think we must be so sympathetic in our interpretation of the works of others that we must pretend the word makes no sense.

        Robert Solomon was also willing to levy this accusation against certain unnamed “French postmodernists,” so I don’t know that we should be so quick to call the term a strawman/canard.

        Also, this “relativist” concept/charge tends to be more prevalent in other “crit theory”-oriented humanities/social science departments, that seek to co-opt philosophical texts for their own agendas. So, this may also lead to some of the confusion on who or who isn’t legitimately to be called a “relativist.”

        Finally, there are different uses of the term “relativism,” (Wikipedia lists 4: moral, cultural, factual, aesthetic), so whether and when it’s an appropriate term may depend upon which definition we’re adopting, and the context.

        • Vasili says

          Of course anything can be used pejoratively (and as a strawman): positivist, realist, analytic, continental, functionalist, particularist, and so on depending on your particular perspective.

          I am happy to describe myself as a cultural relativist, and also as one of the interdisciplinary tourists who read philosophical texts through their own impure parochial interests.

          I think I shared this quote before, but here’s one punchy definition of cultural (not moral) relativism:

          “Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive anthropological—that is to say, methodological—procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.”

  19. Arjen Rookmaaker says

    Thanks for your reply, Mark.I did do an MA in Continental Philosophy and another one in what Daniel Horne calls crit theory. This is not to say that I feel you’re ‘all wrong’ about post-modernists, but to even speak of ‘French postmodernists’ without qualification sounds like a facile dismissal of a complex, sophisticated branch of philosophy. It would be interesting to get a Derrida scholar who has no problem admitting to some kind of relativism on your podcast and discuss one of his key texts, like The Differance or Signature, Event, Context, or some bits from Of Grammatology.Thank you, also for giving the reference to Clark’s mention of Paul de Man.
    As for the positioning of Nietzsche in the context of relativism; ff we reduce the paradox in Nietzsche to ‘all men are liars’ or ‘there is no truth’, then this clearly is a problem for Nietzsche. I interpret Nietzsche (not this text per se, but look at The Will to Power, which contains some of the last and most explicit articulations of his views) to say that we have to create our own truths, and there is no truth that is not also partially a creation. So then the crucial idea becomes creation. Perhaps we shoud distinguish, e.g. adopting the creations of others, creating inauthentically and authenic creation, If you step away from the truth / falsehood dichotomy, a problem remains, but it is no longer the blatant paradox of ‘all men are liars’. The view that there is no metapostion that anyone can lay claim to regarding ‘truth’ does not sound as offensive as ‘this is true for me, that is true for you’.The problem is that it is not so clear how we can affirm the first claim without biting the bullet on the second. I don’t think Nietzsche tried to show how such a division could be defended, and that gives credence to very relativist interpretations of him.
    Finally, I want to make two points on the problem of contradiction. First, it is not a blatant contradiction to admit to your perspective falling prey to the criticism you put to others. This is largely a matter of clearing up the semantics of truth and illusion. In order to be entirely self-effacing, you would need to allow that no truth / illusion is in any way better than the one you advocate. One may leave room for criticism of your perspective, whilst maintaining that it is a superior truth, compared to some others. This might work for Nietzsche. Second, it is unfair for a non-relatvist to dismiss the relativist for its problematic conclusion (which is problematic only for the non-relativist, for if the truth of relativism would not be problematic, that would of itself be problematic for the relativist). A non-relativist would need to show that the argument leading up to the contradictory conclusion is unwarranted. A conclusion must be defeated by its premisses, not by merely stating that the conclusion is problematic.

  20. gravyboat says

    This episode was interesting, but my husband and I agreed: the guest was unpleasantly pedantic. He was not able to listen after the first 5 or 10 minutes because, in his words, “she was such a know-it-all”.

  21. Aaron D says

    The thing is that the guest DID have a wealth of knowledge and articulated it quite well. And at the end she admitted she had learned something from the discussion. Thought she was quite cool. Loved this cast. I had never thought of the difference between ‘knowing truth’ and the ‘will to truth’. The latter being more important. I had been slightly confused to Nietzsche’s position on truth, but found this really cleaned it up. Cheers. I’ve been listening to a podcast a day. Very addictive stuff! Undergrad, from New Zealand.

  22. Dan says

    I’m only halfway through the podcast, so forgive me if you get to this. But it strikes me that Nietzsche’s conception of the “origins” of “truth” (in the misuse of language as a correspondence to aspects of practical existence — someone said “utilitarian”) could also be applied to the origins of “moral” (in the misuse of codes of behaviour established to enable aspects of practical existence). Could we not think of morals equally as simply “normative truths” that we have forgotten were once illusions (i.e. only ever supposed to apply to a particular concrete form of activity). Surely we see evidence of this is the various religious beliefs about forbidden foodstuffs that, on historical analysis, seem to have their roots in various political or practical reasons for avoiding — say — shellfish?

    I guess my question is: is there an aspect of the moral that Nietzsche’s conception of the truth does not correspond to?

  23. Wayne Schroeder says

    Just listened to this podcast again after getting at the heart of BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL. What a great exploration by a group of intellects, neither naked nor inebriated (sometimes masturbation is just mental) of FN’s exposition of the genealogy of morals, and his use of the word truth.

    Most of Jessica Berry’s input on the truth of FN was exquisitely well done and reflects her professionalism and articulateness of a life work currently devoted to FN. Her strength also became her weakness, ironically relating to the “truth” of FN’s truth because she asserted what his truth was and was not. This violates FN’s #1 maxim–“to thine own truth be true” and don’t fall into the trap of the Enlightenment or naive Scientism by telling others what your truth is.

    Jessica Berry, as brilliant, capable and knowledgeable as you are (I mean this), you do not get to tell me what the truth of FN is (or any other truth)–that is his #1 point, especially if you are a highly educated philosopher (as you are). You fall into his trap, “Truth is a Woman,” in all it’s sarcasm. This is not an argument for relativism, nor a claim against truth, just against you or anyone masquerading as truth.

    Jessica, I understand why you said that there is no distinguishable difference between the philosophical position of analytic and continental philosophy: After your dismissive and commonly inaccurate interpretation of Derrida’s (and thus of continental philosophers in general) statement that there is no “outside of the text” implies that he denies propositional truth, I see your opinion is representative of a serious mis-reading of the whole field of continental philosophy

    Derrida defines “text” as “a heterogeneous differential and open field of forces” (Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn): 167-8. That “there is nothing outside of the text” is not a statement about what there is in the world or not. Instead of asking what is there, what is true, Derrida shifts to asking what are we doing when we ask “what is there”–“what is true.”

    To Derrida, “text” means differance, spacing, relationality, differentiation, deferral, delay–a whole philosophy dismissed by Jessica–a brilliant philosophy which extends the implications of FN’s insights in so many essential ways.

    Back to FN and his truth. He discusses the Will to Truth as highly suspicious, and turns to the Will to Power as more foundational. Weakness is truly bad. Keeping your power is essential to nobility and his sense of value. Thus his view of truth (which he deconstructs) is reconstructed in BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL as the creative, artistic, instinctive, energetic Will to Power.

    And if I am not wrong, the purpose of all Ubermensch philosophers is to “not go gentle into that good night/ but to rage and to rage into the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas) to hold true to their VALUE. Philosophers are above all keepers of their value–without mercy, and to the death. That value is the truth beyond the morality of mere mortals.

    • Ryan says

      I see your opinion is representative of a serious mis-reading of the whole field of continental philosophy

      Are you sure that is just her opinion or is it a fact? To be sure this entire response is founded on an amusingly inflated distinction being made between what is and what is not. I do wonder if somebody will ever come along to rail against truth without an accompanying theory of truth that itself extends far beyond what they had first sought to deny. It does not seem as though it would have mattered to Nietzsche for the same reason that it does not matter how many more times petulant children come along to parrot very self-importantly that God must be dead, if the deed were done it was already long done before anything had ever merely been spoken about it. Let me see you live as though there were no truth, that would make for the kind of stylish argument you so far attempt to meticulously piece together as a mental construction to bring down the unicorn-like figure of truth that plagues your own mind. Beyond all comprehension you have written here purely about truth that we should not be in the least concerned with truth, well let’s allow this essay to go first.

      • Wayne Schroeder says

        Again the issue here either for me (or for FN, I believe) is not that there is no truth. Its about how you hold “truth.” Is your truth will to power, objectivity, democracy, justice, faith, skepticism, etc.? How do you know what is true and what is false: lack of logical contradictions, coherence, passion, intuition?

        Whatever your conditions necessary for truth are, are liable to lead you and others to be deceived, as FN rants about. There are two opposing sides of the ditch to fall into in the pursuit of truth: idealization/reification/objectification on one side, and (in my opinion) pure skepticism/nihilism/relativism.

        So the purpose of philosophy thus becomes no longer to try and stick pins in the butterflys of truth to hang up in a glass lined box, like Descartes/Kant/Hegel, but to raise to awareness the difference between Superior Man and Superman. Derrida represents taking this approach to deconstructing (not destroying) truth and then reconstructing the possibility of truth as neither Superior Man nor Superman.

        • Ryan says

          Is your truth will to power, objectivity, democracy, justice, faith, skepticism, etc.?

          I can tell you that this difference is not primarily one of freely adopted attitude but rather is of material and now more precisely sociopolitical circumstance. For example, no amount of of a wealthy person’s personal belief will affect the value invested in his wealth, that is almost entirely decided by the rest of the market economy. So the wealthy do not depend on a theory of truth in the way that the poor should as a function of the will to power.

          There are two opposing sides of the ditch to fall into in the pursuit of truth: idealization/reification/objectification on one side, and (in my opinion) pure skepticism/nihilism/relativism.

          That this alleged fundamental distinction should arise from nothing more than a kind of horoscopic personal opinion could not be more absurd, and moreover that Descartes, Kant, or Hegel would ever fall on the wrong side of such a critical attitude – they are its inventors. That the truth is idealized, reified, objectified, does not matter to the idealist, to the reificationist, to the objectivist. Have you worked here to cut down more of the hydra’s many heads for good? Maybe we can throw even more quotes around the word truth until it has been bracketed by the most absolute theory of truth. What is pure about nihilism but that it absolutely refuses to reveal its always conceptual and therefore self-negating presuppositions?

          The difference between the superior man and the superman still for now is that most of the world can not drink clean water readily. Mitt Romney being in a heat race for the US presidency and Dancing With the Stars being the most popular show on television each receive honorable mention.

  24. Wayne Schroeder says

    You’ve got that Rorty swagger in your pragmatic stance, and become vulnerable to FN’s rants, not in content, but in how you hold your truth–and he does much better than my “horoscopic personal opinions” in addressing your authoritarian approach.

  25. Ed says

    I enjoyed the podcast but literally laughed out loud when one of you referred to the sounds in the word ‘tree’ as a ‘phoneme’. I know it’s silly to expect everyone to be well-versed in every field, but it was surprising. For the record, a phoneme is a minimal unit of sound and ‘tree’ is composed of 3 of them.

    Like I said, otherwise I enjoyed the podcast!

  26. Ron says

    That part about the leaf is just wrong. Does FN really not know the difference between generalization and lie, or is there a fatal mistranslation from German to English?

  27. Ian says

    Acknowledging up front that my commenting on this podcast two years after its release is not helping my appearance as the loon defending post-structuralism, that is exactly what I will try to do. More than anything I want to clear up the ever-present misconception that Derrida’s dismissal of any arrival at truth is synonymous with a dismissal of the pursuit of truth. Not only did he never say that, but in fact, “Structure, Sign and Play” goes to great lengths to encourage the pursuit of truth despite the impossibility of reaching an unmediated conclusion. To me, that sounds quite a bit like what Nietzsche is saying here in regard to “owned,” or “thumbprinted” truth.

    Secondly, the idea that one interpretation is as good as another, for most post-structuralists, including Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and Eco, is only true on a personal level. They absolutely believe that there are interpretations that can locate more pillars of support in a text than others. The more important thing, I think, for them is that these well-founded interpretations do not dismiss the possibility or legitimacy of more stretched or anachronistic readings. A post-structuralist can say “read this analysis first” without implying that all others are stinking piles of excrement squished between cardboard.

    I will keep this week’s “continental” – thank you Dr. Berry for shouting down that ridiculous feud – short. Love the podcast, guys

  28. Issa says

    Hey mark I am writing a paper on Nietzsche and have to answer some questions, wondering if you can help me out please
    A. who is the creator of language and how is language created?
    B. What is the “thing-in-itself” this pure truth without consequences and how is it created in adn through language?
    C. what is this cloud-cuckoo-land Nietzsche mentions?
    Please if someone can help me find these answers it’ll help on my final paper.

  29. Zachary Marko says

    Although it may have been covered in other podcasts before or after this one, I didn’t hear anything about what influence Hume might have had on Nietzsche in this unpublished work. His thoughts on what is “extra-moral” or the interest at the foundation of conventions, like language, are very reminiscent of Hume. Great episode and helpful as I dig deeper at the end of an undergrad stint in philosophy. At this time, I’m jumping between podcasts based on topics of interest, so I am unaware of what has been covered by not listening to them in chronological order.


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