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Problem with Facts and Knowledge in Nietzsche and Arendt: Is There a Problem?

Given that knowledge, morality and language, are derivatives of the human capacity to think and reason, what are the implications of grounding the concept of truth and lies as a derivative of these human capacities? First, this question raises another question concerning human knowledge in general, regarding the foundation it has outside the human mind, if any. Second, it also raises the question of that role does knowledge have in the political realm, despite its potentially unfounded nature. Trough the work of Nietzsche, I will attempt to demonstrate his skeptical argument regarding knowledge concerning its relativistic aspect as a way of answering the first question. For the second question however, I will attempt to trace the role that knowledge has within the political realm in Arendt’s account after taking a few claims by Nietzsche as a premise. Finally, I will bring the conflicting sides between Nietzsche’s account of knowledge and how it fits within Arendt’s framework, that potentially posits Nietzsche’s problem of knowledge as a problem where there is not one.

In On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873), Nietzsche provides a philosophic account of knowledge by characterizing it a something rather temporal and arbitrary in the grander cosmological scheme. Knowledge in Nietzsche’s account is therefore relative and no foundation can be ascribed to it, besides in the human mind and insofar as it exists at some point in the vastness of cosmic history:

There have been eternities when [knowledge] did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer gives it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it. 1

The implication of this account of knowledge therefore puts forward certain consequences. First, it is that knowledge is relative hence reinforcing Protagoras claim in Plato’s Theaetetus that ‘man is the measure of all things’ 2. Second, even thought humans have the advantage of attaining such thing as knowledge, the very status of this “advantage” is put under question by Nietzsche. Given that all knowledge is relative and can therefore have no absolute, “thing-in-itslef” foundation other than in the relativistic minds of existing human beings and their subjective interpretation of the world; any claim to knowledge is therefore dismissed as nothing other than a disadvantageous pretension and illusive deception 3. For Nietzsche, the capacity for knowledge has also existential consequences in that humans pretend to see “forms”, categories, attributes, etc. in the natural world, while thus enforcing their inability to see their actual existence within this natural world. For Nietzsche, most human knowledge is therefore based on the “empty shells” with no inner substance and in accordance to which, illusions are bought for truths 4. Which implies that all human knowledge is derived from “metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” 5.

Give that the human capacity to reason and come up with knowledge and language, Nietzsche highlights how this capacity translated onto the way humans organize themselves in order to share and live with many. One of the features that the capacity to reason, is the ability to establish a “peace pact” among each other as prerequisite for the need to socialize 6. For example, this is what Hobbes in the Leviathan refers to as ‘Covenants’; for Hobbes, this is done as necessity in order for humans to maintain peace among each other. Although the attainment of such peace can be considered as a celebratory overcoming of an otherwise malevolent human natural behavior, Nietzsche goes as far as to imply that this overcoming is disadvantageous and illusive to humans even if it entails reasoned truths. This is due to the consequences of creating a pact for peaceful socialization, which is the solidification of other intersubjective relations that define what counts as truth and what counts as a lie. One of which, is human language, which Nietzsche refers to as “linguistic legislation” of what it socially acceptable as truth, and what must be regarded as a lie. Nietzsche demonstrates the various tautologies that this “legislation” instigates through the use of allegories and metaphors to point out how not only does language entail a collection of “empty shells” that reference phenomena in the world, but also how language instigates moral judgments based on what is deemed socially acceptable, thus perpetuating what Nietzsche in other works refers to as ‘false consciousness’, ‘herd mentality’, and ‘false values’. A further consequence of language usage consists of equating signification that are unequal in the form of metaphors, that then get generalized by a second metaphor, and so on 7. Thus, language consists of a solidification of terms that become once or twice times removed from their actual manifestation in the world. In such a manner, moral terms such as ‘honesty’ for example, entail a solidification of something from which they are at least once removed, in addition to being manifestations of ‘honesty’ that are unequal to one another.

With a brief explication of Nietzsche’s account of knowledge and morality, the question regarding the relation between truth and politics, become better explicated in Ardent’s chapter “Truth and Politics” from her In Between Past and Future (1968). The question regarding knowledge and moral values that were brought forth by Nietzsche, express their repercussions in Arendt’s concern regarding the relation between truth and politics. Given the relativistic aspect of truth and knowledge, what implication does the lack of appeal to truth entail in relation to political matters?

Ardent’s exposition begins with a question concerning what dignity do individuals within a political realm have to “truth and truthfulness on the other”, while lies and deceits are regarded commonplace tools employed by politicians to persuade the masses.8 Arendt’s answer would not altogether be an unconditioned commitment to truth and high principles due to a similar form of caution she in slight ways shares with Nietzsche towards establishment of truths and values. In particular, Arendt is weary of commitments justified in the name of truth, such as Kant’s statement proclaiming “justice shall prevail, even though all the rascals in the world should perish as a result.” 9 Such a view entails that a “sacrifice of truth for the survival of the world would be more futile than the sacrifice of any other principle or virtue” 10. Thus, the commitment to philosophical truths for justifying goodness and virtues becomes the ultimate form of reasoning that can prevail in political matters. Arendt sees how this form of reasoning prevailed in political thought since the times of Hobbes, who in his Leviathan, justifies any exception for as long as it maintains the integrity of the Commonwealth 11. Thus, the way in which lies and deceits are justified within the political realm, is precisely through a justification of a higher reasoned truth: that peace, order and good values must be maintained by whatever means possible, including through the use of lies, deceit and abandonment of the appeal to truth.

The problem that Arendt identifies with such appeal to political truths, is somewhat in tandem with Nietzsche’s account of language and formation of moral values. First, these values and reasoned truths are already products of given relations within a society and therefore do not entail some absolute foundation. Second, these truths omit the political character of human existence in favor of established values. Although the emphasis on existence tends to form the philosophic truths which Arendt is wary of 12, she rather emphasizes on how this existence must manifest itself through relations with other individuals. Since the source of truths are derived based on individual opinion and experience, these truths also serve as a precondition for debate that occurs among a multitude of individuals within the public realm 13. The establishment of truth therefore relies on the cooperation of many individuals who hold “the right opinions” 14. While at the same time, the change in opinions never establishes absolute truths, but rather, instigates and perpetuates process of debate, which for Arendt, is “the very essence of political life” 15. Therefore, the politician or demagogue who attempts to cease power by monopolizing opinions using lies, truths or his own opinions, lies contrary to the political life in which a multitude of individuals exchange their opinions in the form of debate. This form of debate, in which the opinions of all individuals within the multitude are brought forth to the political realm, for Arendt, is the type of truth she attempts to delineate.

To characterize the type of truth that must exist in the political realm, Arendt makes a crucial distinction between “rational truths” and “factual truths” 16. Rational truths include “axiomatic statements such as ‘the three angles of three triangles should be equal to two angles of a square’”, and although Arendt sees how grounding politics on these static universal types of truths would entail the greatest danger, her concern largely regards the way factual truths become justified and grounded in the political realm. Arendt is therefore weary of grounding politics based solely on facts since it extinguishes debate along with political action 17. Since factual truths consist of discoveries and theories derived based on “every-changing affairs of men” and therefore have some grounding within the political realm, these truths can never be considered permanent 18. This is due to the fact that the political reality within which these factual truths are conceived, is “nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure” 19. Factual truths also cannot defy their verification in reality since they cannot be subject to the same methods of empirical verification as scientific truths can be20. Rather, these factual truths are established in the form of debate that occurs among individuals within the public realm.

Arendt makes an important emphasis on how factual truths must be derived collectively rather relying on individual “philosophy kings” who project their thoughts onto the public realm. This problem is identified as that of the individual philosopher who seeks to manifest their philosophical truths in politics and people’s opinions. For many philosophers, truths are static principles that ground a form a truth (whether moral, ethical, political, etc.) in accordance to which, every individual ought to follow. Arendt problematizes this stance because first, it monopolizes opinions of the public which runs contrary to the process in which factual truths are established; and second, she sees that politics as such would cease altogether if it were to rely solely on truths. The disadvantage of grounding individually derived moral truths in politics, is provided by the example of Socrates, who by proclaiming his famous moral truth “It is better to suffer wrong than to commit wrong“, has encountered constant troubles within Plato’s dialogues in actually persuading others 21. For Arendt, it is therefore no surprise that Socratic propositions had never had any significant effect in political matters 22. This is because philosophical truths concern “man in his singularity” which makes them unpolitical by nature 23. The conclusion made a few times above, and therefore to be emphasized once again, is that for Arendt, truth can only be derived within the political realm in the form of debate among the multitude.

With the exposition of Arendt’s philosophy regarding truths, lies, opinions, we proceed to demonstrating how certain questions posed by Nietzsche’s account of knowledge and morality, become answered, or remain unanswered.

First, concerning almost a quasi-nihilistic skeptical undertone of Nietzsche’s regard to knowledge. The Arendtian question concerning Nietzsche would then be “what does Nietzsche’s account of knowledge and morality have in regards to the political realm?”. One can already point out how Nietzsche as an individual, derived his own philosophical truths in the form of opinion (while also accounting the ‘unpolitical’ aspect of his biography that was spent in solitude to most extent). Nietzsche therefore somewhat also resembles the unpolitical nature of Socratic truths within Arendt’s account. If Socrate’s moral philosophy never succeeded in convincing the whole multitude, then how would Nietzsche’s philosophy achieve such convincing—and moreover, what consequences would it entail if such convincing succeeded? The consequences of embracing Nietzsche’s account of knowledge within the political realm would point to that all human knowledge and language is meaningless, and that truths and lies are just secondary meaningless derivatives of facts and truths that are primarily meaningless. Therefore, all truths within the political realm would have to be simply thrown away so that humans could finally appreciate their existence without being subjugated to meaningless knowledge. Arendt’s account however, demonstrates that truths gain their foundation insofar as they are derived from opinions that are then brought to debate within the public realm, and this is precisely the ultimate source of factual truths for Arendt. Nietzsche’s skepticism would maintain that these factual truths simply reinforce the argument that these are truths derived through meaningless language that individuals share with one other. Arendt however, would demonstrate that such skepticism is in itself a form of a opinion—and as any other opinion to be made into a factual truth—it must be first brought to the public realm so it can meet its scrutiny. This therefore demonstrates that first, Nietzsche’s stance is ‘unpolitical’ since it is a merely philosophical truth, unless it is brought to the political realm in the form of an opinion; and second, Arendt’s account of truth, already encompasses Nietzsche’s own account of knowledge since it is just another opinion expressed by an individual—that then must be brought to the political realm so that it could potentially gain the status of a factual truth.

Given this Arendtian response to Nietzsche’s problem concerning knowledge that has been attempted to be made, a further question concerns whether there is a problem, or even concerning the possibility that it is merely a linguistic invention derived from something where there is no problem. On one hand, Nietzsche does diagnose a problem regarding language and knowledge, but takes his conclusions too far into the skeptical area. Based on this skepticism, this would mean the equivalent of rejecting all theoretical and practical human knowledge about housebuilding, 2+2=4, history, etc. based on examples where the futility of human knowledge can be argued for, such as in theoretical physics today, where a fundamental incommensurability between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity still remains. Regardless of the fact that knowledge never concerns absolute truths about the world—and these can be argued for based on some examples in the sciences even today—for Arendt however, knowledge of housebuilding, 2+2=4, history, etc. exists among individuals and has a direct impact in their affairs. For Arendt therefore, knowledge is derived based on the way factual truths—even thought not universally grounded—can nonetheless be derived from and within the political realm.

This of course would hint to Nietzsche’s point that all these truths will simply perish, once, if one thinks within the grander cosmic scheme of things, humans who once thought and invented these truths, go extinct. Arendt would probably point to the fact that this opinion is one that invents a philosophical problem out of where potentially there is no problem in the first place. For Arendt, the source of factual knowledge is the political realm of people, and for her, knowledge is political and therefore must be counted as such. Even if humans go extinct and all our knowledge perishes along with us, there will be no longer be a precondition (unless intelligent E.T exists somewhere else in the universe) for the establishment of knowledge, since knowledge relies on the existence of a political realm. Although the incommensurability between Nietzsche’s and Arendt’s views concerning knowledge still remains, one can see how Nietzsche sets out a problem concerning knowledge, whereas Arendt’s argument demonstrates that what Nietzsche is doing, is positing a problem where there is potentially no problem for Arendt. Since the skepticism regarding knowledge is just another opinion based on a philosophical truth, it must be brought to the political realm before it becomes factual. Hence, since the human political life is the very precondition for the existence of knowledge, it should be considered as an inherent part of human existence. This would lie contrary to Nietzsche’s repulsion concerning knowledge, that it is nothing more than a disadvantageous pretension and illusive deception that alienates humans from their existence. For Arendt, this knowledge is the product of human existence and relations within the public realm and is inherent aspect of human existence and condition.

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1976. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. In The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking,1976), p.42. ↩︎

  2. Plato. Theaetetus. Translated by M.J. Levett, revised by Myles Burnyeat (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992) 152a. ↩︎

  3. Nietzsche (1976), p.43. ↩︎

  4. Nietzsche (1976), p.45. ↩︎

  5. Nietzsche (1976), p.46. ↩︎

  6. Nietzsche (1976), p.44. ↩︎

  7. On page p.46, Nietzsche (1976) gives an example of a leaf in order to demonstrate the idea of how unequal things are equated to an equal concept, form, word, or category: “Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept "leaf" is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinc­tions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be "leaf"-some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.↩︎

  8. Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics”. In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. (New York: Viking,1968), p. 223. ↩︎

  9. Arendt, p. 224. ↩︎

  10. Arendt, p. 225. ↩︎

  11. Arendt, p. 224, footnote 3. ↩︎

  12. Arendt, p. 255. ↩︎

  13. Arendt, p. 233. ↩︎

  14. Arendt, p. 236. ↩︎

  15. Arendt, p. 237. ↩︎

  16. Arendt, p. 226. ↩︎

  17. Arendt, p. 246. ↩︎

  18. Arendt, p. 227. ↩︎

  19. Contrary to Nietzsche, Arendt would not go as far as saying that factual truths are ‘arbitrary’ and therefore completely unfounded. Arendt’s stance would entail that factual truths derived on ‘right opinions’ can have their place in politics, but these must not be deemed fully clarified elements either: “[F]actual truth must inform opinions, but these truths, though they are never obscure, are not transparent either, and it is in their very nature to withstand further elucidation, as it is in the nature of light to withstand enlightenment.” (Arendt, p. 238) ↩︎

  20. Arendt, p. 244. ↩︎

  21. Arendt, p. 239–40. ↩︎

  22. Arendt, p. 243. ↩︎

  23. Arendt, p. 241. ↩︎