Sunday, December 21, 2008


Friedrich Nietzsche was my hero in college. When I began to mature intellectually, Nietzsche inspired me. He made me defiant. Granted, during my first encounters with his writings, I struggled to find quotes that matched my own rebellious sentiments. I wanted his words to fortify my own philosophy of rugged individualism. To a large extent, Nietzsche's works supported me.

But now I have different priorities. I am still a rugged individualist and I still detest group-oriented thinking, but now I approach texts for what they are, not for what they can gain me. Studying law taught me how to drain passion from my intellectual analysis. After reading spiritually barren arguments for over three years, I learned how to deconstruct language and grasp its implications without considering whether it would support a personal cause. Returning to Nietzsche nine years later, I see why I loved him. Now I think I love him even more. It is a joy to read forceful arguments again. And no one argues with as much passionate, iconoclastic force as Nietzsche.

Lately I have been re-reading Human, All-Too Human (1878). Nietzsche was in his middle 30s when he wrote this book, and its pages provide a blueprint for all his famous later works, including Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1884) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Best of all, it showcases his concise, elegant style. Nietzsche makes his points in tiny aphorisms and mini-essays. It is possible to dig deeply into these small writings to find multiple layers of meaning. And while it may not take a long time to read an aphorism, you can spend all day thinking about what it means.

It is not coincidental that my own writing picks up on many Nietzschean themes. Nietzsche profoundly influenced me when I was young, and my own personality developed those influences as I experienced "real life." Consider this aphorism from Human, All-Too Human's chapter titled: "Assorted Opinions and Sayings:" "79. Twice Unjust - At times we support the truth by a double injustice, specifically: When we see and recount both sides of something that we were not able to see at the same time, in such a way that we either misrepresent or deny the other side in the delusion that what we see is actually the whole truth (my translation)."

Immediately I recognized that Nietzsche shared my views about "legal truth" and linguistic imprecision. In previous essays, I wrote that "empirical truth" depends on the human senses. Empiricists believe that "seeing is believing," and the "truth" must be "perceived by the senses." Yet Nietzsche's aphorism reveals a startling weakness in that view, because he intimates that "what we see" may not be the "whole truth." Nietzsche here makes us consider the weakness inherent in our own perceptions, especially when they involve "two sides" to a particular event. Whenever we try to recount the event from a different perspective, we "misrepresent" or "deny" details implicit in the other side.

This is exactly what happens in a jury trial. No one really knows what "happened" in an event without "actually being there" to perceive it. Language is the only way to get an understanding about what happened, and language is at best an imperfect tool to understand events. Lawyers attempt to prove their cases by presenting testimony from witnesses, who likely perceived the event in profoundly different ways. Whenever a witness describes his "version" of what happened, he "denies" or "misrepresents" the other side of the story. This is not the witness' fault. According to Nietzsche, this is precisely the danger in thinking that "seeing is believing." Every witness is "deluded" in the sense that he believes what he saw. But perhaps there were details that evaded his perception. Perhaps his own opinions, prejudices and preconceived notions colored his memory. Thus, he cannot possibly tell the "whole truth," because his own perception and memory are imperfect.

Nietzsche saw the "injustice" implicit in any philosophy that ties truth to the senses. After all, sense depends on an individual's ability to see, hear, smell, touch or taste something. No two individuals will sense something in precisely the same way, and no two individuals will use language in precisely the same way to convey their experiences. This segues into Nietzsche's core argument that "truth" is individual; it depends on perspective. Thus, it is presumptuous to believe that there is a "whole truth" accessible to everyone. Nonetheless, our senses seem to tell us the truth. Our senses tempt us into thinking we know the truth. That is why Nietzsche called it a "delusion" that "what we see" means the "whole truth." In other words, our senses give us our own truth. But that does not entitle us to say that our own perceptions equal "the whole truth" for everyone else.

How does the world function if there is no "whole truth?" How do we know whether we are doing right if we can never know what is true? The answer is simple: We create fictions. Fictions dominate life in society. In order to escape the relativism inherent in our own perceptions, we agree on matters for mutual convenience. Rather than descending into a circular debate about "what is true" from our own perspectives, we simply say: "The light was red and everyone agrees it was red." Society depends on these "stipulated truths" in order to function. Without them, no individual could ever "rightly" impose his views on another. This process is called "objectivism." By "objectifying" perception, we can say whether an event happened or not, even if individual perception is faulty. We measure the event by an external standard, not an individual one. This allows us to say whether something is right, wrong, good or bad according to the standard. Yet it is easy to mistake an objective standard for the "truth." Objectivism is simply a fiction to make life more manageable. It does not give us "truth." If anything, such standards reflect power, for someone had to set the standard under which everyone else operates.

At the end of the day, we are all individuals. We have only our own senses--and beliefs--to provide truth. But we defer to objective standards every day in order to function in society. Those objective standards, while alluring, do not provide truth. They are mere administrative conveniences intended to ease the "delusion" that derives from individual perception, memory and communication. The danger lies in putting our full trust in objective standards rather than ourselves. When we do that, we deny our own perspectives and submit to fictions imposed by the powerful; and there are few powers greater than the power to impose objective standards on something as fluid and subjective as human life.

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