Truth, Correspondence, and Nietzsche

The following post is from a paper written for my 2017 course in 19th Century Philosophy. Enjoy!


Correspondence theory is one of the oldest theories of truth in the canons of Philosophy. Despite its success, it has faced a number of challengers and critiques in the centuries for which it has been around. Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps one of the best known critics of this theory, as well as of the general concept of truth. In this essay, I will argue that Nietzsche’s view of truth is inconsistent with and critical of correspondence theory. First, I begin by introducing the latter, then move to discussing Nietzsche’s alternative conception of truth, ending with explanation of the criticisms the Nietzschean account has to offer for correspondence.

Expressed in simple terms, the correspondence theory of truth posits that a statement is true if it is supported by fact. To say, for example, that the Sun is at the center of our Solar System is to say something true if it is really the case that the Sun occupies such a position. The historically opposing view, Geocentrism, is false because, as we eventually came to learn, the Earth is not the center of our Solar System.

Different theories of truth have different ideas about what sorts of things can be true as well as what makes those things true. The former are commonly called truthbearers, while the latter are known as truthmakers. We have just seen that a truthmaker for correspondence theory concerns whether or not something is supported by fact. Correspondence theory has also traditionally singled out propositions as truthbearers, where a proposition is a kind of declarative sentence made up of objects and properties. There are other varieties of correspondence theory that focus on beliefs, statements, ideas, and so forth, yet these need not be (and often are not) mututally exclusive approaches.

Most versions of correspondence theory imply some form of metaphysical realism. By this, I mean the view that there is a determinate nature to reality. Whether a correspondence theory talks about objects, facts, or states of affairs, the suggestion is that there is something independent of our minds that our beliefs can mirror or fail to mirror. Indeed, simplistic and early versions of correspondence theory have referred to the correspondence relation as a mirroring of ‘reality’ or of ‘the world.’ Semantic variations avoid some of these more loaded terms, but as a result they struggle to speak with clarity about truthmakers and the nature of the correspondence relation.

In Nietzsche’s view, truth is a human construct that pretends towards objectivity. What we call truth is a feeling, a sense of commitment to the manner in which our reason has organized and ordered our perception. We interpret our experiences through the categories and concepts available to us, which we then project back onto the phenomenal world. Over time, these ideas become embedded in our language, thereby deceiving us into mistaking them for the things-in-themselves.

Concepts are formed by abstracting from the individual and the real, according to Nietzsche, and overlooking the distinctions between them in order to arrive at something that is not locatable within the world of experience. Truth, rather than being an attribute of the things-in-themselves, expresses nothing other than the relations of the things to human beings. Since not all humans relate to things in the same ways, knowledge is also perspectival on Nietzsche’s account.

Nietzsche’s explanation of concept formation can be appreciated as a critique of the sort of cognitivist metaphysical realism found in Plato and Descartes. Rather than getting at the essences of things, our concepts construct elaborate fictions. These fictions may serve a variety of functions within our lives and societies, but because they compound nonequivalences and involve anthropomorphisms they cannot be taken as reliable copies of any primal forms. “What is a word?” Nietzsche asks in an essay on truth and lies, “The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds.” Here there is no mirroring of reality, just the labeling and comparing of different sets of sense data. The cognitivist version of metaphysical realism requires seeing the subject as possessing a special faculty capable of accessing the forms, but this view from nowhere is undermined by inquiring into its origins.

A noncognitivist metaphysical realism, associated with Kant, retains much from cognitivism, yet argues that the things-in-themselves are inaccessible to us. This shift in thinking motivated an historical split between truth and justification. The correspondence theory can be located here as an attempt at justifying our beliefs that singles out truth as a separate realm to which we have no access. The aim is to hold beliefs that mirror or correspond to reality, even while they do not actually put us in touch with reality as it is in itself.

However, we find that Nietzsche is just as critical of this kind of realism as he is of the cognitivist variety. Correspondence theory still clings to the idea of a view from nowhere, despite it being beyond our reach. Using the example of classifying an organism as a mammal, Nietzsche points out that the function this serves is a human one through and through, with no connection to anything true in itself, as distinct from humanity. To search for such pure truths, he says, is “only seeking the metamorphosis of the world in human beings.”

The perspectivism in Nietzsche’s account of truth suggests that justification is what determines truth for us. Knowledge is inextricably bound up with our interests, and the good news is that this means we are not cognitively cut off from reality. It is rather the problematic ideas about essences and a view from nowhere that ‘separate’ us from the world. In fact, one consequent of metaphysical realism is the possibility that we are in serious error with respect to our beliefs. What guarantee do we have that our beliefs adequately correspond to the world in itself, particularly if the intellect developed with survival and preservation in mind, rather than truth, as Nietzsche notes?

Anti-realist versions of correspondence theory seem to address this question by reimagining correspondence as a relation to particulars. Nominalists may deny that there are universals or abstract objects, and suppose instead that what our language mirrors is really not the forms or a world in itself, but the world of our experience. It is difficult to make sense of such a view when propositions and even senses are widely taken to be abstract objects. Nietzsche’s account of truth also appears to put forward a critique which cuts more deeply than this.

Truth, he says, is an army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms. As metaphor draws a direct association between two different things, metonymy substitutes one thing for another that may be very different in kind. Anthropomorphism denotes a tendency to see ourselves in other things, in everything. Nietzsche goes on to claim that truths are “illusions,” the sum of human relations “subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration.” All language is poetry for Nietzsche, which casts doubt on its ability to refer to anything outside of us, and because truth is perspectival, we cannot assume there to be any sort of standard even to the concrete world around us.

Nietzsche’s theory of truth is often misunderstood to be a species of relativism, where any claim is just as true as another. However, his depiction of perspectives as interested in life, as well as his notion of the will to power, indicate that there are gradations of truth to be found in Nietzsche. His strongest criticisms of correspondence theory consistently uphold this, too, as he presents the realist conception of truth as dehumanizing, contradictory, and fictitious. It could be said that Nietzsche regards the metaphysics of truth nearly with indifference, devoting so much of his attention to the epistemic issues surrounding a subject as big as truth. One of the real strengths of Nietzsche’s critique is that even while there is the chance that modifications to correspondence theory might save it from consignment to the Humean flames, Nietzsche enables us to ask about that desire to hold on under pressure, and prompts us to critically examine what vested interests we have in pushing our knowledge above and beyond its limitations.

Bibliography

Clark, Maudemarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge, 1990, pp. 85-90.

David, Marian. The Correspondence Theory of Truth. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 28 May 2015. Accessed 10 December 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The Nineteenth Century Philosophy Reader, edited by Benjamin D. Crowe. Routledge, 2015.

Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. Nominalism in Metaphysics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1 April 2015. Accessed 11 December 2017.

 

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