June 30, 2001

Nietzsche’s Perspectivism

In order to understand Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism, we first need to understand his metaphysics, as his perspectivism is the logical outcome of his metaphysics. Like Heraclitus, Nietzsche holds that everything in the universe is in flux and, therefore, that the universe is completely disorderly, or chaotic. In such a universe, even such beliefs as the beliefs in “enduring things,” “equal things,” and “things, substances, bodies” can be said to be mere illusions, or “articles of faith” (GS 110).

Since the universe is completely chaotic, it follows that, unlike realists claim, we cannot make a map of reality, or know the “truth.” For, in order to make a map of reality, one must make a “statement” that “designate[s]” reality (World Philosophers and their Works 2,056). But it is impossible to make a statement that designates that which is completely chaotic. For a statement is a rational account and a rational account cannot be given of something that is chaotic and, therefore, completely irrational. To put it another way, it is impossible to make sense out of that which is nonsensical, or to communicate that which is incommunicable. And since the universe is chaotic, it follows that we cannot make a map of it, or know the “truth.”

Since the universe is completely chaotic and since the “truth” cannot be known, it follows that each of us can only have interpretations, or perspectives of life. As Nietzsche puts it, “[T]he world has become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.” And, of course, it would be absurd for any person to claim that he had the “true” perspective of life. As Nietzsche writes, “I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner” (GS 374).

The fact that “truth” is an illusion means that the countless philosophers who have claimed to have discovered the “truth,” or parts of the “truth,” have been deceivers. Instead of genuinely attempting to discover the “truth,” Nietzsche believes these philosophers have been guided by their own, preconceived values and have merely used reason to support these presuppositions (BGE 5). As he writes, “Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (BGE 6). If these thinkers would have been a little “strong and livelier,” he believes they would have realized that “truth” is an illusion and that we can merely “speak of ‘perspectives’” (BGE 10).

Instead of being deceivers and dogmatists, as philosophers have long been, Nietzsche encourages his readers to be “free spirits.” Free spirits, he writes, do not believe that “their truth is supposed to be a truth for every man.” Yes, they believe it is okay to evaluate and compare their differing perspectives, but they make never to forget that they only have perspectives. And acknowledging that we can only have perspectives of life, free spirits look at themselves as artists and create their own beliefs and values. “My judgment is my judgment,” the free spirit believes; “no one else is easily entitled to it” (BGE 43).

Now that we have a basic understand of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, we are in a position to look at perhaps the most commonly raised objection to it, which states that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is self-refuting. For, according to this objection, if there is no “truth,” then even Nietzsche’s perspectivism cannot be true. In other words, if we cannot know that anything is true, then we cannot even know that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is true. And since we cannot know that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is true, then we have no better reason to embrace this view than any other view.

Although I myself do not buy into Nietzsche’s perspectivism (for the simple reason that I do not buy into his metaphysics), I think Nietzsche could easily defend himself against this objection. For it seems to me that Nietzsche does not believe that nothing can be known. Rather, he seems to think that at least one thing can be known—and that is that all things in the universe are in flux. And since Nietzsche can say that he knows this one thing, he can also say that he knows a few other things—namely, that “truth” is an illusion and that we can only have perspectives on life.

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