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Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished…”

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her incisive meditation on the vital difference between thinking and knowing. “Knowledge consists in the search for truth,” Karl Popper cautioned in considering truth and the dangers of relativism. “It is not the search for certainty.”

But in an uncertain world, what is the measure of truth and where does the complex, conflicted human impulse for knowledge originate in the first place?

That is what Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) examined a century before Arendt and Popper in his 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” later translated by W.A. Haussmann and included in the indispensable Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (public library).

Friedrich Nietzsche

Half a century before Bertrand Russell admonished that, in a universe unconcerned with human interests, the equally naïve notions of optimism and pessimism “spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy,” Nietzsche paints the backdrop for the drama of truth:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with a gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.

1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, envisioning the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator. From Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.

The desire for knowledge, Nietzsche argues, stems from the same hubristic self-focus and is amplified by the basic human instinct for belonging — within a culture, what is designated as truth is a form of social contract and a sort of “peace pact” among people. A century before Laura Riding observed that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” Nietzsche writes:

A uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth. For the contrast between truth and lie arises here for the first time. The liar is a person who uses the valid designations, the words, in order to make something which is unreal appear to be real. He says, for example, “I am rich,” when the proper designation for his condition would be “poor.” He misuses fixed conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names. If he does this in a selfish and moreover harmful manner, society will cease to trust him and will thereby exclude him. 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. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences.

Suggesting that language itself can become a tool that conceals rather than reveals truth — something Anna Deavere Smith would echo a century later in her observation that “some people use language as a mask [and] create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not” — Nietzsche probes at these linguistic conventions themselves:

Are they perhaps products of knowledge, that is, of the sense of truth? Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?


What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason… We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing!

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

Half a century before the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore asserted that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” Nietzsche adds:

The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors… It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities… A word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted — but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model… We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

With this, Nietzsche returns to his central premise and distills the notion of truth as a social contract in language:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

And yet what Nietzsche tenders is not relativism but a framework for differentiating between truth and lie, rooted in the understanding that language — a human invention and social adaptation — is too porous a vessel for holding pure reality beyond the anthropocentric:

To be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone… From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing as “red,” another as “cold,” and a third as “mute,” there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth. The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes.

As a “rational” being, he now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them. Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

He illustrates this transfiguration of physical fact into abstract concept in the recognition, construction, and articulation of “truth”:

If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.

At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. He strives to understand the world as something analogous to man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation. Similar to the way in which astrologers considered the stars to be in man’s service and connected with his happiness and sorrow, such an investigator considers the entire universe in connection with man: the entire universe as the infinitely fractured echo of one original sound-man; the entire universe as the infinitely multiplied copy of one original picture-man. His method is to treat man as the measure of all things, but in doing so he again proceeds from the error of believing that he has these things [which he intends to measure] immediately before him as mere objects. He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.

Our purest contact with reality, Nietzsche suggests, lies in breaking free from the trap of language and standing in absolute attentive presence with the actuality of what is before us — beyond classification, beyond description, beyond constriction into concept:

Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liquid, only in the invincible faith in this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creative subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.

Long before Rachel Carson invited the human imagination to experience reality from the perspective of marine creatures and before cognitive scientists explored what the world looks like through others’ eyes, Nietzsche adds:

It is even a difficult thing for [man] to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available. But in any case it seems to me that “the correct perception” — which would mean “the adequate expression of an object in the subject” — is a contradictory impossibility.


So far as we can penetrate here — from the telescopic heights to the microscopic depths — everything is secure, complete, infinite, regular, and without any gaps. Science will be able to dig successfully in this shaft forever, and the things that are discovered will harmonize with and not contradict each other. How little does this resemble a product of the imagination, for if it were such, there should be some place where the illusion and reality can be divined. Against this, the following must be said: if each us had a different kind of sense perception — if we could only perceive things now as a bird, now as a worm, now as a plant, or if one of us saw a stimulus as red, another as blue, while a third even heard the same stimulus as a sound — then no one would speak of such a regularity of nature, rather, nature would be grasped only as a creation which is subjective in the highest degree.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Nietzsche shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of whether mathematics — that supreme catchpool and calculator of the laws of nature — is discovered, a fundamental fact of the universe, or invented, a human language:

After all, what is a law of nature as such for us? We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature — which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations. Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence. All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them — time and space, and therefore relationships of succession and number. But everything marvelous about the laws of nature, everything that quite astonishes us therein and seems to demand explanation, everything that might lead us to distrust idealism: all this is completely and solely contained within the mathematical strictness and inviolability of our representations of time and space. But we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins. If we are forced to comprehend all things only under these forms, then it ceases to be amazing that in all things we actually comprehend nothing but these forms. For they must all bear within themselves the laws of number, and it is precisely number which is most astonishing in things. All that conformity to law, which impresses us so much in the movement of the stars and in chemical processes, coincides at bottom with those properties which we bring to things. Thus it is we who impress ourselves in this way.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Nietzsche examines the relationship between language and science, and their analogous functions in the human quest to fathom reality:

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science.

Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world.

He locates the common impulse undergirding both language and science:

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself.

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Complement “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, Toni Morrison on the power of language, and Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against the manipulation of realty, then revisit Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.

Published March 26, 2018




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