[Topics: Culture, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Truth]
Truth and Lies in a Genealogical Sense:

Tracing Friedrich Nietzsche’s Discussion of Truth through his Life (by Considering Two of his Texts)


Friedrich Nietzsche Sketch by M.R.P. - On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense - On the Genealogy of Morality

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.


Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing is constantly concerned with tracing the development of ontological and epistemological phenomena as the result of interactions among humans. His conclusions often paint the developments he observes as being rendered inevitable by the nature of human will, knowledge, and consciousness. Because of this fascination with the developmental history of concepts, Nietzsche is always in the mode of thinking which may be termed genealogical.

Indeed, well before his explicit discourse tracing the source of intellectual constructs and moral underpinnings in On the Genealogy of Morality, the early Nietzsche is thinking along the same lines, if not in precisely the same terms, in, for instance, his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Despite the aforementioned observable inevitability in Nietzsche’s account for the rise and implementation of the concept of truth, Nietzsche is never forgiving or conciliatory toward humanity for its unwillingness to discard their basic assumptions, nor even to acknowledge them as such. This is in spite of Nietzsche’s apparent awareness, as evidenced in Ecce Homo, that he is a singular thinker whose example and legacy will be no small task to parse. Yet the treatment of truth in these texts is not identical.

Whereas in the earlier essay Nietzsche is more interested in the exact method by which truth is constructed, the later work underscores instead the dangers of appealing to truth as the justification for one’s pursuits; meanwhile, both works are concerned with envisioning the sort of person who faces reality without traditional truth as its basis, in the former termed the “intuitive man” and in the latter the “thinkers” (contrasted with adherents to an ascetic ideal).

Truth in Nietzsche’s Earlier Essay:

In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche seems to point to truth as the primal fallacy, a sort of forgotten social contract from which stems all modernity and society. Acting as a precursor to semiotics, Nietzsche draws a distinction between what is signifying, i.e. language, and what is signified, i.e. essence, with the very possibility of comprehending essence being a notion toward which Nietzsche remains skeptical.

Initially, however, Nietzsche makes the kind of sweeping parable-like account for truth’s origin which would be characteristic of his later work: “But at the same time, from boredom and necessity, man wishes to exist socially and with the herd; therefore, he needs to make peace [. . .] This peace treaty brings in its wake [. . .] that which shall count as ‘truth’ from now on” (81).

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright - Friedrich Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense - On the Genealogy of Morality

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright

Essentially, posits Nietzsche, the desire to exist socially demanded a means of overcoming Hobbesian human nature (later figured into his idea of the will-to-power[1]), which was done by establishing a common language and designating those who demonstrate self-interest in its use as ‘liars.’

Meanwhile, says Nietzsche, all use of language is a lie. The moral command of society is ultimately “to lie with the herd” (84). Characteristically, Nietzsche is depicting these events as necessitated by the nature of his conclusions. Again, though, the bulk of the essay is spent instead on justifying the claim that “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (84).

For this, he draws on the aforementioned semiotic distinction, and makes the case that any given word is the arbitrary auditory metaphor of a visual metaphor of a nerve impulse (and at one level further abstracted, words can be used to make concepts). In On the Genealogy of Morality, all such detailed argumentation is gone, either because the validity of Nietzsche’s claims seems then trivial to his advanced philosophy or because of an awareness of the linguistic trap into which a use of language to carefully destroy the use of language immediately falls.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s essay moves on to a consideration of two types of humans, one operating without truth and one firmly tethered to traditional knowledge. The former, termed “the intuitive man,” is allied with sensuous experience and Nietzsche’s beloved ideal of tragedy, while the latter, termed “the rational man,” responds to stimuli by rote and comes across as more-or-less dead inside. This passage’s implicit devaluation of reason looks forward to the dismantling of both truth and morality in Nietzsche’s later work.

Truth in Nietzsche’s Later Book:

In On the Genealogy of Morality‘s third essay, the focus shifts from morality, bad conscience, and the consequences of guilt to the kernel of perceived truth at the heart of the ascetic ideal. This approach is confused by Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of the word ‘truth’ in two separate ways in this book; usually, it is used to refer to the misapprehension of absolute truth as depicted in “On Truth and Lies,” but occasionally it is used to refer to the correctness of an individual who has recognized this same misapprehension, as evidenced in the following: “On that which is experienced most certainly to be true and real: it will look for error precisely where the actual instinct of life most unconditionally judges there to be truth” (86).

On the Genealogy of Morality title page - Friedrich Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral SenseThat more common former use of “true” is the same old construction familiar by now in Nietzsche, yet the latter “truth” found by “the actual instinct of life” seems to be operating outside the bounds of that construction. At least, it may be said, Nietzsche here writes with a potency of irony not fully realized by the earlier text, actively demonstrating and remonstrating an appeal to truth.

Still, Nietzsche settles into a recognizable pattern: “let us be wary of the tentacles of such contradictory concepts as ‘pure reason,’ ‘absolute spirituality,’ ‘knowledge as such'” (87). Never is this idea far from Nietzsche’s mind, though it now reflects not directly on truth, which is a subjugated element of this comment, but on morality.

Nietzsche is attempting to bring to bear what now strikes him as obvious and unexceptional about truth on what interests him more, the internalization of the will-to-power proposed as “bad conscience” in the second essay. This is how he formats his attack on asceticism: those who agree to pursue the ascetic ideal necessarily embody the “ressentiment” associated with slave morality[2] because they are involved in a denial of life (through the destruction of their bodies).

Most who do manage to see through the veil of Christian spirituality, however, are afforded no kind words either: “These ‘no’-sayers and outsiders of today, those who are absolute in one thing, their demand for intellectual rigour [Sauberkeit] [. . .] these pale atheists, Antichrists, immoralists, nihilists, these sceptics [. . .] I will tell them what they themselves cannot see [. . .] this ideal is quite simply their ideal as well” (111).

Nietzsche is revisiting a thread introduced in the first essay of the book, that of the ‘free-thinkers’ for whom he has distaste. In this view, the rebellion of such people relies on a definition of truth which is shared with those against whom they ostensibly rebel. In short, for there to be so-called atheists, they must buy into the notion that there is a proposed ‘truth’ (e.g. theism) to oppose, and, further, in their opposition they nevertheless pursue the same ideals. They cooperate with the same herd-lying peace treaty detailed in “On Truth and Lies.”

So, if not in those who overcome Christianity, where then is the “intuitive man” in this work? As mentioned earlier, this work instead refers to the “thinkers,” and rather than associating them with the German art culture Nietzsche had by now denounced, they are to seek out a multiplicity of wills: “the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity'” (87).

Mikhail Bakhtin - Friedrich Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense - On the Genealogy of MoralityOne is reminded here of Mikhail Bakhtin’s formulation of heteroglossia in the discourses of a text; here too one sees value in experiential breadth. While this figure, like the “intuitive man,” is able to see the faulty foundations of all truth, they would not perhaps be susceptible to the same seeming stupor, as their lot is not that of some kind of instinctless animal, but a human restored to its proper animal instinct, expressive of the will-to-power.


Ultimately, Friedrich Nietzsche concludes that humanity, which he holds as ever is attached to a thoroughly flawed idea called truth, is actively repressing its will-to-power. This formula is absent from “On Truth and Lies” because it is a formula of the later Nietzsche.

Another difference between these texts is the method of argumentation, with the earlier text still holding to some strictures of academia in building its case and the later text immersed in Nietzsche’s ‘aphoristic style.’ This difference accounts for the minutiae of the case against language to be found in the earlier essay as well as the sweeping authoritative claims to be found in the later book.

In both cases, however, any and all individuals operating within society, whether culturally or counter-culturally, affirm the correctness of the fallaciously founded culture with which they interact, as either expression agrees with the cultural prospect of what is true, if in no other way, at least in its use of the established language and terminology.

Whether one ultimately agrees with Nietzsche’s sometimes-troubling, sometimes-life-affirming notion that there is a drive called the will-to-power, still this critical perspective toward language, morality, and culture can be of enormous value in the face of the widespread conservatism about culture (and knowledge) to be found among modern nations, and especially here in America.[3]


[1] The will-to-power is what Nietzsche calls his proposed essential, ambitious, and creative human instinct; Nietzsche contends that this drive will not be fully manifest in all individuals—only in the instinctive thinkers and the ubermensch (i.e. this-wordly people). For a more complete introduction to the will-to-power, refer to this Wikipedia page on the topic.

[2] Ressentiment” is a psychological term that is used by numerous philosophers; for some light context on Nietzsche’s use of it, refer to the ‘Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’ section of the term’s Wikipedia page. Slave morality, on the other hand, is a term originating in Nietzsche’s work. It is a subset of a difficult key topic in his philosophy, master-slave morality. Those that want a slightly longer introduction to master-slave morality than I provide above can refer to this academic resource.

[3] I would like to extend a special thank you to Professor Burkhardt Wolf, without whose brilliant instruction this article would not have been possible. This is not intended in any way to indicate the Professor’s endorsement of any of my ideas.

Works Cited:

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the Genealogy of Morality. Ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson. Trans. Carol Diethe. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Trans. Daniel Breazeale. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1979. 79-91. Print.

[Topics: Culture, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Truth]
Truth and Lies in a Genealogical Sense:

Tracing Friedrich Nietzsche’s Discussion of Truth through his Life (by Considering Two of his Texts)

was last modified: October 10th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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