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Words Fail: Some Notes on Nietzsches On Truth and Lying

Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:36 AM Comment [1]: It's always good to have an illustrative title rather than just "Response Paper." Grabs the reader.

Nietzsche starts his essay clearly, but surprisingly: he argues that deception, not clarification, is at the heart of language. He develops this idea in a few different ways. First, language (and thinking: Im not sure yet if he makes any distinction between them!) misses a lot: most of what happens in nature escapes our notice. In fact, he amusingly says that we dont even know ourselves, claiming that humans are not capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case, like in a museum, and that we dont even understand the the twists and turns of the bowels and the rapid flow of the bloodstream. Second, when we do perceive something and name it, we thereby impoverish it, making it seem simpler than it is. This is sort of like the idea that you cant stand in the same river twice: experience is always different for different people, and even for the same person at different moments, yet we always call it the East River, as if it were always the same thing (not that I stand in the East River, mind you). At this point, things get more abstract, as Nietzsche argues that language is all about metaphor. Basically, we have a sensory experience, that gets translated into an image that then gets turned into a word. So when we describe things in words, were always using copies of copies, which means, for N, that what we think of as truth is so far from the essence of things that its almost from cloud-cuckoo land. The real problem, it seems, is that we dont realize that our language is full of cuckoo-cuckoo: N emphasizes the way people sort of egg each other on, so that the more a word or concept gets used, the more truth it seems to have and the more we forget how metaphorical it is. I guess this is why he uses the word deception at the beginning instead of just inaccuracy or distortion. Things get really weird now. Having talked about how bad language is, and how much deception it creates and, it seems, how humans can never get to any kind of truth, he gives his first compliment: the human is an architectural genius who is far superior to the bee; the latter builds with wax which he gathers from nature, whereas the human being builds with the far more delicate material of concepts which he must first manufacture from himself. Or at least I thought it was a compliment, since I think bee-hives are pretty amazing. I guess the idea is that, unlike wax, the images and words we use to build our sense of the world (and sometimes real stuff, like factories and houses, and semi-real stuff like poems and equations), are totally imaginary and subjective. So we build houses of metaphors. Is this good? I cant quite tell, since he also says a few lines down that language is a prison which is obviously not good. So maybe he was being sarcastic about humans genius. Not sure I get this, but lets move on. The end of the essay applies these abstractions about language to what seems like two different paths we can take, assuming that N is right about language. The first is the way of the man of intuition, who is sort of like Peter, my Hungarian ex-roommate who drank Gallo, walked everywhere, claimed to spend less than $50 a month, lived off of plasma donations, and wrote poems. I guess he realizes that language is deception and enjoys making mud pies with it. It reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson I read on the F train today, the one that starts, Tell all the truth but tell it slant/Success in circuit lies. Very Man of Intuition, especially with the pun on lies. The Man of Reason, on the other hand, is more like me: I pay my taxes and rent, mostly govern [myself] by means of concepts, and protect myself from the onslaughts of things which might distract [me]. Like right now, with this response paper! Apparently it sux to be me, since Nietzsche makes me stoically endure a thunderstorm in the end, while the Man of Intuition is presumably dancing naked with his reprobate friends in Williamsburg. I have to say, I agree that language has its problems, and that words and things never match up. But cmon: it seems to me like almost everything good, from electrocity to indoor plumbing to pick-up basketball, come from the set of lies agreed upon that language and concepts are. So what if theres a lot of distortion there: isnt the proof in the pudding?

Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:37 AM Comment [2]: Note that there's frequent quotation and paraphrase of the text. The best responses are conversations with the author, not ramblings of one's own that detour too far and frequently from the action. Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:39 AM Comment [3]: Note how much energy goes into translating the basic argument. You don't have to summarize the whole enchilada, but it's always good to give a sense of the author's argument before sailing off into your own evaluation of it. Sort of like paying your dues before getting to argue with the author who, after all, made it into the Norton. Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:40 AM Comment [4]: Note that when you don't "get it," that's okay. But rather than ignore it, poke at it a bit. What don't you get and why? What might the author mean? Responses are all about specuation and experiment, so don't be shy! Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:41 AM Comment [5]: Relating theory to personal experience is great, but note how this does actually relate, rather than digress too far from the matter at hand. Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:42 AM Comment [6]: Informal language is fine, but don't push it too far and let imprecise or sloppy language detract from your point. I guess the aesthetic here is "serious play." Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:42 AM Comment [7]: Spell-check was invented for a reason: use it! Jeff Alred 9/10/07 10:45 AM Comment [8]: Note the ratio of direct engagement with Nietzsche's ideas to my own counter-argument or dissent. I only get "dessert" in the form of my own brief against N after the "spinach" course of wading through his discourse. But I do like to see some kind of evaluative move in the response: do you buy it? Why or why not? As we move through the course, you might want to do something I don't here: compare the writer in question to (an)other writer(s).