Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Linguistic Constructions of Non-Human Entities and Illusions of Power in Plato's "Republic" and Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense"

Jessica Mason McFadden
English 368
Dr. C. Iwanicki - WIU
April 25 2006

Linguistic Constructions of Non-Human Entities and Illusions of Power

Knowledge of our existence, as humans, is virtually unattainable, and even those of us who consciously desire to overcome our inherent ignorance often do not come close to eradicating that ignorance. The questions that Nietzsche raises about language in relation to concepts of truth and lying in his essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” are also questions of human nature and human existence. Therefore, as I will address the questions and issues of language textually and conceptually, I will also address issues of the human experience. One of the ways that we seek the unknown is through language, and the act of seeking (as if there is something to be attained) is evidence of our human condition as ignorant and powerless animals. Even if we are conscious of our ignorance. Our need to create and invest energy in the concept of truth is evidence of our ignorance and limitation. Truth is a concept, yet its role as a concept is often ignored or overlooked. Language functions in various ways, but perhaps most importantly it allows us to share our experiences with others. Language acts as a conduit through which humans share their experiences. A person, alone, does not need language to think, but language is necessary in order for one person to transfer her life experiences to another. That is not to say that humans cannot share intimacy and other connections with each other without language, but that the primary function of language is one in which we recreate our experience for the purpose of communicating that experience with another human being. Language allows us to share experiences by evoking images, but it does not recreate the original experience itself.

Perception also is a factor that affects the act of sharing through language. Two individuals may see the same sunset, but they may perceive the sunset uniquely. Sharing our experiences through language separates us from other animals, but our knowledge of ourselves is still limited. Our ability to recognize this ignorance, to some degree, seems, to me, to be the reason for the popularity of concepts of “God” and “truth.” While we are ignorant of elements of our selves and our existence, we seek to understand certain elements. Our inherent desire to understand and escape our ignorance is evidence that we are threatened and troubled by our limitations as humans who are ultimately powerless. It is not surprising, then, that we create concepts of god and truth in order to feel that we are in control, but it is an illusion. I realize that I have introduced many complicated ideas and made some general assertions about humans, but I will support and expand upon these ideas and assertions by examining Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.” I hope to support these ideas by examining Nietzsche’s arguments against Western philosophy and its foundation in the idea that an actual truth exists outside of the human experience by considering Nietzsche’s attitudes towards the deceptiveness and limited nature of language, the ways in which meaning is attributed to language and concepts are developed, and how categorization functions in societies.

The ideas that I have introduced are reflections of the Western philosophical tradition and its pervasive influence on contemporary Western societies. Plato’s concept of a moral truth manifest in the notion of “God” has been particularly influential in the development of Christian and other religious doctrines. In “Book II” of Republic, Plato approaches the issue of censorship with the assumption that words such as “goodness” and “truth” are extensions of an actual reality that is distinct from language, a reality that exists in connection to the concept of a god. Plato describes goodness as “responsible for things that are in a good state,” but upon addressing the idea of goodness he does not actually define it or attribute any element of perception to it (52). He assumes that there is only one universal meaning behind the concept of goodness, and that it is related to “God” when in his dialogue he suggests that “He and he alone must be held responsible for the good things, but responsibility for bad things must be looked for elsewhere and not attributed to God” (52). Without defining or providing an example of goodness, he refers to “God” as an actual entity. By failing to acknowledge that “God” is also a concept created by humans, he dismisses the role of human perception.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, acknowledges the role of perception in the concept of truth as it relates to the need in some to believe that there exists a higher, non-human power. “God” is a name given to that higher power, but the use of the word “power” suggests that the belief in entities that exist independently of the human experience is merely an attempt to gain control in the midst of a world without answers. In comparison to Plato, Nietzsche is more reflective in his approach and cognizant of the power and powerlessness of language as it reflects those states in the human experience. Nietzsche directly challenges the Western philosophical tradition when he credits the philosopher with wanting to “see, on all sides, the eyes of the universe trained, as through telescopes, on his thoughts and deeds” (875). It is, however, his recognition of perception through the concept of the human intellect, wherein lie his strongest arguments against this tradition. Nietzsche acknowledges that there is a human intellect, only for the purposes of taking away the power that has been attributed to it by the Western philosophical tradition. To suggest that there is such a thing as a human intellect, and then to subsequently describe it as “pitiful” and propose that “there were eternities during which it did not exist,” is a bold move on the part of Nietzsche because it directly challenges illusions of power, but it is also necessary because it sets up a rationale for understanding language as an extension of the human intellect (874). By identifying a human intellect through which language is created, used, and reflected upon, Nietzsche also redefines concepts of power in relation to language—language is powerful, but only if we allow it to be powerful. Concepts are powerless if they are not infused with meaning by the human intellect, but even the human intellect is “insubstantial and transitory,” which would imply that the concepts, like all things created by the intellect, should not be accepted as entities that are distinct from the human intellect (874).

We face contradictions when considering the concepts of truth and lies as having meaning outside of the human intellect because each individual’s perception of the concepts is unique. Contradiction in meaning is inevitable, and when individuals attempt to apply a singular concept of truth to their lives, they risk falling short or straying from the original concept. In order to expose the inaccessibility of truth and criticize the illusion that is the concept of truth developed by early Western philosophers, Nietzsche examines the contradictory way in which we handle deception. He identifies words as being the tools through which deception is achieved, noting that certain deceptions are considered acceptable, while others are considered harmful. Nietzsche moves from deception to truth, claiming that it is not deception through language that humans hate, but rather the consequences of particular deceptions, and then that truth “is only desired by human beings in a similarly limited sense…they are actually hostile towards truths which may be harmful or destructive” (876). His statements on deception and truth suggest that humans do not necessarily care about deception and truth as concepts. They only care about deception and truth in relation to how it makes them feel—both deception and truth have the potential to be either pleasurable and tolerable or hurtful and threatening. This suggests that humans do not care so much about truth (as reality) as they do about wish-fulfillment and pleasure. If pleasure and power are the primary motivations behind the construction of the concept of truth, then it does not make sense to trust concepts of a higher power as a source of truth because that higher power has been created out of human wishes rather than through rational analysis and empirical evidence. Nietzsche’s insight also exposes the unreliability of the concept of truth, as a product of the human intellect that is limited in its nature as well as vulnerable to manipulation and variability. In this way, Nietzsche criticizes the Western philosophical tradition because it embraces the idea that there is such a thing as truth and that truth is directly related to a higher power, when it is obvious that truth matters only when it supports an individual’s or an institution’s agenda.

Nietzsche also considers the role of language, commenting on the process of word formation and how that process relates to the concept of truth. He exposes another flaw in the weight that truth is given as a word under the Western philosophical tradition—that it is irrational to conclude that there exists a cause outside of us from the “fact of the nervous stimulation” as it creates sounds (876). Language is important, but as creations of the human intellect, words themselves and the meanings attributed to words are limited in their ability to capture the essence of any human experience. As Nietzsche points out, just because a word is formed and meaning is attributed to it does not give it power outside of the human intellect. The subjective use of language is evident in his example of the way in which “we divide things up by gender, describing a tree as masculine and a plant as feminine” (876). Consider language and grammar across cultures: By making connections between language and gender and distinctions that are gender-specific, as if an innate connection actually exists outside of the human intellect, we are moving even further away in our behavior from the idea that truth is tangible and separate from the human intellect. Nietzsche’s example emphasizes the arbitrary nature of language, which is not only a challenge to the idea that there exist truths in language, but also a challenge to the concept of truth itself (truth is a word and nothing else unless it is given meaning by the human intellect). As a creation of the human intellect, language is not all-powerful; there are limits to its power. Language has allowed humans to create the illusion of power. Humans often gravitate towards the idea that there exists a source of higher power, and this is the result of their desire for there to exist one truth that they might turn toward in the hope for power in a world where they are powerless to know themselves fully.

The organization of the Catholic Church, in particular, has been greatly influenced by the Western philosophical tradition and its desire to gain power through the creation of the concepts of god and truth. There is an anthropomorphic quality to the construction of “God” in both the Western philosophical tradition and the Catholic Church’s tradition, yet the Catholic Church does not see that this practice of creating a “God” in the human image is indicative of our very limitation in being able to see beyond the self. This practice has resulted in the popularity of images of “God” as a man and “Jesus” as a white man with blue eyes and a beard (an image that appears on holy cards at Catholic funerals). In my experience with the Catholic religion, I have noticed that there is a disturbing power dynamic within the institution which serves to prevent members of the church from thinking and questioning. The hierarchical structure misleads its members by allowing them to feel as though they possess power by engaging in the act of giving themselves up to the higher power—the higher power supposedly being “God,” but more accurately being the men who wear the expensive dresses and bear the cannibalistic gifts of the body and blood of Christ. The practice of confession also reveals the hypocrisy that is inherent in the Catholic Church’s manipulation of power—if “God” is truth and all powerful, how then could humans justify placing their trust in a man who is supposed to speak on behalf of “God.” Why not confess directly to “God” rather than through the medium of a man who has been elected to a position of power by other men?

This behavior is an example of a process that Nietzsche describes in which images are “dissolved” into concepts (878). Nietzsche suggests that truth, as a concept that is created by ignoring what is individual about an object, is also something distinct from other concepts because truths are illusions yet we are not conscious of the illusions or where they come from (878). I do propose, however, that the illusion is specifically an illusion of power, and that it arises out of our state of perpetual powerlessness as human beings. When Nietzsche refers to humans as “creatures of reason,” he is referring specifically to our tendency to relate our actions to abstractions and avoid being vulnerable to “sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions” (878). This definition of reason seems strange to me, because I associate reason with concepts of logic and scientific methodology. While I agree that it is reasonable to think about our actions in terms of abstract concepts, I also think that there exists a lack of reason in many humans that is caused by our ability to become too distracted from “sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions.” So, are we really creatures of reason? Yes, if by reason Nietzsche intended to suggest that we have the potential for reasoning as humans and not necessarily the ability to be reasonable.

If truth is an illusion created as part of a “conceptual game of dice” yet it “means using each die in accordance with its designation, counting its spots precisely, forming correct classifications,” then it seems necessary to consider the role of categorization in the human practice of grouping similar objects together and labeling those objects as “concepts” ( 879). Placing images into categories is, on a basic level, a survival mechanism for humans because our ability to process information is limited. It would be dangerous to treat every thing as an individual item that is new and different because then we might be vulnerable to the consequences of the unfamiliar. Humans feel a sense of security in being able to identify similar qualities among objects and place a number of objects in one category (the category is subsequently labeled as a concept). Fear of vulnerability is the reason for categorization—by placing objects and experiences in categories and labeling those categories with concepts, humans are able to achieve a sense of power even if it is an illusion of power. Stereotyping is an extension of this process of categorization. Stereotypes are not so harmful if we are conscious of the way in which we use them, but often we accept the concept of stereotypes as a reality rather than a concept that arises from various causes. Stereotypes may be created in response to direct experiences, but often they are unconsciously adopted through implicit social messages. Some stereotypes may actually be helpful in terms of protection, but there is the potential for generalization and unwarranted discrimination to occur (for instance, believing that all dogs will bite you because one individual breed of dog bit you as a child). Like the concept of “truth,” stereotypes are often accepted as having meaning outside of the human intellect through which they were created. The power of perception is limited to the human experience; humans can only achieve so much power through their perception. The power of perception is also limited by virtue of the way in which it is given meaning through language—language and the human intellect both being deficient in the sense that they do not have the power to overcome their humanness.

Upon reading Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” I have suffered a sort of temporary partial paralysis in my desire and ability to speak and write. Reading the essay has, to some degree, induced in me a debilitating awareness of my own shortcoming (i.e., humanness). It is likely that a feeling of impending doom will overtake my better judgment the next time I sit down, face to face, with a blank greeting card for a friend. I have always preferred blank cards to those produced by Hallmark, but in this temporary paralysis it seems to me that anything I might write would carry a similar generic meaninglessness. I am amazed and struck speechless by the way in which the act of reading about language as part of a larger context of human nature disables in me the ability to communicate, period. I find myself struggling with the issue of whether or not it is worth it to continue down the path of self-reflection because, let’s face it, even our best attempts to use language in a meaningful manner are inadequate. It isn’t that words and systems of language do not have the potential to be adequate in and of themselves, but because they are human creations and part of the human experience, their usefulness is certainly diminished. Despite feeling as though I have been partially paralyzed, I choose to write because I have an innate desire to share my experience and thereby reduce my ultimate aloneness (and possibly also because I have been programmed to do so). We live in a world of chaos, and part of that is the chaos of communication, particularly communication involving the exchange of words. In the midst of the chaos and confusion of human behavior—its nature being observable, but ultimately unknowable—language has become a visible and audible extension of our animalistic nature.

Works Cited

Plato. “Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 52.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 874-884.

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