Referring to "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense"1, it seems quite clear that, unlike within the classical definition (for example by Aristotle), "truth" in a Nietzschean sense is not directly related towards the concept of "reality" whatsoever.
The most obvious interpretation of the text is that of a radical rejection of the concept of "truth" by Nietzsche. But it seems also to be a quite accurate interpretation of the Nietzschean text to me, to understand the authors view not as denying either the concept of "truth" or the concept of "reality" in a fundamental sense. It rather separates both concepts from each other which were in western tradition for more than two thousand years thought to strongly be related. In other words: The denial of the traditional concept of a direct and strong link between sentences, which are rated as "true" (or more general: are capable of a truth value) and an assumed "real world" does not imperatively imply the denial of the possibility of a distinct classification of sentences as "true" or "false". It does not even deny a certain relation between "truth" and "reality". It simply separates man made language from the outer world it is referring to:
Referring to Nietzsche, "reality" is not describable or explorable by "true" sentences, as well as the vision of mere reality (a traumatic experience!) is not expressible within a language that bases on an imagined world of definitve objects as well as on a clear distinction between "true" and "false". Question is: If not related directly to mere reality, what is the concept of "truth" all about?
I prefer a – let's call it "therapeutic" view: Man, as the "deficient being" (Gehlen), needs an instrument to cope with the imponderables and also the horrors of mere reality. In our times when a large and still growing part of mankind loses touch with the mentioned imponderables and horrors because of the impact of civilization, and therefore a romantic view towards nature is widely spread, that "therapeutic" view has to be precisely explained. In this context I like to quote a few sentences of the Introduction of Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae", which is on a large scale based on Nietzschean philosophy and in particular on the concept of the antithesis of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian", developed in the first place at "The birth of Tragedy" in 1872:
The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo [a symbol of the mentioned instrument] evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons. Western science [...] [is an attempt] to revise this horror into imaginatively palatable form.2
Just one year after "The birth of Tragedy" was published, "On Truth and Lies" in some way also refers to this particular understanding of the Dionysian, not by name, but by meaning:
[...] and woe to the calamitous curiosity which might peer just once through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and look down, and sense that man rests upon the merciless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous, in the indifference of his ignorance – hanging in dreams, as it were, upon the back of a tiger.3
According to this, the – as Nietzsche calls it – "highest and most mendacious"4 invention of knowing by the most deficient being on earth roots in a mere act of self-defence on the individual level: "Truth" as a function of the "Apollonian therapy" against the imponderables and horrors of mere reality appears to the individual as a means to ensure its integrity.
While this explains the role of the concept of "truth" for the individual, it does not provide any information either on the concrete content of sentences commonly seen as "true", or on the general structure of "truth". For Nietzsche, the first establishes by an informal contract between the members of a group of people to avoid confrontation and violence and to please the urge of social accordance of the individuals. He writes:
But because man, out of need and boredom, wants to exist socially, herdfashion, he requires a peace pact and he endeavors to banish at least the very crudest bellum omni contra omnes from his world. This peace pact brings with it something that looks like the first step toward the attainment of this enigmatic urge for truth. For now that is fixed which henceforth shall be 'truth'.5
The letter is characterized by simplification of individual objects of human perception: For Nietzsche, there are no categories belonging to objects (there are even no "objects" – a notation), the phenomena are unique and individual.
Driven by the mentioned need of coping with the un-separated "Dionysian" and enabled by the concept of intersubjective "truth", man subtracts from the multiple attributes of the phenomena in order to integrate the resulting torso of objects into his categories or to establish "universals" out of a supposed common essence of similar individual things. Nietzsche writes:
No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept 'leaf' is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be [the] 'leaf' – some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted [...].6
By doing so, the imponderables and horrors of un-separated and chaotic mere reality become predictable. Whether this happens unconsciously and is therefore masked for the individual and the society from the beginning, or the process becomes more and more unconscious when man is used to it: Man is in most cases not aware of the genesis of his "truth" and therefore "knows" about a direct and strong relationship, a correspondence between "true" sentences and the outer world they are referring to.
Referring to this, Nietzsche writes the following. It is maybe the most famous passage in Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies":
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.7
The last half sentence expresses two major characteristics of the structure and also the concrete content of "truth" and sentences we are referring to as "true":
First: As coins are, "truth" is an artificial product. It is made by man. As mentioned, for Nietzsche it has its origins in the arbitrary derivation of summarizing concepts from individual entities affecting human perception (maybe to be understood somehow like the Kantian "thing-in-itself") by man. Starting from this point, the correct relation between this concepts are set by society and therefore "truth" is generated. According to my "therapeutic" view", which I (somehow8) allege also at the writings of Nietzsche, "truth" establishes first by individual, than by social need. Assuming a direct and strong relation between "reality" and "truth" as it is somehow common sense within Western philosophy is a symptom of the constant self-deception postulated by Nietzsche. But therefore it is also the main evidence that the strategy of the "deficient being" man to survive is more or less a full success: Within the space of certitude, the "save-space" provided by the conviction of a correspondence between "truth" and "reality", there is calm living, as the imponderables and the horrors of mere reality are not only fenced off, but in fact invisible most of the time.
Second: On the other hand, this leads to quite a constant decrease of experience with mere reality and therefore with human living and the world as a whole: "Truth" is no more seen as an artificial product of man, but as a reality – as the reality – itself. In a metaphorical sense: the art of making coins is negated and, even more, coins are just seen as raw material, which means that the product of the human attempts to cope with mere reality is seen as this reality itself. The price of calm living is not only to see nothing but the pathetic husks of mere reality in the form of "ideas" and its emanations, it is also the ignorance regarding to mere reality and therefore the constant encouraging of a naïve and romantic outlook towards its imponderables and horrors. This includes a severe misinterpretation of the human efforts to establish "truth", both in its individual, and in its social stadium: mere reality is thought to be a pastoral idyll and the attempts to fence it off are therefore usually seen as an evil, for instance as corrupting instruments of power. This is more or less the position of Rousseau and all of his followers – and they are countless nowadays. It is again Paglia that addressed especially to them:
Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.9
At the beginning of this paper I stressed the idea, that in my opinion Nietzsche did not negate the concept of "truth" as a whole. Mainly because of the constant polemics against the concept of "truth" within "On Truth and Lies" this has to be explained:
Stripped from the expectation to be correspondent towards "reality", language as the vehicle of "true" and "false" sentences can be ordered by a strict logical system. This system can be maximal exact, because the conditions for a sentence to be identified as true or false are now exclusively a matter of definition by man, whether it be determined in one or the other way by society – as Nietzsche expressed at "On Truth and Lies" – or by another power. Nietzsche himself writes, although quite disparaging, about this possible new view towards the concept of truth:
If he [man] does not wish to be satisfied with truth in the form of a tautology – that is, with empty shells – then he will forever buy illusions for truths.10
One possible interpretation of this sentence is, that the Nietzschean criticism on the concept of "truth" has two dimensions: On one hand Nietzsche criticizes the traditional western view on the concept of "truth", on the other hand the term "empty shells" indicates a strong sentiment against the idea of truth as completely artificial and man-made, as a pure function of civilization. One of the possible explanation for this dual rejection is that Nietzsches findings on the nature of "truth" are directly linked to his clear negative sight on the concept because it appears for him to be one main function of civilization. This is because the main aim of Nietzschean philosophy at all its stages is not at all to justify civilization or any of its aspects, but to the contrary to fundamentally criticize it. From "The birth of Tragedy" on to "The Antichrist" and beyond, Nietzsche, as the prophet of the Dionysian, developed a constantly increasing condemnation of all aspects of civilization (which he calls decadent, nihilistic etc.). So the concept of "truth" as not correspondent to "reality" as he indicates and therefore completely artificial and as a prosthesis of the deficient being man to cope with mere reality, is consequently condemned by Nietzsche too. This in my opinion leads to his disparaging talk on the "empty shells" a clear and distinct language is allegedly constituted of.
Accepting the Nietzschean theory of "truth" not being related to "reality" directly, we have to ask, if and in which way human understanding, regardless of its inner structure, refers to mere reality:
As already mentioned, one way of interpreting the characteristics of mere reality is, that it can be seen as the Kantian "thing-in-itself" which is for us by no means perceptible by itself, but triggers the process of human understanding and, regarding the Nietzschean theory, the construction of "truth" by man. Chaotic, un-seperated reality in some way (maybe just by frightening us) provokes us to cataloguize and also to develop the distinction between "true" and "false" sentences. Regarding this theory, not only the strategy of coping with mere reality (the conception of "truth") but also the impact of mere reality on man triggering the development of the conception of "truth" (fear) is always the same. This view implies the concept of a certain relation between mere reality and "truth", that is just as little a direct and strong relation as it is a non-relation.
ad 1: Nietzsche: On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral sense. Following the English translation by Walter Kaufmann (In: "The portable Nietzsche) (Online). The following page references are referring to the "Kritische Gesamtausgabe" (KGW) in German by Colli and Montinari.
ad 2: Camille Paglia: Sexual Personae. London, 1990. p 5-6. (Online, German)
ad 3: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. Berlin, 1973. p 371.
ad 4: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. p 369.
ad 5: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. p 371.
ad 6: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. p 374.
ad 7: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. p 374-375.
ad 8: He works out them very precisely, but nevertheless problematizes this therapeutic aspects at most of his works as "decadent", "nihilistic", as products of a "slave moral" and so on.
ad 9: Paglia. p 2.
ad 10: KGW. Abt. 3, Bd. 2. p 372.