Establishing Some Street Cred

Establishing Some Street Cred September 15, 2018

Guest post by Daniel Reynoso

Part 2 of 7 “There are no facts, only interpretations”

I want to state some qualifications as to why I can speak so authoritatively on this topic. I’m no professional academic, but I do hold degrees in History and Philosophy, and I’ve been studying the life and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche for over 20 years now.

More importantly, I’ve read Nietzsche’s works several times and have listened to the audio versions of his books COUNTLESS times. As a matter of fact, I keep his works in constant rotation with whatever else I happen to be listening to at the moment. So that means I spend much of my time listening to Nietzsche’s conversations with his intended readership over and over again, and there are few things I take more delight in than this, oddly enough!

And, yet, all that time listening to Nietzsche discuss his views, his intellectual problems, his goals, his hopes and dreams, and his own perspectives on his life and work as a whole has, I believe, given me an unusual and even unique insight into Nietzsche’s writings of which few others may boast, and so I hope to convey some of that understanding here with you today.

Nietzsche contra Pinker (384)

I must confess, I never dreamed that I’d be taking on the likes of Dr. Steven Pinker. As you may know, Dr. Pinker is an eminent Harvard professor of cognitive psychology, acclaimed author who has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a towering intellect who is conversant in just about everything—but I knew I had to do something! I had to respond to such an abuse of Friedrich Nietzsche because, as I explained to Dr. Pinker,

The fact of the matter is that your picture of Nietzsche does a huge disservice not just to Nietzsche himself, but, worse, to your revolutionary book that champions reason, logic, and truth-telling, a book that will be a force for change in the months and years to come. Since your words will affect MILLIONS of people who will never consult either Nietzsche’s own works or the secondary literature, I very respectfully disagree with your presentation of Nietzsche [and I intend to make my case].[7]

However, one of the major difficulties facing us in attempting to set the record straight is that in order to do justice to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in the face of an endless stream of misrepresentations surrounding his writings, we really need a complete review of his development from his youth all the way to his irrecoverable collapse into mental illness in January of 1889 at the age of 44.

While time does NOT permit this review today, I’ve recently written a book called “A Reader Such as I Deserve”: Unraveling the Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. I hope that my book will serve as a counterbalance to the wild and often pejorative interpretations surrounding Nietzsche and his writings, and I will provide some information near the end of this presentation for how you may get a copy of that book, if you’d like.

Now, although I was taken aback by Dr. Pinker’s interpretation of Nietzsche in his otherwise remarkable book, I quickly realized that it provided me with a wonderful opportunity to dispel some myths surrounding his life and thought. I also realized that I would then be able to provide a few of Nietzsche’s key ideas in their place. So let’s begin with dispelling some of those myths that seem to cling so stubbornly to Nietzsche’s legacy.

Myth #1: Nietzsche the Truth Relativist (1046)

“There Are No Facts…” (242)

One of the most enduring myths that has followed Friedrich Nietzsche throughout the 20th century and into the 21st is also a claim that Dr. Pinker recapitulates in his book, and that’s the notion that Nietzsche does not believe in real facts or in objective truth. You’ll hear this claim all the time, even by philosophy professors and other intellectuals, like Dr. Pinker.

In order to support this wild assertion, people almost always defer to a popular sound bite that has become part of the mythical lore surrounding Nietzsche. That particular sound bite is a partial quote that states, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” This sounds shockingly relativistic, but—like most quotes that are first taken from and then used against Nietzsche—the context and full quotation of the statement changes everything.

In context, the passage refers to the primacy of interpretation over and above simply being able to occupy a position to know or understand reality as it is “in-itself”. Nietzsche believes we always default to a framework of philosophical presuppositions that we must use in order to interpret the data.

In a notebook he kept in his early 30s, he jotted down the line, “Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying ‘there are only facts’, I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, [but] only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.”[8]

“Against That Positivism…” (361)

So, here we see that Nietzsche is making a very specific charge to a very specific group about a very specific way of thinking. It is a charge he’ll return to again and again throughout his life, and that charge is that a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” is a “conceptual fiction.”

He identifies this fiction at the heart of many lofty concepts, like “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” and “knowledge-in-itself,” and he later compares this fictional perspective to a disembodied eyeball that lacks all focus and direction while trying to take a view from nowhere.[9]

This absolute view from nowhere was simply unthinkable for Nietzsche, and this conceptual fiction was definitely of major concern to him in a book he wrote very late in his career, Toward a Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887). In that book, we find a similar passage regarding the primacy of interpretation over simply being in a position to know brute facts. As Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter notes:

Nietzsche describes “falsifying” as being “of the essence of interpreting”. Here, however, the essence of this (hyperbolic) remark is extremely important. Nietzsche is in the midst of a polemic against those scholars who manifest that positivist “desire to halt before the factual, the factum brutum” and who thus seek a “general renunciation of all interpretation.”[10]

Dr. Leiter goes on to show that Nietzsche’s point is not that there is no such thing as objective reality or truth, but rather that reality is always mitigated by our interpretive faculties. Prefiguring Karl Popper’s revolutionary model of scientific progress,[11] Nietzsche argues that we infer truth by means of falsifications, but we never actually grab hold of the truth-in-itself, or what philosophers sometimes call Truth with a capital ‘T’.

If modern philosophy since the Enlightenment has taught us anything, it’s that we proceed in our knowledge of the world by means of epistemological skepticism. Nietzsche is always adamant that human knowledge is based only on interpreted probabilities within a preexisting philosophical framework of understanding, and that—here prefiguring Thomas Kuhn’s revolutionary insight[12]—we can never occupy a position to evaluate the world from a neutral or absolutely objective point of view.

“If You Wish to Be a Disciple of Truth…” (246)

However, the search for truth is always at the heart of Nietzsche’s writings. In fact, he considers the ability to face the truth to be the greatest demonstration of courage and the highest criterion of value there is. He says, “How much truth can a mind endure? How much truth can it dare? This became, for me, more and more the real test of value.”[13]

Nietzsche even prefaces one of his final masterpieces with a list of preconditions for understanding him and his writings. One of those conditions, he claims, is an intellectual integrity that is carried to the verge of hardness against all things that would seduce us into false beliefs:

“Even to endure my seriousness, my passion,” Nietzsche warns, “one must have become indifferent . . . never question[ing] of the truth whether it is good or harmful.”[14] Instead, he thinks the skeptical pathos that demands certainty in all things has already become instinctive in his readers.

And this pathos went back to his early college days when he first renounced Christianity and came out as an atheist. His sister, Elisabeth, was enraged at this turn of events and continued to try to persuade him that he was making a mistake, and in a letter to her he included the statement, “And here the ways of men part: if you strive for peace of soul and happiness, then have faith; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then investigate . . .”[15]

Truth for Its Own Sake: A Moral Conviction? (215)

So, we see that Nietzsche’s primary concern was with the search for truth and with determining the certainty of a given position. He understood that this exercise was not something that could produce a God’s-eye perspective. Instead, we only infer truth through systematic falsification—what he calls “seeing through delusion”[16]—and we can never achieve absolute certainty for a given claim.

Nietzsche was also clear that this faith in truth was a moral position; we instinctively believe that the truth is the highest good, and Nietzsche traces the faith “that truth is divine” back to Plato and on down through the Christian moral worldview.[17]

In fact, he thinks that it’s precisely the cultivation of truthfulness at the heart of the Christian moral worldview that ultimately turned against faith in the Christian God, and that’s because our sense of honesty will no longer allow us to embrace the lie of a God who cares about us or intervenes in history.[18]

But Nietzsche wondered if this faith in truth might be misplaced. Life itself, he thought, loves error—it thrives on error. So, he thought, this will to truth may, in the end, wind up leading to the destruction of the human race. He thought that we still needed an honest critique of this will to truth.


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[7] From a personal email by me to Dr. Pinker (slightly amended due to an unintentional typo)

[8] As translated in The Portable Nietzsche (1954) by Walter Kaufmann, p. 458

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Toward a Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, Essay III, “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals,” 12: “Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject’; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as ‘pure reason,’ ‘absolute spirituality,’ ‘knowledge in itself’: these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our objectivity,’ be.

[10] Brian Leiter, “Perspectivism in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals,” in Nietzsche, Genealogy, and Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals,” Richard Schacht eds. (University of California Press, 1994), p. 354

[11] Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1962, and Objective Knowledge, 1972

[12] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fourth Edition, 2012

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Preface, 3: “How much truth can a spirit endure; how much truth can it dare?  This became for me more and more the actual test of value. Error (the belief in the ideal) is not blindness; error is cowardice. Every conquest, every step forward in knowledge is the outcome of courage, of hardness towards one’s self; of cleanliness towards one’s self.”

[14] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Preface: “This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet. Possibly they are the readers who understand my Zarathustra: how could I confound myself with those for whom there are ears listening today? — Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously. The conditions under which one understands me and then necessarily understands — I know them all too well. One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains — to seeing one wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. One must have become indifferent, one must never ask whether truth is useful or a fatality…. Strength which prefers questions for which no one today is sufficiently daring; courage of the forbidden; predestination for the labyrinth. An experience out of seven solitudes. New ears for new music. New eyes for the most distant things. A new conscience for truths which have hitherto remained dumb. And the will to economy in the grand style: to keeping one’s energy, one’s enthusiasm in bounds…. Reverence for oneself; love for oneself; unconditional freedom with respect to oneself … Very well! These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? — The rest are merely mankind. — One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul — in contempt….”

[15] Christopher Middleton, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 7, in a letter to Elisabeth Nietzsche, June 11, 1865: “As for your principle, that the truth is always on the more difficult side, I concede this to you in part. Nonetheless, it is difficult to understand that two times two does not equal four, but does that make it anymore true? On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept everything in which one has been brought up, which has gradually become deeply rooted in oneself, which holds true among relatives and many good people, which does moreover really comfort and elevate man? Is that more difficult than to take new paths, struggling against habituation, uncertain of one’s independent course, amid frequent vacillations of the heart, and even of the conscience, often comfortless, but always pursuing the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful, the good? Is it then a matter of acquiring the view of God, world, and atonement in which one can feel most comfortable? Is it not, rather, true that for the true researcher the result of his research is of no account at all? Do we, in our investigations, search for tranquility, peace, happiness? No—only for the truth, even if it were to be frightening and ugly. One last remaining question. If we had believed since youth that all salvation came not from Jesus but from another—say, from Mohammed—is it not certain that we would have enjoyed the same blessings? To be sure, faith alone gives blessing, not the objective which stands behind the faith. I write this to you, dear Lisbeth, only in order to counter the most usual proofs of believing people, who invoke the evidence of their inner experiences and deduce from it the infallibility of their faith. Every true faith is indeed infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, then have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.

[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, 109: “How greatly we should like to exchange the false assertions of the priests, that there is a god who desires good from us, a guardian and witness of every action, every moment, every thought, who loves us and seeks our welfare in all misfortune, how greatly we would like to exchange these ideas for truths which would be just as healing, pacifying and beneficial as those errors! But there are no such truths; at most philosophy can oppose to them metaphysical appearances (at bottom also untruths). The tragedy consists in the fact that we cannot believe those dogmas of religion and metaphysics, if we have strict methods of truth in heart and brain: on the other hand, mankind has, through development, become so delicate, irritable and suffering, that it has need of the highest means of healing and consolation; whence also the danger arises that man would bleed to death from recognized truth, or, more correctly, from seeing through delusion. Byron has expressed this in the immortal lines: Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Toward a Genealogy of Morals, Essay III, “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals,” 24: “Our faith in scientific knowledge always rests on something which is still a metaphysical belief—even we knowledgeable people of today, we godless and anti-metaphysical people—we still take our fire from that blaze kindled by a thousand years of old belief, that faith in Christianity, which was also Plato’s belief, that God is the truth, that the truth is divine. . . But how can we do that, if this very claim is constantly getting more and more difficult to believe, if nothing reveals itself as divine any more, unless it’s error, blindness, and lies, if God himself manifests himself as our oldest lie?”

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