© Michael Lacewing
In the opening sections of the book, Nietzsche repeatedly refers to ‘perspectives’. In the
Preface, he says that perspectivity is ‘the fundamental condition of all life’; in §§2 and 3
he refers to the beliefs in the opposition of values and the value of truth as ‘foreground
evaluations, temporary perspectives’; in §11, he refers to the belief in synthetic a priori
judgments ‘one of the foreground beliefs and appearances that constitute the
perspective-optics of life’. What does all this mean?
The term ‘perspective’ comes from the language of vision. We literally see things from
and with a particular perspective. Our eyes are located at a particular point in space, from
which some things are visible and others are not, e.g. the top of the table, but not its
underneath. A scene looks different from different perspectives – from high up, we can
see further and things look smaller, from below things ‘loom’ over us and we cannot see
The idea of perspective has a rich metaphorical life. Important for our purposes, when
someone seems to overreact emotionally, we tell them to ‘get things in perspective’ –
what has happened is not as important as they seem to think, they need to see the ‘bigger
picture’ or take the ‘longer view’. In emotional overreaction, the immediate experience
(which is near) dominates the person. This relates to Nietzsche’s talk of ‘foreground
evaluations’ – we take what is near to us (in the foreground) as the standard by which we
interpret the world. (In §2, he talks of ‘a perspective from below’, though the literal
translation is ‘a frog’s perspective’ – which was also slang for ‘narrow-minded’ (because
you can’t see far or wide).)
Nietzsche talks about ‘perspective’ when he is relating beliefs to our values (and hence to
our instincts). He uses the word ‘interpretation’ to mean a belief about something as if it
is like this or that. An interpretation is an understanding of the world from a particular
perspective; and so interpretations, like perspectives, relate back to our values. (Different
perspectives are defined by different values; differences in belief are not themselves
enough. Two people with different religious beliefs, for instance, may occupy the same
perspective if their beliefs reflect the same underlying set of values.)
So Nietzsche is saying that philosophical beliefs about truth and goodness are part of a
particular perspective on the world, a short-sighted, distorting perspective. One of its
most important distortions is that it denies that it is a perspective (Preface), that its truths
are unconditional (§4), that it represents the world as it truly is. But philosophers are
wrong to think that it is possible to represent or hold beliefs about the world that are
value-free, ‘objective’, ‘disinterested’.
This applies even to sense perception, which we might expect to be most responsive to
how the world is (§192). First, we find it easier, argues Nietzsche, to reproduce an image
we are familiar with than to remember what is new and different in our sense impression.
We are averse to new things, and so already, our experience of the world is dominated by
an emotion. Familiar emotions – what we fear or love – will affect what we see. Second,
we cannot take in everything – we do not see every leaf on a tree, but out of our visual
experience, create for ourselves an image of something approximating the tree. We do
the same for everything we experience; our emotions affect this process. Third,
whenever a new idea or experience arises, people become over-excited, impatient to
develop or experience it. Over time, we become more cautious, see it more for what it is.
We can support Nietzsche’s argument by an evolutionary account of human cognition.
We can’t possibly take in everything around us. We must be selective in order to survive
at all. So from the very beginning, our intellects are responsive to our interests, our
biological instincts and all that develops from them – our emotions, desires and values.
So we do not and cannot experience the world ‘as it is’, but always selectively, in a way
that reflects our values.
The laws of nature
Nietzsche uses his perspectivism in some contentious ways. For example, in §22, he
argues that the scientific idea of ‘laws of nature’ is an expression of the value of equality
(something Nietzsche strongly disapproves of). It is an interpretation of nature driven by
ideas of democracy and atheism – there is no god, no master, all are ‘equal before the
law’. It is a ridiculous analogy of natural events with a particular morality, one that thinks
of morality as a single set of laws that apply to everyone. We could just as well interpret
natural events as the assertion of power claims. That there is an equally good way of
interpreting nature shows that the ‘laws of nature’ approach is an interpretation, from a
We can object that if Nietzsche were right, the scientific idea of laws of nature should
have arisen at the same time as ideas of democracy and an increase in atheism. Yet
Leonardo da Vinci did much to contribute to the idea that all natural events follow strict
laws even as he worked in a very hierarchical culture in which atheism could be severely
punished. It wasn’t until over 150 years (around 1650) later that ideas of democracy and
atheism began to rise.
Nietzsche could challenge this in two ways. First, he could argue that our historical
account is wrong, e.g. that the idea of democracy was part of John Wycliffe’s thought.
Wycliffe, who lived in the 14th century, attacked the authority of the priests and argued
that the Bible should be available to everyone to read in their own native language. He
was also interested in natural science. Second, Nietzsche could argue that the connection
between democracy, atheism and the scientific idea of laws of nature can be seen in the
emergence of all three together over several hundred years. Nietzsche’s histories are
often imprecise in this way, as he is only interested in the big picture.
THE PARADOX OF PERSPECTIVISM
If Nietzsche claims that all our knowledge is from a particular perspective, then his
claims about perspectives and his theory of perspectivism must itself be from a particular
perspective. So is what he says about perspectives objectively true or not? If it is meant
to be objectively true, this would be a contradiction of his perspectivism. But if objective
knowledge is impossible, then aren't all perspectives just perspectives, all equal?
Nietzsche denies this as well.
First, he says that some perspectives are foreground perspectives, suggesting that others
– his own, for example – are better, less distorting perspectives (§2). Second, he claims
that particular philosophical or moral views are false, e.g. the belief in the opposition of
values (§4). Third, Nietzsche is an empiricist – he says that our sense organs can become
‘fine, loyal, cautious organs of cognition’ (§192) while he rejects the possibility of
synthetic a priori judgments (§11). But how can the senses be a better source of beliefs
than a priori reason unless some perspectives are better than others?
Nietzsche’s view is that perspective cannot be eliminated, i.e. values cannot cease to
guide our knowledge, and that the attempt to eliminate it completely is misguided.
However, some perspectives are less distorting than others. First, a perspective may be
aware that it is a perspective. Becoming aware of the perspectival nature of knowledge is
itself an improvement in knowledge. Second, we can find a less perspectival perspective
by assembling many different perspectives: ‘perspectival ‘knowing’ [is] the only kind of
‘knowing’; and the more feelings about a matter which we allow to come to expression,
the more eyes, different eyes through which we are able to view this same matter, the
more complete our ‘conception’ of it, our ‘objectivity’ will be.’ (On the Genealogy of Morals,
III §12) We need to be flexible, not trapped by one set of values or the illusion of valuefree knowing, but able to move from one valuational perspective to another, and from
these many points of view, assemble our picture of the world.
We may still ask, from what perspective does Nietzsche develop his views, his critique of
philosophy, his position ‘beyond good and evil’? The answer, roughly, is ‘life’ – what he
means by ‘life’ and how this could be a value, is discussed in the handout on ‘The will to
IS TRUTH PERSPECTIVAL?
Perspectivism is a claim about knowledge, about our beliefs and representations of the
world. But many philosophers have thought that Nietzsche is also a perspectivist about
truth – there is no truth, only ‘truths’. This doesn’t follow from what has been said.
Certainly Nietzsche says that what people believe is true depends on their perspective, as
does how they understand the concept and value of truth. But this does not mean that
truth itself varies between perspectives. This claim would contradict Nietzsche’s claim
that certain perspectives are distorting – how can they be distorting if what is true, from
that perspective, depends on that perspective?
Nietzsche’s attacks on the value of truth are not attacks on the idea that there is any such
thing as truth. That appearance may be as valuable as truth does not imply that there is
not truth – instead, it presupposes that there could be! Perspectivism claims only that the
truth must always be represented from some perspective; there is no one way to
represent the truth.
However, there are passages in which Nietzsche’s seems to be a perspectivist about
truth, e.g. §43 in which he discusses the ‘new philosophers’. Unlike past philosophers,
they will not insist that ‘their truth’ will have to be ‘a truth for everyone else’. But
Nietzsche then rephrases the point in terms of judgment: ‘“My judgment is my
judgment: no one else has a right to it so easily”’. Nietzsche is saying that new
philosophers, unlike past philosophers, will not want everyone to agree with them, to
occupy their perspective, to share their values. Nietzsche thinks his views are not for
everyone, but only a select few. We can interpret the phrase ‘their truth’ to refer to their
judgments, and not as a suggestion that what is true is itself dependent on perspectives.
The desire that everyone agrees on the truth, is part of the mistaken metaphysical picture
that denies perspectivism and wants to represent the ‘one’ truth just as it is. Once we
recognise that there are only many perspectives to be had, whether we think that our
perspectives should or could be shared by others is an open question.
Truth and appearance
If truth is not perspectival, then is there a ‘true world’, the world as it really is,
independent of how we can know it? Isn’t this the philosophical myth – a true world
transcending the world of experience – that Nietzsche attacks? Nietzsche discusses the
relation between appearance and truth in §34 – but it is very difficult to understand, and
many philosophers think that his views are expressed better in later works.
The argument in §34 starts from the question of the value of truth and appearance: ‘It is
nothing but a moral prejudice to consider truth more valuable than appearance’.
Nietzsche then says that if we wanted to do away with all appearance, leaving just ‘the
truth’, we can’t do so coherently. And then, ‘why should we be forced to assume that
there is an essential difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’ in the first place? Isn’t enough to
assume that there are degrees of apparency,… lighter and darker shadows and hues of
appearance’. Does this mean that there are only appearances, no truth except what
appears in different perspectives?
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche presents a story of the development, through six stages,
of philosophical theories about the relation between appearances (how the world
appears) and truth (how it is ‘in itself’). First, we thought the true world could be known
to the good and wise person (Plato). Second, we thought that it was unattainable, but
promised, to the good and wise person, e.g. in an afterlife (Christianity). Third (Kant), we
came to think that we can neither know or achieve the true world, but the thought of its
existence was a consolation and the source of our moral obligations. Fourth (later
German Idealists), we realized that if we cannot know anything about the true world, it is
neither consoling nor does it give us moral obligations. Fifth, we realize that therefore
even the idea of a ‘true world’ has no use – and this seems to be what Nietzsche suggests
in §34. But there is a sixth stage, perhaps present in §34, but represented more clearly in
Nietzsche’s later thought – if we abolish the idea of the ‘true world’, in what sense are
appearances just appearances? They can only be thought of as appearances if we have
something to contrast them with. But in getting rid of the idea of a ‘true world’, there is
no contrast. ‘Appearances’ are no more ‘false’ than ‘true’ – they are all there is.
How does this help? We can suggest that instead of supposing that there is some ‘true
world’ which then appears to us, we must understand ‘appearances’ as what comes first,
logically speaking. We then interpret ‘appearances’ to be the ‘appearance’ of something.
This quickly leads to mistakes, e.g. we think in terms of substances and properties. We
should resist this interpretation, and understand ‘appearances’ as ever-changing relations.
For example, we can only talk about ‘hues’ of red in relation to each other – darker or
lighter, more or less intense; we cannot talk about a shade of colour ‘absolutely’. This
should be a model for our understanding of appearances. The world is ever-changing,
not some thing ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ appearances, that appears differently at different
times. We are wrong to talk of a ‘true world’ beyond appearance.
But this does not mean that ‘truth’ is relative to perspectives. Appearances and
perspectives are not equivalent. Perspectives can distort appearances; and so what
‘appears’ from a particular perspective may be a distorted version of those very
appearances. Perspectives that are not distorting (or less distorting) of appearances have
a better grasp of what we may call the ‘truth’ – without meaning to refer to some world
THE WILL TO TRUTH
Nietzsche is more concerned to analyse the will to truth than to develop a systematic
theory of what ‘truth’ is. The will to truth in philosophy has, so far, understood the
‘truth’ in terms of the mistaken belief in the opposition of values. It understands the
truth as ‘unconditional’ in two ways. First, it is free of perspective. And so the will to
truth, correspondingly, attempts to be free of perspective and values, encouraging the
‘objective’ detachment that one finds praised in philosophy and science. But this attitude,
argues Nietzsche, is an impoverishing of life, which is both emotional and perspectival.
Second, the truth is unconditional in being of incomparable worth (it is also identical to
the good). So the will to truth aims at the truth ‘at any price’, rather than placing the
value of truth in relation to life. But the will to truth misrepresents itself, because it is not
‘pure’, but part of a particular system of values, viz. the ascetic ideal that demeans life and
the world available to us.
By contrast, Nietzsche argues, that a judgment is false may be no objection to it (§4);
there are other values more important. The truth can be dangerous, a threat to life. New
philosophers will place truth, the value of truth and the will to truth in relation to life,
and will use them for greater ends. Their will to truth will not be unconditional.
Is Nietzsche suggesting that new philosophers will want to have false beliefs or
knowingly believe what is false? Does this even make sense? If you believe something,
you believe it to be true. Nietzsche asks ‘why do we not prefer untruth?’ (§1). But does
the question make sense? Can we prefer untruth if we cannot believe what we know to
The idea of the will to truth is about how we understand the value of truth, i.e. how that
value guides us in forming our beliefs (when we don’t yet know what is true or false).
While it may be true that we cannot consciously and deliberately believe what we know
to be false, Nietzsche has argued that what happens consciously when we form beliefs is
unconsciously guided by our values. The will to truth serves (or can serve) as part of a
self-deception – we think we want the truth, and for its own sake, but this desire in fact
serves the will to power, to create favourable conditions in which we attain the maximum
feeling of power.
Clarifying Nietzsche’s Perspectivism
By R.N. Carmona
Them who, for philosophical reasons, adopt perspectivism or them who, in the interest of
preserving their beliefs, adopt perspectivism misunderstand what Nietzsche intended to achieve.
Nietzsche was not arguing that all perspectives are created equal; he recognized that some were
better than others. Neither was he arguing that objectivity was not possible. He wrote: “The more
eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more
complete will our ‘concept’ of this matter, our ‘objectivity’ be.”1
The truth isn’t a democratic process. Taken together, he was arguing that if we to consider all
perspectives worth considering, namely those perspectives that are among the best, we can arrive
at a more objective conclusion. On political, legal, moral, philosophical, and even scientific matters,
informed perspectives can help us arrive at the objective truth. Nothing at all is shielding people
from the facts of the matter. Our perspective may be wrong or distorted, but if we account for
other perspectives, especially better ones, one can adopt a better perspective.
This take is more accurate than a take which argued that the truth is equal to opinion. Nietzsche
would not have argued that. Most contemporary perspectivists miss that crucial point: objectivity is
not impossible; in fact, the more complete one’s accounting of better perspectives is, the closer one
gets to achieving objectivity with regards to the case in question. Opinions are not created equal;
some are better than others. Opinions and perspectives are virtually interchangeable. While
opinions are informed by one’s given perspective, one’s opinion would differ given that one’s
perspective differed; this is to say that opinions are contingent on one’s perspective. An opinion
might even be considered an iteration of one’s perspective, a way of explaining one’s perspective or
putting it into words.
This isn’t necessarily a post-truth era, since truth still exists. The truth can be avoided or flat-out
denied, but this doesn’t imply that we now find ourselves in an era in where there’s no truth. There
are still truths, both mundane and profound–from your particular date of birth to the fact that the
universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old. We are, unfortunately, free to deny these truths, but that
doesn’t change their status. Contemporary perspectivists have bastardized Nietzsche’s view and
presented it as an enemy of truth. In fact, perspectivism may be the only account of truth that
makes sense, both philosophically and practically. If one were to consider that, for
instance, arguments were needed to tell people why slavery was wrong, one will begin to see that a
fuller consideration of better perspectives helps us to see reason. Arguments were also needed to
show people why misogyny was wrong; arguments were needed to overturn the nonsense law that
allowed men to keep the belongings of their former wives. This new Act allowed women to have
rights to their inheritances and property–even the property they acquired during marriage.
In a post-God era [as Nietzsche believed], Nietzsche’s view makes sense. If God is truly dead, the
only unity of human reality we can achieve is one that accounts for as many human perspectives as
possible. Nietzsche’s perspectivism, when considered fully, is a valid theory of truth. Contemporary
proponents of a more simplistic perspectivism would fool one into thinking that there’s no
objectivity to be had. Nietzsche clearly didn’t argue that. His perspectivism is much more careful in
how it proceeds and gives us a way to achieve objectivity — a way that is in keeping with history.
This should come as no surprise coming from a philosopher who was concerned with the use and
abuse of history. It is only fitting that his theory of truth is one that is supported by historical trends.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond good and evil; and the genealogy of morals. New York: Barnes & Noble,
About R.N. Carmona
I have a BA in Philosophy from CUNY Baruch College in New York City. I am currently applying to
Graduate Programs and hope to be accepted into CUNY Graduate Center. My research interests
include philosophy of science, of mind, of mathematics, and of time, and also metaphysics,
epistemology, ethics, and science. I also write on the aforementioned topics. In fact, the purpose of
this platform is to showcase my work in those and other related areas, e.g., atheism, feminism,
politics, etc. I hope to earn a Masters and Ph.D. in philosophy. I will then endeavor to produce
scholarly work, work aiming to popularize philosophy, and work that will hopefully contribute to
eventual solutions to the problems we face. I am also a proponent of secularism, metaphysical
naturalism, secular humanism, and feminism. Discussions about these topics are to be expected.
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