Perspectivism and the Real World

by orthonormal 1 min read10th Jan 20111 comment


Or: On Truth and Morality in a Non-moral Sense

Not even Nietzsche (except perhaps once he descended into madness) would claim that Nietzsche's philosophy can be understood as a coherent whole, or that the fundamental questions he asked originated with him. And yet his writings have had a far-reaching influence on modern ideas of truth– the type of skepticism or cynicism of his descendants is more pressing and simply more fun than that engendered by Hume or others.

One group of his erstwhile followers focus on what I think is one of his better ideas, which has earned the title of perspectivism. While other philosophers of the time naively went about constructing theories of how the brain absorbed true knowledge through the senses (with an admixture of regrettable errata), Nietzsche drew an analogy from his first academic specialty: philology, or the study and interpretation of ancient texts. From the same text, two different scholars could draw opposite conclusions about the meaning of a word or phrase, because each entered with a larger contextual scheme in which the new text had to fit. In the arena of the mind, he suggested, different interpretations existed and gave different meanings to the same external data. An optical illusion, for instance, could be simultaneously read as a 3-dimensional image and a 2-dimensional illusion.

Had Nietzsche stopped with that analogy, it would have been just one more argument for epistemological relativism; and indeed, plenty of modern people read him with just that interpretive scheme in mind. But there was one key further ingredient: not all interpretations were created equal, and they vied with one another for dominance at every moment. And where they clash, some are stronger than others.

Notice that I didn't say that some were better or truer than others- that would be begging the question at this point.

Consider the case of a smart young woman who's been raised by young-earth creationists and has just stumbled onto some contrary information online.

Now let's consider what might happen once she goes to college.

The key is to understand the different levels of our interpretive framework, rather like distinguishing the different levels of causality in an evolutionary adaptation. The time to recoil from horror that some of the reasons involved are irrational or immoral is after, not before, understanding the nature of the rules.

The original essay, On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, merits similar caution; it is not celebrating the limitations of the mind, as it might appear on a first reading. Nor is it self-negating for being an intellectual critique of thought itself. A perspectivist account of the mind doesn't undermine itself, so long as it also contains some inkling that true ideas can have advantages in the arena of the mind.

Rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme that we cannot throw off. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)

Originally a chaos of ideas. The ideas that were consistent with one another remained, the greater number perished—and are perishing. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)

Division of the problem into the logical and the moral.

Part I: Assuming we can trust our science

Part II: Can we trust our science?

Part III: What about Morality?