Nietzsche & Marx Question Our Reality
Nietzsche’s ambitious project concerning morality and our place in the world continues. In my previous post on Nietzsche, I showed where Nietzsche believes our morality originates and why it is so difficult for us to trace it. In this post, I will focus on why Nietzsche (and Marx) believe that ‘truth’ is relative to our narratives about the world.
We cannot completely rely on memory in order to find something as universal as epistemic certainty or ‘objective morality.’
Some have called Nietzsche’s approach to epistemology (the study of knowledge; how we ‘know’ things to be ‘true’) “evolutionary epistemology,” that is a set of beliefs and values that can help promote survival in a competitive world.
Nietzsche argues that (1) perspective and (2) projection are key to our episteme. Perspective has a lot to do with our interpretation and conceptualization of language and our environments.
We exist in a historical place that must interpret events based on our experience and perception. However, Nietzsche does not argue that we are imprisoned to our perceptions as Christians were to slave morality, for example.
In fact, on a number of occasions, Nietzsche argues that in order to arrive at some ‘truth,’ or ‘wisdom,’ we must reverse perspective. Nietzsche is not saying that truth does not exist; rather, he is arguing that the only attainable knowledge is that which is “within our own perspective.”
Nietzsche is arguing that we ought to take the stance of a scientist who is conducting an experiment. If we are to test a hypothesis, we must, in theory, if not in practice, believe the hypothesis. In order to assess its validity, we must assume the position we are taking, either to validate or invalidate it. In a similar way, Nietzsche analyzes our knowledge of morality and assumptions about our place in the world.
In order to combat this Western conception of objectivity that justified colonialism, slavery, and evangelism, we must open our senses to different experience and perspectives.
For Nietzsche, there is no option of an “impersonal” or “disinterested” human observer, therefore, any possibility for an objective view is unlikely. If we were to view issues objectively, we would be implying that humans can be impersonal and disinterested, which they are clearly not.
Elsewhere, Nietzsche argues that “convictions are prisons,” but that humanity inevitably has a “will to truth.” Nietzsche himself experienced this unpleasantness in his Genealogy where he writes that he was looking at his world with “new eyes,” making him open to the “secretive” land of morality.
As I briefly touched on in my previous article on Nietzsche, history relies on memory.
However, our memory is obviously flawed.
Therefore, we cannot completely rely on memory in order to find something as universal as epistemic certainty or ‘objective morality.’
It follows that we must question our recollection of history and strive toward something else.
Throughout history, many have been longing for something unchanging which could make sense of their suffering. Nietzsche believes that we must instead take a genealogical approach to understanding ourselves in order to start grasping at anything that can remotely resemble truth. As I argued in my previous post, Nietzsche argued that we cannot make particularities into universals.
Our perspective, these particularities, must be isolated because, by definition, they apply to unique perspectives. In Nietzsche’s words, “an isolated judgment is never ‘true’, never knowledge.”
Whatever is ‘true’ for Nietzsche is true for us because of our desires. In other words, we wish for moral conceptions to be true because of our will for order and harmony. Our belief in monogamy and the matrimony of marriage comes from our desire for lasting companionship. It is not that these desires are necessarily evil, for Nietzsche.
This condition is inescapable.
Other epistemological claims are needless jargon, he assumes. Descartes’ Cartesian skepticism and defining thought: cogito ergo sum cannot reveal anything about our epistemic condition. For Nietzsche, “I think, therefore, I am ” is a tautology.
Needless to say, even Descartes, despite his thorough examination of certainty, managed to smuggle in unquestioned dogma, such as the deceiving ‘evil demon’ and God.
Narratives of Truth & Morality
The next question then is how these narratives of truth concerning morality last so long especially when many of them cause us detriment. This is what Nietzsche calls the “unegoistic” morality of some of his peers and those who preceded him. Unegoistic morality is that of “pity,” “self-denial,” and “self-sacrifice.”
The probing question Nietzsche attempts to answer here is the relation between the masters of society and slave morality. Noble moralists create their own values based on the interests they have. They primarily aim to control others because of their self-interest. The slave rebellion originated with the Jews because of their long-lasting oppression by Christendom.
Therefore, if we are to keep our universality, Nietzsche argues, we must create a persuasive narrative of our place in society.
Historically, this was a revolutionary analysis because it implied that
- divine revelation is, in fact, subjective literary interpretation, and
- our customs are not naturally superior to the colonized.
Nietzsche’s questions about morality and epistemology helped eradicate some of the prejudices we had to the ‘Other.’
Marx & Narratives on Morality
Another thinker who helped discard our prejudices and transformed much of the way we think about society today is Marx.
Marx similarly views our morality and political structure as naturally alienating. In his text On the Jewish Question, which analyzes whether political emancipation is feasible in a state, Marx makes the poignant point that “the state” brings “universality of thought.”
Without the state, we would not agree to act in a way that is naturally harmful to us.
This bears a striking resemblance to Nietzsche’s discussion of the “good” and the “bad.”
For Marx, when we become members of society, we immediately exchange “real individual life” with “unreal universality.” Similarly, Marx views our historical place in society as a result of an alienating process with our true selves both subjectively and objectively.
Subjectively, our alienation comes from not belonging and feeling the need to be moral due to shame and social ostracization, all the while forgetting, as Nietzsche argued before, that our moral sense comes from a situated place rather than a metaphysical reality.
Objectively, our alienation comes due to the chains that society constrains us with; we have replaced the state of nature with industrialized urban societies. Marx found both of these as the foundations to our sense of abandonment in society. Our understanding of ourselves is flawed and makes assumptions about the metaphysical natures of our beings for what is only a situated truth.
The Overlap Between Nietzsche & Marx
Both Nietzsche and Marx address the crucial notion that our ideas about the world are based in an unchanging metaphysical truth. In his Genealogy, Nietzsche analyzes the important question of where our morality, values, and knowledge come from. He argues that we have inherited these ‘truths’ from society.
I have shown that Nietzsche’s analysis is key to understanding our place in society and whether we can have a good grasp on our knowledge. Then together with Marx I showed how our sense of alienation comes due to our limited grasp of our true selves.
In all of these issues, I have shown that in order to have a better connection with our true selves, we must replace unquestioned dogma with real scrutiny and skepticism.
Both Nietzsche and Marx provide normative examples of theorists who effectively tackled epistemic, political, and moral dogma.
This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Origins of Inequality
A Brief Analysis of “Discourse on Inequality”
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