Virtue of Uncertainty: Reading #2 ― Nietzsche & William James


Nietzsche: The Will to Power: Book III

Biology of the Drive to Knowledge: Perspectivism


493 (1885)

Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive.


494 (1885)

It is improbable that our "knowledge" should extend further than is strictly necessary for the preservation of life. Morphology shows us how the senses and the nerves, as well as the brain, develop in proportion to the difficulty of finding nourishment.


496 (1884)

The way of knowing and of knowledge is itself already part of the conditions of existence: so that the conclusion that there could be no other kind of intellect (for us) than that which preserves us is precipitate: this actual condition of existence is perhaps only accidental and in no way necessary. Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for "knowledge."


497 (1884)

The most strongly believed a priori "truths" are for me provisional assumptions; e.g., the law of causality, a very well acquired habit of belief, so much a part of us that not to believe in it would destroy the race. But are they for that reason truths? What a conclusion! As if the preservation of man were a proof of truth!


498 (1884)

To what extent even our intellect is a consequence of conditions of existence: we would not have it if we did not need to have it, and we would not have it as it is if we did not need to have it as it is, if we could live otherwise.


505 (1885-1886)

Our perceptions, as we understand them: i.e., the sum of all those perceptions, the becoming-conscious of which was useful and essential to us and to the entire organic process— therefore not all perceptions in general (e.g., not the electric); this means: we have senses for only a selection of perceptions— those with which we have to concern ourselves in order to preserve ourselves. Consciousness is present only to the extent that consciousness is useful. It cannot be doubted that all sense perceptions are permeated with value judgments (useful and harmful— consequently, pleasant or unpleasant).


507 (Spring-Fall 1887)

The valuation "I believe that this and that is so" as the essence of "truth." In valuations are expressed conditions of preservation and growth. All our organs of knowledge and our senses are developed only with regard to conditions of preservation and growth. Trust in reason and its categories, in dialectic, therefore the valuation of logic, proves only their usefulness for life, proved by experience— not that something is true. That a great deal of belief must be present; that judgments may be ventured; that doubt concerning all essential values is lacking— that is the precondition of every living thing and its life. Therefore, what is needed is that something must be held  to be true— not that something is  true.


Nietzsche: Twilight of the Idols (1889)

Or How One Philosophizes With a Hammer: Maxims and Arrows


1.  Idleness is the beginning of all psychology. What? Should psychology be a—vice?


2.  Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows . . .


3.  To live alone one must be a beast or a god—says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both—a philosopher . . .


4.  "All truth is simple."— Is that not doubly a lie? —


5.  I want, once and for all, not to know many things.— Wisdom sets limits to knowledge too.


6.  In our own wild nature we find the best recreation from our un-nature, from our spirituality.


7.  What? Is man merely a mistake of God's? Or God merely a mistake of man's? —


8.  Out of life's school of war.— What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.


Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil  (1886)

Part 1: On the Prejudices of Philosophers


1.  . . . What in us really wants “truth”?— Indeed we came to a long halt at the question about the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete stop before a still more basic question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth?  And uncertainty? Even ignorance?— The problem of the value of truth came before us—or was it we who came before the problem? Who of us is Oedipus here? Who the Sphinx? It is a rendezvous, it seems, of questions and question marks.— And though it scarcely seems credible, it finally also seems to us as if the problem had never even been put so far—as if we were the first to see it, fix it with our eyes, risk  it? For it does involve a risk, and perhaps there is none that is greater . . .


4.  The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-serving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating, and we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments . . . are the most indispensable for us, that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil . . .


6.  Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir;  also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown. Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he—) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a "drive for knowledge" is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere employed knowledge (and mis-knowledge!) as a mere instrument . . . In the philosopher there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is— that is, in what order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relation to each other.


William James

What Pragmatism Means  (1906)  [excerpts]


[1] A glance at the history of the idea will show you still better what pragmatism means. The term is derived from the same Greek word pragma, meaning action, from which our words ‘practice’ and ‘practical’ come. It was first introduced into philosophy by Mr. Charles Peirce in 1878. In an article entitled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," in the Popular Science Monthly for January of that year Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance . . .


[2] Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense of finality in truth.


[3] At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only. But the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the ‘temperament’ of philosophy. Teachers of the ultra-rationalistic type would be frozen out, much as the courtier type is frozen out in republics, as the ultramontane type of priest is frozen out in Protestant lands. Science and metaphysics would come much nearer together, would in fact work absolutely hand in hand.


[4] Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. ‘God’, ‘Matter’, ‘Reason’, ‘the Absolute’, ‘Energy’, are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.


[5] But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.


[6] Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. Being nothing essentially new, it harmonizes with many ancient philosophic tendencies. It agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions and metaphysical abstractions . . .


[7] Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally . . . 


[8] Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function.


[9] The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything. Truth independent; truth that we find merely; truth no longer malleable to human need; truth incorrigible, in a word; such truth exists indeed superabundantly – or is supposed to exist by rationalistically minded thinkers; but then it means only the dead heart of the living tree, and its being there means only that truth also has its paleontology and its ‘prescription,’ and may grow stiff with years of veteran service and petrified in men’s regard by sheer antiquity . . .


[10] Such then would be the scope of pragmatism – first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth. And these two things must be our future topics . . .


[11] Pragmatism is uncomfortable away from facts. Rationalism is comfortable only in the presence of abstractions. This pragmatist talk about truths in the plural, about their utility and satisfactoriness, about the success with which they ‘work,’ etc., suggests to the typical intellectualist mind a sort of coarse lame second-rate makeshift article of truth. Such truths are not real truth. Such tests are merely subjective. As against this, objective truth must be something non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted. It must be an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality. It must be what we ought to think unconditionally. The conditioned ways in which we do think are so much irrelevance and matter for psychology. Down with psychology, up with logic, in all this question! . . .


[12] Interested in no conclusions but those which our minds and our experiences work out together, pragmatism has no a priori prejudices against theology. If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged . . .


[13] I am well aware how odd it must seem to some of you to hear me say that an idea is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives. That it is good, for as much as it profits, you will gladly admit. If what we do by its aid is good, you will allow the idea itself to be good in so far forth, for we are the better for possessing it. But is it not a strange misuse of the word ‘truth,’ you will say, to call ideas also ‘true’ for this reason?


[14] Let me now say only this, that truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons. Surely you must admit this, that if there were no good for life in true ideas, or if the knowledge of them were positively disadvantageous and false ideas the only useful ones, then the current notion that truth is divine and precious, and its pursuit a duty, could never have grown up or become a dogma. In a world like that, our duty would be to shun truth, rather.


[15] But in this world, just as certain foods are not only agreeable to our taste, but good for our teeth, our stomach, and our tissues; so certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us to believe in that idea, unless, indeed, belief in it incidentally clashed with other greater vital benefits.


[16] ’What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saving ‘what we ought to believe’: and in that definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is better for us to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

[17] Pragmatism says no, and I fully agree with her. Probably you also agree, so far as the abstract statement goes, but with a suspicion that if we practically did believe everything that made for good in our own personal lives, we should be found indulging all kinds of fancies about this world’s affairs, and all kinds of sentimental superstitions about a world hereafter . . . 


[18] I said just now that what is better for us to believe is true unless the belief incidentally clashes with some other vital benefit. Now in real life what vital benefits is any particular belief of ours most liable to clash with? What indeed except the vital benefits yielded by other beliefs when these prove incompatible with the first ones? In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them. My belief in the Absolute, based on the good it does me, must run the gauntlet of all my other beliefs. Grant that it may be true in giving me a moral holiday. Nevertheless, as I conceive it, – and let me speak now confidentially, as it were, and merely in my own private person, – it clashes with other truths of mine whose benefits I hate to give up on its account. It happens to be associated with a kind of logic of which I am the enemy, I find that it entangles me in metaphysical paradoxes that are unacceptable, etc., etc. But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle . . .


[19] Pragmatism will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any evidence. It follows that in the religious field she is at a great advantage both over positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism, with its exclusive interest in the remote, the noble, the simple, and the abstract in the way of conception.


[20] In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact – if that should seem a likely place to find him.


[21] Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God’s existence? She could see no meaning in treating as ‘not true’ a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality?


William James

Pragmatism: "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy" (1907)  [excerpts]


[1]  In the preface to that admirable collection of essays of his called ’Heretics,’ Mr. [G. K.] Chesterton writes these words: “There are some people–and I am one of them–who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”


[2] I think with Mr. Chesterton in this matter. I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos. I have no right to assume that many of you are students of the cosmos in the class-room sense, yet here I stand desirous of interesting you in a philosophy which to no small extent has to be technically treated. . .


[3]  I risk it because the very lectures I speak of DREW– they brought good audiences. There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even tho neither we nor the disputants understand them. We get the problematic thrill, we feel the presence of the vastness. Let a controversy begin in a smoking-room anywhere, about free-will or God’s omniscience, or good and evil, and see how everyone in the place pricks up his ears. Philosophy’s results concern us all most vitally, and philosophy’s queerest arguments tickle agreeably our sense of subtlety and ingenuity.


[4] Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers, I feel impelled, whether it be right or wrong, to try to impart to you some news of the situation. Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ’bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives. These illuminations at least, and the contrast-effects of darkness and mystery that accompany them, give to what it says an interest that is much more than professional.


[5]  The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ’not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability . . .


[6]  . . . For a hundred and fifty years past the progress of science has seemed to mean the enlargement of the material universe and the diminution of man’s importance. The result is what one may call the growth of naturalistic or positivistic feeling. Man is no law-giver to nature, he is an absorber. She it is who stands firm; he it is who must accommodate himself. Let him record truth, inhuman tho it be, and submit to it! The romantic spontaneity and courage are gone, the vision is materialistic and depressing. Ideals appear as inert by-products of physiology; what is higher is explained by what is lower and treated forever as a case of ’nothing but’–nothing but something else of a quite inferior sort. You get, in short, a materialistic universe, in which only the tough-minded find themselves congenially at home . . .


[7] It is at this point that my own solution begins to appear. I offer the oddly-named thing pragmatism as a philosophy that can satisfy both kinds of demand. It can remain religious like the rationalisms, but at the same time, like the empiricisms, it can preserve the richest intimacy with facts. I hope I may be able to leave many of you with as favorable an opinion of it as I preserve myself. Yet, as I am near the end of my hour, I will not introduce pragmatism bodily now. I will begin with it on the stroke of the clock next time. I prefer at the present moment to return a little on what I have said.


[8] If any of you here are professional philosophers, and some of you I know to be such, you will doubtless have felt my discourse so far to have been crude in an unpardonable, nay, in an almost incredible degree. Tender-minded and tough-minded, what a barbaric disjunction! And, in general, when philosophy is all compacted of delicate intellectualities and subtleties and scrupulosities, and when every possible sort of combination and transition obtains within its bounds, what a brutal caricature and reduction of highest things to the lowest possible expression is it to represent its field of conflict as a sort of rough-and-tumble fight between two hostile temperaments! What a childishly external view!


[9]  And again, how stupid it is to treat the abstractness of rationalist systems as a crime, and to damn them because they offer themselves as sanctuaries and places of escape, rather than as prolongations of the world of facts. Are not all our theories just remedies and places of escape? And, if philosophy is to be religious, how can she be anything else than a place of escape from the crassness of reality’s surface? What better thing can she do than raise us out of our animal senses and show us another and a nobler home for our minds in that great framework of ideal principles subtending all reality, which the intellect divines? How can principles and general views ever be anything but abstract outlines? Was Cologne cathedral built without an architect’s plan on paper? Is refinement in itself an abomination? Is concrete rudeness the only thing that’s true?


[10] Believe me, I feel the full force of the indictment. The picture I have given is indeed monstrously over-simplified and rude. But like all abstractions, it will prove to have its use. If philosophers can treat the life of the universe abstractly, they must not complain of an abstract treatment of the life of philosophy itself. In point of fact the picture I have given is, however coarse and sketchy, literally true. Temperaments with their cravings and refusals do determine men in their philosophies, and always will. The details of systems may be reasoned out piecemeal, and when the student is working at a system, he may often forget the forest for the single tree. But when the labor is accomplished, the mind always performs its big summarizing act, and the system forthwith stands over against one like a living thing, with that strange simple note of individuality which haunts our memory, like the wraith of the man, when a friend or enemy of ours is dead.


[11]  Not only Walt Whitman could write “who touches this book touches a man.” The books of all the great philosophers are like so many men. Our sense of an essential personal flavor in each one of them, typical but indescribable, is the finest fruit of our own accomplished philosophic education. What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is–and oh so flagrantly!–is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is. Once reduced to these terms (and all our philosophies get reduced to them in minds made critical by learning) our commerce with the systems reverts to the informal, to the instinctive human reaction of satisfaction or dislike. We grow as peremptory in our rejection or admission, as when a person presents himself as a candidate for our favor; our verdicts are couched in as simple adjectives of praise or dispraise. We measure the total character of the universe as we feel it, against the flavor of the philosophy proffered us, and one word is enough . . .