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Coffee & Wisdom 02.76: Naive Optimism and Stone Walls Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about Naive Optimism


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Hello, I’m David Breeden and senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is coffee and wisdom. And this week we are looking at skepticism and naive optimism and those kinds of ideas. And to start, let’s think about a question: “What do many universities, the CIA and the ancient secret order of the Knights Templar all have in common?” And the answer is their motto, “Libreria Vertitas Acireale”, the truth sets or will set us free. Why are they all saying this? And do they all mean the same thing? I think that’s an interesting question. Well, the truth shall make you free originates in the Gospel of John 8:32. Yesterday, I discussed a little bit of the context of that and specifically this is taken out of context. And purportedly these are the words of Jesus who is talking about sin and the way to get out of sin. So is this a moveable idea, and are we able to cherry pick it and take it out of the context is indeed one of the questions that we need to answer. “Whose truth?” Is one question and “what is free?” is another question, and yes, there are all kinds of assumptions built into something that sounds at first fairly profound, doesn’t it? Well, so let’s think for a moment about this idea of truth. I would distinguish truth, in fact, in my mind anyway. And I think as some philosophers agree with me, there is a difference between truth and fact.

Truth cannot be seen. Justice, for example, is abstract. Yes, there are examples of justice, but actually as a truth, you can’t put your finger on it. It is a concept. On the other hand, a fact can be seen or it can at least be measured. Gravity, for example. We don’t actually see it, but we can measure it. And so the difference between a truth and a fact has to do with how abstract it is and how measurable it is. So my conclusion on that is that truth is socially constructed and in fact is universal. Universal is a problematic word, just as truth, in fact. But you get the idea. Truth is different in different social contexts, but fact is something that can be measured anywhere on the planet. That’s probably where we want to go with that, anyway. The foundational idea to talk about what truth is in the way that we talk about it nowadays comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844 to 1900. So often in philosophy, Nietzsche was the first to think of ideas that would become whole fields of philosophy later in the 20th and now in the 21st centuries. What I want to refer to today is on truth and lies, in a non-moral sense. This is a philosophical essay that you can find in various places. It is available online. If you don’t read German, you are at the mercy of various kinds of translations with various programs to go along with that.

One of the challenges of reading Nietzsche these days is that his work has gone through the baffles of so many different people, judging, deciding, etc. And, yes, because he had a fan club within the Nazi party, he is often written off as something over here. But I think that’s a misunderstanding of most of his work. So a lot of people these days, at least, are trying to relook at Nietzsche by removing the baggage that built up in the during the the 20th century, especially. A book that just came out, I think a year or so ago, is on Truth and Untruth, which is a new translation of some of Nietzsche’s work. So you can find these out there. You can buy them relatively inexpensively or there are lots of them free in PDF online. He has this to say. And again, he’s going to say that I’m going to look at truths. I’m going to look at untruths, lies, whatever you want to call it, from a non-moral (perspective). I’m not going to judge it in terms of morality. I just want to know what the difference is. And he has this to say: We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow and flowers. And yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things. Metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.

All right. Are you with me so far? And again, this is a very early articulation of something that becomes very important in 20th century philosophy, and continues to be important in 21st century philosophy. We believe that we know something about things, themselves. That would be those proper nouns out there (or those nouns out there) when we speak of trees, colors, snow and flowers. And yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things. Metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. And so I have a forest that you can’t see for the trees, or is it the reverse here . . . as an illustration of “are we seeing a tree, or are we seeing a forest, or can we even see a particular tree we use a word like tree?” It’s a good question. We obtain the concept as we do the form, but overlooking what is individual and actual. Whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts and likewise with no species, but only with an X, which remains inaccessible and undefinable to us, for us. So we have a concept, we get that from metaphor, we can look and say, “that’s a tree.” I can draw a picture of a tree. I could draw a picture of a lot of trees. But nature itself doesn’t do that. There’s no language in nature because language is a human construct. And so there is no nothing out there except for, as he’ll put it, X’s.

And we define this X as a tree. This X is a forest, is X is a lion, and this X is a camel, et cetera. But they are indeed all X’s that are filled in by various forms of human understanding and languages. This is the center of what he’s trying to say to us. All right. What then is truth? It is a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms. In short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished, in which, after long usage, seemed to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. All right. So it’s metaphors. Metonymy, like the White House, is a metonymy for this thing that’s actually “yeah, it’s white,” but it means a lot more in American English than just a house that happens to be white. And anthropomorphism, turning various ideas into human concepts, and sure to some of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified. They have changed over time by all the literature, by all the science. And yes, he would group science and mathematics in with these other ways of creating languages, metaphors that aren’t actually connected to what we would call a fact. So are you with him so far? Truths are illusions, which we have forgotten are illusions. They are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.

So tree, for example, when you think of tree, do you think of a specific tree or do you think of this kind of fuzzy abstraction? When you think of forest, when you think of birds, there are no birds, there are only individual birds. And then the abstractions and concepts that we create from them. That’s what Nietzsche is going at here. So truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions. They are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force. So we don’t actually see them anymore because they have ceased to be individual facts out there in the world. They are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. So the words we use to describe things are like worn-out coins, and you can kind of see that there’s something on that coin. But actually it’s just becoming metal because the edges have all been worn away. The etching has mostly been worn away, and it has become this thing that we really don’t even have to think about. We just say, oh, that’s a worn-out coin. And we go on with our business. From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing is red, another is cold and the third is mute, there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth.

So here we go. We’re putting X’s on things and saying, that’s red, that’s cold. Notice that those are complete abstractions, right? That’s mute. That’s justice. That’s democracy. And we can go on and on by naming these X’s. right? We are then obliged to do this or we can’t speak of anything. But then of course, we forget, he’s insisting, that these are merely made up. They are merely illusions, trying to discuss individual cases. But we forget that they are individual cases. So only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creative subject does man live with any repose, security and consistency. So the only way that we can feel like we are living in truth is that we forget that we are creative people, that we are part of the human family. Again, the universe doesn’t care if we call one thing a pipe and one thing a star. It’s only within the human family that any of these concepts, these X’s that we move around, even matter. The universe simply doesn’t care. The Earth itself just simply doesn’t care. We’re the only ones who care about these labels that we throw around on things. Only by forgetting that he, himself is an artistically creative subject, does man (human) live with any repose, security and consistency. This is famously dealt with by the artist, Magritte, who said “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” “This is not a pipe,” he says on his painting of a pipe. Yes.

Well, how is it not a pipe and how is it a pipe? Well, he’s been reading Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a pipe, but you can’t smoke it because it’s a pipe that is abstracted out of the instance that would be a pipe, and there would be billions of them. But this itself is not something that you can put anything in and light it. This becomes very central to the ideas of Michel Foucault, a French post-structuralist philosopher. And one of his essays in philosophy is called “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is Not a Pipe), in which he considers how Nietzsche begins this idea that these X’s we put on things actually have little to nothing to do with reality, what we would call reality or fact, and are really merely abstractions from. Then, says Foucault, what happens is power and power relationships get involved in defining these things. This is justice as a particular kind of power structure. This is democracy, says a particular kind of power structure. I get to define it because I’m powerful and then you have to believe it or you’re in trouble. And that’s how Foucault begins to deal with ideas of sociological power imbalances that he is famous for talking about. So only by forgetting (this is Nietzsche) . . . only by forgetting that he, himself is an artistically creative subject does man live in any repose, security and consistency. Only by forgetting that we are artists making it all up, do we live in some kind of repose and ease.

And so I have a photo here of an art installation that says “This is the Sign You’ve Been Looking For.” And yes, this particular artist has been reading either Nietzsche and/or Foucault and knows exactly that the word sign comes into semiotics and linguistics as a word that we use for these creations. That’s something that this word was invented to be used after Nietzsche was alive. But that’s exactly what he’s talking about, semiotics, that the sign is not actually connected to the real world. But this artist being a conceptual artist, I think, says this is the sign you’ve been looking for, because we have various meanings for the word sign, don’t we? And that’s the challenge of the idea of truth, at least from a formative thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. And to summarize and remember, he says, truths are illusions, which we have forgotten are illusions. Truths or illusions, which we have forgotten are illusions. When we forget that, then we live in some discomfort, says Nietzsche, and we cease being our creative selves. Well, we’ll talk more about that tomorrow and think about how we can be naively optimistic in a world of science. Thanks a lot for listening. Our theme for the month of April at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis is “Becoming,” being and becoming as questions of how to be human in a non-human world. Thanks for listening and I’ll be back tomorrow.

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