02 December 2008

About the Title

Let's talk about why words are all lies.

The argument comes from an essay by Nietzsche - "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense." His reasoning is that words refer to ideas, not things. A word like "tree" stands for a concept that includes all trees, not for any specific tree. When I talk about a specific tree, I'm using that concept as a metaphor for the thing. That's fine, but we use words so much that we tend to forget how far removed they are from our direct perceptions. That's why words are all lies - we trick ourselves into thinking they can encompass our experiences, and then we use them to talk about the truth.

There's a second part to Nietzsche's essay, where he talks about the rational/scientific mind and the intuitive/artistic mind, and how the scientific mind cowers beneath the shelter of fixed definitions while the artistic mind tears the old concepts down and replaces dead metaphors with fresh ones. It's a little one-sided. Also, Nietzsche doesn't really believe in truth to begin with. I took something different away from the first half, which is that you can't tell someone a truth with words - you just have to concentrate on pointing them in the right direction.

A related point comes up in Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," q.v.