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Nietzsche, Proust, and Will-To-Ignorance

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 26, Number 1, April 2002
pp. 1-23 | 10.1353/phl.2002.0015

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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 1-23

TO JUDGE BY CERTAIN RECENT histories of philosophy, it might seem as though the discipline has from the outset been nothing but a staging-ground for the war of the alethophiles and the alethophobes, with no neutral observer ever giving truth and untruth an equal share of respect. Philosophy, after all, first founded itself upon the appearance/reality distinction, and has, since then, nearly always taken the side of clarity over confusion, illusion and self-delusion. What exceptions there have been tend merely to represent the same extremism aimed in the opposite direction, with knowledge being accused of covert and devious alliances with power, for example, or truth dismissed as a chimera that distracts us from the more important issues. As I hope to show in this paper, however, Friedrich Nietzsche occupies a fascinating middle ground between the so-called Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment positions, finding a place both for realism and for fantasy in the well-ordered life, and exploring the intricate ways—so intricate, in the case I wish to focus on, that we might not fully grasp them were it not for the careful elaboration offered by Marcel Proust—in which the drive towards and the drive away from knowledge can co-exist, combine, and even co-operate.

Neither a closet worshipper of truth nor a Pragmatist in disguise, still less a Deconstructionist avant la lettre, Nietzsche puts not truth per se but rather the will to truth into question; he generally has no problem drawing on the standard correspondence-to-reality picture, and indeed requires something like this picture in order to make the distinctly un-Pragmatist claim that truth can be inimical to vitality—that illusion is, under certain conditions, to be positively preferred. For the most part, he gladly concedes accurate knowledge to be possible and indeed, on occasion, desirable: his point is simply that it is not an unconditional good, that it should not always be pursued, that it should never be pursued for its own sake, and that it cannot, by consequence, be used as a transcendent value by which to guide activity. Humans, he suggests, are simultaneously driven by a will to truth and knowledge on the one hand and a will to illusion and ignorance on the other, both being indispensable components of a happy and worthy existence.

At Beyond Good and Evil 24, Nietzsche goes even further still. Here he celebrates "how from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance . . . in order to enjoy life! And only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far—the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as its opposite, but—as its refinement!" What is immediately apparent is Nietzsche's dependence on the traditional distinction between truth and untruth, one which allows him to skirt the issue of the nature of truth and discuss instead its value, presenting it as always conditioned by a higher ideal, namely the maximal flourishing of a particular existence. He has already made clear in section 6 that he does not believe that a "drive to knowledge" is "the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument" and is about to specify, later in the book, that the "other drive" in question is the will to power, i.e., to the "growth" and "expansion" of an individual organism.

But there are other important details in the short passage we are looking at. First of all, the word "knowledge" has not one but three antonyms, "uncertainty" and "untruth" accompanying the expected "ignorance." (The same trio returns in section 230, and later at Gay Science 344, so we are hardly dealing with an isolated slip of the pen.) Secondly, not only does ignorance precede knowledge in Nietzsche's history of humankind, but the will to ignorance predates the will to knowledge. And this, finally and most intriguingly, is no mere accident of temporal priority. Far from simply arising belatedly to join its rival drive, the will...

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