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  • Nietzsche’s Free Spirits and the Beauty of Illusion

Nadeem Hussain argues that Nietzsche’s rejection of intrinsic values led him to reject the existence of values generally, but that he wanted his “free spirits” to pretend to believe in (intrinsic) values as a way to avoid practical nihilism. I examine Hussain’s textual evidence and find it unsupportive of and sometimes even hostile to his fictionalist interpretation. I argue that this interpretation ignores what Nietzsche regarded as the value of the knowledge that nothing has intrinsic value, which is to allow his free spirits to go beyond the kind of phenomenology that Hussain claims Nietzsche wanted to preserve for them. Recognizing this central aspect of Nietzsche’s project adds support to the much more natural subjectivist realist interpretation that Hussain rejects en route to his fictionalist interpretation. Finally, I sketch a better-supported interpretation of Nietzsche’s use of pretense in valuation.


nihilism, fictionalism, subjectivism, error theory, free spirits, artists

One of the most important questions in Nietzsche interpretation concerns his views about values and valuation. (In)famously, he seems to deny that values exist and yet clearly makes evaluations, which for most readers are the most interesting or disturbing aspects of his philosophy. It is fairly clear that Nietzsche rejects belief in intrinsic values, understood as values that are not relative to any perspective, desire, drive, attitude, will, goal, and so on. If we recognize this sense in which Nietzsche denied the existence of value, then there is an obvious interpretive move: Nietzsche denied the existence of intrinsic value but believed in (real) relational values, that is, values related to one or more of these “motivated perspectives,” as I shall call them.

I think the obvious move is the correct move. However, Nadeem Hussain argues that Nietzsche cannot hold the relational view, which he calls “subjective realism.”1 Hussain sees Nietzsche as having too fundamental an objection to evaluation as such to think that value claims could be true as they would often be if subjectivist realism were correct. Instead, he argues that Nietzsche was an error theorist about valuation. But rather than counseling his free spirits to live a life devoid of valuing, Nietzsche recommended they engage in a “fictionalist simulacrum of valuing”2 as a way out of the practical nihilism that threatens [End Page 90] upon one’s coming to recognize that nothing has (intrinsic) value. Call this recommendation of how to pretend to value “normative (value) fictionalism.”

In my view, this fictionalist interpretation of Nietzsche is deeply flawed. Its fundamental mistake lies in a failure to recognize a higher goal underlying Nietzsche’s call to truthfulness, especially truthfulness about our valuations. Restricting myself almost entirely to the passages that Hussain marshals in support of his fictionalist interpretation, I maintain that for Nietzsche, the value of the knowledge that there are no intrinsic values is meant to allow his free spirits to go beyond the sort of phenomenology that Hussain argues he wanted to preserve for them. I sketch an alternative, better-supported interpretation of Nietzsche’s use of fiction that meshes easily with my other interpretive claims.

Hussain’s Argument

Hussain argues for two related claims. First, there is an “interpretive puzzle” as to how Nietzsche’s free spirits are supposed to reevaluate and create new values. Second, the solution to this puzzle is that the free spirits are supposed to undertake a fictionalist simulacrum of valuing. The “puzzle” arises from four interpretive constraints:

  1. 1. A central task of Nietzsche’s free spirits is the creation and re-creation of values.

  2. 2. Nietzsche’s free spirit “conceives reality as it is.”

  3. 3. Nietzsche’s nihilism:3 Nietzsche claims that nothing has value in itself and therefore all claims of the form “X is valuable” are false.

  4. 4. There is a close connection drawn in Nietzsche’s works between art, the avoidance of practical nihilism, and the creation of new values.4

From (2) and (3), a free spirit does not believe (or conceive) reality to be such that there are things in reality, or nature, with value in themselves. From the same premises, a free spirit thinks that all claims of the form “X is valuable” are false. Hussain is aware that (3) involves ascribing to Nietzsche a “sweeping error theory” about value.5 Therefore he addresses a subjectivist realist interpretation of passages in which Nietzsche claims that nothing has value in itself. As Hussain describes it, subjectivist realism claims that sentences of the form “X is valuable” can be true, “but in virtue of the object . . . standing in certain relations to agents . . . for example, our having certain attitudes toward the thing.”6

Against this seemingly plausible understanding of how value judgments could be true, Hussain notes that Nietzsche sometimes appears to “raise problems for evaluation in general.”7 Hussain argues that what Nietzsche thinks is wrong with evaluative judgments as such is that they necessarily involve thinking that things [End Page 91] have value in themselves. And since nothing does have value in itself, that makes Nietzsche an error theorist. Further, all free spirits must be error theorists as well, and regard all evaluative judgments as false. However, free spirits are supposed to be engaged in (re)valuation and creation of value. That generates an interpretive puzzle about how Nietzsche thought his free spirits were supposed to engage in such revaluation and creation of value. This brings us to the final interpretive constraint, insisting upon the connection between art, the creation of new values, and the avoidance of practical nihilism. Hussain’s proposal is that Nietzsche wanted his free spirits to engage in “a simulacrum of valuing” or “make-believe” that there are values, while knowing that there are not.8

By Hussain’s own lights, a central feature of his interpretive strategy is that “Nietzsche [is] making a phenomenological claim about the practice of valuing in which he finds his contemporaries engaged.”9 The claim is that Nietzsche’s contemporaries experience objects as having value in themselves. Moreover, the phenomenology that comes with perceiving things as having value in themselves “will have to be saved” in order for the free spirits to retain the “appropriate intensity of emotion and motivation.”10 To quote Hussain again, “The pretense must succeed in providing me with a sense that my life has a goal and purpose.”11 According to Hussain, the only way to succeed in that is to keep (what I will call) an “intrinsicist” phenomenology of evaluation, and the way Nietzsche recommended his free spirits achieve that phenomenology without violating (2) is to engage in the creation of “honest illusions,” or fictions that the free spirits know are fictions.

Beautiful Illusions or Illusions of Beauty?

Hussain cites several passages in which Nietzsche describes art as having a “good conscience” in its “will to deception.” According to Hussain, Nietzsche thinks art functions to “prevent the drive to knowledge” from destroying the “evaluative illusion.”12 He provides the following example of how art can generate illusions even though we know they are illusions: a painting using a certain technique to display a water jug seems out of focus when seen up close, but when we step back, the water jug appears again. We can “see” the water jug while knowing that it is an illusion.13 But is this an evaluative illusion? Suppose that seen from the proper distance the painting strikes one as beautiful, and seen from up close it does not. It seems that the illusion is not itself evaluative, but that the illusion is evaluated as beautiful.

I think missing this crucial distinction is a primary source of Hussain’s mis-interpretation of the role of art for free spirits. For if we ask the question, “Why back up rather than stand close?,” the answer will be something like, “In order to appreciate (or experience) the beauty of the painting.” This suggests a value (aesthetic experience) in the service of which one backs up to the proper distance. This is in fact the role of artists, to generate and appreciate beauty, as a value in [End Page 92] itself or as a means to some “higher goal.” So the evaluation of the painting as beautiful need not involve any illusion.

The obvious retort for Hussain here is to say that the example of the painting was not meant to be an example of an evaluative illusion, but only an example of how art can accomplish a general task, namely, generating effective illusions despite knowing their illusoriness. The task for free spirits, then, would be to take this ability and extend it from the realm of art to life more generally, including and especially the creation of their own evaluative illusions. This appears to be precisely the move Hussain wants to make, drawing upon GS 299 to argue that it is necessary to be artists rather than merely appreciators of art.14 In GS 299, Nietzsche asks the question, “How can we make things beautiful, attractive and desirable for us when they are not? And I rather think that in themselves they never are.”15 The problem for Nietzsche, I think Hussain and I would agree, is that things are not valuable in themselves, but people nevertheless conceive of and experience them as if they were. Where we disagree is that Hussain thinks that Nietzsche wants to find a way to hang on to that type of experience, while I think that moving beyond that experience is essential to Nietzsche’s project.

With these two rival interpretations in mind, let us further examine the passage on which Hussain relies to provide Nietzsche’s answer to how we can learn to make things beautiful, attractive, and desirable to us when in themselves they are not:

Here we could learn [. . .] from artists who are really continually trying to bring off such inventions and feats. Moving away from things until there is a good deal that one no longer sees and there is much that our eye has to add [. . .] seeing things so that they partially conceal each other and grant us only [. . .] perspective, or looking at them through tinted glass or in the light of the sunset; or giving them a surface and skin that is not fully transparent—all this we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life begins, but we want to be the poets of our life [. . .].

(GS 299, emphasis added)

Hussain moves directly from this quotation to the conclusion that art “provides a source for techniques that, suitably refined, could help us succeed in regarding things as valuable outside the domain of art proper.”16 I think Hussain is on exactly the right track in understanding Nietzsche as wanting his free spirits to move outside the domain of art proper, and therefore an understanding of what Nietzsche thought that artists were doing within that domain is crucial to understanding how he wanted his free spirits to operate outside it. Now, if we accept the above interpretation that artists within the domain of art proper create beautiful illusions, rather than the illusion that things are beautiful, then for Hussain the move outside the domain of art proper is a move from creating beautiful illusions to creating the illusion that things are beautiful or valuable. That must be the suitable refinement we are to make on Hussain’s reading. The alternative is to insist that what the artists are doing within the domain of art proper is creating the illusion that things are beautiful in themselves while [End Page 93] knowing that they are not. Then the free spirits are to expand this, rather than the former, talent into everyday matters.

Aside from what I take to be the deep implausibility of the latter interpretation of what artists do, there are good textual reasons for thinking that Nietzsche would have preferred the former interpretation. In fact, one need look no further than the last lines of GS 299 itself, where Nietzsche impugns the wisdom of artists, suggesting that their power is confined to their art. If we take on the latter interpretation, in which artists create the illusion that objects are beautiful in themselves, while knowing that they are not, then we are attributing a wisdom to artists that Nietzsche seems to think is reserved for himself alone, or at least only the very few and very wise (in this matter at least).

On the contrary, if we take the “honesty” of artists’ illusions to consist in valuing the beautiful over the true, and thereby directing their efforts toward the creation of beautiful illusions, with the good will to self-deception that arises from acting in accordance with one’s values (as opposed to telling oneself that one values truth above all, then proceeding to deceive oneself systematically), then we see their activities as simply the creation of illusions that are beautiful. Their honesty resides in the fact that they do not tell themselves that their beautiful illusions are real or true; they have no psychological need of this sort of deception, since their values are differently ranked.

I take it that this latter interpretation of what artists do is far more plausible in its own right, and so if we had no evidence in either direction, we ought to ascribe it to Nietzsche out of charity. But we do have good textual reasons for ascribing it to him, and none that I can see for ascribing the alternative. If this interpretation is correct, then it seems Hussain should make a case that the “suitable refinement” recommended for the free spirits is to move from making beautiful illusions to generating the illusion that things are beautiful or valuable in themselves. There are no textual sources or arguments provided, nor am I aware of any, that would legitimate the idea that this is what Nietzsche had in mind when talking about moving from “art” to “life.”

Nevertheless, if Hussain is correct that Nietzsche thinks that an intrinsicist phenomenology will have to be saved, then perhaps he would be attracted to a kind of fictionalism. But what evidence is there for this interpretive claim? Here Hussain footnotes (but does not quote either of) two sources, GS 301 and TI “Skirmishes” 24. These passages are cited in support of the claim that art can show us “how we can recreate the desired phenomenology more honestly.”17 I cannot see how either passage supports this idea. Begin with GS 301. To me, the passage seems to be saying that if we (“the Contemplatives”) could keep in mind the fact that it is we who create values, and not always forget it immediately, we would be prouder, would be happier, and would better recognize our greatest power. Art is relevant because as a matter of fact “we the contemplatives” are the poets of our lives and create values for ourselves as well as the “actors” [End Page 94] (as opposed to contemplatives) of mankind. We bestow value “as a present” in “value-less” nature—“But precisely this knowledge we lack, and when we occasionally catch it for a fleeting moment, we always forget it again immediately; we fail to recognize our best power [. . .]” (emphasis added). There is nothing here suggesting that we ought to or must save an intrinsicist phenomenology; rather, the advice seems to be that we should recognize (and remember) the lack of intrinsic value in nature so that we might be prouder and happier in the recognition and use of our best power.

The other passage, TI “Skirmishes” 24, seems to fare no better, and in fact it fares worse for Hussain’s case, for there Nietzsche says that art strengthens or weakens certain valuations. It praises, glorifies, selects, and highlights.18 In fact, the passage is a rejection of “art for art’s sake.” Nietzsche claims that the artist’s “basic instinct” is “directed toward the meaning of art, which is life.” It is unclear how selectively praising and highlighting helps show us how to create the phenomenology that value is intrinsic to objects. Rather, it suggests that artists generate illusions that are in the service of their “life,” which either is itself a value, or stands in for some other(s); in either case, I can see no reason to believe Nietzsche thought of them as fictions. And again, I can see nothing in this passage that would support the idea that an intrinsicist phenomenology should or must be retained.

Finally, Hussain brings us to what I take to be one of the most important passages for an understanding of Nietzsche’s primary concerns. It is “On the Three Metamorphoses” from part I of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I think it is also one of the most telling passages against the idea that Nietzsche’s free spirits need to retain an intrinsicist phenomenology. Hussain employs it to make a connection between play and art, highlighting the importance of illusion in both. I reproduce his excerpts here:

My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? [. . .]

To create new values—that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself for new creation—that is within the power of the lion. [. . .] To assume the right to new values—that is the most terrifying assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much.

(Z I: “On the Three Metamorphoses”)

And then:

But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes.” For the game of creation, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.

(Z I: “On the Three Metamorphoses”)19

For Hussain, the lesson here is that “the child . . . is capable of forgetting not just old schemes of valuations, but . . . in a manner similar to the artist, can [End Page 95] engage in the ‘forgetfulness’ of imaginative play and thus create a new ‘game’ of valuing. The child ‘wills his own will’ by picking a new evaluational ‘game’ rather than allowing his own will to be guided by an externally given scheme of evaluations.”20

This reading, however, ignores the role of the lion. I think it is a crucial message of this aphorism that the spirit, in order to create new values, must move away from a conception and phenomenology of intrinsic, external value. That is the role of the lion. It is crucial that the lion does not create values. What the lion does is create freedom for new creation. The way he does this is by transforming “Thou shalt” into “I will.” The dragon and its “thou shalt” are the lion’s “last master” and “last god.” “‘Thou shalt’ lies in his way, sparkling like gold. [. . .] He once loved ‘thou shalt’ as most sacred.” I take it that this transformation is highly phenomenological. It is the phenomenological difference between “I must not (it is my duty not to) betray my friend” and “I will not betray my friend.” The first summons an experience of a value that stands outside my desires or will commanding nonbetrayal, while the second suggests an experience of a value that is mine; it is I who command or will nonbetrayal. There is no suggestion that the lion rejects values any more than he creates them. So it is not the task of the lion to reject the “[v]alues, thousands of years old,” but rather to “no longer call [them] lord and god.” The lion acts in accordance with the traditional values, but he experiences himself as willing those values. He “conquers his freedom” by experiencing the value of those values as arising from his own will. If one experiences the “authority” of one’s values as coming from within, then one will have “assume[d] the right to new values—[which] is the most terrifying assumption” (emphasis added).

On my reading, it is very much the change from an intrinsicist phenomenology to a subjectivist or relationalist phenomenology brought about by the lion that makes the child’s creation possible. I therefore find it highly unlikely that Nietzsche meant for the child to fall back on a discarded phenomenology after creating his new values.

Nietzsche’s Fiction

I agree with Hussain that art and fiction play a role in combating practical nihilism for Nietzsche, and I think that that role does involve “coloring the world.” However, I think this function for art is in the service of some real, non-fictional value(s). For support and an example of how I think this works, let us consult the preface of Human, All Too Human, where after more than six years, Nietzsche looks back on the work he subtitled A Book for Free Spirits. In the first aphorism, we find Nietzsche speaking very explicitly about the role of art and fiction in his philosophy and life. [End Page 96]

In HH P:1, Nietzsche writes that he “had artificially to enforce, falsify and invent a suitable fiction for [himself] (—and what else have poets ever done? and to what end does art exist in the world at all?).” This might appear to help Hussain’s cause at first glance, until we see why Nietzsche did this; it was because he “needed [. . .] the belief that [he] was [. . .] not alone in seeing as [he] did.” He lists examples of his “having employed a certain amount of ‘art,’ a certain amount of false-coinage.” These include not having opened his eyes to Schopenhauer’s “blind will to morality,” not having realized the nature of “Wagner’s incurable romanticism,” as well as his own motivated opinions about the Greeks and Germans. These bits of false coinage appear to be not the creation of fictional values but rather the creation of a “fiction” that supports values already in place, namely a certain kind of “truthfulness.” Nietzsche “require[d]” this self-deception, and perhaps much more, as a “higher safeguarding” of the ability to pursue his sort of truthfulness. This notion of a “higher goal” in the service of which fictions are to be employed appears in HH P:6 as well. Nietzsche calls upon his free spirits to “get control over [. . .] and learn how to display [their For and Against] in accordance with [their] higher goal.” We have no reason to think this higher goal is itself fictional.


Hussain’s fictionalist proposal goes fundamentally wrong in its failure to recognize a higher goal underlying Nietzsche’s call to truthfulness. On Hussain’s interpretation, one has the impression that Nietzsche wants his free spirits to conceive reality as it is as a free-floating injunction or fundamental (intrinsic?) value. This is not at all a Nietzschean attitude. As we can see in GS 301, Nietzsche wants his free spirits to know the nature of their valuations because it is “[their] best power.” On my view, Nietzsche did not view the injunction to conceive reality accurately as an independent criterion that must then be squared with both theoretical nihilism and the value of creating new valuations. Rather, understanding and internalizing the nature of valuation is valuable for free spirits (at least in large part) because of the role it plays in creating the freedom for new valuations, which in turn requires a different way of experiencing one’s life: “It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged—but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for reasons other than hitherto. We have to learn to think differently—in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently” (D 103). [End Page 97]

Eric Campbell
Georgetown University


1. Nadeem J. Z. Hussain, “Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits,” in Nietzsche and Morality, ed. Brian Leiter and Neil Sinhababu (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 157–91.

2. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 158.

3. I agree that Nietzsche rejected intrinsic values and am happy to call this Nietzsche’s (theoretical) nihilism. However, Hussain includes the dissociable and far more controversial error-theoretic interpretation under the heading of “Nietzsche’s nihilism” in a way that I find potentially misleading.

4. Quoted from Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 158, 159, 164.

5. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 159.

6. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 161.

7. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 162.

8. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 170.

9. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 172.

10. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 173–74.

11. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 174.

12. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 171, emphasis added.

13. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 169.

14. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 171–72.

15. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974). Other translations employed in this article: Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); The Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 1968).

16. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 172.

17. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 173, emphasis added.

18. “[W]hat does all art do? does it not praise? does it not glorify? does it not select? does it not highlight?”

19. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 173; this excerpt is his own translation.

20. Hussain, “Honest Illusion,” 174. [End Page 98]

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