The Question of Appearance
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian and the Apollonian deployed a reality-appearance distinction apparently in line with that of Kant and Schopenhauer. Yet Nietzsche came to recognize the misleading way in which he used the term “appearance” (Schein, Erscheinung) in BT, namely in a seeming metaphysical sense contrasted with an underlying “reality” (thus as “mere” appearance). In an 1888 note Nietzsche denies that a metaphysical reality-appearance binary was operating in BT: “truth” there is tragic nihilation and disintegration (T1); the will to appearance is a life-saving formation of meaning for the Greeks, an artistic “lie” that is more primal and more profound than the will to truth.
A central theme in Nietzsche’s philosophy is that traditional forms of knowledge run up against the limit of radical becoming, and that such forms arise from the “fixing” effects of language and grammar. For instance, the flux of phenomena is converted into a series of discrete “facts” because we are misled by the individuated spacing of words (WS 11). Yet Nietzsche often insists that such “errors” are necessary for human functioning and survival. Indeed, identifying these errors is not on that account an objection (BGE 4). In BGE 268, Nietzsche calls the communicating character of words “the most powerful of all powers” because of its life-serving value. Even further, in a notebook passage, after outlining the prejudices of language, Nietzsche adds: “we think only in the form of language. . . . we cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language.” An 1887 note states that the linguistic order of thinking is “a scheme that we cannot throw off” (KSA 12: 5 ). A comparable claim is given in a published work: “we have at any moment only the thought for which we have the words at hand” (D 257). Remarks such as these make it hard to read the “falsification” of experience as fitting any familiar sense of falsehood if one cannot even think outside of such errors, and especially if the fluid excess of becoming cannot really count as a “measure” for any kind of discernible truth.
As indicated earlier, once the traditional binary of reality and appearance is rejected, it does not make sense to talk of “mere” appearance in a deficient sense. The idea of appearance can be given a positive sense of temporal emergence and showing forth (“She appeared from behind the curtain”), which can fit some of Nietzsche’s usage of the term. Indeed, two notebook entries describe appearance as a non-metaphysical reality, which makes possible the constructed forms of meaning that, while ultimately groundless, are necessary for life.
“Appearance” itself belongs to reality (Realität): it is a form of its being; . . . Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; for us it is perfectly real (recht); that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us. . . . the world, apart from our condition of living in it . . . does not exist as a world “in itself,” it is essentially a world of relations: possibly it has a different aspect from every point: its being (Sein) is essentially otherwise (anders) from every point. (KSA 13: 14 )
The world of “phenomena” is the adapted world that we perceive to be real. . . . The antithesis of this phenomenal world is not “the true world,” but the formless unformulable world of the chaos of sensations—thus another kind of phenomenal world, one “unknowable” for us. (KSA 12: 9 )
Here Nietzsche posits two levels of phenomena or appearance: the primal, formless flux of becoming, and the subsequent gathering of this flux into livable forms. Since both are designated as appearance, there is no other “reality” against which either one could be called “apparent” in a deficient sense. Indeed, what the tradition had called the (merely) apparent world is for Nietzsche “the only world” (TI “Reason” 2); the traditional distinction between the apparent world and the true world is in fact a distinction between the actual world and nothing (KSA 13: 14 ). At times Nietzsche exchanges the true-false binary for degrees of appearance (BGE 230, KSA 12: 9 ), that is to say, how apparent something is to us. In GS 54, Nietzsche decisively rejects the distinction between appearance and some opposite “essence” or “thing in itself.” And here Nietzsche identifies his understanding of appearance with “that which lives and acts effectively.” So, appearance—in life—is not mere appearance, because it names real (living) events that nonetheless cannot satisfy traditional standards of metaphysical realism or dogmatic certainty. An 1881 notebook passage pointedly captures Nietzsche’s positive appropriation of appearance: “My philosophy is an inverted Platonism: The further something is from true being, the more clear, beautiful, and better it is. Living in appearance (Schein) is the goal” (KSA 7: 7 ).
What bearing can all this have on coming to terms with Nietzsche’s charge of “falsehood” that we are examining? An 1881 Nachlass passage (KSA 9: 11 ) might help. There Nietzsche distinguishes between three degrees of “error” in relation to an eternal flux: “the crude error of the species, the subtler error of the individual, and the subtlest error of the creative moment (Augenblick).” Species-form is the crudest error because it corrals differences into a common universal. The assertion of the individual is a “more refined error” that comes later, rebelling against commonality in favor of unique forms. But then the individual learns that it itself is constantly changing and that “in the smallest twinkling of the eye (im kleinsten Augenblick) it is something other than it is in the next [moment].” The creative moment, “the infinitely small moment is the higher reality and truth, a lightning image out of the eternal flow.” The “higher reality and truth” of the creative moment is thus an “error” in a quite different sense compared to the species-error and the individual-error.
Even the notorious fragment “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”—the supposed source of Nietzsche’s critique of truth as an erroneous superimposition of stable form onto a stream of flux—shows some leeway in distinguishing creative formation from secured form. The metaphorical transfer of fluid and variable experience to fixed words and concepts is actually preceded by the more original operation of “intuited metaphors” and “images” that are closer to the flux of experience by being singular, unique apprehensions; and such pre-conceptual apprehension is associated with an artistic imagination that does not fall into the trap of fixed words and concepts (TL, 256-58).