Dissertation Summary

Semblance and Authenticity: Nietzsche on the Use and Misuse of Illusion


Dissertation Summary


Timothy A. Stoll



In Republic X, Plato famously charges that art produces nothing but mere imitations void of cognitive and ethical import. In stark contrast, Nietzsche’s works consistently accord profound significance to art. In itself, this fact is unremarkable. What is remarkable is that Nietzsche thinks art is valuable not merely in spite of but precisely because it is false or illusory. The view forms one part of his more general contention that philosophers have consistently overestimated the value of truth. My dissertation begins by providing a comprehensive analysis of Nietzsche’s view of the nature and value of art. Situating this position in the important but neglected context of the earlier aesthetic theories of Schiller and Goethe, I offer an overarching interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art structured around the concept of an “aesthetic semblance” (ästhetischer Schein). The resulting reading promises to reshape the interpretation of the role of illusion in Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole in several important ways. Perhaps most significantly, it reveals that Nietzsche’s notorious claim that “untruth” is a condition of cognition is not the radically implausible or obviously self-undermining thesis it is often taken to be.


Chapter 1 provides an exposition of the aesthetic positions of Schiller, Goethe, and Schopenhauer. The analysis is centered on their shared theory of “aesthetic semblance.” I argue that this theory allows them to acknowledge the fact that art trades essentially in illusion, while responding to the old challenge that it is therefore of no cognitive or moral value. According to their theory, in order for a semblance to be aesthetic, whoever is exposed to it must (a) be conscious of the fact that it is an illusion, and (b) take pleasure in it as such, or appreciate it as art. They also take it that condition (b) entails the Kantian principles that aesthetic appreciation concerns the pure form of an object and is in an important sense disinterested. Pace Plato and Rousseau, this position maintains that artistic semblance is not deceptive, and seeks to secure its autonomy from moral value. At the same time, it aims to show that the appreciation of aesthetic semblance is an analogue of the cognition of metaphysical truths and moral ideals and so gives reason to think that art nevertheless provides indirect support for knowledge and morality.


In chapter 2, I show that the Classicist theory of aesthetic semblance had a profound impact on Nietzsche’s early aesthetics, and continued to shape his position on the nature and value of art throughout his career. Specifically, I show how appreciating this connection helps resolve a long-standing interpretive puzzle –– how Nietzsche can insist on the value of art and illusion, while also advocating the thoroughgoing pursuit of truth. The proposed resolution calls attention to two important Nietzschean commitments: (i) that some degree of illusion is a necessary condition of life, and (ii) that the ideal of honesty requires that one not conceal from oneself any necessary aspect of life, no matter how troubling. By appreciating semblance aesthetically, I argue, Nietzsche believes we implicitly attribute value to illusion. Art thus provides crucial support for satisfying the ideal of honesty by making it possible to see the necessity of illusion in a positive light.


Chapter 3 turns to a related problem in the interpretation of Nietzsche’s aesthetics concerning the representational content of art. Nietzsche often seems to suggest that art ought to hide or remove the disturbing or ugly features of what it represents, by “distancing” us from or “veiling” them. Other texts, however, suggest that art must be honest about and even call our attention to these very features. I show that the conception of aesthetic semblance developed in the previous two chapters allows us to make sense of this. Nietzsche follows the preceding tradition in holding that appreciating a representation aesthetically allows us to disengage our normal evaluative and emotional responses towards the subject matter of the work. In this sense, “distance” is a relation that holds between the viewer and the work rather than between the representational content of the work and the world. Nietzsche thus surprisingly continues to endorse a version of the classical notion that aesthetic appreciation is disinterested. In departure from the tradition, however, Nietzsche holds that such appreciation can produce new interests in its object, and so help us find value in what we would otherwise find unimportant, reprehensible, or ugly.


In the fourth chapter, I develop this interpretation into an analysis of Nietzsche’s theory of the nature of aesthetic pleasure. Specifically, I argue that Nietzsche holds that appreciating the form or style an artist imposes on a disturbing or ugly subject matter lends one a feeling power. On the interpretation I offer, this feeling involves a synthesis of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime. In the process of arguing for this interpretation, I illuminate Nietzsche’s perplexing insistence that aesthetics ought to focus on the experience of the “creator” rather than the “spectator.” I show that he does not, as is often assumed, hold the implausible view that aesthetic inquiry should ignore the state of mind in which spectators are placed by a work. Rather, he holds only that what is involved in enjoying a work is best understood by seeing what is involved in its creation. Nietzsche maintains that such inquiry reveals that creations of genius are motivated not by a concern for their spectators but by a desire to increase their creators’ own feeling of power.


In the final chapter, I use my interpretation of Nietzsche’s aesthetics to cast light on his epistemology, specifically on his claim that “untruth” is a condition of “cognition” (Erkenntnis). I reject the usual interpretation of this claim, which takes it as the radical and implausible denial –– sometimes called the “falsification thesis” –– that any human belief is or could possibly be true. Drawing on the discussions of previous chapters, I point out that untruth in Nietzsche is best understood not as misrepresenting or causing to believe falsely, but as being fake, illusory, or inauthentic. I then argue that Nietzsche’s view is that cognition, in the sense of perceptual experience, inescapably involves certain illusions. These include the apparently patent facts of ordinary experience that there are persisting entities that are the ontological bearers of their accidents and stand in genuine causal relations. Together with the observation that illusions need not deceive us, this interpretation shows that Nietzsche’s view is perfectly consistent with the possibility of true belief. Relying on an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy of science that I have developed elsewhere, I argue that the view is also compatible with, and indeed presupposes a claim to considerably robust knowledge of the underlying nature of reality.