From the Underground

“Not just wicked, no, I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure–primarily a limited being.”

“I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man’s everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough”

Notes From the Underground

In my opinion, the Underground Man is perhaps THE non-philosophical embodiment of Nietzsche’s concept of the will to truth and its destructive/nihilistic consequences. And as the section bolded above incidates, the will to truth is a primarily a normative imperative for those under its grasp. Whether the normative force of the will to truth derives from some independent/transcendant source of truth or from underlying psychology is besides the point at this time, because the results are the same for those who possess the will to truth: a constant interior dialectic with the world and the self, and as a consequence of this perpetual dialectic, the inability to believe anything with certainty. Finally, an inability to act.

That the ability or the willingness to assert certain claims as “true” is neutered by the very impulse to find what is “true” is not surprising. After all, for a certain sort of people (over-educated, over-read, taught to be examine everything critically and logically), the need to examine taken-for-granted claims is compulsive. If one engages in this exercise enough, one begins to question a host of “truths,” either because they are revealed to be illogical, empirifically false, or serve an ulterior (ideological, social, political, economic, etc) interest.

This is the first stage: what I call the destructive stage. The second stage is the constructive stage. In this stage, after the “truths” that have been received are systematically knocked down, one begins, out of this ruin, to build another foundation for what is true, by complying with the standards (with a good faith effort of course) of logic, empiricism, and objectivity. At this stage, one is suspectible to become arrogant and condescending, looking down at the “unenlightened” masses and their unexamined “truths.”

Inevitably, however, the will to truth that is directed outwards at the rest of the world turns inwards towards one’s own truths, which are supposedly founded on a much more solid foundation. This third stage is yet again destructive, because in turning the will to truth inwards at oneself, one can’t help but realize one’s own limitations. After one, no reasonable human being can be certain that he is correct, and this certainty is eroded even further for an over-educated man, because the over-educated man subjects himself to much higher standards of truth. He compares himself to other people, tackling the same kind of questions, but who are demonstrably much smarter, whether they be scientists or philosophers. And he also compares his own arguments against the arguments that have been previously raised by these much smarter people. That is when he begins to realize that perhaps his own arguments do not meet the most rigorous standards of logic, or that his empirical claims do not hold up against the most rigorous scientific standards. And perhaps most fatally, he begins to ponder the possibility that his will to truth is not, in fact, motivated only by the desire for the truth for its own sake, but rather for some other, less pure reasons, such as a need to fulfill some kind of psychological deficiency, masochism, the need to feel superior to others, so on and so forth. This is the most fatal doubt, because if one cannot disentangle claims of truth from one’s own person, the truth claims lose their validity, its purity called into question, both by oneself and others.

Here the will to truth reaches its fourth stage: the archaeological stage. Archaeological because the metaphor here is one of digging: to get to the bottom, not only of “truths,” but one’s own process and the motivation for the search for truth. Here one must re-examine everything, one’s method, assumptions, evidence, motivation, psychology, in order to determine one has really made a good faith effort to comply with the strictest and most rigorous standards imposed by the search for truth. But precisely because the man who honestly tries to search for truth imposes such high standards on his own efforts, the archaelogical stage is never-ending, because for every little thing is dug up, one must also examine what underlies that, and so on and so forth. The archaeological stage is self-defeating: in trying to locate the truth outside the self, one must constantly dig ever deeper into the self in order to assure that the “truth” is not adulterated by some failure of self (whether that failure be logical, empirical, or psychological).

Thus, in trying to dig oneself out of holes that could possibly undermine claims of truth, one has only dug the hole deeper into oneself. Is the logical inescapable, and thus deterministic? Perhaps not, but as the Underground Man shows, a certain kind of people, of whom he is perhaps the paradigmatic member, the logic of the will to truth leads to the following. First, it leads to nihilism, because someone who truly tries his best to uncover the truth can almost never be certain that he has found it. And if he is honest with himself, he has to admit to himself that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot completely believe in the certainty of things. Thus, the truths which emerge from this process are themselves constantly subject to renewed efforts of undermining it and then rebuilding it back up.

Second, the logical extreme of the will to truth leads to alienation from society. In order for society, no matter how big or small, to function, certain things must be taken for granted by a majority of its members. But the demand that the will to truth places upon the individual is that he can never “simply” taken these things for granted as true. He must constantly question them, subject them to scrutiny, and most of the time, expose them as illogical or false, whether successfully or in futile; but most of the time, it’s futile, and the futility leads to exclusion. Therefore, this man is in a precarious position in relation to his society: he is unable to take for granted the terms of inclusion, but he also cannot be sure that his own claims can be taken as true in any confident manner. This paradox is especially compounded if the society in question encourages critical examination as a virtue, so long as this critical examination do not examine those “truths” which are constitutive of the society as a whole.

Third, the logical extreme of the will to truth leads to narcissism: in order to try to disentangle the subjective self from allegedly objective truths, this man becomes ever more involved with his own efforts at disentanglement. Ironically enough, this deep narcissism comes about precisely because of the attempt to distance oneself from the the truth.

All of these consequences are described in Notes from the Underground, and in a more abstract fashion, in Nietzsche’s mature philosophical writings. Therefore, it is not surprising that Nietzsche admired Dostoyevsky, even though the two has never met in person. For in both their writings, though coming from vastly different perspectives, the consequences of the will to truth is examined with an unsparing eye. Yet it is also the case that Dostoyevsky’s literary writings are highly philosophical, and Nietzsche’s philosophical writings have a highly literary style. But the two take away vastly different lessons from examining the will to truth: Dostoyevsky advocates a return to Russian Orthodoxy, while Nietzsche rejects religion altogether and calls for people to become Ubermensch, confident of one’s own consciousness, healthy, and courageous enough to create one’s own values.

But is the latter option really available? Is it even possible? Because how does one distinguish between those who are confident of one’s own well-founded beliefs and those who are confident because they do not question received truths or conventional wisdom? Because Nietzsche certainly detested the latter, but he does not provide a systematic account of how the two can be distinguished in reality. Personally, I am not too confident, especially in the aftermath of David Foster Wallace’s suicide. There is no doubt about David Foster Wallace’s intellectual abilities (after all, he studied philosophy as an undergrad and did his thesis on modal logic, hardly an afternoon’s work), nor his sincere efforts to find the truth with a capital T.

If one reads his two collections of essays and criticisms, this good faith effort is readily apparent. He takes post-modernists to task for using irony and other meta-fictional devices as a way to escape engaging with life’s most serious questions (exemplified by a review of a literary biography of Dostoyevsky no less). He is unafraid to try to get to the bottom of ethical questions, exemplified by Consider the Lobster, in which he asks whether it is ethical to boil alive an animal with feelings for pain. But of course, one must distinguish between claims of ethical realism with the claim about whether one has the capacity to find ethical facts.

On the latter, David Foster Wallace admits his own incapability, and this admission is reflected in his copious, exhausting, and often self-undermining use of footnotes, footnotes that call into question the very claims that they are supposed to annotate and supplement. The fact that these footnotes are often accompanied by their own footnotes reflect not only the fact David Foster Wallace thought exhaustively about them, but also his own admission that he cannot, at last, get to the bottom of them. More overtly, in his essays on the Illinois State Fair, his Carribean cruise, and travelling with the 2000 McCain campaign, he shows the torturous process of the will to truth at work. In examining the phenomenon in those essays, he takes an approach that mixes ironic condescenation towards, as well as sincere engagement with those phenomenon on their own terms. In all of those essays, by the end, he is unable to conclude whether he has given these things their fairest account, or whether his own perspective inevitably distorted them.

In his writings, David Foster Wallace embodies the Underground Man, not so much in attitude (spiteful, parodic, sarcastic) as in process (methodical, self-dissecting, unsparing).

But we all know what happened to David Foster Wallace, so I am not so confident that anyone who knows himself to be under the grasp of the will to truth can truly escape its grasp and become something even remotely resembling Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Yet I do not deny its possibility.

I haven’t answered the normative claim asserted by the Underground Man in the passage I quoted at the very beginning: is the will to truth a moral imperative? From a consequentialist point of view, it clearly should not be, because the consequences, as both Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky have shown, are destructive.

Yet it might be the case that one who knows himself to be under the grasp of the will to truth can never escape.


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