I have a paper due and it is about critiquing one of Nietzsche's statements. I have to provide an example for my reason and defense for his.

  • @another_name can you further explain that?
    – guest
    Jun 29, 2019 at 18:53
  • Do you have a source for the quote? This may help someone search its context for an answer. By source I mean, title of the book Nietzsche wrote, chapter and/or page number. Welcome! Jun 29, 2019 at 19:11
  • The Gay Science, section 196
    – guest
    Jun 29, 2019 at 19:19
  • This is what psychologists call confirmation bias:"people tend to test hypotheses... by searching for evidence consistent with their current hypothesis". Why? Because otherwise it may be wide open what to search for, and unclear how. Wittgenstein made a similar point about mathematics in PR:"We may only put a question in mathematics (or make a conjecture) where the answer runs: "I must work it out"". Because it is an idea of how to work it out that gives meaning to a question or conjecture, otherwise it has no use, and hence no meaning.
    – Conifold
    Jun 29, 2019 at 21:18
  • Nietzsche is not big on proofs. This joins his over-arching belief that Truth is but a stabilized Interpretation. It is because we see the red color but not the infra-red that we will ask "why is tomato red?" but not "why is that rock infra-red?". In other words, we filter out Reality, our question are about what we can see, and since our perception is biased, we will only ask some specific questions; our answers are in some sense confirmation to our questions, any fundamental underlying to all of it might just turn out to be a game of mirrors reflecting each other.
    – Gloserio
    Jun 30, 2019 at 7:39

4 Answers 4



First of all, having a paper due means researching sources and reading a lot in the first place. It has to be your original effort, otherwise, you can fail the module. Considering the question, commentaries and papers that involve aphorism 196 are to be found. In the light of this, I deliberately refer to a single source here, a source which can be used but should be weighed against other, preferably more recent publications. We cannot and should not make this work for you.

First step: Understanding the aphorism

You cannot critique or defend something well if you do not fully understand the content. Thus, you have to identify the point he is trying to make.

Monika Langer in her book Nietzsche's Gay Science: Dancing Coherence (Springer:2010) has the following to say (p. 158):

Unfree spirits also tend to follow anybody running in front of them – even someone actually fleeing them. Nietzsche declares unfree spirits are thoroughly “herd”. We saw earlier such adherents ironically pride themselves on being more virtuous than the one they are following. In unmasking various facets of such alleged virtue, Nietzsche tacitly urges us to question ourselves and our age. However, he observes we hear solely questions we can answer. Rushing through life renders us incapable of finding answers requiring reflection.

Nietzsche advises caution in interacting with unfree spirits. They are deaf to numerous questions and happily communicate secrets they claim to conceal.

Thus, her commentary suggests that "we" is alluding to the common man, the unfree spirit incapable of true reflection. They will prise themselves for the mainstream (i.e. "herd") knowledge they are able to reproduce and simply ignore questions that are out of the box and truly questioning the status quo. Thus, one can say that "we" - common humans - "do not hear" - i.e. deliberately ignore - "questions to which we are [in]capable of finding an answer".

Second step: Critique

Critique always includes consideration of arguments in favour of the position or point if it is to be well-graded. Thus, you should try your best to think of - and find sources for - straightforward arguments for and against such a view. I will give some hints which obviously need work and references put into them - since this is what you get your grade for.

First of all, the aphorism cannot be literally true since otherwise, we would not be able to develop new knowledge, either individually or culturally. Nietzsche was aware of that, but critical towards what he conceived to be a sheepish and repetitive culture without any true progress.

What are the possible merits of the aphorism? Some have already been discussed in comments or answers:

  1. Confirmation bias is a psychological fact, people tend to ignore input that does not sit well with their already established knowledge and worldviews.

  2. The inability to understand something that cannot be framed in one's conceptual framework is an epistemological argument. There are plenty of authors defending such a view.

One might want to add the social dimension Nietzsche is often suggesting as well: People thinking out of the box and genuinely questioning the norms and common knowledge tend to be pariahs. Nobody really likes them either because they are so much beyond our own abilities and understanding (genius, Übermensch - envy) or because they make us feel bad for adhering to what they can show us to be wrong (projected self-hatred).

Thus, indeed only few people want to be confronted with these kinds of questions - and so they are commonly ignored by "not hearing" them.

A word on Nietzsche and the kind of philosophy he offers

Given that all this analysis is correct, why didn't he just write that and gave proper arguments? Mainly because he (just as e.g. Schopenhauer) deemed this to be exactly the style so typical for "the herd" and thus beneath his dignity. He thought the argumentative, structured philosophy of Kant to be the epitome of abhorrence (see only two aphorisms earlier). He wrote against such technical, yet herdish philosophy. Accordingly, Nietzsche writes in aphorisms, which are a literary form, a form of the art of writing. Asking him for proofs is misplaced.


The complete aphorism 196 from Nietzsche's The Gay Science is what the OP quoted:

We hear only the questions to which we are capable of finding an answer.

The OP wants to know what Nietzsche's justification for this aphorism might be.

A literal reading of this aphorism suggests that it is not true. One can find questions in a textbook on a subject that we have not studied and actually hear those questions without having any idea of how to answer them. So we can literally hear questions we cannot answer.

What we are not able to do is understand those questions, or at least understand them well enough to suggest how we might try to provide an answer if we wanted one. What Nietzsche may have intended by the word "hear" is "understand". Given that, it still does not seem true. We may be able to understand the question whether an unsolved mathematical conjecture is true or not without being able to find a proof of, or counter-model for, the conjecture.

Perhaps Nietzsche means completely understand a question defining complete understanding as actually being able to find an answer if we wanted to? If that is the case we might be able to rephrase the aphorism as

We completely understand only the questions to which we are capable of finding an answer.

However, that does not sound very profound. It just repeats our definition of "completely understand".

We could then go back to the original aphorism and suggest that Nietzsche's justification for stating the aphorism at all was to get us to think about the relationship between questions, answers and our hearing or understanding them without providing an answer.

  • If we are in the realm of conjecture anyways, wouldn't it be more fitting to understand it as "We (tend to) ignore (i.e. not listen to) questions to which we are not capable of finding an answer"? Mind, this is a translation and there is an ambiguity in the German "hören" which does not exist in English because it is clear-cut between to hear and to listen to.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 30, 2019 at 15:05
  • A cognitive/rational approach to Nietzsche fails in general, it's more so in the case of this aphorism. His statement is a metaphore to the boundries we contend with when wresling with the world, he wish to suggest that we are structured in some very specific manner, one which directs our questions.
    – Gloserio
    Jun 30, 2019 at 18:23

Defense for his statement:

We rely on incoming sense data to formulate a model of the world and act according to that model. But our formulation of the world is heavily constrained by our five senses.

We only see through a tiny slit of reality because of this limitation, therefore our model of the world is simply a rough approximation, which has been developed through the process of evolution for us to survive.

Since our perception of reality exists in this rough approximation of the world that we have conjured, our rationality is also confined within this box. We are incapable of conceiving questions beyond what we are "capable of finding answers to", because the act of asking a question implies one "knows what he does not know".

One cannot ask a question which lies outside the bounds of his conception of reality, because he does not know what he does not know.

  • 1
    Asking questions is not impeded by what "what we don't know", it does not imply one "knows what he does not know", because that would mean it is impossible and useless. Rather, we can have a very clear idea of what we do not know. Also, we are perfectly capable of asking after things that are unknowable, or even impossible - after things that lie beyond our conception of reality - because imagination is not limited by reality.
    – Joachim
    Jun 30, 2019 at 14:33
  • I take your point that imagination is not limited by reality. My point is that our conception of reality itself is limited by our senses. It is impossible for us to imagine outside of our reality. The act of imagination implies concepts of space, time and rationality. How about a reality outside these boundaries? How do we imagine that?
    – Aiden
    Jun 30, 2019 at 16:50
  • Care to cite Nietzsche on any of this? This doesn't sound particularly Nietzschean to me, with talk about sense data and world models. Jul 2, 2019 at 20:01

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished

For me implies we can only answer a question by making sense of its metaphorical structure, and metaphors are rich verbal expressions that leave most things implicit

A sentence metaphor typically likens many things or kinds to many other things or kinds at a single verbal stroke. Benjamin’s terse little aphorism manages to liken works to death masks, conceptions to living human beings, the changes a conception undergoes before being incorporated into a finished work to life, the stabilization and stultification it allegedly undergoes after such incorporation to death—and so on.

Because of Nietzche's anti-essentialist "perspectivism", the truth is a matter of subjective attitudes, and given the ubermensch ideal has no human limits, we may find that the metaphorical structure of question, at least about value, is limitless and un-grounded. Our attempt to understand it will be a reflection of our own triviality or concern

if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you

  • not sure, but does my answer make sense iff every aspect of a question has a corresponding (true) answer?
    – user38026
    Jun 30, 2019 at 20:27

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