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I came across this philosophical thought.

There are no facts, only interpretations

written by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

I tried to understand it but cannot get a satisfying answer. What does he mean with this quote?

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    Maybe that you cannot truly know anything for sure? That everything you percive from the outside world is only your brains interpretation of reality. So it would be possible that we live in a video game or that you are actually the only living thing and everyone else is part of your imagination. I personally would still say that there ARE facts but that we cannot know them for sure. – basilikum Jun 20 '13 at 10:02
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    Looks like Kant: we can't know the noumenon, we only know the phenomena. More importantly: where does Nietzsche say this? Reference is good :) – Keelan Jun 20 '13 at 10:09
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    Bonus question: Does this quote state a fact? ;) – DBK Jun 20 '13 at 11:58
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    "Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying "there are only facts," I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations".Notebooks, (Summer 1886 – Fall 1887). It seems the ages old debate realism versus antirealism. – Annotations Jun 20 '13 at 12:15
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    Then by implication if this is true then your statement is also a interpretation. Seems like it is self defeating unless you are trying to prove their are no facts. – Neil Meyer Jun 25 '13 at 14:51

15 Answers 15

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An important thing to keep in mind when reading Nietzsche is that most of the time he is trying to reveal things through insights.

The point of this particular quotation is to reveal the assumption at the base of many philosophies (in this case, most specifically positivism): that objective facts exist.

Positivism holds, roughly, that the phenomena we observe through our senses are physical in nature and that they actually happen in a material world. Thus positivists take these phenomena as objective fact and use it for their world-explanation, for example by making physical laws. Nietzsche's statement is that fundamentally, positivists are interpreting observed phenomena as physical (instead of non-physical, e.g. Berkeley), and real, when in fact they have no definite justification to do so. Thus, facts are really the subjective result of information: there is nothing necessarily "true" about them, other than how they fit into a particular interpretation.

Just as the interpretation of a book is up to the reader, so too is Nietzsche pointing out that the interpretation of our world is up to the person observing. Now, here he does not make any claim as to whether, as with a book, there is an "author" who intended a particular meaning that we are supposed to pick up on, and that this meaning is the "correct" interpretation, but holistically that idea would probably be repugnant to Nietzsche: he effectively rejects all teleology, metaphysics, and meaningful notion of truth, which leaves no room for there to be a "correct" interpretation of the world.

Ultimately what this means is that, to Nietzsche, it is much less important whether we "understand" how the world "works" (if that is even a meaningful thing to say), and much more important that we develop an interpretation that works for us. One of Nietzsche's primary themes is the advance of humanity into a stronger (intellectually, culturally, and maybe physically) race, and the proper interpretation of the world could aid in achieving this. In Nietzsche's terms (and this is straying from this quotation against positivism to a generalized summary of Nietzsche), this would be the interpretation that best frees us from life-rejecting restraints such as Good vs Evil and lets us become stronger by exercising our will to power and working toward the overman.

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    Would you consider Nietzsche a pragmatist? If so, comparing his thought to pragmatism (something I am just beginning to study) may be enlightening. – labreuer Oct 23 '13 at 23:28
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    I would disagree with this interpretation of Nietzsche, or at least flag that there are grounds for significant disagreement. Nietzsche, for all his rambunctious, poetic, assertions—especially in notes, as above—that sometimes conflict with one another, assumes a basically Aristotelian position that there are objective states of flourishing for human beings. He spends so much effort trying to undermine conventional ideas, though, that it's possible to miss what he relies on to support his own. He's neither an antirealist about truth and values nor a pragmatist. – ChristopherE Oct 24 '13 at 14:19
  • @commando: I think this is stupid statement. " In order to stay alive you need to eat" - this is truth, so what is there to argue about? – user13599 Feb 6 '15 at 11:32
  • What means "the proper interpretation"? Otherwise, great answer. +1 – Richard Kayser Aug 30 '16 at 12:37
  • Nietzsche says there is no objective truth. But he seems so objectively confident about the truth value of his statement! Doesn't it give birth to a circle? – Mockingbird Feb 18 '17 at 23:59
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The quote gave me some problems as well, but as I understand it, Nietzsche is here taking a very basic position in contemporary philosophy. Regardless of what facts exist "out there", what we always have and can only have are interpretations of them in our mind. There is no presumed identity between the contents of our mind and the facts out there, and in fact we have no direct access to facts under this strict definition. This does not mean that we cannot do science, or that we must become antirealists. It just means that the principles whereby we are realists; consistency, stability, facticity etc... are necessarily our interpretations as humans, as cultures, etc...

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    I wouldn't say that position is basic in modern philosophy, but it is pretty common in late 19th century and contemporary philosophy. It's a feature of post-Kantian philosophy to make this claim. – virmaior Sep 15 '14 at 10:47
  • You are correct. I was using "modern" in a lax manner, to mean late-modern contemporary. – theodoulos Sep 15 '14 at 14:01
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To understand this idea, you need to go back to Nietzsche's insight that there can be no apprehension of reality without a perceiving mind. (Makes sense, right?) As beings we are perceivers: we must be in order to even see and judge something a fact. There is no perception without a human subject--but so long as the filter of human subjectivity is present we simply lack a basis for calling anything a fact. The human mind isn't a camera snapping pictures of things; it isn't a passive neutral mirror. We are always emotionally engaged and influenced when we perceive, no matter how detached we try to make ourselves. And that is why we're never in a position to call something an objective fact. In the final analysis, all we can ever do is interpret.

That doesn't mean our perceptions are illusory. It just means they will always be infused with meaning. And we can't get that meaning out of the picture.

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According to Leiter of Chicago, in the SEP

[Nietzsche does not claim] that there are no truths or facts about anything, let alone truths about value — a reading which has now been widely discredited. There is, on the skeptical view at issue here, a special problem about the objectivity of value

I asked a similar question here

The quote you have is from Nietzsche's notebooks. Assuming he does indeed mean there are some facts, you may want to look at the Twilight of the Idols, which begins

My demand of the philosopher is well known: that he take his stand beyond good and evil and treat the illusion of moral judgment as beneath him. This demand follows from an insight that I was the first to articulate: that there are no moral facts. Moral and religious judgments are based on realities that do not exist. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena — more precisely, a misinterpretation.

Emphasis mine.

The question then becomes whether or not Nietzsche's own values are facts, to which there seems to be a sizeable secondary literature dedicated to. Regardless, not all value is "beneath" Nietzsche, and not all are "misinterpretations" in the same way.

In conclusion: I would read the phrase as meaning that all value judgements, his own too, are to be judged according to who they grant power to.

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Nietzsche did believe in the existence of an objective reality, which he considered self-evident. However, he also believed that we have no means of ascertaining its nature, and that our assertions about this objective reality are fundamentally subjective and often wrong.

When he says that there are no facts, he means that there is so absolute truth with respect to any assertion we make about the objective reality we live in.

Here are some more quotes that clarify this.

Judgment is our oldest belief, our most habitual holding-true or holding-untrue, an assertion or denial, a certainty that something is thus and not otherwise, a belief that here we really 'know'...

— Will to Power

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms - in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

— On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

— Daybreak

What are man's truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors.

— The Gay Science

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Karl Marx said the same thing, perhaps more eloquently.

Everything solid melts into air.

In other words, whatever your conclusions might be to all things. Either looked at through a different framework, seen with a different perspective or seen in a difference light - however you wish to 'coin' it. You will always get a different interpretation. The answer will never be the same twice and particularly the case with others involved. Knowing this, your only way to proceed, is to remain humble and open. Then life will be ever fresh, ever new.

If you don't like the concept, never discuss politics or religion. Nietzsche was just stating the obvious.

How much are you prepared not to know.

  • "your only way to proceed, is to remain humble" It's hard to imagine a conclusion less in keeping with Nietzsche's views. – CriglCragl Feb 17 '18 at 12:20
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Is light a particle or a wave? It depends entirely on the procedure used to measure it. Its the observer effect in physics. Additionally, in order for anything to be observed at all, light must first interact with it, which changes the state of that which is observed. In Quantum Mechanics there are truly only interpretations. And yes, 'reality' is that small.

  • That badly misunderstands physics and Nietzsche. There are a host of different interpretations of quantum mechanics, all of which deal with particle and wave behaviour. Nietzsche is talking about interpretations as an act of will, of character, not simply as a result of what apparatus you use. – CriglCragl Feb 17 '18 at 12:26
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Friedrich Nietzsche has also another quotation which can be related and interlinked with this one, "You have your own way. I have my way. As for the right way, correct way and the only way, it does not exist". What Nietzsche is trying to convey is the concept of 'individualism', that every man is free in how he looks at facts! When looking at a book, one might see the cover, another might see the side of the book... so their interpretations about the book will be different and one can not say that one of them is right and the other is wrong.

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    "that every man is free in how he looks at facts"—Nietzsche would not agree with this, because he rejects that 'fact' is distinct from 'how he looks at'. – labreuer Oct 24 '13 at 5:04
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Well it seems that it is a reply to the nihilist who claims we only know scientific facts.

See the term perspectivism.

It seems that it's not just an ethical position but one about all truth, epistemology. So is Nietzsche advocating a kind of pragmatism, that the criterion of truth is whatever helps strengthen the higher man?

I'm not so sure. I think that we can say that it's BOTH a fact what number I throw when I roll the dice, AND that my knowledge of it is not independent of interpretation.

Just like a metaphor can be about something objective but is not an expression that is absolutely true, however fine the parallel is. So we end up with the pragmatic maxim but one that provides us with stronger flourishing higher men, rather than actual truth.

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Without context it's difficult to make out exactly what N means by this. It's certainly not true that there are no facts, and that all there is are interpretations.

The science of interpretation of texts is called hermeneutics; it's broadly applied in the Humanities: law, history & philosophy; not every interpretation is equally valid, and there are different interpretative strategies - the literal & the analogical, for example.

The positive sciences, such as physics or biology establish facts: it's certainly is a fact that the speed of light is c.

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    @mozibirullah It's a meaningless "fact" insofar as c is no more than a symbol representing the speed of light. It's more like a tautology. A better example might have been that "nothing" can travel faster than the speed of light in "vacuum". – Richard Kayser Aug 15 '16 at 2:10
  • @kayser: writing c is shorter than writing 300,000,000 km/s; it's also means I don't have to recall the exact value; I take your point though that a simpler fact might have been more appropriate. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 15 '16 at 14:25
  • @mozibirullah There may still be a problem. In the international system of units (the SI units, as you know), c Is comsidered a fundamental physical constant, an intrinsic property of "nature", and the value of c is defined as 299 792 458 m/s. So perhaps that c is a fundamental constant is the "fact" rather that the value of c having this or that defined value. – Richard Kayser Aug 15 '16 at 15:20
  • @kayser: the problem is that I don't want to write an essay; you're welcome to write own answer, rather than misrepresenting mine. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 15 '16 at 20:34
  • :-) I am not misrepresenting your answer. Just taking part of it at face value. You seem to be having trouble identifying a "fact" produced by the "positive" sciences, which put forward hypotheses and theories that are then supported or not by experimental evidence. In any event, they are always subject to change based on new evidence. I find our exchange ironic and amusing given the question. – Richard Kayser Aug 15 '16 at 21:59
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I believe that for Nietzsche, facts, interpretations and activities are always tied together. By 'facts' N. refers to things which confront the individual as external constraints and which the individual cannot control.

An example: There is a writing in Genealogy of morals where N. briefly discusses witch-hunts: "Just remember the notorious witch-trials: at the time, the most perspicacious and humane judges did not doubt that they were dealing with guilt; the witches themselves did not doubt it, – and yet there was no guilt"

For me the point of this passage is that there used to be an activity called witch-hunting which was important for people at some time. It had its interpretation (deviants and outcasts making pacts with the devil), its facts (diseases plaguing a community, deviants acting weird) and activities (moral panic, trials and accusations) which were felt by people at that time.

Facts always require seriousness from people and try to convince that they are eternal and never change. N. is pointing out with this example that the facts of witch hunting were tied to interpretation which was prevalent at certain time. As times have changed, people no longer dabble in witch hunts. N. is claiming that this applies to all human activities.

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One of Heidegger's insights is that our world is not primarily composed of Cartesian objects with properties. Rather it is composed of tools with affordances - operations that you can undertake with the tool, ie. "openings for action". Objects with properties can be derived as a secondary analysis - but objects are not what is primarily given to us. Consequently our first understanding of a/the world arises from acting within it, ie. #playing. Probably not even "tools with affordances" ... because what determines the toolness of the tool is the set of affordances ... so primarily what is given is a set of affordances.

Furthermore our grounded-ness in the world is not primarily through the metaphor of the eye (perception) but through the metaphor of the hand (action). It is not perception that provides access to reality, but that does not mean that nothing does. We know our actions are consistent with the nature of reality because they work (and when they don't work, we know they're not consistent). Something to appreciate about action is that as it becomes more masterful, it also becomes more transparent. So our grounded-ness is also ultimately transparent. This is not the same as saying that there are no grounds. It simply says that the grounds lie in transparent action, not in describable perception.

Nietzsche's thinking formulates a similar idea. Acting within the world, we could say, is the ultimate form of interpreting it. If our action is effective, we could say we are doing a good job with how we are interpreting what is happening. And Nietzsche's "no facts", points us towards the transparency of effective action. The skill of the craftsman does not exist as a list of facts ... he simply "knows what he is doing".

  • This definitely is an interesting answer but a few citations would really help ground it! – Joseph Weissman Jul 12 '17 at 19:18
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For anything of pertinent value, the interpretations become more important than the fact itself since there is more than one view. Therefore the interpretations are more important than the fact itself. Therefore there are no facts only interpretations.

  • If you have references to people taking a similar view this would support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Jun 14 at 13:27
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@commando's answer was great!

As I've never read any of Nietzsche's work, I am going to practice exactly as stated in the quote and provide my own interpretation of what it means and some additional thoughts.

Using science as my basis, any accepted answer to explain something is simply a collectively agreed upon explanation or interpretation. At any moment, this "answer" could be proven or disproven to show the validity. If disproven, the explanation is no longer used. Continued proofs further strengthen the validity but never completely solidifies the argument as fact. I suppose that after a long enough period of time of proving an explanation in a particular manner and after enough people have agreed upon the explanation that it could feel like a fact, but the truth is that the explanation could be disproven at any moment and thus would no longer be a fact. Thanks Wikipedia: In mathematics, a theorem is a statement that has been proven on the basis of previously established statements, such as other theorems—and generally accepted statements, such as axioms. An axiom or postulate is a premise or starting point of reasoning. As classically conceived, an axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy.

I wonder then how Nietzsche compares and contrasts truth and fact. Can something be self-evident and not a fact? In a sense, yes, because it is still in how YOU perceive/interpret it compared to how I perceive/interpret it. "Generally accepted" still means that a great number of individuals have all interpreted something in the same manner or were incapable of interpreting it in a different way.

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here's a fact: if you walk into a wall you'll hurt yourself. interpret that any way you like, you'll still hurt yourself if you ignore your perceptions, i.e., reality-fact; or eat poison, if you live you might not ignore that fact-reality again. facts/reality stand is what it is regardless of how you might interpret it. note, interpret it at your risk and/or pleasure.

  • But how can you be certain that the perceptual phenomena is not illusory? How do you know that there's such a thing as a "reality-fact" at all? – commando Aug 27 '16 at 21:43
  • well, if you walk off a steep cliff and die, you'll never know, but if you bump into a wall enough times you'll figure it out – stephen v watson Aug 28 '16 at 13:16
  • Commando, one's very existence depends on one's interpretation of reality. the better one is at it the greater one's chances of survival, etc., etc., etc. Could it be any other way? it is the same for all living things. – stephen v watson Aug 28 '16 at 13:39

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