Nietzsche on WikiLeaks

The WikiLeaks revelations have not rendered us more free; rather, they show how framed we are and continue to be.

A screen shot of a web browser shows home page with portrait of WikiLeaks founder Assange next to the out of service domain in Lavigny
Nietsche believed that the questioning of official 'truths' was as important as the 'truth' itself [REUTERS]

Barcelona, Spain –
It’s often said that “the truth will set you free”; knowledge of facts will allow you not only to become yourself but also to cherish others for who they really are. Many believe this is what philosophy is all about: thinking, finding, and applying true knowledge in order to become “free”.

This was the case, in part, until the end of the 18th century, that is, before Friedrich Nietzsche reversed our philosophical concepts, religious values and social traditions. Without him, we would not have had Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism, Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism, or Gianni Vattimo’s weak thought; for these and many other distinguished philosophers, Nietzsche’s idea that truths are “illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” brought about the recognition that we live in an age of interpretation where, as the German master himself stated, “there are no facts, only interpretations, and this is also an interpretation”. With these and many other insights – his writings amount to more than twenty volumes – he suggested we all become Übermenschen [“supermen/overmen”], that is, creators of “new values”.

But what would Nietzsche have said about Julian Assange’s courageous organisation and the WikiLeaks revelations that were supposed to change the world? While it is impossible to answer this question directly, given the complexity of Nietzsche’s work and temperament – without even mentioning the fact he died more than 100 years ago, it’s worthwhile to imagine it from a hermeneutic point of view – that is, through the philosophy of interpretation that he helped create. Both his distrust of truth and the figure of the “overman” can help us deal with the important WikiLeaks revelations, regardless of their objectivity.

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Among the first things Nietzsche would probably point out is that the WikiLeaks revelations have not rendered us more free but, on the contrary, show how framed we are and continue to be. The objective facts revealed have not changed the world – but instead invited us to become more suspicious than we already were. While there have been some consequences for specific politicians involved in these revelations, they have been minor considering the truth they exposed. It seems that the more insight we possess into a fact, truth, or origin “the less significant,” as Nietzsche once said, “does the origin appear”.

But why? For example, if we look at the revelations about Anna Politkovskaya’s death, instead of becoming evidence of who ordered the murder, they become confirmations of our initial suspicions of the official truth. Our suspicion is confirmed, not the truth. Nevertheless, being suspicious does not necessarily imply a relativist outcome or demand an end to all of our beliefs; rather, it encourages us to become increasingly involved in history. But is it possible to believe in any information at all when we know it is never disinterested and objective, if it’s even true at all?

From an intellectual point of view, hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, is a position that has widely benefited from the WikiLeaks revelations, because they have confirmed that truth is an effect of interpretation rather than its cause. Much more significant than a “truth” are its consequences, that is, how we deal with its revelations and what they are worth.

Nietzsche’s figure of the overman comes in handy here, because he is capable of realising himself as such, that is, of living his interpretation of the world without needing to believe that it is “true”. In an age such as ours, where important objective truths have been revealed, but remain ineffective because of the interests of the powerful, it’s necessary to manage this conflict of information in such a way as to become involved without taking sides. But how is this possible, and who can stand this conflict of the will to power?

According to Nietzsche, the capable ones will not be the most violent and objectively powerful, as is often believed, but rather “the most moderate, those who have no need of extreme articles of faith… and who can think of man with a considerable moderation of his value and not therefore become small and weak”. Indeed, the bisheriger Mensch, that is, the human being as he has been until now, will continue to have violent reactions and severe neuroses like dogs that have “for too long been kept on the leash”. In sum, the overman becomes an original interpreter, not for theoretical reasons, as if he found a truer word, but rather for existential ones.

Too often, as WikiLeaks demonstrated, we believed in erroneous truths or nonnexistent facts, and perhaps we must continue to do so, given the reactions from its opponents. But this is not the reason hermeneutics invites us to remain suspicious, doubtful, and, if possible, disinterested in truth. Hermeneutics wants all of us to actively interpret the world in terms of models we deliberately choose ourselves, that is, without being dragged down by “illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are”. As I said, it is impossible to predict what Nietzsche would have said, but, given his suspicion of truth and interest in interpretation, it is quite possible he would also have looked with ambivalence at the WikiLeaks revelations.

In sum, the effects of Assange’s action turned out to be similar to the goals of various protests that began in Barcelona and spread through the world last year. The protesters’ plan was not simply to expose the truth but rather to point out that it is artificial, manufactured, and oppressive. Truth will not set us free, but its consequences might – if we learn to interpret them without great expectations. 

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. You can visit his site here.