“Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits” Nadeem J. Z. Hussain

The Philosopher's Annual 27, Patrick Grim, Ian Flora and Alex Plakias, eds, 2007. (This article first appeared in B. Leiter & N. Sinhababu, eds, Nietzsche and Morality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 157-191.)

Most scholars agree that Nietzsche’s critique of morality is his most enduring philosophical legacy. However, there is no consensus on the precise nature of Nietzsche’s “positive ethical vision” (Leiter 2004). Moreover, there are thorny metaethical issues surrounding Nietzsche’s positive ethics which make it difficult to give a coherent account of what he intended. For example, how do we reconcile (1) Nietzsche’s attack on traditional morality with (2) his call for a “revaluation of all values” (A 62)? Furthermore, how can Nietzsche’s call for the creation of new values avoid succumbing to the same criticisms that he himself launches against the old ones?

Hussain argues that Nietzsche’s “genuine philosophers” and “free spirits” should view their philosophical task as the practice of a “fictionalist simulacrum of valuing.” First, I will discuss the “interpretive puzzle” that leads to this conclusion. Second, I will discuss the conclusion itself. As a metaethicist, Hussain is concerned with second-order questions. Even so, the philosophical commitments he assigns to Nietzsche should have far-reaching implications for those whose first-order assumptions regarding Nietzsche’s positive ethical vision have already been settled.

Hussain claims there are four interpretive constraints that together give rise to an interpretive puzzle. First, Nietzsche’s free spirits are tasked with creating new values. In so doing, they have to be careful not to merely reproduce the old ones. Second, Nietzsche’s free spirits view reality “as it is” rather than how it appears to be. That is to say, they have the ability to cope with the truth of reality without needing the anesthetic of  idealism or the supernatural. Third, Nietzsche is not only an error theorist about moral claims, but all evaluative claims in general. Put simply, Hussain argues that Nietzsche views all such claims as false. Finally, Hussain states that there is a “close connection drawn in Nietzsche’s works between art, the avoidance of practical nihilism, and the creation of new values.” This last interpretive constraint points the way forward. Art helps us to create new values as it shields us from the practical result of the belief that there is nothing worth valuing. This latter claim is triggered by the natural sciences in their “depiction of the world as lacking value in itself.” Given the foregoing, Hussain’s interpretive puzzle becomes clear: “So the interpretive puzzle is how can we make sense of the importance of values and valuing in Nietzsche’s higher men and free spirits—including, importantly, himself—while staying within our interpretive constraints?”

Nietzsche’s free spirits will create “honest illusions.” According to Hussain, this should be understood as a “form of make-believe, pretending, or, the non-Nietzschean phrase adopted here, ‘regarding…as’: S values X by regarding X as valuable in itself while knowing that in fact X is not valuable in itself.” Prima facie, an honest illusion may seem like a contradiction in terms. To be honest is to have an unswerving dedication to truth. An illusion is a false view of reality. Art creates illusions. Nevertheless, we can have a gratifying aesthetic experience of a work of art, while fully recognizing that such an experience is based on our interaction with an illusory object. Hussain explains: “Art understands that its illusions are illusions without the illusions themselves being undermined.”

How then does Nietzsche’s free spirits go about the practice of a simulacrum of valuing in a fashion analogous to art? In other words, how does his free spirits create their own honest illusions? Arguably, a passage towards the end of the Second Treatise of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality not only exemplifies what Nietzsche envisions but also acts as further evidence for Hussain’s thesis:

Let this suffice once and for all concerning the origins of the “holy God.”—That in itself the conception of gods does not necessarily lead to this degradation of the imagination, which we could not spare ourselves from calling to mind for a moment, that there are more noble ways of making use of the fabrication of gods than for this self-crucifixion and self-defilement of man in which Europe’s last millennia have had their mastery—this can fortunately be read from every glance one casts on the Greek gods, these reflections of noble and autocratic human beings in whom the animal in man felt itself deified and did not tear itself apart, did not rage against itself! For the longest time these Greeks used their gods precisely to keep “bad conscience” at arm’s length, to be able to remain cheerful about their freedom of soul: that is, the reverse of the use which Christianity made of its god. (GM II:23)

By “fabricating” gods, we can affirm our existence as we are and not as traditional morality would like us to be.  To be precise, we can affirm our existence as the sometimes irrational, finite, that is, human, all-too-human animals that we are. Thus, we “learn how to regard something as valuable in itself even when we know that it is not valuable in itself.” For Hussain, Nietzsche’s simulacrum of valuing also includes “imaginative play.” Art and imaginative play share similar features. The most important of which is illusion. By engaging in art and imaginative play, Nietzsche’s free spirits can create values for themselves even though they know such values have no intrinsic worth.

On the whole, I find Hussain’s argument mostly convincing, however, I have one worry and one suggestion. First, if Nietzsche is both an error theorist about all evaluative claims (not just moral ones) and a fictionalist to boot, then I am somewhat skeptical as to the possibility of valuing in the way Hussain suggests. Nietzsche’s free spirits are anti-realists about values; yet they are supposed to, one assumes, take seriously the practice of valuing things that have no value in themselves. Theoretically, this is intriguing. Practically, this seems unachievable. “Make-believe” or “pretending” seems too insubstantial to sufficiently motivate Nietzsche’s free spirits to practice valuing in an existential, on the ground kind of way. Consequently, practical nihilism seems inevitable. Second, as Hussain notes, Nietzsche’s view of art changes over time. Despite such changes, Nietzsche, even at the end of his writing life, calls himself the “first tragic philosopher.” (EH IV:3) Nietzsche continues: “Nobody had ever turned the Dionysian into a philosophical pathos before: tragic wisdom was missing,—I could not find any sign of it, even among the eminent Greek philosophers, those from the two centuries before Socrates” (EH IV:3). Perhaps an account of Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as it relates to his supposed fictionalism could strengthen Hussain’s argument.

Although there is no space here to discuss the many criticisms that Hussain’s very compelling proposal has generated, I agree with Brian Leiter’s claim that Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits is “one of the most important papers in Nietzsche studies over the last decade.” I strongly recommend this paper to anyone interested in Nietzsche or ethics.


Leiter, B. “Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy,” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition), URL=http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/#2.

Leiter, B. “Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche Blog,” “Is Nietzsche a Fictionalist?” (Spring 2008), URL=http://brianleiternietzsche.blogspot.com/2008/03/is-nietzsche-fictionalist.html).

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