After playing with the google auto-completions in April, I repeated the exercise in early September. Any differences? Indeed: among the choices displayed is now “conviction is more dangerous.” Apparently, Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism, “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies,” received some online attention over the summer, and we are invited to grapple with the philosopher’s take on our all-too human foibles. Famously, he included a series of aphorisms (#629-637) on “conviction and justice” in the 9th book (Man Alone with Himself) of his 1878 volume Human, All too Human, and this one is #483. His definition of conviction, in aphorism #630, reads as follows, taking Hollingdale’s 1986 translation:
“Conviction is the belief that on some particular point of knowledge one is in possession of the unqualified truth. This belief thus presupposes that unqualified truth exists; likewise that perfect methods of attaining to them have been discovered; finally, that everyone who possesses conviction avails himself of these perfect methods.”
Nietzsche concludes that those with conviction cannot, as per his deduction, practice “scientific thought,” and they thereby render themselves children, given the “theoretical innocence” with which they operate. Nonetheless, he concedes, their powers, over centuries, have been enormous, no matter the fallacy of having followed their convictions for the sake of truth.
Nietzsche’s contemplations may go back all the way to Agrippa’s trilemma, or quintilemma, but this is not the place to retrace that arch. And while the auto-completions in google on the definition of conviction may provide some initial food for thought, supplied by algorithms, it is more satisfying to explore the etymological histories of the term, at least to one who was trained as a philologist and comparatist. Conviction is certainly “a good thing,” it may well be “the enemy of truth,” but what sort of interpretations and frequency of use did the concept experience in the past? Turns out that Nietzsche’s contemplations on conviction fall into a time frame when conviction increasingly occupied the Western world, at least the English- and German-speaking worlds, according to two sources, the DWDS and Ngram.
The German “Überzeugung,” according to the DWDS (German Word Information System), was most frequently in use around 1870, falling off around 1900 and declining again around the year 2000. Ngram shows a completely different graph on the German word, using their German corpus: the use of the term peaked around 1950, with a rapid rise starting around 1870. The word itself originates in the 16th century and designates “a certainty arrived at through contemplation.”
For the English “conviction,” also with origins in the 16th century, the application of the concept peaks around 1840, but differences between “American English” and “British English” matter: the former shows wild spikes just before 1750, around 1775 and around 1790, and slowly falls off after 1850; the latter peaks around 1840, with just small spikes around 1775 and 1790. Of course, the socio-linguistic and lexical problem with “conviction” is that we don’t know whether the term was used in its legal contexts or for its moral, ethical or political meanings. Searching Ngram’s corpus of English fiction yields the same results, with a significant spike just before 1800, and sustained use throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th.
It was Joseph Jastrow, charter member of the American Psychological Association (and of the AAUP), student of and co-author with C.S. Peirce, who embraced the difficulty of analyzing conviction Nietzsche had identified by investigating the term from within the nascent field of psychology. In 1917, he published the introduction of his forthcoming The Psychology of Conviction: A Study of Beliefs and Attitudes (1918) in the 5th volume of The Scientific Monthly. World War I, he writes, has shown us “that the strength and directions of men’s convictions […] furnish the decisive motive power of the world’s energies” such that they urgently require an “inquiry into the mental processes that generate and direct convictions.” Significantly, Jastrow argues, “[t]here can be no question where beginnings lie. The original source of conviction is emotion.” (523)
Only that he does not consider actions born from emotions childish or immature or possibly innocent, quite the contrary. While the horrors of WWI are readily apparent to Jastrow, he takes this historical moment to suggest that psychology will ably wrestle with conviction since it is the psychologist’s “obligation to seek control of human convictions through a study of their nature.” (544) He concedes that such control remains unscientific for now: “To gain for beliefs their proper recognition amid the rivalry of convictions and of the forces sustaining them, is an art.” (543) However, while Jastrow also acknowledges the emotional ties that bind convictions to their “tribal” enmeshments, such as neighbors, fellow citizens, and traditions, he is putting faith in the scientific method, just like Nietzsche, when he considers conviction “a compromise of logic with psychology.” (543)
Nietzsche, back in Human, All Too Human, points to a different approach to understanding conviction. “Why do we admire him who is faithful to his convictions and despise him who changes them?” he asks in aphorism #629. For some reason, judgment accompanies the betrayal of one’s convictions, according to Nietzsche, and the apparently feeble-minded who change their convictions are stripped of their intellectual capacities or the autonomy of reasoning for themselves. Changing convictions becomes laborious as it turns into a wrestling with the “tribe” as much as into a wrestling with oneself, one’s emotions, and one’s ideas and thought. The emotion most central to Nietzsche’s investigation of conviction as a human feeling is pain, for this is what we suffer, he believes, when we “betray” our ideals and change beliefs. Why? Why suffer when we have a change of heart? What “judgments” occur in the socio-political contexts of those who dare change – or even question – their convictions? It seems that the 18th and 19th centuries are key for finding out more about the interplay of conviction and emotion. The original Latin, “convictio,” at least, points to entirely different meanings, companionship, social intercourse, and intimacy – far removed from the “vincere,” to conquer, that underlies the modern idea of conviction.