Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Meaning
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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 26 (2003) 25-54

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Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Meaning

David Campbell

Nietzsche writes more or less unsystematically on many subjects, including morality, art, religion, and politics. In this article I explore the possibility that enquiry into meaning unites his thought, so far as anything does. This topic is wide, but I focus on the suggestion in The Genealogy of Morality, The Birth of Tragedy, 1 and less systematic works of a theory of interpretation that explains how terms such as "knowledge," "being," and "truth" come to have their meaning and, in cases such as Plato's, as he believes, to lack meaning. Commentators often take Nietzsche's notion of meaning for granted; in attempting a sustained account, I look at Heidegger both as indebted to him and as responding critically. Thus I do not simply interpret their writings but treat them as a starting point for analysis and systematic reflection, consistently with what they say. The first part of the article considers critically the suggestion in these works of a virtue ethics, based on self-interpretation, and also of a wider theory of interpretative meaning. The second part examines Heidegger's comments.


The second section of the Preface to GM declares that "the subject of the present work" is "the provenance of our moral prejudices." Nietzsche's question here, then, is the origin of morality. 2 Previously, however, in the first section, he had asked how we are to understand ourselves. "We ask . . . 'Who are we, really?'. . . The sad truth is that we don't understand our own substance" (Preface, §1). This anticipates his answer to the question of the origin of morality: it originates in us. He goes on to indicate that our "substance" is in his view "will" or agency. The self is not simply a mirror to the world, passively undergoing experiences and reproducing them symbolically in judgments, but engages actively and in some ways creatively in experience. His starting point is therefore the autonomous agent. He emphasizes this again at the end of the work: [End Page 25]

Until the advent of the ascetic ideal, man, the animal man, had no meaning at all on this earth . . . the ascetic ideal . . . is and remains a will. Let me repeat, now that I have reached the end, what I said at the beginning: man would sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose. (III, §XXVIII)

Nietzsche suggests, rather than states, a theory of self-interpretation. One understands oneself as interpreting felt concerns and related abilities in terms of chosen, "willed" projects, particularly one's role. In this way, one's life as agent has meaning both as felt or qualitative and as structured, and moral terms acquire both their sense and efficacy. He introduces this theory by assuming that there can be natural aristocrats and imagining that they interpret their "noble" and "high-minded" qualities and "mighty" abilities in terms of the "highly placed" role of ruler:

It was the "good" themselves, that is to say the noble, mighty, highly placed and high-minded who decreed themselves and their actions to be good . . . in contradistinction to all that was base, low-minded and plebeian. . . . The origin of the opposites good and bad is to be found in . . . the dominant temper of a higher, ruling class in relation to a lower, dependent one. (I, §II)

The meaning of the terms "good" and "bad" is determined "not for a time only . . . but permanently" by the ruler's "decree." In this way there comes about a common currency of values and social cohesion. This decree is not arbitrary, but a "quick jetting forth" from his character. The source of "supreme" value judgments is, then, the agent, somewhat as water under pressure jets out a fountain. To find the origin of moral terms we need to look back, so to speak, to character, not ahead to consequences or "utility." Nietzsche dismisses the "lukewarmness which every scheming prudence, every utilitarian calculus presupposes." He further highlights impassioned agency by castigating its opposite, the "slave ethics" of the "low-minded...