In a passage from The Case of Wagner,footnote Nietzsche affirms that ‘Hegel is a taste.—And not merely a German but a European taste.—A taste Wagner comprehended—to which he felt equal—which he immortalized—he invented a style for himself charged with “infinite meaning”—he became the heir of Hegel.—Music as “idea.”—’footnote1 Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’s music for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations, traits which he sees as inherited from Idealist metaphysics, but which here mask egoistic calculation and a manipulation of emotion which violates aesthetic form, marks the emergence of a distinctively modernist sensibility. For this new outlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to a disenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose. As Charles Taylor has recently reminded us, by the late nineteenth century: ‘Victorian piety and sentimentality seemed to have captured the Romantic spirit. For those who saw this whole world as spiritually hollow and flat, Romanticism could appear as integral to what they rejected as instrumentalism was. It merely offered trivialized, ersatz, or inauthentic meanings to compensate for a meaningless world.’footnote2 Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that ‘transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interested in any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents in Paris. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern, entirely metropolitan problems.’footnote3 Against such mystification, the new aesthetic of modernism strove for a coldness, remoteness and impersonality which Nietzsche already anticipates when he invokes against Wagner ‘the great logic, the dance of the stars’.

Since the time of Nietzsche’s polemics, this suspicion of depth and meaning—of any mode of significance which cannot be relativized to a specific practice, framework or perspective—has recurred throughout twentieth-century art and philosophy. One might have thought that the disenchantment of the world classically described by Max Weber, the collapse of belief in a cosmic order whose immanent meaning guides human endeavour, would be a trauma of such magnitude that philosophy could do little other than struggle to come to terms with it—and indeed the shock waves of this collapse have reverberated throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking. Yet there have also been many philosophers who appear to have registered no turbulence at all. On the contrary, they are eager to drive the process of disillusionment further. Richard Rorty, for example, advocates a ‘philosophical superficiality and light-mindedness’ which ‘helps along the disenchantment of the world’ and which, he believes, will ‘make the world’s inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.’footnote4 It is arguable, however, that Rorty can think thus only because he assumes that we can take seriously meanings which we know we have created, and which flimsily veil the indifferent universe of physicalism which Rorty—for all his hermeneutic gestures—regards as the ontological bottom line. Other recent thinkers have been intolerant of even this residual soft-heartedness. They have considered it their job to track down and eradicate those last traces of meaning which adhere to the human world, to dissolve any intrinsic significance of lived experience into an effect of impersonal structures and forces. The impulse here is still Promethean: for meaning, as Adorno emphasized, implies givenness—it is something we encounter and experience, not something we can arbitrarily posit, as Rorty and others too quickly assume. And this very givenness seems often to be regarded as an affront to human powers of self-assertion. It is for this reason, no doubt, that so much recent French thought has raised the question of whether, as Herbert Schnädelbach has put it, ‘man himself has become, after God and nature, an anthropomorphism’.footnote5 And while contemporary Critical Theory in Germany has insisted on preserving that island of human significance known as the ‘lifeworld’ from deconstruction, there are serious questions, as we shall see, about how reliable the insular dykes and defences might be in holding back the tide.

The dominant paradigm of hostility to meaning in recent European philosophy has undoubtedly been deconstruction, which initially appeared on the scene as a radicalization of Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics. The thought of the early Derrida is marked by a determination to go beyond Heidegger which focuses on his mentor’s refusal to abandon the philosophical quest for meaning, in the form of Seinsfrage—the question of the ‘meaning of Being’. In his lectures on Nietzsche from the late thirties and early forties, Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘will-to-power’ represents both the culmination and the definitive exposé of the subjectivism of Western metaphysics. In its equation of ‘being-ness’ [Seiendheit] with makeability or manipulation [Machenschaft], it announces the ‘age of completed meaninglessness’ in which ‘meaninglessness becomes the “meaning” of entities as a whole’.footnote6

But at the same time the very extremity of this experience of the collapse of meaning opens the way for a questioning of the meaning of Being as such, as opposed to that of entities, a meaning which the history of metaphysics plunged into oblivion. Thus for Heidegger the Seinsfrage is a post-Nietzschean question. It is distinct from the various interpretations of the totality of beings, and of the being of entities, which a metaphysics fixated on the objectifying notion of presence has offered over the past two thousand years. These interpretations culminate in the Nietzschean doctrines of the eternal return and the will-to-power, which finally give the game away.

But, as is well-known, Derrida refuses to recognize this distinction between Being [Sein] and beings [Seiendes] as Heidegger proposes it. In his earlier writings, he takes Nietzsche’s part against Heidegger, claiming that Nietzsche’s distinctive practice of writing has contributed to the ‘liberation of the signifier from its dependence or derivation with respect to the logos and the related concept of truth or the primary signified.’footnote7 This is because ‘Reading, and therefore writing, the text were for Nietzsche “originary” operations. . .with regard to a sense that they do not first have to transcribe or discover, which would not therefore be a truth signified in the original element and presence of the logos.’footnote8 From such a standpoint Heideggerian thought could be seen as reinstating rather than destroying ‘the instance of the logos and of the truth of being as “primum signatum”.’footnote9 Indeed, Derrida draws the conclusion that the ‘meaning of Being is not a transcendental or trans-epochal signified (even if it was always dissimulated within the epoch) but already, in a truly unheard of sense, a determined signifying trace.’footnote10

In his manifesto ‘Différance’, Derrida returns to the issue of how his own thought of différance goes beyond Heidegger’s thought of the ontological difference between Being and beings: ‘And yet, are not the thought of the meaning or truth of Being, the determination of différance as the ontico-ontological difference, difference thought within the horizon of the question of Being, still intrametaphysical effects of différance?’footnote11 In this function of being ‘older’ than the ontico-ontological difference Derrida terms différance the ‘play of the trace’, which ‘no longer belongs to the horizon of Being, but whose play transports and encloses the meaning of Being: the play of the trace, or the différance, which has no meaning and is not.’footnote12

It should be noted that Derrida’s intention does not seem to be to claim, in nihilistic fashion, that there simply is no meaning. He merely asserts that the sense conveyed by Nietzsche’s writing is not a discovery or transcription of some ‘transcendental signified’. He does, however, seem to be committed to the view that a process which ‘has no meaning’ is logically prior to all meaning, or that the ‘text as such’ can generate meaning as an ‘effect’.footnote13 Indeed, it is clear that in his earlier writings Derrida accepts as a starting point the structuralist account of the constitution of the semantic units of language. In ‘The Ends of Man’, for example, he gives such an interpretation of the focus on system and structure in French thought of the sixties. Structuralism, on his account, consists not in ‘erasing or destroying meaning. Rather it is a question of determining the possibility of meaning on the basis of a “formal” organization which in itself has no meaning, which does not mean that it is either the non-sense or the anguishing absurdity which haunt metaphysical humanism.’footnote14 The implication of this approach, Derrida suggests, is that whereas phenomenology effected a ‘reduction of meaning’, structuralism in its ‘most original and strongest aspects’ involves a ‘reduction of meaning’. Derrida does not question the possibility of such a reduction. Indeed, he again makes the point that one of its consequences would be a break with the ‘hermeneutical question of the meaning or the truth of Being’, as conceived by Heidegger.