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Douglas groothuis don’t think of Max Stirner’s nihilism.
Books on the less famous Max Stirner (1806-1856) are rare, but an intrepid author, Jacob Blumenfeld, has found something of interest to the contemporary reader. The only volume of the agitator, The ego and his (1844), has been called both the most revolutionary book ever written and the worst book ever written. His thought aroused the interest of anarchists, libertarians, existentialists, gypsies, nihilists, etc. Stirner certainly pushes some form of atheism to its ultimate end. Karl Marx wrote against Stirner in German ideology (1846), which may be a good At first glance reason to read Stirner; but, of course, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Given his philosophy, I wonder if Stirner had any friends – although he dedicated his book to “My Sweetheart”. Still, it’s possible that Stirner could inspire us to embrace a radical iconoclasm that frees us to resist all ideologies and find radical freedom.
Blumenfeld’s approach is to expropriate Stirner’s thought from Stirner’s mind:
“I will now reconstruct the strange logic of Stirner’s argument, step by step. My aim is to give a coherent reading of the text, articulated not in the order that Stirner himself established, but as I reconstruct it through the text, perhaps even in spite of it. As Fred Madison said in David Lynch Lost highway, ‘I like to remember things in my own way. Not necessarily the way they happened. It’s a way through the twists and turns of Stirner’s argument, my way. “
Nevertheless, the author also tries to explain Stirner in terms of his own thinking. Indeed, in the long chapter two, “My Stirner”, Blumenfeld never seems to correct or amplify Stirner, so it is sometimes difficult to know if he uses Stirner as the raw material for his own opinions or if he agrees. with Stirner himself. He defends Stirner more than the critic. And we should, according to Blumenfeld, resist the temptation to criticize Stirner as the philosopher who gave us a system. It was Marx’s mistake. On the contrary, Stirner is a philosophical provocateur who need not be held to standards of consistency or even intelligibility. Nonetheless, in reading this book, we must ask ourselves “Is it true that Stirner means X?” and “is X true? “
It is true that Stirner encouraged his readers to consume his work as they wanted. Consider Stirner’s take on the truth:
“The truth is dead, a letter, a word, a material that I can use. All truth by itself is dead, a corpse; it is alive only in the same way that my lungs are alive, that is to say in the measure of my own vitality. Truths are material, like the vegetable or the grass; whether it is a vegetable or a weed, the decision is mine ”(p.105).
Of course, Stirner wants us to take this statement as true – as corresponding to reality – otherwise there is no reason to write it down. The assertion of claims to truth to be true is a necessary quality of all discourse – even discourse that denies this fact. Even to say “the truth does not exist” necessarily amounts to asserting that this proposition is true. Moreover, if a philosopher contradicts himself, then his philosophy is illogical at this point, since a pair of real contradictions (as opposed to superficial contradictions) cannot both be true. And if a contradiction is found, then the question becomes how much that contradiction matters to a philosophical system. Some contradictions are minor. Others are wrecking the whole system. Nevertheless, we could still recover some pieces of rubble to use them in another building. Myself, I have a hard time finding usable stones in Stirner’s work.
Blumenfeld exercises his profession with the tools of the continental philosophical tradition. He links Stirner’s ideas to the works of Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas and Badiou. But he also places Stirner in his historical and philosophical context, which largely consists of his relationship with Hegel, Fichte and Marx. So what was Stirner’s big idea – and what is it?
First of all, the title of Stirner’s magnum (and unique) opus, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844), is difficult to translate. It was rendered as The ego and his, but others have translated it as The Unique and its Property. His thesis is that each individual is unique and cannot be subsumed into any larger category – even the “human” category. In other words, we define ourselves for ourselves, and should not allow ourselves to be defined by God, Good, State, culture or anything else. The Stirnerian ego is neither a creature of God, nor a member of a social class, such as a “citizen” or a “worker”, nor a mere member of a biological species. To be defined or identified by something foreign to oneself is both to be limited and to become the property of someone or something else. To submit to an ideology, a religion or a philosophy outside of oneself is to become the slave of ghosts or specters that do not exist. All abstractions applied to the unique must be rejected. For someone, to claim that there are objective abstract categories beyond the unique is to undergo the alienation of one’s own power as a creator. That is to say, I deprive myself of my legitimate power by something unreal. So, to think that I have moral responsibilities – say, not to murder another human being just because I am a human being, is wrong. reification from a simple idea into an objective (and absolute) reality. “To love one’s neighbor as oneself” becomes doubly impossible: there is no “neighbor” (a ghost) and there are no demands of “love” (another ghost). Stirner’s solution is the coherent affirmation of the “creative nothing” of the unique. When I know that “all things are nothing to me,” I resist both reification and alienation. The price of this effort, however, is the eradication of any meaning, purpose or value given to life. Here’s the catch Blumenfeld wants to avoid: nihilism.
Perhaps “the unique” in the translation of the title is better than “ego” for Stirner’s use of the German word einzige. Indeed, Stirner has a particular idea of the individual in mind, as an evaluating entity who subjects all his experience to his own expropriation and exploitation. In this sense, the unique appropriates its property by its sole affirmation. We think here of Nietzsche’s idea that the strong – those who most systematically exercise “the will to power” – create values for themselves. But Blumenfeld notes that Stirner goes further than Nietzsche, since the will to power is for Stirner but another phantom – another false idealization of what is not there, and the “one” would be subsumed and alienated from its energies. creatives using the idea.
Some have accused Nietzsche of plagiarizing Stirner. But if that were the case, Stirner could not oppose it, since Nietzsche would thus exercise his own unique power over an object of consumption, and plagiarism would be just another phantom to be exorcised through autonomous evaluation and expropriation.
So what about the title of this book to Stirrer, All things are nothing to me? Blumenfeld considers this phrase to be Stirner’s main concept. The unique gives the value that there is to everything that is outside of itself. But all things are nothing in themselves; or, nothing has power over me, the only one. So all things mean nothing to me. Even the unique is a “nothing”, since it cannot be categorized abstractly or labeled essentially. Stirner claims he can’t even be appointed; and thus, like the Buddha, Stirner advocates ineffability at the heart of his philosophy. This “je ne sais quoi” (to steal a phrase from John Locke), called for convenience “the unique”, is voracious, rapacious and quite singular. And somehow, contrary to the saying ex nihilo nihil fit (“From nothing comes nothing”), he manages to create meaning from his own nothingness.
Max Stirner by Friedrich Engels, circa 1840
Moreover, Stirner’s quest for absolute autonomy alienates him from all moral truth outside of his own subjective property. Yet to deny objective moral truths is both counterintuitive and counterfactual. Torturing innocent people for fun is morally wrong, period. Female genital mutilation is a crime against women where and when it occurs, period. Human trafficking is bad, period. Humans have certain “inalienable rights”, such as The American Declaration of Independence the dish. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (1948) agrees when he asserts that “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. These ideas are not “ghosts”, they are truths. Stirner’s derisory ego – if he talks about it a lot – is powerless to falsify or relativize them. There is an inherent moral sense. The best I can say about Stirner here is that at least he recognized that if there is no God and no objective moral values, then the One has to be “self-referentially contained” – have no external point of reference for its judgments – and therefore has no recourse to anything other than its arbitrary position of value. If it is not nihilism, then nihilism does not exist. But nihilism exists, and nihilism is false, given the objective existence of the moral truths just mentioned, and many others.
A final chapter assesses Stirner’s relationship with Marx and communism. (Blumenfeld is sympathetic to the Communist tradition, having co-translated a book titled Communism for children.) Marx and Stirner seem in many ways to be opposed, but Blumenfeld considers Stirner to be a sort of prelude to Marx’s exposition of alienation and liberation. Stirner advocated an insurrection against all authority outside the One, but Marx went on to identify the particular social forces that subject people to class ideologies. At least that’s how Marx used Stirner – and Blumenfeld tends to agree. But wouldn’t Stirner simply disavow Marxism as another ism – another ghost that needs to be exorcised – since he trades in so many abstractions, such as the party, the proletariat, the state and the very idea of class, without which Marxism dissolves? Moreover, Marx’s theory of history as “dialectical materialism” is a phantom of phantoms, for it identifies a world historical process encompassing all societies and individuals. If Stirner had a political doctrine, it would be anarchism, which is the opposite of collectivism, the essence of Marxism.
© Prof. Douglas Groothuis 2021
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at the Denver Seminary.
• All things are nothing to me: the unique philosophy of Max Stirner, by Jacob Blumenfeld, Zero Books, 2018, 155 pages, £ 11.99 per person