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Philosophy of Max Stirner

The philosophy of Max Stirner is credited as an influence on the development of nihilism, existentialism, post-modernism and anarchism, especially of individualist anarchism and postanarchism. Stirner's main philosophical work was The Ego and Its Own, also known as The Ego and His Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum in German, which translates literally as The Individual and his Property).

Stirner's philosophy has been cited as an influence on both his contemporaries, notably Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as well as subsequent thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Enrico Arrigoni, Steven T. Byington, Benjamin R. Tucker and Saul Newman.

Anarchist?

Max Stirner was a philosopher whose "name appears with familiar regularity in historically-orientated surveys of anarchist thought as one of the earliest and best-known exponents of individualist anarchism." In 1844, his The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum which may literally be translated as The Unique Individual and His Property) was published, which is considered to be "a founding text in the tradition of individualist anarchism." Stirner proposes that most commonly accepted social institutions—including the notion of State, property as a right, natural rights in general, and the very notion of society—were mere illusions or ghosts in the mind, saying of society that "the individuals are its reality." Stirner wants to "abolish not only the state but also society as an institution responsible for its members.

He advocated egoism and a form of amoralism, in which individuals would unite in 'associations of egoists' only when it was in their self interest to do so. For him, property simply comes about through might: "Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property." And, "What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing." He says, "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property! Stirner considers the world and everything in it, including other persons, available to one's taking or use without moral constraint —that rights do not exist in regard to objects at all. He sees no rationality in taking the interests of others into account unless doing so furthers one's self-interest, which he believes is the only legitimate reason for acting. His embrace of egoism is in stark contrast to Godwin's altruism. He denies society as being an actual entity, calling society a "spook" and that "the individuals are its reality" (The Ego and Its Own).

It should also be noted that Stirner, although an Individualist Anarchist in social philosophy never mentions markets and he did not believe it is a matter of moral right, but simply a matter of control. "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property! Stirner never referred to markets and his philosophy on property causes problems for a market system, because according to proponents of markets property is not considered to be legitimate if taken by force. Stirner was opposed to communism, seeing it as a form of authority over the individual. He said in The Ego and Its Own:

"All attempts to enact rational laws about property have put out from the bay of love into a desolate sea of regulations. Even Socialism and Communism cannot be excepted from this. Everyone one is to be provided with adequate means, for which it is little to the point whether one socialistically finds them still in a personal property, or communistically draws them from a community of goods. The individual's mind in this remains the same; it remains a mind of dependence. The distributing board of equity lets me have only what the sense of equity, its loving care for all, prescribes. For me, the individual, there lies no less of a check in collective wealth than in that of individual others; neither that is mind, nor this: whether the wealth belongs to the collectivity, which confers part of it on me, or to individual possessors, is for me the same constraint, as I cannot decide about either of the two. One the Contrary, Communism, by the abolition of all personal property, only presses me back still more into dependence on another, viz., on the generality or collectivity; and, loudly as it always attacks the "State," what it intends is itself again a State, a status, a condition hindering my free movement, a sovereign power over me. Communism rightly revolts against the pressure I experience from individual proprietors; but still more horrible is the might that it puts in the hands of the collectivity. Egoism takes another way to root out the non-possessing rabble. It does not say: Wait for what the board of equity will - bestow on you in the name of the collectivity (for such bestowal took place in "States" from the most ancient times, each receiving "according to his desert," and therefore according to the measure in which each was able to deserve it, to acquire it by service), but: Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.

This position on property is much different from the native American, natural law, form of individualist anarchism, which defends the inviolability of the private property that has been earned through labor. However, in 1886 Benjamin Tucker rejected the natural rights philosophy and adopted Stirner's egoism, with several others joining with him. This split the American individualists into fierce debate, "with the natural rights proponents accusing the egoists of destroying libertarianism itself. Other Egoists include James L. Walker, Sidney Parker, and Dora Marsden.

However, it should be noted that Stirner's philosophy has also influenced some libertarian communists and anarcho-communists. Forms of libertarian communism such as Situationism are strongly Egoist in nature. Anarcho-communist Emma Goldman was influenced by both Stirner and Peter Kropotkin and blended their philosophies together in her own, as shown in books of hers such as Anarchism And Other Essays.

Egoism

Stirner has been broadly understood as a proponent of both psychological egoism and ethical egoism, although the latter position can be disputed, as there is no claim in Stirner's writing, in which one 'ought to' pursue one's own interest, and further claiming any 'ought' could be seen as a new 'fixed idea'. However, he may be understood as a rational egoist in the sense that he considered it irrational not to act in one's self interest.

Individual self-realization rests on each individual's desire to fulfill their egoism. The difference between an unwilling and a willing egoist, is that the former will be 'possessed' by an empty idea and believe that they are fulfilling a higher cause, but usually being unaware that they are only fulfilling their own desires to be happy or secure, and the latter, in contrast, will be a person that is able to freely choose its actions, fully aware that they are only fulfilling individual desires. The contrast is also expressed in terms of the difference between the voluntary egoist being the possessor of his concepts as opposed to being possessed. Only when one realizes that all sacred truths such as law, right, morality, religion etc., are nothing other than artificial concepts, and not to be obeyed, can one act freely. For Stirner, to be free is to be both one's own "creature" (in the sense of 'creation') and one's own "creator" (dislocating the traditional role assigned to the gods). To Stirner power is the method of egoism. It is the only justified method of gaining 'property'.

Even love is explained as "consciously egoistic":

  

However, Stirner cautioned against any reification of the Egoist or subject:

Property

For Stirner, property simply comes about through might: "Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property." "What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing." He says, "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!. This position on property is much different from the preceding native American, natural law, form of individualist anarchism, which defends the inviolability of the private property that has been earned through labour. However, American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker rejected the natural rights philosophy and adopted Stirner's egoism 1886, with several others joining with him.

Dogma

The passages quoted above show the few points of contact between Stirner's philosophy and early Christianity. It is merely Jesus as an "annihilator" of the established biases and preconceptions of Rome that Stirner can relate to. His reason for "citing" the cultural change sparked by Jesus, is that he wants the Christian ideologies of 19th Century Europe to collapse, much as the ideology of heathen Rome did before it (e.g., "[the Christian era] will end with the casting off of the ideal, with 'contempt for the spirit'", p. 320). As with the Classical Skeptics before him, Stirner's method of self-liberation is opposed to faith or belief; he envisions a life free from "dogmatic presuppositions" (p. 135, 309) or any "fixed standpoint" (p. 295). It is not merely Christian dogma that his thought repudiates, but also a wide variety of European atheist ideologies that are condemned as crypto-Christian for putting ideas in an equivalent role: What Stirner proposes is not that concepts should rule people, but that people should rule concepts. The "nothingness" of all truth is rooted in the "nothingness" of the self, because the ego is the criterion of (dogmatic) truth. Again, Stirner seems closely comparable to the Skeptics in that his radical epistemology directs us to emphasise empirical experience (the "unmediated" relationship of mind as world, and world as mind) but leaves only a very limited validity to the category of "truth". When we regard the impressions of the senses with detachment, simply for what they are (e.g., neither good nor evil), we may still correctly assign truth to them. In place of such systems of beliefs, Stirner presents a detached life of non-dogmatic, open-minded engagement with the world "as it is" (unpolluted by "faith" of any kind, Christian or humanist), coupled with the awareness that there is no soul, no personal essence of any kind, but that the individual's uniqueness consists solely in its "creative nothingness" prior to all concepts.

The Self

Stirner's concept of the self is something impossible to fully comprehend; a so-called 'creative nothing' he later described as an 'end-point of language'.

In order to understand this 'creative nothing', Stirner uses poetry and vivid imagery. The 'creative nothing' by its dialectical shortcomings creates the need for a description, for meaning.

Stirner elaborated this attempt to describe the indescribable in the essay "Stirner's Critics", written by Stirner in response to Feuerbach and others (in custom with the time, he refers to himself in the third person) : The Ego and Its Own opens and closes with a quotation from Goethe that reads "I have taken up my cause without foundation", with the unstated next line of the poem being "…and all the world is mine". One of Stirner's central ideas is that in realizing the self is "nothing" one is said to "own the world", because as the book states in its last line: "all things are nothing to me" [Ibidem., p. 324]. David Leopold (in his introduction to the Cambridge University Press Edition of The Ego and its own) expresses disbelief at what Stirner has to say about the nature of mind, world, and property. Both the belief in the self being "nothing" and that "the world is empty" have no similar Western precedent. But in Eastern Philosophy Theravada Buddhism has comparable aspects: Stirner describes this world-view, in brief, as "enjoyment", and he claims that the "nothingness" of the non-self is "unutterable" (p. 314) or "unnameable" (p. 132), "unspeakable" yet "a mere word" (p. 164; cf. Stirner's comments on the Skeptic concepts ataraxia and aphasia, p. 26).

The insurrectionist and anti-revolutionary

Stirner mocks revolution in the traditional sense, and ridicules social movements aimed at overturning the state as tacitly statist (i.e., aimed at the establishment of a new state thereafter). To illustrate this he compares his own social and moral role with that of Jesus Christ: As Stirner specifies in a footnote (p. 280), he was here using the word insurgent "in its etymological sense"; thus, to rise above the religion and government of one's own times and to take control of ones life with no consideration of them, but not necessarily to overthrow them. This contrasts with the method of the revolutionary who brings about a change of conditions by displacing one government with another: Stirner was writing about people liberating themselves from their own limits and rising above limiting social, political and ideological conditions, and for each to walk their own way. The passages quoted above are clearly incompatible with David Leopold's conclusion (in his introduction to the Cambridge University Press edition) that Stirner "...saw humankind as 'fretted in dark superstition' but denied that he sought their enlightenment and welfare" (Ibidem, p. xxxii). Stirner refused to describe himself as directly liberating others. But his stated purpose in these quotations seems to be to achieve the "enlightenment and welfare" of others by way of demonstration and "insurrection" as he defines it.

Hegel's influence

Scholars such as Karl Löwith and Lawrence Stepelevich have argued that Hegel was a major influence on The Ego and Its Own. Stepelevich argues, that while The Ego and its Own evidently has an "un-Hegelian structure and tone to the work as a whole", as well as being fundamentally hostile to Hegel's conclusions about the self and the world, this does not mean that Hegel had no effect on Stirner.

To go beyond and against Hegel in true dialectical fashion is in some way continuing Hegel's project, and Stepelevich argues that this effort of Stirner's is, in fact a completion of Hegel's project . Stepelevich concludes his argument referring to Jean Hyppolite, who in summing up the intention of Hegel's Phenomenology, stated: "The history of the world is finished; all that is needed is for the specific individual to rediscover it in himself."

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