Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Unquotable Max Stirner

The title and masthead for this blog comes from an idea of the 18th century German philosopher, Max Stirner. Die Eigenheit, translated as "ownness" by Steven Byington, is of central importance to Stirner's conception of what it means to be an egoist. Perhaps the most concise way to describe it is as the diametric opposite of slavery. Ownness means submission to no higher will - obedience to none but the self, and even this is seen as ultimately incompatible with ownness, since Stirner says it can be achieved "only by recognizing no duty, not binding myself or letting myself be bound" - meaning that unless you can change your mind, you can become a slave even to yourself.

In spite of what I see as serious flaws in Stirner's thought, I can't help but be inspired by his underlying message, which is a celebration of the individual as the source of all things good, as against the "higher" concepts (such as "God" and "The State" - things that even today retain an "exalted" status), which end up being the source of all things bad. An oversimplification, certainly, but you get the idea.

Stirner's message, unlike Nietzsche's, for example, is uncompromising and unwaveringly consistent. Unfortunately, though, Stirner's prose is rarely passionate and colorful, and never given to aphorism (as you can probably surmise from the clunkiness of the blog's masthead quote, something I spent an appreciable amount of time searching for, and am still not totally satisfied with). In fact, Stirner's most famous 'quote', "The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime," while being certainly a very Stirnerian concept, doesn't appear to be something he actually said - at least not in so many words. I keep looking for it, but I have yet to find it.

None of this is meant to imply that Stirner is turgid or unreadable. On the contrary, as I said, he can be very inspiring (though, undoubtedly, parts of his works are difficult without some understanding of his context). It's just that Stirner seems content to let his points unfold gradually. Too bad he never heard of the MTV generation and the concept of the evening news soundbite.

17 comments:

Solan said...

I think the quote is genuine. Have you tried using a search engine on the online versions (use site:.nonserviam.com in Google, for instance), or searching a Word document on your PC? (Don't tell me you don't have Der Einzige as a file!)

Einzige said...

I confess to not having that (a word doc version).

On the other hand, I did go through your version online doing an IE "find on this page" search and had no luck with that.

Your Google Search idea is a good one. I'll give it a go.

Einzige said...

No luck with the Google Site Search, either.

The quote is not Stirner!

Solan said...

http://www.nonserviam.com/egoistarchive/stirner/bookhtml/The_Ego.html

257-8

The State's behavior is violence, and it calls its violence "law"; that of the individual, "crime."

My search string was
state law individual crime violence site:nonserviam.com - on Google, hit number 4.

Solan said...

Italics not allowed?

The State's behavior is violence, and it calls its violence "law"; that of the individual, "crime."

Einzige said...

I stand corrected, although the most common phraseology you find for the quote is different enough to prevent finding it easily.

(or so I say to ease my fear of appearing dumb, here)

Solan said...

As a general rule, avoid verbatim searches. Search for keywords instead. (and even then searching may be utterly frustrating at times.)

Einzige said...

Indeed, although in my defense I was looking for a quote, here.

That ought to count for something!

Solan said...

Ego te absolve! *g*

henry quirk said...

'In spite of what I see as serious flaws in Stirner's thought...'

what flaws? stirner is constant and consistent...and right

h.quirk signal_to_noise@hotmail.com

Einzige said...

h.quirk, sorry I've taken so long to get back to you on your question. I've actually been thinking about writing a long post on this topic. Now you've convinced me that I should.

In brief, however, here is a summary of my main problems with Stirner:

1. His concept of the "egoist" is tautological.

2. His thinking is pre-Darwinian. In complete fairness he can't be blamed for that, but nonetheless it gives certain aspects of this thinking a certain "obsoleteness", for lack of a better term.

3. His concept of the "creative nothing" seems to require a belief in a sort of radical free will that we simply do not possess. For example, do you really "own" the idea of lustfullness? Can you decide to lust after a bookcase?

4. He aparently buys into the idiotic Hegelian idea of historicism. Like Marx, he's already been proven wrong on that score. This is not the dawning of the age of the ego, any more than his was.

henry quirk said...

sorry for the delay in response...

being neither a historian or philosopher, i can't comment on what i view as the more technical aspects of your comments, but i can say this:

"3. His concept of the "creative nothing" seems to require a belief in a sort of radical free will that we simply do not possess. For example, do you really "own" the idea of lustfullness? Can you decide to lust after a bookcase?"

i believe stirner would say, yes, you have little to no control over the hydraulics of lust...what you do with it (the impulse) is another matter

i spy an attractive woman...i get an erection...this is a function of an autonomic and automatic system of the flesh...but how i choose to discharge that impulse is my choice...having sex, masturbation, or ignoring the impulse 'till it passes, all valid 'choices', so long as i actually 'choose'

it is not a matter of 'mastery' with stirner, but rather 'ownership'

this does not mean denying a universe of things outside of one's control, even as that universe of unpredictability is mirrored in our bodies

it means deciding how one will use such impulses...and whether 'you' will use the impulse, or the impulse will use you ---h.quirk signal_to_noise@hotmail.com

Einzige said...

Henry,

Your points are good ones, and I'll have to think on them for a while.

I hope you'll keep an eye on the blog!

henry quirk said...

"Your points are good ones, and I'll have to think on them for a while."

(((thank you! i try...)))

"I hope you'll keep an eye on the blog!"

(((of course! there are few places where i can discuss or debate egoism without things degrading to a mishmash...i look forward to anything i find here, on in nonserviam. --h.quirk)))

henry quirk said...

i find, after a little thought, i'd like to tackle what are technical aspects of your response

'1. His concept of the "egoist" is tautological.'

i'm supposing you mean stirner uses a circular logic wherein the egoist defines what it means to be an egoist, without using an exterior or objective standard or definition against which to compare or contrast

i guess you're right...and if i viewed 'the ego and his own' as an example of pure philosophy and theory, i'd agree...however: the work itself is less the treatise (to me) and more the manifesto...a book length 'I am, I exist, and I do so for MY reasons, MY agendas'

'4. He apparently buys into the idiotic Hegelian idea of historicism. Like Marx, he's already been proven wrong on that score. This is not the dawning of the age of the ego, any more than his was.'

really? i'm guessing you refer to his model of historical interpretation, that is, 'the ancients' 'the moderns' etc.

i think stirner wrote his book using the metaphor of history and development as the model for the book, not the foundation of it

imagine stirner had these ideas and themes he wanted to offer...he had to take into account who his audience would be, and the likely criticisms he would encounter upon publication...i think he choose a particular framework to stretch the canvas of his thoughts onto...the mistake is confusing the canvas FOR the framework

but: again, i'm no philosopher or historian...so, what do i know?

Einzige said...

On point 1:

Stirner's tautology can be expressed succinctly thusly:

"Because all persons - including altruists - do only those things which they themselves will (even when coerced or acting under false pretenses), then everyone is always an egoist."

Such a sentiment removes all meaning from the term--though this does appear to be Stirner's position.

On point 4:

Stirner's book suffers markedly (in my opinion) from its structure. Namely, its being organized according to the "ages" of man (both historically and personally), consisting of the "materialist", the "idealist", and the "egoist".

Imposing such a (Hegelian) framework on the ideas he is arguing for succeeds only in creating opportunities for spotting contrary evidence and pointing out how deficient is Stirner's knowledge of history. Setting things up this way means that Stirner spends the entire work trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

apio ludd said...

I know that it is probably too late for anyone to even notice this, but Stirner's concept of the egoist is not Tautological, it is phenomenological. I.e., he is not promoting either an ethical or a metaphysical concept, but describing the phenomenon of individuals encountering their world, and whatever ethical or metaphysical baggage individuals may try to cover the phenomenological reality with, at that level each of us starts, and can only start, from ourselves. If we accept this, rather than covering it with spooks, it becomes impossible for those who would dominate us to fool us, since they tend to all base their power as much on our acceptance of these spooks as on any physical force they may have accumulated.
As to Stirner's concept of history, a strong argument can be made that since so much of his book satirizes in its style both Hegel anf Feuerbach, that his use of Hegel's historical structure was also intended as satirical.
Finally, I find Stirner, even in the mediocre English translation, to be a dynamic and enjoyable writer... But to each their own.