Saturday 22 May 2021

[From 2006!] On the Misinterpretation of the Philosophy of Max Stirner.

Oh, you want the "TL;DR" version?  Max Stirner's philosophy has become less obscure in the years since 2006, when I wrote this uncompromising critique of the only available version of the text in English, and sent it directly to the author of the introduction, David Leopold (who is also credited as the text's translator, but I suspect he merely revised the wording of someone else's translation).  Leopold actually received this and replied to it (by email) and I daresay he seemed mildly horrified.  Perhaps you will be, too.  THE PHILOSOPHY OF MAX STIRNER IS LARGELY MISUNDERSTOOD IN ENGLISH, and it certainly doesn't help that (1) the translation is poor, and (2) THE INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK IS EXTREMELY DISHONEST AND MISLEADING!

(The youtube video, linked above, was recorded by a younger version of myself in 2017, living in exotic Yunnan, China… whereas the text that ensues below was written by an even younger version of myself, in 2006, living in Vientiane, Laos!)


... [T]urning to the introduction provided by David Leopold (Ibidem, pg. xxxi), we find a badly flawed sketch of this important aspect of Stirner's work:

[Leopold:] ... [W]hen Stirner talks of the egoist being 'owner' of the world it seems simply to indicate the absence of obligations on the egoist --a bleak and uncompromising vision that he captures in an appropriately alimentary image:

[Leopold quoting Stirner:] Where the world comes in my way -- and it comes in my way everywhere -- I consume it to the quiet hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but -- my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use. We owe each other nothing. (p. 263)

Leopold has disingenuously foisted this interpretation onto the source text. The sup- posedly "bleak and uncompromising vision" that he alludes to on page 263 is in fact a description of a bird singing in a tree for the sheer joy of creating its own song; the image is not "bleak", but positively ebullient. Stirner's words immediately preceding the quotation that Leopold has taken out of context are as follows:

But not only not for your sake, not even for the truth's sake either do I speak out what I think. No:

I sing as the bird sings,

That on the bough alights;

The song that from me springs

Is pay that well requites.

I sing because -- I am a singer. But I use [gebrauche] you for it because I -- need [brauche] ears.

Stirner's intended meaning for the word 'use' [gebrauche] in this excerpt is established in the context of the metaphor of the singing bird: the bird's song is reward enough for the act of singing, but yet the performer has some 'use' for an audience. The very next statement ("where the world comes in my way..." etc.) broadens the meaning to encompass all sorts of creative engagement with the world (i.e., Stirner's point is not limited to birds or vocalists), and the paragraph ends with a re-affirmation of the cen- tral point of the metaphor, namely, that the performer has no obligation to the audience, but sings out of sheer joy for the act of performing. Thus, it seems, the audience is encouraged to get the same 'use' out of the performance, viz., mutual joy/ enjoyment without any obligations binding the two parties. By taking the quote out of context, Leopold effectively imposes an unintended meaning upon the verb "use" [gebrauche] as somehow implying "instrumental treatment" (p. xxxi), but the specific "use" that Stirner here describes is the enjoyment of a listener for a song, or of a singer for the very act of singing. This abuse of the source text is further demonstrated when we consider Stirner's words immediately following the quotation selected by Leopold:

We owe each other nothing, for what I seem to owe you I owe at most to myself. If I show you a cheerful air in order to cheer you likewise, then your cheerful- ness is of consequence to me, and my air serves my wish...

Whereas Leopold abruptly ends his quotation with "We owe each other nothing" (full stop, i.e., failing to provide an ellipsis to indicate that he is breaking off Stirner in mid-sentence) the original text reiterates that the subject being discussed is, in fact, the imparting of cheerfulness (without any debt being owed between the parties cheered up, i.e., because each cheers the other for his own delight, as per the bird with its song).

Readers may decide for themselves if this is truly "a bleak and uncompromising vision" as Leopold asserts. The source text presents a discussion of how people can (or should) spread joy to one-another (with detachment, and no sense of mutual obliga- tion), explained by way of a rather impish and fey simile. What Leopold glosses as an "alimentary image" is in fact a bird's "hunger" for the sound of its own song in the act of cheering itself (and others) up.


Leopold abuses the same passage again (p. xxxi) when he attempts, in effect, to have Stirner condemn his own writing by taking a quotation out of context:

As Stirner's own meiotic prediction has it: 'very few' of us will 'draw joy' (p. 263) from this picture.'

Is this a fair representation of Stirner's opinion of his own work as an author ("speak[ing] out what I think") on page 263? No, it is not; Stirner specifically describes himself as comparable to a singing bird in imparting joy to others (as shown above) without having any obligation toward his audience. His separate statement (near the top of p. 263) that 'very few will draw joy from it' is part of a separate (but closely related) argument put forth in contrast to the Catholic Church's medieval pol- icy of 'withholding the Bible from the laity' so that the ignorant bliss of the masses would not be troubled by its details. In this passage, Stirner is saying that his writing will trouble the bliss of the ignorant, but (like the bird that is compelled to sing) he feels he must "scatter" his thoughts even if they "deprive you of your rest and sleep" (p. 263). Stirner is most definitely not conceding that his vision is so "bleak" that few can enjoy it; he is rather making an argument (sustained throughout the book, e.g., p. 127, 132, 309-12) that the correct attitude of the intellectual (or "critic") is to proceed with an open mind, and an open heart. Specifically, in this passage, the emphasis is on writing without any preconceptions (including such vague assumptions as what "the public good" might be), and without any sense of obligation to nationality, religion, or broader abstractions such as humanity, truth and justice. All such ob- ligations, Stirner argues, entail prejudice, even when these obligations are represented as a kind of enthusiasm, passion, or love ("out of love for the Church", "...for the Nation", etc.). Although any such obligation may be portrayed as a form of love, "be- cause preconceived, it is a prejudice" (p. 262). In terms closely comparable to the classical Skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, Stirner directs us to examine the criterion of truth that underlies our arguments as an unexamined proposition; this "first pre- supposition" perverts true philosophy (glossed as "discovery", and elsewhere "self- discovery") into mere dogmatism (p. 309). Stirner maintains that love can become subverted by "dogmatism", viz., sentiments that philosophers have so much praised, such as the love for humanity in general, and the love for truth, Stirner criticizes as "narrow" feelings compared to the open-minded impulse of one who loves from the free play of the passions (here posed as parallel to the bird singing from pure joy):

I do not limit myself to one feeling for men, but give free play to all that I am ca- pable of. [...] With this, I can keep myself open to every impression without be- ing torn away by one of them. I can love, love with a full heart, and let the most consuming glow of passion burn in my heart, without taking the beloved one for anything else than the nourishment of my passion, on which it ever refreshes itself anew. (p. 262)

In this quotation we find again that the "alimentary" imagery that Leopold complains of is far from "bleak"; it simply posits the role of the beloved as "fueling" the passion of lover (as akin to the audience "fueling" the passion of the performer --Stirner de- scribes both as reciprocal relationships of "utility", and, thus, of "union").

It may be complained that Stirner is using needlessly cerebral (and unfamiliar) terms in describing the singer's impulse to perform as "the quiet hunger of egoism", or in speaking of the "nourishment" of passion. Nevertheless, it is intellectually dishonest for Leopold to characterize "the absence of obligations on the egoist" in negative terms by taking Stirner's psychologically loaded vocabulary out of context, and suggesting to the reader that the appearance of the word "use" means that Stirner endorses the "instrumental treatment" (xxxi) of people, or that Stirner is literally telling people they ought to regard one-another as food (in the quote that Leopold has taken out of context from page 263) when this is in fact an image employed in an argument that people should spread joy among one-another without any feelings of obligation, and that authors should write without dogmatic preconceptions.


Leopold claims that Stirner "...saw humankind as 'fretted in dark superstition' but denied that he sought their enlightenment and welfare". (p. xxxii)

I find this inconsistent with the source text in several respects. Firstly, Stirner does not deny that he seeks his reader's "enlightenment and welfare" in the passage Leopold has cited (viz., the same pg. 262 that I have already treated at length above), moreover, elsewhere in the book, he describes himself in positively messianic terms, as showing the reader "the ways and the means" to his/her "liberation". The "liberation" and "joy" that Stirner speaks of leading his reader to is (rightly or wrongly) asserted to be quite a bit more substantial than just a new philosophical outlook: he explicitly claims that it will overcome poverty and hunger, and (rightly or wrongly) in so doing he demonstrates concern for "welfare" as well as the "enlightenment" of the reader: "the enjoyment of life ... must crush spiritual and secular poverty", i.e., it must both overcome the "ideal" of the true self, soul, essence, etc., and also supply "the want of daily bread" (p. 284).

I say: liberate yourself as far as you can, and you have done your part; for it is not given to every one to break through all limits, or, more expressively, not to everyone is that a limit which is a limit for the rest. Consequently, do not tire yourself with toiling at the limits of others; enough if you tear down yours. [...] He who overturns one of his limits may have shown others the way and the means; the overturning of their limits remains their affair. (p. 127)

Stirner's opinion of himself as a "liberator" (but not a revolutionary) working for (in Leopold's terms:) the enlightenment and welfare of men, while remaining an egoist, is explained with an explicit comparison of himself to Jesus Christ:

But, even though not a ringleader of popular mutiny, not a demagogue or revolutionary, he (and every one of the ancient Christians) was so much the more an insurgent who lifted himself above everything that seemed so sublime to the government and its opponents, and absolved himself from everything that they remained bound to [...]; precisely because he put from him the upsetting of the established, he was its deadly enemy and real annihilator... (p. 280-1)

As Stirner specifies in a footnote (p. 280), he here uses the word insurgent "in its etymological sense"; thus, "to rise above" the religion and government of one's own times by "straightening oneself up" is contrasted to the method of the revolutionary who merely brings about a "change of conditions" by displacing one government with another:

The revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on 'institutions'. It is not a fight against the established [...] it is only a working forth of me out of the established. [...] Now, as my object is not an overthrow of the established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not political or social but (as directed toward myself and my ownness alone) an egoistic purpose indeed. (p. 280)

I do not believe that Stirner employed exaggerated descriptions of poverty for their mere shock value; I would instead suppose that this reflected a real concern and com- passion for the poor, that is in evidence throughout the book. Stirner (born 1806) was of the same generation as Charles Dickens (born 1812), and wrote The Ego and its Own in 1844 --shortly after Dickens' publication of A Christmas Carol, and prior to David Copperfield. There is something of a Dickensian touch in the depictions of ur- ban Europe's ubiquitous poor in The Ego and Its Own, and Stirner's praxis is rare in that it does not presuppose that the reader is a salaried professor, but may be living in destitution (or may soon be reduced to it):

Now, whence comes it that the most [of us] have in fact next to nothing? From this, that the most [of us] are already joyful over being possessors at all, even though it be of some rags, as children are joyful in their first long trousers, or even the first penny that is presented to them. (p. 233)

This suffices to demonstrate that, contrary to Leopold's characterization of Stirner as indifferent to the "enlightenment and welfare" of his reader, Stirner was positively messianic in his (self-styled) ethical purpose.


Opinions among scholars have been strongly divided as to how the terms "racism" and "racialism" apply to Stirner's oeuvre.

Unfortunately, David Leopold has badly misinterpreted one of the most inflammatory passages (dealing with race) in his introduction to the Cambridge edition (op. cit. supra). The passage appears as a non-sequitor ("episodically", as Leopold) from pg. 62- 65, and certainly does employ offensive racial terms, however, it is significant that these terms are employed to ridicule the (then mainstream) European conceptions of their own history and ethnic heritage.

The passage in question begins [p. 62-3] by claiming that the period Western scholars commonly refer to as "European antiquity" (viz., classical Greece and Rome) should instead be termed "the Negroid age", viz., the period in which "Egypt and... northern Africa in general" are culturally predominant over Europe. Leopold's assessment seems to ignore the fact that this passage is not intended to insult black people, but is rather a pointed attempt to upset the (historically false, but still prevalent) European assumptions that paint modern racial prejudices onto ancient history, e.g., claiming that the Athenians, or even the Egyptians, were in some sense "Europeans" or ethnically "Caucasian", whereas the Hittites, and adjacent peoples of Asia Minor, etc., are presumed to be "non-white" enemies in this apocryphal racialization of bronze age history. Against this miasma of racial prejudices, Stirner brashly asserts that these ancient peoples were all "Negro", including the (much mythified) Athenian Greeks and Romans. He briefly expands on this to say that all of classical "European" philosophy is in fact African in character, a clear attempt to lampoon the historicist racialism of authors such as Hegel. His next assertion is that currently (viz., in the 19th century) Europeans are ethnically Mongoloid, not Caucasian: they follow a Mongolian religion, are worshipping a Mongolian god, and have the same social ideals as those of dynastic China. Thus, while European Christians imagine themselves to be superior to Asian idolators, Stirner asserts that Europeans have merely "wrestled for thousands of years with [the same] spiritual beings" as the Chinese, and still dream of going to "the Mongolian heaven, Tien", after they die. (p. 64) As with the first phase of the argument, it is clear that Stirner is not using these terms to insult Asians, but is throwing the established (Eurocentric) preconceptions of history back upon Europeans, and judging them to be (in their own racist terms) merely "Mongoloid" in their beliefs. (p. 63-5)

Although the passage is likely to be offensive to members of any religion (or almost any ethnicity) it is also noteworthy that Stirner here asserts that the dynastic empire of Confucian China is a ''more advanced civilization'' than that of Europe, but, from his perspective, this advancement is in precisely the wrong direction, viz., toward hierarchy, patriarchy, and the repression of the individual by obligation and law. For those who have studied Hegel's ''Philosophy of History'', Stirner seems to have in- cluded a direct inversion of the Hegelian conception of freedom (based as it was upon a racist historical dialectic, and the glorification of law and obligation as the precondition of "freedom of the spirit"):

To want to win freedom for the ''spirit'' is Mongolism; freedom of the spirit is Mongolian freedom, freedom of feeling, moral freedom, and so forth.

Effectively, Stirner is here saying that what Germans imagine to be the "new" philosophy of freedom (according to Hegel, a philosophy exclusive to their race, and to their time) is really just a throwback to an ancient and repressive notion that was already prevalent in classical China (or "Mongoldom", as Stirner styles it).

Certainly, it is no accident that the passage in question is extremely offensive; most modern readers will likely feel insulted by it, or by the (now antiquated) terms it employs. Stirner clearly lacked any detailed understanding of classical Chinese civilization, and simply employs a limited sketch of its repressive, hierarchical elements as part of a reproach against European civilization in his own times. The primary purpose of the passage seems to be to upset the long-standing conceits of European pre-eminence, but it does not establish a racialist historiography of its own.

One element that Leopold seems to have missed is that what Stirner dubs climbing "the ladder of culture, or civilization" [p. 64] is not a process that he seeks to glorify (as Hegel and so many others did), but rather to repudiate; thus, it is not inconsistent that Stirner identifies the culture of Confucian China with greater advancement and yet, at the same time, considers it abhorrent. In this passage "Civilization" is glossed as the subordination of the individual and the world to the rule of "the hierarchy of the spirit", viz., the inculcation of "habit, or second nature", and the proliferation of "principles" and "laws" on the basis of the enjoined obligations of man to "heaven". (p. 64) Thus, only at the conclusion of the passage does Stirner define what he means by the term "Mongolism", viz., "[the] utter absence of any rights of the sensuous, [it] represents non-sensuousness and unnature...". (p. 65)

It may also be salient to mention Stirner's protracted (and consistent) opposition to bigotry and nationalism of any kind, and his many passages attacking the racism of Germans as narrow-minded "tribalism" and "Teutonomania". However, for many modern readers, Stirner's use of the (now odious) 19th century racial categories "Mongoloid" and "Negro" constitute powerful prima facie evidence that Stirner should simply be considered a racist, and may cause them to ignore his direct arguments against racist nationalism.

Stirner's central argument on the question of racial identity hinges on his assertion that ethnicity is an illusory and invidious notion (variously exploited by nationalism, liberalism, and the Church in his contemporary Germany) and that can be broken by the uniqueness (and "nothingness") of the ego. With the latter breaking of the illusion a free intercourse between people of different ethnicities is supposed to ensue; this seems to work from a cosmopolitan or "multi-cultural" assumption wherein each distinct ethnicity or religion should "assert [its] distinctness or peculiarity: you need not give way or renounce yourself [viz., your ethnic identity]" (p. 185). This is a striking contrast to the widespread presumption of the time that ethnic minorities in Europe were obliged to assimilate or else depart. Stirner excoriates the presumption that ethnic divisions can be "dissolved" by the forced imposition of a nationalistic identity, and similarly rejects the liberal claims that the issue will disappear if only state power would provide "equal rights" to all:

The "equality of right" is a phantom ... people dream of "all citizens of the state having to stand side by side, with equal rights". As citizens of the state they are certainly all equal for the state. But it will divide them, and advance them or put them in the rear, according to its special ends, if on no other account... People conceive of the significance of the opposition [between ethnicities] too formally and weakly when they want only to dissolve it in order to make room for a third thing that shall unite. The opposition deserves rather to be sharpened. [...] Our weakness consists not in this, that we are in opposition to others, but in this, that we are not completely so; that we are not entirely severed from them, that we still seek a "Communion", a "Bond", that in communion we have an ideal. One faith, one god, one idea, one hat, for all! If all were brought under one hat, certainly no one would need to take off his hat for an- other anymore.

The last and most decided opposition, that of unique against unique, is fundamentally beyond what is called opposition, but without having sunk back into "unity" and unison. As unique you no longer have anything in common with the other, and therefore nothing divisive or hostile either; you are not seeking to be in the right before a third party [viz., god, the state, etc.], and are stand- ing with [others] neither on "the basis of right" nor on any other common ground. The opposition vanishes in complete severance or singleness. This might be regarded as the new point in common, or as a new parity, but here the parity consists precisely in the disparity, an equality of disparity, and [even] that [distinction arises] only for him who poses the two in "comparison". [p. 184- 186]