Max Stirner’s The Unique and Its Property (1844) is the first ruthless critique of modern society. In All Things are Nothing to Me, Jacob Blumenfeld reconstructs the unique philosophy of Max Stirner (1806–1856), a figure that strongly influencedfor better or worseKarl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emma Goldman as well as numerous anarchists, feminists, surrealists, illegalists, existentialists, fascists, libertarians, dadaists, situationists, insurrectionists and nihilists of the last two centuries. Misunderstood, dismissed, and defamed, Stirner’s work is considered by some to be the worst book ever written. It combines the worst elements of philosophy, politics, history, psychology, and morality, and ties it all together with simple tautologies, fancy rhetoric, and militant declarations. That is the glory of Max Stirner’s unique footprint in the history of philosophy. Jacob Blumenfeld wanted to exhume this dead tome along with its dead philosopher, but discovered instead that, rather than deceased, their spirits are alive and quite well, floating in our presence. All Things are Nothing to Me is a forensic investigation into how Stirner has stayed alive throughout time.
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About the Author
Jacob Blumenfeld is a writer, translator, and philosopher based in Berlin. His popular writings have appeared in the New York Times, Viewpoint Magazine, and the Brooklyn Rail. His academic writings have appeared in the Hegel Bulletin, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books and more. He edited and contributed to The Anarchist Turn (2013, Pluto Press), and recently co-translated Communism for Kids (2017, MIT Press). He is currently researching the concept of property from Kant to Marx.
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Part I: Stirner's Revenge
Reading Max Stirner
Stirner is a product of his time, they say. So let us trace his roots and legacy.
Who is Max Stirner? First reading: a young Hegelian, the ultimate culmination of Hegel's philosophy, his disciple and destroyer. How is he both disciple and destroyer? The philosophy of Hegel proceeds dialectically, through the power of negation. In an incredibly intricate manner, the cunning of reason, whether in objective history as spirit or subjective consciousness as concept, elegantly progresses through stages, experiences, and thoughts until it hits a limit, gap or contradiction. This contradiction, when recognized, can negate or cancel that which initially grounded it. Another negation, one which confronts the confrontation of the original ground, propels the initial negation toward an intrinsic resolution. This determinate negation is positive, carrying within it the insight, history, and meaning of that which it negated into its new form. This dialectical logic of movement, propelled by contradiction, is repeatedly expressed in different guises throughout Hegel's analyses. From the negation of sense-certainty by consciousness to the negation of the master by the slave to the negation of religion by absolute knowledge, the negative works its way, like a vector, through all being.
However, with any consistent system there emerges a skeptical worry about a fundamental paradox: does the system belong to itself? In essence, we can ask Hegel the same question: does the system submit to its own logic? If it does, then should it not also hit a limit, a contradiction which lays bare its negative potential for overcoming? If so, then the process of dialectical logic itself would cease to be valid, since the dialectic would be subsumed under its own treatment. Dialectical dialectics, in other words, critical critique would produce ... nothing, absolutely nothing. For the negation would be absolute, as will the object of its negation. If we place Hegel's system within the limit of the person named "Hegel", then we can resolve this by stating that Hegel himself is the absolute limit, the absolute self-consciousness with absolute knowledge of the absolute idea in absolute time. But, if we abstract the system from the man, and allow it to have a life of its own, then the problem compounds. Not Hegel but Hegelianism as a system is then submitted to its own dialectical logic. If that is true, then who stars in the acting roles of its negation?
First negation: the left, young Hegelians. Already with Feuerbach, Hess, and Bauer, we hit the limit of Hegel's speculative project. The self-described "pure critique" or "critical critique" targets the theological aspects of Hegelianism as well as its political conservatism. The young Hegelians begin the descent into the metaphysics of materialism and politics of humanist socialism.
Second negation: Max Stirner. Not only philosophically but historically bringing to an end the "young Hegelian" consensus, Stirner is the perfect candidate for the title of absolute negation of absolute negation. Ending the short-lived reign of humanism, Stirner rejects all attempts at a synthesis with social, material, or human "essences."
New trajectory: Marx, who turns Hegel right side up, is the third term which opens up a new positive phase in the process, only made possible by the previous negations.
In this drama, Stirner occupies a mediating role as the catalyst who caused a paradigm shift in Hegel's wake. This shift allowed Marx to make a conceptual breakthrough towards "historical materialism". That is one story, but problems are easy to note. First off, why would this process remain dialectical? In principle, it should not, for this is supposed to be the story of the overcoming of dialectic. The transition from Hegel to Feuerbach, Feuerbach to Stirner, and Stirner to Marx should then not be seen as dialectical, for then the dialectic was not truly relinquished. Any trace of determinate negation would signal life to that which must have died. Second, even if we accept this account, can one really claim that Marx initiated a completely new sequence of thought? Marx surely transformed the content of dialectic in his analysis of political economy, yet he nonetheless retained the form of the dialectical method itself. Dialectic then did not die, only changed focus.
Second try: who is Max Stirner? Nothing more than an expression of the petty bourgeoisie. A failed student, failed teacher, failed journalist, failed translator, failed husband, and a failed businessman — Stirner was even jailed in a debtors' prison, twice. His attempted milk delivery business, funded by his wife's inheritance, collapsed because he forgot to advertise it to potential customers. Stirner's philosophy of egoism can thus be seen as an ideological reflection of his economic struggle to join the bourgeoisie. This is the classic communist reading of Stirner and — for that matter — of all the anarchists of the 19 (and 20) century by Marx, Engels and their followers. Proudhon, Bakunin, Stirner: who are they but mouthpieces of the petty shopkeepers that want to retain their "individual" capital? The bold pronouncements about the "uniqueness" and "individuality" of the ego are nothing but cries of fear and shouts of reaction against the rising swell of communism. Incapable of thinking beyond the bourgeois category of the idealized individual, Stirner should therefore be excluded from revolutionary discussion and activity. And so, Marx produced a four-hundred-page ruthless criticism of Stirner in the notebooks that became The German Ideology, similar in that sense (but not nearly in scope) to what was done to Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, to what Marx was planning with Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy, and to what Engels did to the anarchists in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
Does this perspective hold any water? If class background determined the validity of one's ideas, then Marx and Engels themselves would have no credibility either. Or does this critique mean something different, namely that no matter the background of the person, the ideas themselves are petty bourgeois? This is surely possible with Stirner, since his ideas have been historically appropriated by self-described anarcho-capitalists, right-wing libertarians and fascists. However, his work has also been appropriated by left-wing socialists, bohemians, and feminists. This is the fate of all great works, and to condemn a text for opening the door to many uses precludes the potential for conflicting interpretations. Is not even Marx's Capital read today on Wall Street?
This ad hominem refrain, which reduces one's ideas to the ideological expressions of one's material conditions, has been repeated throughout history against the anarchists. It does not really amount to anything more than the fear of losing one's political hegemony to other radical positions. It was Engels who first boxed Stirner in with the anarchists in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, by stating (questionably) that he was a major influence on Bakunin. This was meant to discredit Bakunin, of course, for who would want to share company with the lunatic Max Stirner?
A century and a half after The German Ideology was penned, Derrida attempted to unravel the tangled web of ghosts that haunted both Stirner and Marx. Yet even there Derrida only reads Stirner with and against Marx in that great phantomachia. Perhaps, as he urges, it is time to "take seriously the originality, audacity, and precisely, the philosophico-political seriousness of Stirner who also should be read without Marx or against him."
Try again, who is Max Stirner? Third reading: solipsist. In one of the two main books that would locate Stirner within the history of Western philosophy, Eduard Von Hartmann's 1869 Philosophy of the Unconscious makes the claim that Stirner's egoism is nothing but a radicalized Fichtean philosophy, one which works through tautology (I am I! You are you!). Although tempting, this interpretation should be firmly rejected. According to Hartmann, this solipsistic philosophy inevitably leads to a morality based on the "libertinage of the sovereign caprice of the individual" [Libertinage der souveranen Laune des Individuums]. This view is shared by Martin Buber who, in Between Man and Man, contrasts Kierkegaard with Stirner. In the chapter, "Question to the Single One [Einzige]," Buber concludes that, although Stirner and Kierkegaard share many affinities (both are radical critics of Hegel who emphasize singular existence over abstract essence), Stirner's "egoism" gets us nowhere.
Once more, who is Max Stirner? Fourth reading: nihilist. The only monograph in the English language to deal with Max Stirner up until 1976 was RWK Paterson's The Nihilistic Egoist Max Stirner. Reading Stirner as the first full philosophical expression of nihilism in its own terms, Paterson takes Stirner's position to be one of pure negation, impressive for its audacity but dangerous in its implications. Nihilism in this sense is moral nihilism.
Yet there is another reading of Stirner qua nihilist that is perhaps more productive here. In his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1969), Deleuze bestows high praise on Stirner for being the "dialectician who reveals nihilism as the truth of the dialectic." By taking the dialectic to the extreme, Stirner pushed it until the essence of dialectic was revealed: a pure I which, in the end, is nothingness itself. How is this so? Although the speculative logic of the dialectic is contradiction and resolution, its practical motor is alienation and reappropriation. In order to put the dialectic to a stop, an absolute appropriation is needed, one which allows for nothing to escape, for "relative appropriations are still absolute alienations." By becoming proprietor, I the owner consume the dialectic into my own being, dissolving all ideas and objects into myself before they can escape again. This dissolution occurs in the I, as the I. Even I must relate to myself as pure nothing so that I do not escape into something alienable. As Deleuze puts it, "history in general and Hegelianism in particular found their outcome, but also their most complete dissolution, in a triumphant nihilism. Dialectic loves and controls history, but it has a history itself which it suffers from and which it does not control. The meaning of history and the dialectic together is not the realization of reason, freedom, or man as species, but nihilism, nothing but nihilism." This then is the meaning of Stirner's "unique one." For Deleuze, this was a powerful move, but one which Nietzsche ultimately surpassed with his quest for affirmation outside of any discussion of "property." Stirner was all too reactive, not light enough for a truly gay spirit.
Who is Max Stirner? Fifth reading: not the last Hegelian but the first poststructuralist. Reading Stirner's philosophy as an epistemological critique of essences instead of a metaphysical exposition of reality, some recent philosophers have situated Stirner's project within and beyond a poststructuralist framework. Assimilated into French philosophy, Stirner can now be read alongside Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze in their unified assault on the traditional Western metaphysical concepts of truth, history and subjectivity. Although this reading is interesting for its contemporary relevance, it levels the nuances of Stirner's argument, as well as the differences between all those other subsumed philosophers.
More? Sixth, existentialist. Seventh, individualist anarchist. Eighth, proto-right-wing libertarian. Ninth, fascist. Tenth, insane. Eleventh, twelfth ... Man, our head is spooked! How many more can we fit in here? Our "earthly apartments" are becoming "badly overcrowded." Which spooks then should we evict? How about all of them? Fine, no more wheels in the head.
What dogma unites all these "Stirner studies"? Simply put, historicism. By historicism I mean the tendency to reduce one's work (or thought) to a necessary result of a socioeconomic, political, and philosophical aggregate which one can call "historical context" or "age." Stirner is a product of his age, his times — 1840s, Berlin, Germany — which were, of course, dominated by Hegelianism and its followers, the critique of theology, France's revolutionary legacy, burgeoning industrial capitalism, the dominance of liberalism and the opening breaths of socialism and so on.
Stirner himself exposed the fallacy of historicism. In relation to Feuerbach's doctrine of sensualism, he asked: what makes someone uniquely who they are? What makes a person singular, this one, and not another? Sensuousness can be a condition of my identity, but not a determinate factor of who I am. Ventriloquizing Hegel, he asks, "If I were not this one, for instance, Hegel, I should not look at the world as I do look at it, I should not pick out of it that philosophical system which just I, as Hegel, do." Can we perhaps extend this to materialism, empiricism, and historicism? To Stirner, any theory which only considers the aggregate of conditions (e.g. senses, matter, facts) from which something emerges will never be able to fully show how that emergent something became itself in its singularity. An analysis of historical, empirical conditions will only tell us the clothing that such a singularity wears.
Stirner rejects philosophical determinism, including the claim that every action must have some identifiable cause which can be reconstructed in principle. But Stirner does not retreat into religion, declaring that something can come from nothing, ex nihilo, since that is how God works, for instance. But is there a third option? A rigorously atheistic rejection of determinism which does not lapse into mysticism or the absurd? It is here, on the edge of an abyss, where Stirner proclaims the idea of the creative nothing [schöpferische Nichts], "the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything." For Stirner, there is always an excess of being that outstrips the possibility for conceptual capture in a regime of representation. Excess is a misleading word, since Stirner's Eigenheit also refers to that which is below or underneath, that which lacks the full presence of a mediating concept.
The idea of the un-man [Unmensch] animates this point. What is the un-man? "It is a man who does not correspond to the concept man, as the inhuman is something human which does not conform to the concept of the human." Not someone other than myself as human, but that part of myself which is not explainable by my "humanness" or species qualifications. I am un-man when I exceed, fall short, disrupt, cancel, or displace myself from being interpreted through the grid of the concept man, human being. Stirner's un-man makes the point that my humanness is an amoral category, a manipulation of biological taxonomy for political justifications of power. The un-man is that homo sacer which founds and negates the liberal project of human rights. It is that real part of me which cannot be symbolized in any order, yet which structures the symbolic order as such. The un-man does not just ring the morning bell of the "death of man", but rather it signifies that supplement which binds itself to any essentializing logic. Go ahead and posit man, Stirner seems to say, but know that it is not I, for I am either too much or too little for any such category. I am, in a sense, subtracted from man, not because I desire something else, but because I have no desire to fulfill the imposed criteria of humanity.
In a defense of Stirner, most likely written by Stirner himself in 1847, "G. Edward" captures this rage against the category of the human:
Against this phrase of 'humanism', Stirner posits the phrase of 'egoism'. How? You summon me to be a 'human being'; more precisely, that I should be 'man'? Well! I was already a 'human being', 'bare homunculus' and 'man' in the cradle; that is what I am for sure; but I am more than that, I am what I have become through myself, my own development, by the appropriation of the outside world, of history, etc. I am unique. But that is not what you really want. You do not want me to be a real man, you do not give a penny for my uniqueness. You want me to be 'man', as you have constructed him, as an ideal for all. You want to make the 'loutish principle of equality' the standard of my life. Principle around principle! Demand around demand! I posit the principle of egoism against you. I just want to be 'I', to despise nature, men and their laws, human society and their love, and cut loose from every general relation, even the one of language, with you. Against all the impressions of your 'ought', all designations of your categorical judgments, I posit the 'ataraxia' of my 'I'; I am already lenient when I make use of language, I am the 'unsayable', 'I merely show myself'. And am I not entitled to the terror of my 'I', which repels all that is human, when I do not allow you to disturb me in my self-enjoyment, just like you with your terror of humanity which labels me an 'unman' when I sin against your catechisms?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Things Are Nothing to Me"
Copyright © 2017 Jacob Blumenfeld.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Part I: Stirner's Revenge,
Reading Max Stirner,
Stirner: Practical Philosophy,
Ich hab' Mein Sach' auf Stirner gestellt,
Part II: Stirner's World,
Part III: My Stirner,
All Things Are Nothing to Me: Stirner, Marx, and Communism,