Max Stirner

Philosophy of Max Stirner

Johann Kaspar Schmidt (1806 – 1856), better known as Max Stirner (the nom de plume he adopted from a schoolyard nickname he had acquired as a child because of his high brow, in German ‘Stirn’), was a German philosopher, who ranks as one of the literary fathers of nihilism, existentialism, post-modernism and anarchism.

Stirner’s main work is ‘The Ego and Its Own’ (‘Der Einzige und sein Eigentum’), published in 1844 in Leipzig. It is a a radical anti-authoritarian and individualist critique of contemporary Prussian society, and modern western society.

When Stirner turned 20, he attended the University of Berlin, where he attended the lectures of Friedrich Hegel, who was to become a source of inspiration for his thinking. While in Berlin in 1841, Stirner participated in discussions with a group of young philosophers called ‘Die Freien’ (‘The Free’), and whom historians have subsequently categorized as the Young Hegelians. Some of the best known names in 19th century literature and philosophy were involved with this discussion group, including Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels.

Dialectics, are arguments, and the goal of the dialectical process is to try to resolve a disagreement through rational talk. While some of the Young Hegelians were eager subscribers to Hegel’s dialectical method, and attempted to apply dialectical approaches to Hegel’s conclusions, the left wing members of the group broke with Hegel. Frequently the debates would take place at Hippel’s, a wine bar in Friedrichstraße. The most-often reproduced portrait of Stirner is a cartoon by Engels, drawn 40 years later from memory at the request of Stirner’s biographer, John Henry Mackay.

Stirner worked as a schoolteacher in a gymnasium for young girls when he wrote his major work, ‘The Ego and Its Own,’ which in part is a polemic against the leading Young Hegelians, but also against communists. He resigned from his teaching position in anticipation of the controversy arising from his major work’s publication in October 1844.

Stirner married twice; his first wife was a household servant, with whom he fell in love at an early age. Soon after their marriage, she died due to complications with pregnancy in 1838. In 1843 he married Marie Dähnhardt, an intellectual associated with Die Freien. They divorced in 1846. Stirner planned and financed (with Marie’s inheritance) an attempt by some Young Hegelians to own and operate a milk-shop on co-operative principles. This enterprise failed partly because the dairy farmers were suspicious of these well-dressed intellectuals. The milk shop was also so well decorated that most of the potential customers felt too poorly dressed to buy their milk there.

In ‘The Ego and Its Own,’ Stirner launches a radical anti-authoritarian and individualist critique of contemporary Prussian society, and modern western society as such. He offers an approach to human existence which depicts the self as a creative non-entity, beyond language and reality. The book proclaims that all religions and ideologies rest on empty concepts. The same holds true for society’s institutions, that claim authority over the individual, be it the state, legislation, the church, or the systems of education.

Hegel’s philosophy can be summed up by the dictum that ‘the rational alone is real.’ Stirner’s argument explores and extends the limits of Hegelian criticism, aiming his critique at nationalism, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and humanism:

‘In the time of spirits thoughts grew till they overtopped my head, whose offspring they yet were; they hovered about me and convulsed me like fever-phantasies — an awful power. The thoughts had become corporeal on their own account, were ghosts, e. g. God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland, etc. If I destroy their corporeity, then I take them back into mine, and say: “I alone am corporeal.” And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property; I refer all to myself.’

While the book was a critical success and attracted much reaction from famous philosophers after publication, it was out of print and the notoriety it provoked faded many years before Stirner’s death. Stirner had a destructive impact on left-Hegelianism, though his philosophy was a significant influence on Marx and his magnum opus became a founding text of individualist anarchism.

Post-structuralism is a label allied to French intellectuals who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. The influential poststructuralist thinker Jacques Derrida in his book ‘Specters of Marx’ dealt on Stirner and his relationship with Marx. Stirner was a proto-poststructuralist who on the one hand had essentially anticipated modern post-structuralists such as Foucault and Derrida, but on the other had already transcended them, thus providing what they were unable to: a ground for a non-essentialist critique of present liberal capitalist society.

The ideas of Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche have often been compared, and many authors have discussed apparent similarities in their writings, sometimes raising the question of influence. In Germany, during the early years of Nietzsche’s emergence as a well-known figure, the only thinker discussed in connection with his ideas more often than Stirner was Schopenhauer.

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