Philosophical Egoism: And Now a Word From General Semantics
This article originally appeared in Vol. VII, No. 4, Summer 1950 of ETC., a journal by and for those whose interest lies with General Semantics. The content of the article, however, is of wider interest, to be sure.
Max Stirner And The Heresy Of Self-Abundance
ANY BOOK that lays bare the limitations and fallacies of prevailing doctrines can be called a dangerous bookdangerous to the spokesmen for those doctrines. From such a standpoint Korzybskis Science and Sanity is dangerous; so is P. W. Bridgmans The Intelligent Individual and Society; and a third, Max Stirners The Ego and His Own;1 the object of this study, long ago was called dangerous in every sense of the word, and the most revolutionary ever written. 2 To link Stirner, an obscure nineteenth-century Berlin schoolmaster, with two contemporary non-aristotelians, and then to call them all heretics, would be meaningless for our purposes, were that the only thing they had in common. But behind their heresies lie evaluative systems all formulated on the same basis: on how to help you, as Stirner puts it, to Get the value out of thyself. (419)
* Maynard Whitlow, of Los Angeles, is a mechanical engineer who does technical writing. In addition to his frequent contributions to ETC., he has also written for New Republic.
1 Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. Leipzig. 1844. Translated by S. T. Byington (London: A. C. Fifield, 1912). All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers of this edition.
2 James Huneker, Egoists, A Book of Supermen, 1909, pp. 371, 350.
3 Jacques Barzun, Romanticism and the Modern Ego, 1943, p. 132.
anarchism, as a nominalist, as a subjective idealist, whose only appeal is to the decadent bourgeoisie, as a spokesman for the young atheist school, as a petty bourgeois in revolt; 4 as a positivist living as the only Individual in the misty region of Cloud-cuckoo-land ; 5 as a nihilist; 6 as a prophet of a rebellion of the working classes that may give for the first time a plebeian tone to philosophy; 7 as one who will convince only those unscientific and half-educated minds who after having surrendered their traditional faith find themselves without any authority in either religion or politics; 8 etc., etc.
Einzigkeit and Reality
WHEN WILLIAM JAMES said, The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic placesthey are strung upon it like so many beads, 9 he was close to Stirners position. A recent re-appraisal of Nietzsche makes the same point: He wishes to free men of the bad conscience about egoism induced by the old morality; to encourage them to undertake that rigorous selfishness which is the most fundamental condition of thriving life. 10 A century ago, in advocating such a corrective egoism, Stirner fell victim to what Erich Fromm has called the tabu on selfishness which pervades modern culture.11 And today, as the mills of the various Absolutes grind individuals exceeding small, we might well launch a frontal attack on that tabu, if we are to be more than faceless units grubbing for survival in mass social situations. Stirners formulations on egoism afford us various clues with which to go into extensional battle.
4 G. Plechanoff, Anarchism and Socialism, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1912, pp. 39, 48, 10, 45, 52.
5 E. V. Zenker, Anarchism, London, 1898, pp. 46, 83.
6 Huneker, op. cit., p. 355.
7 G. Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy, 1916, p. 99.
8 Carus, Nietzsche and Other Exponents of Individualism, 1914, p. 90.
9 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library, p. 489.
10 G. A. Morgan, Jr., What Nietzsche Means, 1943, p. 182.
11 Erich Eromm, Man for Himself, 1947, p. 119.
oriented: The man became a man, otherwise a conceptual construction, one among the infinity of possible ones. 12 Stirner, in 1844, was perfectly aware of the revolutionary nature of this new emphasis:
Stirner was in agreement with Korzybskis observation that on the threshold of every beginningincluding that of positing a unique onewe must start with undefined terms which express silent, structural creeds or metaphysics. 13 When Stirner said, I on my part start from a presupposition in presupposing myself, he was stating his metaphysics and suggesting its unspeakable nature. (199) They say of God, Names name thee not. That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names. (490)
But if, in Stirners own words, his unique one is unspeakable and unutterable, how do we identify him? Stirners response is couched in terms that Korzybski himself might have used, while pointing silently to a thing on the objective level: Instead of attempting to describe in high-order abstractions the conceptual question, what is man?, put who in place of what; with who it is no longer any question at all, but the answer is personally on hand at once in the asker: the question answers itself. (489-490)
This is Stirners self-conscious egoism, the foundation beneath his ownness, or extensionality1844. Just as Korzybski claims that in the manhood of humanity the individual will possess some of the semantic reactions of so-called genius, so Stirner claims that the exercise of ownness will raise men above the human (more abstract) level, will make un-men of them. Korzybski sees this greater integration as a step from the animal to the true (adult) man; Stirner, as proceeding from man to un-man; their viewpoints are essentially the same.
But always conscious of abstracting, Stirner makes it clear that his un-man, as self-conscious egoist, is not un-man on the level of a superman, or a god, for this formulation he rejects. His unique one is not a conscious aristocrat like that of Nietzsche, but if he should prove superior (by some evaluation made
12 Korzybski, Science and Sanity, p. 86.
13 Ibid., p. 373.
outside himself), that superiority would be only the outgrowth of ownness, of extensionality, if you will. This orientation is the basis for Stirners preference for the term un-human instead of human. The latter is not my world. I never execute anything human in the abstract, but always my own things; i.e my human act is diverse from every other human act, and only by this diversity is it a real act belonging to me. The human in it is an abstraction, and, as such, spirit, i.e. abstracted essence. (234-5) But the fact that human is a higher-order abstraction does not mean that Stirner advocates dispensing with it and with other abstractions. Abstractions and thoughts are simply more of his properties, existing on different levels, and to be used for his unique purposes.
The Fiction of Altruism
SINCE STIRNER rejects altruism, as non-existent except as a high-order abstraction, all individuals are by his formulation self-motivated or egoistical. And he recognises two kinds of egoists:14 the transitory and the involuntary. The transitory egoist is our unique, extensional1844 individual, again, but with the further property of being in process, flux, and conscious of that fact. While the involuntary egoist is a fanatical, possessed man, whose intensional 1844 thinking has filled his head with high-order abstractions as absolutes: He who cannot get rid of a thought is so far only man, is a thrall of language, this human institution, this treasury of human thoughts. Language or the word tyrannizes hardest over us, because it brings up against us a whole army of fixed ideas. (462) Besides fixed ideas, Stirner calls these abstractions spooks and ghostly ideas, the unconditional belief in which makes the involuntary egoist a lunatic:
A fixed idea is also a standpoint outside reality, like the one from which Archimedes said he could move the earth. This foreign standpoint is the world of mind, of ideas, thoughts, concepts, essences, etc.; it is heaven. (80) This spiritual life, this life turned away from things, is not life at all; it is thinking, by which Stirner meant intensional1844 thinking. Now nothing but mind rules in the world. An innumerable multitude of concepts buzz about in peoples heads . . . ( 125 )
14 Morgan, op. cit., points out that Nietzsche distinguished between six kinds or degrees of egoism. Stirner implies several kinds, but judging by the traditional misunderstanding of Nietzsche, despite his greater explicitness, Stirner would have been just as misunderstood even if he had used subscripts: egoism1, egoism2, etc.
The Transitory Egoist
WHILE the involuntary egoist is thus preoccupied with creating sanctuaries that must not be touched, the transitory egoist travels with much less metaphysical baggage. For this reason, Stirner starts and finishes his book with a quotation from Goethe: All things are nothing to me (literally: I have set my affair on nothing). This ability to dispense with all absolutes is Stirners ownness, his extensionality1844, by which he is showing his acute awareness of his central position as a unique individual, whose life experiences consist of a constant process of abstracting from reality:
. . . every judgment which I pass upon an object is the creature of my will, and that discernment again leads me to not losing myself in the creature, the judgment, but remaining the creator, the judger, who is ever creating anew. All predicates of objects are my statements, my judgments, mycreatures. If they want to tear themselves loose from me and be something for themselves, or actually overawe me, then I have nothing more pressing to do than to take them back into their nothing, i.e. into me the creator.... As I once willed and decreed their existence, so I want to have license to will their non-existence too; I must not let them grow over my head, must not have the weakness to let them become something absolute, whereby they would be eternalized and withdrawn from my power and decision. (449-450)
Stirner, in showing that intensionality is acquired, again anticipates Korzybski: We were already thinking when we were children, only our thoughts were not fleshless, abstract, absolute.... On the contrary, they had been only thoughts that we had about a thing.... Any thought bound to a thing is not yet nothing but a thought. (12-13) Soon, however, our parents and teachers begin imparting thoughts, and our chances of remaining extensional are jeopardized.
The transitory egoist, while in constant transformation, is no ghostly, fugitive thing. In defending the whole chap, Stirner again recalls Korzybski: for it is
only when a man hears his flesh along with the rest of him that he hears him self wholly, and it is only when he hears himself that he is a hearing or rational being. (81) If it is said that even God proceeds according to eternal laws that too fits me, since I too cannot get out of my skin, but have my law in my whole nature, i.e. in myself. (211)
For in contrast to the self-contempt bred into us by parsons, parents, and good men,those true seducers and corrupters of youthwho saw to it that we are terrified at ourselves in our nakedness and naturalness, and who have left us self-degraded, so that we deem ourselves depraved by nature, born devils, ownness calls us to self-enjoyment, to self-realization. (212, 213) Over the portal of our time stands not that Know thyself of Apollo, but a Get the value out of thyself. (419)
This exhortation to action does not imply a feeling of omnipotence on Stirners part; repeatedly, he makes it clear that the transitory egoist is not necessarily able to realize himself, but that the emphasis is the important thing. Still, liberty is only relative, and each individualegoisthas his limitations:
IN SHOWING that most of his contemporaries were haunted by verbal and mystical sanctions, Stirner exposed himself to attack. His emphasis upon the things called force, might, and poweras his tools, as egoistic toolsonly added to the number and bitterness of his critics. His insight into the hypocrisy and delusions motivating most people, was considered evidence of a cynical and
inhuman man. If there were not an extensional idea in his entire work, a centurys misevaluation of it would still present a fascinating semantic study. Criticism of Stirner is strewn with evidence of wholesale signal reactions and confusion of abstraction levels, despite Stirners effortsunparalleled in his timeto anticipate and counteract just such confusion. His reception offers an object lesson to all those persons who are intent upon formulating non-aristotelian systems, and who are compelled therefore to deal with the life-situations among which are those named force, might, power, etc.
15 P. W. Bridgman, The Intelligent Individual and Society, 1938, p. 283.
16 Ibid., p. 272.
17 Ibid., p. 288.
fact that extensionality, as well as Stirners ownness, is ones basic and most potent property?ones personal power?
A Union of Egoists
IN CONTRADISTINCTION to those fanatics who love man, the abstraction, but who torture individual men in order to win converts to their several faiths, Stirner exposes the hidden hate in the tyranny of altruism. Love and egoism are to him many-valued terms, their degrees of intensity being implicit in the context in which they are used. To love with the consciousness of egoism is to have a fellow-feeling with all men. Thus Stirners individualism contains a strong social sense.
property of ownness, and therefore an organization which is the property of its members, rather than an Over-State before which all are to bow and scrape. Utopian, like all good societies, Stirners Union is rather vaguely outlined, and was probably dwelt upon at all only to show the logical outcome of ownness, if universally applied. Stirner himself obviously felt that Union Now1844 was unobtainable, and unnecessary for him personally. But even while dismissing it as visionary, he pointed out that his Union, too, was entirely conditional, and subject to constant revision or eventual abandonment, if unsatisfactory. Even so, it was no more visionary than to imagine a society of extensional individuals who automatically solve all their problems through the semantic application of their genius.
STIRNERS concern with the antediluvian nature of the language that he was forced to use is implicit on every page of his book, and is explicit in dozens of important contexts. Repeatedly, he found that the old words and logic (aristotelian) frustrated the clear expression of his radical process ideas. But since he knew that he must stick to the old sounds (391), he tried to put them to more extensional use. Nevertheless, his contemporaries and subsequent followers, whether friendly or hostile, generally failed to grasp the significance of his work. If it is claimed that the confusion over what Stirner means indicates a failure in communication, that failure can in large part be attributed to linguistic difficulties. Extensional as he was, Stirner could have used more of Korzybskis recommendations. Then his ethical pronouncements might not have assumed such diabolical proportions in the minds of good people.
Self-abundance, ownness, extensionality, begin, therefore, in William James words, with the individual as the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress; persistently they concern the individuals full awareness of his continually transforming self; finally, says Stirner, they demonstrate that the enjoyment of life is using life up. (426)
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