Max Stirner: The Problem of Realism & The Heuristic Response

“Ich hab’ Mein’ Sach’ auf Nichts gestellt.”

[I have set my course on nothing.] 

~Stirner, quoting Goethe’s poem “Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!”

Max Stirner (the penname of Johann Kaspar Schmitt) was a member of the Young Hegelians (of which Marx & Engels were members), which believed that Hegel was a covert atheist, i.e. that his ‘theology’ could be removed from his system with no significant loss. As well, they abided by Marx’s now-clichéd line: “The philosophers have hitherto explained the world. The point is to change it”[1]. Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity & Bruno Bauer in his book Critique of The Gospel History both rejected religion in favor of a humanism which is also evident in Marx’s earlier writings. Stirner worked as a teacher in a girl’s school, a job which he very much cherished, but which he left before publishing his magnum (and for that matter, only) opus, Der Einzige Und Das Eigentum[2] (The Ego & Its Own), in order to prevent scandal when the book’s authorship was traced to him. Indeed, it caused something of a scandal in Germany, and was entirely unexpected by Stirner’s fellow Young Hegelians, as Stirner was one of the most quiet and benign members: the book is a fierce invective toward each of the Young Hegelians, one of his arguments being that Feuerbach & Bauer had merely replaced God with ‘Man’, another hypostatized notion that was hardly better than before. 

Marx himself spent 300 pages arguing against Stirner in The German Ideology (at times in an embarrassingly puerile fashion), before ultimately leaving the book unpublished. Bauer & Feuerbach also countered Stirner, but were refuted in another of his essays, this one under the guise of a university student, called Stirner’s Critics. Bernd Laska and J.L. Walker’s introduction to The Ego & Its Own both argue that Stirner was a founding influence on the thought of Nietzsche, and it is Stirner’s book to which Foucault refers when he asserts that Nietzsche’s writings about the ‘death of God’ were actually obliquely referring to the death of Man. The book was also read by Adorno, who is reported to have said that Stirner “let the cat out of the bag”, as well as by Jürgen Habermas and perhaps Carl Schmitt.

Following the initial scandal which it caused after its publication in 1845, Stirner’s book was forgotten fairly quickly, but it was translated in 1907 by Steven J. Byington, and was later re-translated as part of a Cambridge series on Fascist thinkers (along with, for example, De Maistre). Fascism is, quite frankly, a ridiculous label for Stirner; rather, Stirner is now considered to be an ‘individualist anarchist’, which is likely one of his reasons for his resurgence in popularity. Stirner now has a Wikipedia page dedicated to his philosophy (the ultimate mark, as we now know, of fame), and several websites which study his work (i-studies, The LSR project). As well, Stirner has even earned a place in Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers, which describes how Stirner died from a disease acquired by an insect bite, and how Stirner’s house is now becoming something of a landmark for philosophically-minded tourists (pg. 177-8).

The only surviving ‘portrait’ of Stirner, drawn by Friedrich Engels

Below is my summation of Stirner’s metaphysics, though this only addresses a specific line of thought in his book. I should also add that Stirner rarely delves into explicit metaphysical thinking, and that perhaps even calling it a ‘metaphysics‘ is antithetical to his thought:

To sum up The Ego & Its Own‘s metaphysics as succinctly as possible: Stirner attacks the possibility of imposing genera upon people (e.g. occupation, age, worldview, nationality) since these categories begin to be dealt with as reified entities (i.e. I view a subject with the predicate of x as a representative―an instance, if you will―of the predicate x). The more pervasive a genus is, the more it distorts one’s perception of an individual. Thus, the worst of these genera is the idea of ‘Man’. If we view an individual simply as ‘Human’, all distinctions evaporate, and I alienate myself from the other. Der Einzige (‘Owner’; roughly, the subject) is prior to all predicates, and it is the Eigentum (literally ‘ownness’) that must come first in our recognition of others. The genus, having no independent object, is thus an empty concept (and one could only oppose this by [either] positing a Platonically ‘formal’ existence to genera [or, perhaps, accepting that genera are themselves objects, à la Speculative Realism[3]]).

Historically, due to the ability of genera to reduce groups of individuals to a common denominator, eidolons such as nationality, religion, & mankind (in Humanism) have been manipulated by politicians in order to create solidarity, obligation, & submission, though there is no true legitimacy behind this. If we accept all genera as predicates, none of which can by itself fully define an individual, then the only source of unity that remains is a negative one―it is only in each person’s ultimate existence as a subject which is prior to all predicates (including that of ‘subjecthood’ itself).

Thus I have no deontological obligation to anyone who happens to share a genus with me. If I cannot set the value of things relative to any genus above me (e.g. ‘the good of Mankind’), then all that matters is my good―I have no metaphysical obligation to help others unless I do it for my own good (via empathy, amusement, etc.). Accordingly, all that prevents me from harming another is their strength & the strength that they muster on their behalf, e.g. by manipulating the bad faith of people supposedly representing a genus.

In Marx’s ‘labor theory of value’, there is no inherent necessity that what I produce belongs to me―all ownership is reduced to the power principle discussed above. All rules brought to bear upon me have no legitimacy other than that of power. In order for any ‘institution’ to not rest simply on a spurious genus, it must be a coalition of individuals, none of whom having any obligation whatsoever to ‘the group’; one may leave such a coalition if one pleases, and take advantage of it according to the limitations of the power principle.

In short, then, this would make the social sciences mere castles in the air, particularly Sociology in its reduction of individuals to demographic predicates. Though Stirner does not embark on an explicit epistemology, I prefer to think that Stirner’s metaphysics is an extension of the classic passage by David Hume:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

~David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), §12.3.165

Stirner, I would contend, is the Hume of ideology. Though Stirner is hardly ‘sophisticated’, in the sense of being recondite and academic, he provides a crucial question for any of us who hope to understand, anticipate, and/or influence human action: any philosophy of the social sciences which cannot provide an answer to the problem of Realism (i.e. the belief that abstract categories have no inherent validity), is insufficient for our purposes, and can pretend to no other purpose than to describe and classify (à la History) with ever less accuracy the more general our categories.

The impacts of Stirner’s thought upon the notion of political legitimacy are interesting, yet have been eclipsed by the more pragmatic turn brought about by the Utilitarians. nevertheless, in his time―during which such notions as the social contract were still in use, not to mention the theocracy espoused by the Right-wing Hegelians―his insights were quite relevant for modern sociopolitical theory. It would be interesting to read such contemporary ‘deontologists’ as Habermas through a Stirnerian lens, but here is not the place for such a study. As for Stirner’s epistemology, an adequate reply can be offered by a particular school of thought in the philosophy of science, to which we shall presently turn.

Predictivism, in short, judges the value of a theory as determined by its ability to predict future events. It is not especially in vogue in scientific circles due to the theoretical nature of such sciences as quantum theory and pure mathematics, but even Einstein’s theory of relativity was verified by his successful prediction that during a solar eclipse the position of stars (relative to the earth) would be different from where they would be found at night, so perhaps some obscure means of testing these most abstract of theories will be devised in the future. The key to predictivism which allows us to bypass Stirner’s disputations, however, is that scientists operating under its sway take a heuristic approach to their concepts and theories. What this means is that all theories, including those which are most ‘unquestioned’, are not taken as containing any inherent truth, but rather are viewed as models which attempt to approximate as closely as possible the behaviour of the natural (or social) world.

In some cases, most conspicuously that of Newtonian physics, a new model (in this case relativity) is developed which answers all of the questions which were answered by the old model in addition to questions which the old model could not answer (in our example, the anomalous orbit of Mercury which no Newtonian model could solve, though many came close enough that the problem was viewed as irrelevant). When a new model can answer questions that the old one cannot, but at the same time cannot answer some of the questions that the old one could, this is known as ‘Kuhn loss’ (after the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who gave us the concept of ‘paradigm shift‘). An example of this is Non-Euclidean geometry as opposed to Euclidean.

In Stirnerian terms, the benefit of a heuristic approach is that we do not hypostatize concepts and genera (i.e. we do not view them as having a ‘reality’ of their own), but view them as human-made inventions which can only hope to approximate more and more accurately. As new minute details are discovered, it is quite possible that these will not fit into even the most common of scientific models, which will have to be tweaked accordingly, or even at times revolutionized. One can heuristically approach social science just as productively as one can the natural sciences. Indeed, the main reason for the specialized vocabulary of the social sciences is that ‘commonsensical’ concepts are far too inaccurate for properly rendering the nuances of one’s subject, and indeed often extremely technical terms (such as relativity, ‘quantum leap’, etc.) are integrated into popular terminology, just as new terms will eventually come to replace them.

In political science, the traditional notion of political power has been reconsidered in light of the immense influence of the Japanese, which is based largely on its human capital, despite its comparatively tiny geographical presence. In the realm of semantics, Hayek and Mises note with dismay that the popular usage of ‘liberalism’ has shifted to its opposite: while liberalism used to denote free markets and their concomitant economic freedom, it now denotes an emphasis on statism and economic constraint, whereas the vastly inappropriate term ‘conservatism’ is now used to denote the former position[4]. The definition of what constitutes a language has been broadened to include sign languages and, by some but not all linguists, the dances of bees used to alert their comrades about the location of food, its quality, and several other factors[5].

Early explorers were astonished to find a black variety of swan (Cygnus atratus) native to Australia. The black swan has since become a metaphor for the proof of a fact which was previously thought to be impossible.

In conclusion, Stirner was quite justified in pointing out the tyranny of ossified concepts, and particularly politicians’ use of these concepts as ‘justification’ for limiting the freedom of others. His dismissal of the concept of the ‘common good’, in addition to many other taken-for-granted concepts, are worth careful consideration for anyone who possesses power over others (and who does not?). In political terms, however, Stirner dismisses the realm of prudence, which is more or less the focus of the utilitarians to come later. Hobbes’ Leviathan, as a justification for a prudence-based society, provides a comprehensive rebuttal to chaotic anarchism, which is, however, not necessarily what Stirner was advocating―perhaps Stirner would have been satisfied with a collective recognition of the frailty of human knowledge, which may likely have led to the sort of epistemological open-mindedness espoused by Hayek and Bakhtin[6].


[1]: Theses on Feuerbach, thesis 11

[2]: Literally, The Owner & His Property, but atrociously translated into English as The Ego & His Own [later Its Own], at the publisher’s behest, in order to make it sound more ‘sexy’; I would personally be tempted to translate it now as The Subject & Its Predicates.

[3]: I later came to find out that the current Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology school used precisely the method I had in mind in this statement, somewhat cloudy due to my lack of conceptual tools with which to situate the matter. In the briefest possible summary, SR/OOO distinguishes between objects and relations, and accepts within the category of ‘object’ even those abstractions which Stirner dismisses as ‘spooks’ (i.e. even a genus such as ‘Man’ is viewed as an object). Thus the problem Stirner raises is rejected as a non-problem. The author does not find this satisfactory, and Stirner himself would doubtless display nothing but contempt for such sophistries.

[4]: This example is more about erroneous connotations for secular users of these terms rather than conceptual models per se; such connotations easily make their way into an ‘integrated’ worldview, however, which leads to contemporary liberals’ contradiction of espousing both individual freedom and increased state control.

[5]: Admittedly this is more of a taxonomical argument than conceptual; the point is that the concept changed following exposure to new data.

[6]: For further information, see here.



  • Stirner argues that because abstract concepts such as ‘Human’ have no singular object which corresponds to them, they cannot be legitimately used to coerce people (‘for the good of mankind’, etc.)
  • This interpretation of the role of concepts leads to significant problems in social science, which consists of, in Stirner’s view, ‘castles in the sky’ (i.e. fantastical theoretical constructions).
  • However, if we look at concepts as models which seek to connect real-life events with the greatest coherence and accuracy, but always with some degree of inaccuracy, we avoid this problem, since we realize that our concepts have no ‘reality’ except as tools.

About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on July 2, 2011, in History, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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