Quote of the Week: Stirner on Egoism

Max Stirner
Max Stirner

“Egoistisch ist es, keiner Sache einen eigenen oder »absoluten« Wert beizulegen, sondern ihren Wert in Mir zu suchen.”

Max Stirner. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. Verlag Karl Alber. Freiburg/München 2009 [1844]. page 176.

“To be egoistic is not to attribute to a thing its own or »absolute« value, but rather to look for the value in Myself.” (My translation)

The definition of being egoistic offered by the great egoist Max Stirner shows the ambiguity of his position. The ambiguity can be seen when one asks, what it means to look for the value in Myself. There are at least two possible interpretations:

  1. The value the things seems to have is only a projection by Myself.
  2. The value of the thing derives from Myself.

The option differ in an important way: On the first interpretation the thing has no value, but seems only to have one, on the second interpretation it has a value, but this value is dependent on me. Is Stirner a realist or an anti-realist when it comes to the value of objects and to normativity in general?

The answer is not easy and pervades his main book: Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. One the one hand Stirner attacks morality and other presumably normative phenomena, on the other hand Stirner seems to argue for his egoism. How is he going to argue for his egoism, without committing to this being the right position? Perhaps one should take his arguments only to have a rhetorical but no normative force, so that there would be nothing wrong about resisting them?

Quotations for both realist and anti-realist reading can be found and I cannot resolve the ambiguity here. What makes the quote interesting is not that it resolves the ambiguity, but that it shows where the ambiguity creeps in. Stirner makes Me i.e. the subject central to his account, but it remains unresolved whether this centrality is only a descriptive or a normative centrality. Is it important that the subject is central or is only the case that the subject is central for the appearance of values?

There is at least one more detail to note about this quote. The use of “absolute” suggests that Stirner is targeting Hegel, which he does very often. Hegel, who often wrote about the Absolute, argued for values independent on the individuality of the self, which Stirner emphasises in his quote. The connection to Hegel throws also another light on this quote since the word “Sache” used in the German original has a specific meaning in Hegel. “Sache” can be translated “object” or as “thing”, which is the translation I had to resort to for simplicities sake, but “Sache” has another connotation on which Hegel builds. The term “Sache” points to the conceptual nature of objects in Hegel’s writing, it points to the generality in which the objects participate. An example of this is the use of “Sache” in the preface of the Phenomenology. Stirner would have rejected that there are such Sachen, being an unremitting nominalist. So the quote is also a rejection of a Hegelian understanding of Sachen.