The Sense of Emptiness: Egoism and the Embodied Phenomenology of the Unique.


This is the first in a series of three essays examining the work of Max Stirner. In this piece, I explore Stirner’s thinking implies a phenomenology of embodiment.

A Realm of Essences: The Unique as Concrete Existential Subject.

In the preface to The Ego and His Own, entitled All Things are Nothing to Me, Stirner remarks that the “divine is God’s concern; the human, man’s” (EHO, pxxiii). By contrast, he has no concern for abstract concepts such goodness, truth, justice, or liberty, “but solely what is mine” (Ibid, his emphasis). That is, he is only concerned with the individual as a singular concrete existential subject.

It is here that Stirner establishes the two primordial tenets of his egoism. These are:

  1. That only an individual subject can exercise intentionality and agency.
  2. The individual subject cannot be defined or determined by anything outside the intentionality of their being. That is, as the one and unique (der Einzige/einzig).

Akin to Kierkegaard’s dialectical reversal of Hegel, where is individual led away from the absolute to the absurd, Stirner performs a similar exercise with his Young Hegelian nemesis, Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, the latter Feuerbach devolved attributes of God and accredited them to humanity. But as far as Stirner is concerned, from the perspective of the individual, Feuerbach merely “accomplishes only a transposition of subject and predicate, giving preference to the latter” (EHO, p51). This is merely a “change of masters” (EHO, p50, his emphasis). For Stirner, attributes and predicates exist on a separate ontological plane from the concrete individual subject. No common property or general definition can ever account for the inviolable uniqueness of the one. This is because “you yourself with your essence are valuable to me, for your essence is not a higher one, is not higher and more general than you, is unique like you yourself, because it is you” (EHO, p35, his emphasis). Stirner’s full inversion of Feuerbach can be seen in the following passage:

The sentence “God has become man” is now followed by the other, “Man has become I.” This is the human I. But we invert it and say: I was not able to find myself so long as I sought myself as Man. But, now that it appears that Man is aspiring to become I and to gain a corporeity in me, I note that, after all, everything depends on me, and Man is lost without me. But I do not care to give myself up to be the shrine of this most holy thing, and shall not ask henceforward whether I am man or un-man in what I set about; let this spirit keep off my neck! (EHO, p127–128).

For the egoist, no abstraction or ideal can ever exhaust the lived experience of an embodied subject. Furthermore, they are incapable of expressing the differences between concrete individuals. This why Stirner states that if the “individual is the whole of nature, so he is the whole of the species too” (EHO, p169).

When Stirner makes the accusation that “(o)ur atheists are pious people” (EHO, p171), he is not attacking his fellow Young Hegelians for their religious faith, but their belief in determinants. This is because to “know and acknowledge essences alone and nothing but essences, that is religion; its realm is a realm of essences, spooks, and ghosts” (EHO, p34). What constitutes religion, for Stirner, is any mode of thought predicated upon transcendentals. He is abrasive to any philosophical or moral doctrine which seeks to arrest the potential of the concrete individual in their becoming, as well as any political agenda which intends the perfectibility of the human being. Thus “(w)hether the church, the Bible, or reason…the sacred authority makes no difference in essentials” (EHO, p323, his emphasis). No matter how subtle or innocuous, every philosophical traditional, ethical code, religious doctrine, or political agenda has a prescriptive or normative substructure which obliges the unique subject to cultivate or enact. As such, they are what Stirner terms: vocational. He develops this line of thought in the following passage:

The HUMAN religion is only the last metamorphosis of the Christian religion. For liberalism is a religion because it separates my essence from me and sets it above me, because it exalts “Man” to the same extent as any other religion does its God or idol, because it makes what is mine into something otherworldly, because in general it makes out of what is mine, out of my qualities and my property, something alien — to wit, an “essence”; in short, because it sets me beneath Man, and thereby creates for me a “vocation.” (EHO, p162, his emphasis)

Much of Young Hegelian social and political discourse fluctuates around questions of property, more specifically, private property. In his Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argued that “the right to things is the right of personality as such…A person must translate his freedom into an external sphere in order to exist as Idea” (OPR, p57, hid emphasis). For him, property possession is the primary means by which an individual projects their selfhood into the world as an objective buttress.

Stirner is concerned less with the possession and use of property by an individual and more with the relations between the two. That is, how property is utilized by the unique in the process of living. His concept of property is not limited to physical objects but also ideas. These are what he terms spiritual goods (EHO, p261). Stirner is acutely aware of how one’s personal property, whether physical possessions or metaphysical beliefs, can come to dominate and define the individual. True personality comes not through the ability to acquire entertain ideas and acquire things but occupy and use them without attachment. Thus, to state the world is open to ownership is not a claim right and entitlement but an assertion of possibility, a consideration of the unique’ s own boundaries.

A Personality as Such: Reading Stirner as an Embodied Phenomenologist.

Speculative empiricism implies an embodied phenomenology to the extent that it deems configures consciousness as emergent from, and parasitic upon, more elementary forms of experience. As a subject which interacts adaptively, dynamically, and responsively to its lived environment, the consciousness of a human being is enacted through an active process encompassing mind, body, and world.

The human subject is enveloped in a dialectical relationship with its lived environment where the structure and content of consciousness is predicated upon interactivity with the world. At the same time, this activity informs how the world is presented and disclose to consciousness. Intentional consciousness, with its conceptual and volitional faculties, is dependent upon perceptual and sensorimotor activity as a relational ground of the subject. In short, somatic activity determines cognitive activity.

The genius of selfhood is to integrate and present the dichotomies of subject and object in a complimentary manner. Primarily, the self is orientated from a subjective perspective, recognising and enacting possibilities from the perspective of the body. But in other instances, the embodied mind can perceive itself as object of attention, action, or effect. Technology, language, art, and culture all provide platforms from which the embodied subject can extend the self meaningfully beyond its cranial and epidermal limitations. Thus, each individual consciousness can be said to exist with a unique framework of reference significant to it as a subject. Culture and society are nothing but the cumulative exchange and relation of these individual frameworks in their interactivity with the lived environment. What constitutes the world is a constant feedback loop whereby an individual subject interprets the given environment from their own unique perspective and transforms it into a new complex of social, cultural, and political relations. History is nothing but this productive activity.

At the root of Stirner’s egoism is a defence of the embodied subject in its primordial relationality with the lived environment. Beyond language, concepts, and logic there is an unthinkable and unsayable uniqueness of interconnectivity with world which cannot be expressed linguistically or captured conceptually. It is the absolute givenness of pure experience.

By trading in identity and representation, the inviolable uniqueness of individual lived experience is sullied and misrepresented by conceptual content and material dependency. It is this impossible singularity Stirner is driving at when he states that “I am not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I am the creative nothing, the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything” (EHO, pxxiii). For Stirner, the self is an indeterminate space of possibility, pure becoming. By returning to the body as the locus of relationality and worldly engagement, the one can disentangle itself from various webs of determination and attachment, reclaiming the self from what it is not. Even in the simple act of physically stretching one’s muscles, Stirner finds an opportunity to functionally break from conceptual determination. As he explains:

A jerk does me the service of the most anxious thinking, a stretching of the limbs shakes off the torment of thoughts, a leap upward hurls from my breast the nightmare of the religious world, a jubilant Hoopla throws off year-long burdens. But the monstrous significance of unthinking jubilation could not be recognized in the long night of thinking and believing. (EHO, p137)

Inverting religious and spiritual doctrines which advocate disciplining the body in the pursuit of higher truths, Stirner proclaims that “it is only through the “flesh” that I can break tyranny of mind; for it is only when a man hears his flesh along with the rest of him that he hears himself wholly” (EHO, p56). Thus, the body is the means the hold of determinants and attachments can be broken. The body is an effective bulwark against the self-negating process of sublation onto a higher plain, questing the potency and efficacy of the sacred goods which vitiate the incomprehensible depth and complexity of individual lived experience.


~(EHO) The Ego and His Own: The Case of the Individual Against Authority (Verso, 2014) by Max Stirner.

~(OPR) Outlines of the Philosophy of Right (OUP, 2008) by G.W.F. Hegel



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