STIRNER’S CRITIQUE OF TRANSCENDENTALISM AND THE FIXED IDEA

THOUGHT

 

 

 

 

 

To understand Stirner’s attack on the authority of the state, his attitude toward the Western philosophic tradition must be examined. Stirner treated the Western conception of the ‘idea’ as an historical phenomenon. It has changed from the early Greek civilisation to the present. The ancient sophists understood that the mind was a weapon, a means to survival.

Truth was generated as the mind interacted with nature. But the world of nature was characterised by flux and change. It was not stable. Therefore, truth must also be in a constant state of transition.

 

This is an unsettling position for philosophy. Philosophy has treated the inability to have fixed and eternal truth as a fundamental flaw in the human character. To overcome this weakness, Western philosophers since Plato have created the illusion of stability. This ‘error’ continues within the ‘modem’ traditions in philosophy as well.

 

Modem culture has lost touch with the tradition that Stirner identified with sophism and scepticism. It has sought the safety of the ‘fixed idea.’ By a fixed idea Stimer means a concept, principle, or maxim that represents some aspect of the human character or that elaborates an ethical norm or standard which is not subject to historical circumstance. ‘Fixed’ means eternal, unchanging, and absolute. In the contemporary world, according to Stirner, we have adopted the belief in this folly.

 

In the modem period humans beings have abandoned the sophist’s notion that truth does not present itself in absolutes. Stirner lays much of the blame for this illusion at the doorstep of Christianity. It is the rise of Christianity that created the lie of ‘spirit’ and separated humans from contact with the world (pp.24-25). Spirit now becomes the focal point of human life and activity. Once we create this folly, the ‘wheels in the head’ of spirituality, we are beckoned to the fixed idea (p.43).

When human beings invented the idea of ‘spirit’ in order to give themselves spirituality, the foundation was laid for the fixed idea. The spirit within the individual is perceived to be that which endures in the human being. The spirit transcends the body and the finite character of corporeal existence. But spirituality teaches humans not to respect what is in the individual, but to care only for the image of ‘Man’ as a higher enduring essence (p.42). Human beings come to see each other as ghosts and spirits rather than flesh and blood.

 

The spirituality of Christianity is mirrored and reinforced in the philosophic search for the fixed idea. Humanism is just the most recent metamorphosis of Christianity (p. 173). The common link is transcendentalism. While Stirner does not specifically mention Kant, the transcendental philosophy of Kant elaborates precisely what Stirner finds so offensive. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant develops a demonstration of how the mind is capable of engaging in thought outside the natural stimuli from the environment.

Kant claims that reason alonecan tell us thatwhen we take away the sense impression left by an object it must still have extension in space and time? This demonstration of transcendental reasoning also leads to the conclusion that human beings cannot know essences from their contact with objects, but essences lie only in a transcendental realm beyond our reach. What Kant hoped to deliver with his project was a ‘mode of knowing’ concepts that are fixed and un~hanging.I~n constructing such a system, Kant has established a secular defence of the fixed idea and laid the foundation for modem humanism.

 

In a similar fashion to Christian thought, Kant’s creation of a transcendental foundation for thought establishes the basis for a universalist morality. Adding only the assumption of ‘free will’ as the first principle of morality, Kant was then prepared to give his universalist formulation of the Categorical Imperative: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a general law of nat~re,a’n~d the more specific Practical Imperative: ‘Act so as to treat man, in your own person as well as in that of anyone else, always as an end, never merely as a means.’1° It is these fixed, transcendental claims that lay the groundwork for Kant’s universalist claims in law and politics.

 

Law can be constructed according to transcendentally conceived notions that have no relation to experience, historical condition, or social custom. Reached transcendentally, conclusions regarding the law are not subject to critique based on any experiential knowledge. Morality and law have been divorced from actual lived sensation. The result is that the fixed transcendental idea now has the power to shape human life. From an anarchist perspective, real human beings are now under the power of that which is only an aberration. This is precisely how Stirner approached the issue.

 

This naive transcendentalism also produces political consequences. Universal ethics also provides the basis for a universal conception of human history. In the case of Kant, it is argued that human beings have the same basic characteristics, especially the equal power to engage in reasoning. Based on this assumption, a transcendental moral system can be ‘discovered’ through reason by which individuals can order their lives. Further, if human beings have the same character and are subject to the same unchanging, a priori principles of action, it is now possible to create a universal society and a universal history based on that fact.

 

Stirner rejected such a strategy. It moves in precisely the wrong direction.

The type of universal society described by the liberalism of either Kant or Marx is an affront to the ‘ownness’ that can only be within the individual. What is needed, according to Stirner, is not a society of men, but a union of egos (p.179). Only such a union could really validate the distinct character of each individual. Only such an organisation could really respect the differences represented by each unique being.

 

 

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