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Individualism in Philosophy

On-line since: 18th May 2002

Read this Essay in the original German

If the human being were a mere creature of nature and not a creator at the same time, he would not stand questioningly before the phenomena of the world and would also not seek to fathom their essential being and laws. He would satisfy his drive to eat and to propagate in accordance with the inborn laws of his organism and otherwise allow the events of the world to take the course they happen to take. It would not occur to him at all to address a question to nature. Content and happy he would go through life like the rose of which Angelus Silesius says:

The rose has no “wherefore?”; it blooms because it blooms.
It pays itself no mind, asks not if it is seen.

The rose can just be like this. What it is it is because nature has made it this way. But the human being cannot just be like this. There is a drive within him to add to the world lying before him yet another world that springs forth from him. He does not want to live with his fellowmen in the chance proximity into which nature has placed him; he seeks to regulate the way he lives with others in accordance with his reason. The form in which nature has shaped man and woman does not suffice for him; he creates the ideal figures of Greek sculpture. To the natural course of events in daily life he adds the course of events springing from his imagination as tragedy and comedy. In architecture and music, creations spring from his spirit that are hardly reminiscent at all of anything created by nature. In his sciences he draws up conceptual pictures through which the chaos of world phenomena passing daily before our senses appears to us as a harmoniously governed whole, as a structured organism. In the world of his own deeds, he creates a particular realm — that of historical happenings — which is essentially different from nature's course of events.

The human being feels that everything he creates is only a continuation of the workings of nature. He also knows that he is called upon to add something higher to what nature can do out of itself. He is conscious of the fact that he gives birth out of himself to another, higher nature in addition to outer nature.

Thus the human being stands between two worlds; between the world that presses in upon him from outside and the world that he brings forth out of himself. His effort is to bring these two worlds into harmony. For, his whole being aims at harmony. He would like to live like the rose that does not ask about the whys and wherefores but rather blooms because it blooms. Schiller demands this of the human being in the words:

Are you seeking the highest, the greatest?
The plant can teach it to you.
What it is will-lessly, you must be will-fully — that's it!

The plant can just be what it is. For no new realm springs forth from it, and therefore the fearful longing can also not arise in it: How am I to bring the two realms into harmony with each other?

The goal for which man has striven throughout all the ages of history is to bring what lies within him into harmony with what nature creates out of itself. The fact that he himself is fruitful becomes the starting point for his coming to terms with nature; this coming to terms forms the content of his spiritual striving.

There are two ways of coming to terms with nature. The human being either allows outer nature to become master over his inner nature, or he subjects this outer nature to himself. In the first case, he seeks to submit his own willing and existence to the outer course of events. In the second case, he draws the goal and direction of his willing and existence from himself and seeks to deal in some way or other with the events of nature that still go their own way.

Let us speak about the first case first. It is in accordance with his essential being for man, above and beyond the realm of nature, to create yet another realm that in his sense is a higher one. He can do no other. How he relates to the outer world will depend upon the feelings and emotions he has with respect to this his own realm. Now he can have the same feelings with respect to his own realm as he has with respect to the facts of nature. He then allows the creations of his spirit to approach him in the same way he allows an event of the outer world, wind and weather, for example, to approach him. He perceives no difference in kind between what occurs in the outer world and what occurs within his soul. He therefore believes that they are only one realm, i.e., governed by one kind of law. But he does feel that the creations of his spirit are of a higher sort. He therefore places them above the creations of mere nature. Thus he transfers his own creations into the outer world and lets nature be governed by them. Consequently he knows only an outer world. For he transfers his own inner world outside himself. No wonder then that for him even his own self becomes a subordinate part of this outer world.

One way man comes to terms with the outer world consists, therefore, in his regarding his inner being as something outer; he sets this inner being, which he has transferred into the outer world, both over nature and over himself as ruler and lawgiver.

This characterizes the standpoint of the religious person. A divine world order is a creation of the human spirit. But the human being is not clear about the fact that the content of this world order has sprung from his own spirit. He therefore transfers it outside himself and subordinates himself to his own creation.

The acting human being is not content simply to act. The flower blooms because it blooms. It does not ask about whys and wherefores. The human being relates to what he does. He connects feelings to what he does. He is either satisfied or dissatisfied with what he does. He makes value judgments about his actions. He regards one action as pleasing to him, and another as displeasing. The moment he feels this, the harmony of the world is disturbed for him. He believes that the pleasing action must bring about different consequences than one which evokes his displeasure. Now if he is not clear about the fact that, out of himself, he has attached the value judgments to his actions, he will believe that these values are attached to his actions by some outer power. He believes that an outer power differentiates the happenings of this world into ones that are pleasing and therefore good, and ones that are displeasing and therefore bad, evil. A person who feels this way makes no distinction between the facts of nature and the actions of the human being. He judges both from the same point of view. For him the whole cosmos is one realm, and the laws governing this realm correspond entirely to those which the human spirit brings forth out of itself.

This way of coming to terms with the world reveals a basic characteristic of human nature. No matter how unclear the human being might be about his relationship to the world, he nevertheless seeks within himself the yardstick by which to measure all things. Out of a kind of unconscious feeling of sovereignty he decides on the absolute value of all happenings. No matter how one studies this, one finds that there are countless people who believe themselves governed by gods; there are none who do not independently, over the heads of the gods, judge what pleases or displeases these gods. The religious person cannot set himself up as the lord of the world; but he does indeed determine, out of his own absolute power, the likes and dislikes of the ruler of the world.

One need only look at religious natures and one will find my assertions confirmed. What proclaimer of gods has not at the same time determined quite exactly what pleases these gods and what is repugnant to them? Every religion has its wise teachings about the cosmos, and each also asserts that its wisdom stems from one or more gods.

If one wants to characterize the standpoint of the religious person one must say: He seeks to judge the world out of himself, but he does not have the courage also to ascribe to himself the responsibility for this judgment; therefore he invents beings for himself in the outer world that he can saddle with this responsibility.

Such considerations seem to me to answer the question:

What is religion? The content of religion springs from the human spirit. But the human spirit does not want to acknowledge this origin to itself. The human being submits himself to his own laws, but he regards these laws as foreign. He establishes himself as ruler over himself. Every religion establishes the human “I” as regent of the world. Religion's being consists precisely in this, that it is not conscious of this fact. It regards as revelation from outside what it actually reveals to itself.

The human being wishes to stand at the topmost place in the world. But he does not dare to pronounce himself the pinnacle of creation. Therefore he invents gods in his own image and lets the world be ruled by them. When he thinks this way, he is thinking religiously.


Philosophical thinking replaces religious thinking. Wherever and whenever this occurs, human nature reveals itself to us in a very particular way.

For the development of Western thinking, the transition from the mythological thinking of the Greeks into philosophical thinking is particularly interesting. I would now like to present three thinkers from that time of transition: Anaximander, Thales, and Parmenides. They represent three stages leading from religion to philosophy.

It is characteristic of the first stage of this path that divine beings, from whom the content taken from the human “I” supposedly stems, are no longer acknowledged. But from habit one still holds fast to the view that this content stems from the outer world. Anaximander stands at this stage. He no longer speaks of gods as his Greek ancestors did. For him the highest principle, which rules the world, is not a being pictured in man's image. It is an impersonal being, the apeiron, the indefinite. It develops out of itself everything occurring in nature, not in the way a person creates, but rather out of natural necessity. But Anaximander always conceives this natural necessity to be analogous to actions that proceed according to human principles of reason. He pictures to himself, so to speak, a moral, natural lawfulness, a highest being, that treats the world like a human, moral judge without actually being one. For Anaximander, everything in the world occurs just as necessarily as a magnet attracts iron, but does so according to moral, i.e., human laws. Only from this point of view could he say: “Whence things arise, hence must they also pass away, in accordance with justice, for they must do penance and recompense because of unrighteousness in a way corresponding to the order of time.”

This is the stage at which a thinker begins to judge philosophically. He lets go of the gods. He therefore no longer ascribes to the gods what comes from man. But he actually does nothing more than transfer onto something impersonal the characteristics formerly attributed to divine, i.e., personal beings.

Thales approaches the world in an entirely free way. Even though he is a few years older than Anaximander, he is philosophically much more mature. His way of thinking is no longer religious at all.

Within Western thinking Thales is the first to come to terms with the world in the second of the two ways mentioned above. Hegel has so often emphasized that thinking is the trait which distinguishes man from the animal. Thales is the first Western personality who dared to assign to thinking its sovereign position. He no longer bothered about whether gods have arranged the world in accordance with the order of thought or whether an apeiron directs the world in accordance with thinking. He only knew that he thought, and assumed that, because he thought, he also had a right to explain the world to himself in accordance with his thinking. Do not underestimate this standpoint of Thales! It represents an immense disregard for all religious preconceptions. For it was the declaration of the absoluteness of human thinking. Religious people say: The world is arranged the way we think it to be because God exists. And since they conceive of God in the image of man, it is obvious that the order of the world corresponds to the order of the human head. All that is a matter of complete indifference to Thales. He thinks about the world. And by virtue of his thinking he ascribes to himself the power to judge the world. He already has a feeling that thinking is only a human action; and accordingly he undertakes to explain the world with the help of this purely human thinking. With Thales the activity of knowing (das Erkennen) now enters into a completely new stage of its development. It ceases to draw its justification from the fact that it only copies what the gods have already sketched out. It takes from out of itself the right to decide upon the lawfulness of the world. What matters, to begin with, is not at all whether Thales believed water or anything else to be the principle of the world; what matters is that he said to himself: What the principle is, this I will decide by my thinking. He assumed it to be obvious that thinking has the power in such things. And therein lies his greatness.

Just consider what was accomplished. No less an event than that spiritual power over world phenomena was given to man. Whoever trusts in his thinking says to himself: No matter how violently the waves of life may rage, no matter that the world seems a chaos: I am at peace, for all this mad commotion does not disquiet me, because I comprehend it.

Heraclitus did not comprehend this divine peacefulness of the thinker who understands himself. He was of the view that all things are in eternal flux. That becoming is the essential beings of things. When I step into a river, it is no longer the same one as in the moment of my deciding to enter it. But Heraclitus overlooks just one thing. Thinking preserves what the river bears along with itself and finds that in the next moment something passes before my senses that is essentially the same as what was already there before.

Like Thales, with his firm belief in the power of human thinking, Heraclitus is a typical phenomenon in the realm of those personalities who come to terms with the most significant questions of existence. He does not feel within himself the power to master by thinking the eternal flux of sense-perceptible becoming. Heraclitus looks into the world and it dissolves for him into momentary phenomena upon which one has no hold. If Heraclitus were right, then everything in the world would flutter away, and in the general chaos the human personality would also have to disintegrate. I would not be the same today as I was yesterday, and tomorrow I would be different than today. At every moment, the human being would face something totally new and would be powerless. For, it is doubtful that the experiences he has acquired up to a certain day can guide him in dealing with the totally new experiences that the next day will bring.

Parmenides therefore sets himself in absolute opposition to Heraclitus. With all the one-sidedness possible only to a keen philosophical nature, he rejected all testimony brought by sense perception. For, it is precisely this ever-changing sense world that leads one astray into the view of Heraclitus. Parmenides therefore regarded those revelations as the only source of all truth which well forth from the innermost core of the human personality: the revelations of thinking. In his view the real being of things is not what flows past the senses; it is the thoughts, the ideas, that thinking discovers within this stream and to which it holds fast!

Like so many things that arise in opposition to a particular one-sidedness, Parmenides's way of thinking also became disastrous. It ruined European thinking for centuries. It undermined man's confidence in his sense perception. Whereas an unprejudiced, naive look at the sense world draws from this world itself the thought-content that satisfies the human drive for knowledge, the philosophical movement developing in the sense of Parmenides believed it had to draw real truth only out of pure, abstract thinking.

The thoughts we gain in living intercourse with the sense world have an individual character; they have within themselves the warmth of something experienced. We unfold our own personality by extracting ideas from the world. We feel ourselves as conquerors of the sense world when we capture it in the world of thoughts. Abstract, pure thinking has something impersonal and cold about it. We always feel a compulsion when we spin forth ideas out of pure thinking. Our feeling of self cannot be heightened through such thinking. For we must simply submit to the necessities of thought.

Parmenides did not take into account that thinking is an activity of the human personality. He took it to be impersonal, as the eternal content of existence. What is thought is what exists, he once said.

In the place of the old gods he thus set a new one. Whereas the older religious way of picturing things had set the whole feeling, willing, and thinking man as God at the pinnacle of the world, Parmenides took one single human activity, one part, out of the human personality and made a divine being out of it.

In the realm of views about the moral life of man Parmenides is complemented by Socrates. His statement that virtue is teachable is the ethical consequence of Parmenides's view that thinking is equitable with being. If this is true, then human action can claim to have raised itself to something worthily existing only when human action flows from thinking, from that abstract, logical thinking to which man must simply yield himself, i.e., which he has to acquire for himself as learner.

It is clear that a common thread can be traced through the development of Greek thought. The human being seeks to transfer into the outer world what belongs to him, what springs from his own being, and in this way to subordinate himself to his own being. At first he takes the whole fullness of his nature and sets likenesses of it as gods over himself; then he takes one single human activity, thinking, and sets it over himself as a necessity to which he must yield. That is what is so remarkable in the development of man, that he unfolds his powers, that he fights for the existence and unfolding of these powers in the world, but that he is far from being able to acknowledge these powers as his own.


One of the greatest philosophers of all time has made this great, human self-deception into a bold and wonderful system. This philosopher is Plato. The ideal world, the inner representations that arise around man within his spirit while his gaze is directed at the multiplicity of outer things, this becomes for Plato a higher world of existence of which that multiplicity is only a copy. “The things of this world which our senses perceive have no true being at all: they are always becoming but never are. They have only a relative existence; they are, in their totality, only in and through their relationship to each other; one can therefore just as well call their whole existence a non-existence. They are consequently also not objects of any actual knowledge. For, only about what is, in and for itself and always in the same way, can there be such knowledge; they, on the other hand, are only the object of what we, through sensation, take them to be. As long as we are limited only to our perception of them, we are like people who sit in a dark cave so firmly bound that they cannot even turn their heads and who see nothing, except, on the wall facing them, by the light of a fire burning behind them, the shadow images of real things which are led across between them and the fire, and who in fact also see of each other, yes each of himself, only the shadows on that wall. Their wisdom, however, would be to predict the sequence of those shadows which they have learned to know from experience.” The tree that I see and touch, whose flowers I smell, is therefore the shadow of the idea of the tree. And this idea is what is truly real. The idea, however, is what lights up within my spirit when I look at the tree. What I perceive with my senses is thus made into a copy of what my spirit shapes through the perception.

Everything that Plato believes to be present as the world of ideas in the beyond, outside things, is man's inner world. The content of the human spirit, torn out of man and pictured as a world unto itself, as a higher, true world lying in the beyond: that is Platonic philosophy.

I consider Ralph Waldo Emerson to be right when he says: “Among books, Plato only is entitled to Omar's fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, ‘Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.’ These sentences contain the culture of nations; these are the cornerstone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals, or practical wisdom. There was never such range of speculation. Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.” (see Note #2) Let me express the last sentence somewhat more exactly in the following form. The way Plato felt about the relationship of the human spirit to the world, this is how the overwhelming majority of people still feel about it today. They feel that the content of the human spirit — human feeling, willing, and thinking — does stand at the top of the ladder of phenomena; but they know what to do with this spiritual content only when they conceive of it as existing outside of man as a divinity or as some other kind of higher being such as a necessary natural order, or as a moral world order — or as any of the other names that man has given to what he himself brings forth.


One can understand why the human being does this. Sense impressions press in upon him from outside. He sees colors and hears sounds. His feelings and thoughts arise in him as he sees the colors and hears the sounds. These stem from his own nature. He asks himself: How can I, out of myself, add anything to what the world gives me? It seems to him completely arbitrary to draw something out of himself to complement the outer world.

But the moment he says to himself: What I am feeling and thinking, this I do not bring to the world out of myself; another, higher being has laid this into the world, and I only draw it forth from the world — at this moment he feels relieved. One only has to tell the human being: Your opinions and thoughts do not come from yourself; a god has revealed them to you — then he is reconciled with himself. And if he has divested himself of his belief in God, he then sets in His place the natural order of things, eternal laws. The fact that he cannot find this God, these eternal laws, anywhere outside in the world, that he must rather first create them for the world if they are to be there — this he does not want to admit to himself at first. It is difficult for him to say to himself: The world outside me is not divine; by virtue of my essential being, however, I assume the right to project the divine into the outer world.

What do the laws of the pendulum that arose in Galileo's spirit as he watched the swinging church lamp matter to the lamp? But man himself cannot exist without establishing a relationship between the outer world and the world of his inner being. His spiritual life is a continuous projecting of his spirit into the sense world. Through his own work, in the course of historical life, there occurs the interpenetration of nature and spirit. The Greek thinkers wanted nothing more than to believe that man was already born into a relationship which actually can come about only through himself. They did not want it to be man who first consummates the marriage of spirit and nature; they wanted to confront this as a marriage already consummated, to regard it as an accomplished fact.

Aristotle saw what is so contradictory in transferring the ideas — arising in man's spirit from the things of the world — into some supersensible world in the beyond. But even he did not recognize that things first receive their ideal aspect when man confronts them and creatively adds this aspect to them. Rather, he assumed that this ideal element, as entelechy, is itself at work in things as their actual principle. The natural consequence of this basic view of his was that he traced the moral activity of man back to his original, moral, natural potential. The physical drives ennoble themselves in the course of human evolution and then appear as willing guided by reason. Virtue consists in this reasonable willing.

Taken at face value, this seems to indicate that Aristotle believed that moral activity, at least, has its source in man's own personality, that man himself gives himself the direction and goal of his actions out of his own being and does not allow these to be prescribed for him from outside. But even Aristotle does not dare to stay with this picture of a human being who determines his own destiny for himself. What appears in man as individual, reasonable activity is, after all, only the imprint of a general world reason existing outside of him. This world reason does realize itself within the individual person, but has its own independent, higher existence over and above him. .

Even Aristotle pushes outside of man what he finds present only within man. The tendency of Greek thinking from Thales to Aristotle is to think that what is encountered within the inner life of man is an independent being existing for itself and to trace the things of the world back to this being.


Man's knowledge must pay the consequences when he thinks that the mediating of spirit with nature, which he himself is meant to accomplish, is accomplished by outer powers. He should immerse himself in his own inner being and seek there the point of connection between the sense world and the ideal world. If, instead of this, he looks into the outer world to find this point, then, because he cannot find it there, he must necessarily arrive eventually at the doubt in any reconciliation between the two powers. The period of Greek thought that follows Aristotle presents us with this stage of doubt. It announces itself with the Stoics and Epicureans and reaches its high-point with the Skeptics.

The Stoics and Epicureans feel instinctively that one cannot find the essential being of things along the path taken by their predecessors. They leave this path without bothering very much about finding a new one. For the older philosophers, the main thing was the world as a whole. They wanted to discover the laws of the world and believed that knowledge of man must result all by itself from knowledge of the world, because for them man was a part of the world-whole like all other things. The Stoics and Epicureans made man the main object of their reflections. They wanted to give his life its appropriate content. They thought about how man should live his life. Everything else was only a means to this end. The Stoics considered all philosophy to be worthwhile only to the extent that through it man could know how he is to live his life. They considered the right life for man to be one that is in harmony with nature. In order to realize this harmony with nature in one's own actions, one must first know what is in harmony with nature.

In the Stoics' teachings there lies an important admission about the human personality. Namely, that the human personality can be its own purpose and goal and that everything else, even knowledge, is there only for the sake of this personality.

The Epicureans went even further in this direction. Their striving consisted in shaping life in such a way that man would feel as content as possible in it or that it would afford him the greatest possible pleasure. One's own life stood so much in the foreground for them that they practiced knowledge only for the purpose of freeing man from superstitious fear and from the discomfort that befalls him when he does not understand nature.

A heightened human feeling of oneself runs through the views of the Stoics and Epicureans compared to those of older Greek thinkers.

This view appears in a finer, more spiritual way in the Skeptics. They said to themselves: When a person is forming ideas about things, he can form them only out of himself. And only out of himself can he draw the conviction that an idea corresponds to some thing. They saw nothing in the outer world that would provide a basis for connecting thing and idea. And they regarded as delusion and combated what anyone before them had said about any such bases.

The basic characteristic of the Skeptical view is modesty. Its adherents did not dare to deny that there is a connection in the outer world between idea and thing; they merely denied that man could know of any such connection. Therefore they did indeed make man the source of his knowing, but they did not regard this knowing as the expression of true wisdom.

Basically, Skepticism represents human knowing's declaration of bankruptcy. The human being succumbs to the preconception he has created for himself — that the truth is present outside him in a finished form — through the conviction he has gained that his truth is only an inner one, and therefore cannot be the right one at all.

Thales begins to reflect upon the world with utter confidence in the power of the human spirit. The doubt — that what human pondering must regard as the ground of the world could not actually be this ground — lay very far from his naive belief in man's cognitive ability. With the Skeptics a complete renunciation of real truth has taken the place of this belief.


The course of development taken by Greek thinking lies between the two extremes of naive, blissful confidence in man's cognitive ability and absolute lack of confidence in it. One can understand this course of development if one considers how man's mental pictures of the causes of the world have changed. What the oldest Greek philosophers thought these causes to be had sense-perceptible characteristics. Through this, one had a right to transfer these causes into the outer world. Like every other object in the sense world, the primal water of Thales belongs to outer reality. The matter became quite different when Parmenides stated that true existence lies in thinking. For, this thinking, in accordance with its true existence, is to be perceived only within man's inner being. Through Parmenides there first arose the great question: How does thought-existence, spiritual existence, relate to the outer existence that our senses perceive? One was accustomed then to picturing the relationship of the highest existence to that existence which surrounds us in daily life in the same way that Thales had thought the relationship to be between his sense-perceptible primal thing and the things that surround us. It is altogether possible to picture to oneself the emergence of all things out of the water that Thales presents as the primal source of all existence, to picture it as analogous to certain sense-perceptible processes that occur daily before our very eyes. And the urge to picture relations in the world surrounding us in the sense of such an analogy still remained even when, through Parmenides and his followers, pure thinking and its content, the world of ideas, were made into the primal source of all existence. Men were indeed ready to see that the spiritual world is a higher one than the sense world, that the deepest world-content reveals itself within the inner being of man, but they were not ready at the same time to picture the relationship between the sense world and the ideal world as an ideal one. They pictured it as a sense-perceptible relationship, as a factual emergence. If they had thought of it as spiritual, then they could peacefully have acknowledged that the content of the world of ideas is present only in the inner being of man. For then what is higher would not need to precede in time what is derivative. A sense-perceptible thing can reveal a spiritual content, but this content can first be born out of the sense-perceptible thing at the moment of revelation. This content is a later product of evolution than the sense world. But if one pictures the relationship to be one of emergence, then that from which the other emerges must also precede it in time. In this way the child — the spiritual world born of the sense world — was made into the mother of the sense world. This is the psychological reason why the human being transfers his world out into outer reality and declares — with reference to this his possession and product — that it has an objective existence in and for itself, and that he has to subordinate himself to it, or, as the case may be, that he can take possession of it only through revelation or in some other way by which the already finished truth can make its entry into his inner being.

This interpretation which man gives to his striving for truth, to his activity of knowing, corresponds with a profound inclination of his nature. Goethe characterized this inclination in his Aphorisms in Prose in the following words: “The human being never realizes just how anthropomorphic he is.” And: “Fall and propulsion. To want to declare the movement of the heavenly bodies by these is actually a hidden anthropomorphism; it is the way a walker goes across a field. The lifted foot sinks down, the foot left behind strives forward and falls; and so on continuously from departing until arriving.” All explanation of nature, indeed, consists in the fact that experiences man has of himself are interpreted into the object. Even the simplest phenomena are explained in this way. When we explain the propulsion of one body by another, we do so by picturing to ourselves that the one body exerts upon the other the same effect as we do when we propel a body. In the same way as we do this with something trivial, the religious person does it with his picture of God. He takes human ways of thinking and acting and interprets them into nature; and the philosophers we have presented, from Parmenides to Aristotle, also interpreted human thought-processes into nature. Max Stirner has this human need in mind when he says: “What haunts the universe and carries on its mysterious, ‘incomprehensible’ doings is, in fact, the arcane ghost that we call the highest being. And fathoming this ghost, understanding it, discovering reality in it (proving the ‘existence of God’) — this is the task men have set themselves for thousands of years; they tormented themselves with the horrible impossibility, with the endless work of the Danaides, of transforming the ghost into a nonghost, the unreal into a real, the spirit into a whole and embodied person. Behind the existing world they sought the ‘thing-in-itself,’ the essential being; they sought the non-thing behind the thing.”


The last phase of Greek philosophy, Neo-Platonism, offers a splendid proof of how inclined the human spirit is to misconstrue its own being and therefore its relationship to the world. This teaching, whose most significant proponent is Plotin, broke with the tendency to transfer the content of the human spirit into a realm outside the living reality within which man himself stands. The Neo-Platonist seeks within his own soul the place at which the highest object of knowledge is to be found. Through that intensification of cognitive forces which one calls ecstasy, he seeks within himself to behold the essential being of world phenomena. The heightening of the inner powers of perception is meant to lift the human spirit onto a level of life at which he feels directly the revelation of this essential being. This teaching is a kind of mysticism. It is based on a truth that is to be found in every kind of mysticism. Immersion into one's own inner being yields the deepest human wisdom. But man must first prepare himself for this immersion. He must accustom himself to behold a reality that is free of everything the senses communicate to us. People who have brought their powers of knowledge to this height speak of an inner light that has dawned for them. Jakob Böhme, the Christian mystic of the seventeenth century, regarded himself as inwardly illumined in this way. He sees within himself the realm he must designate as the highest one knowable to man. He says: “Within the human heart (Gemüt) there lie the indications (Signatur), quite artfully set forth, of the being of all being.”

Neo-Platonism sets the contemplation of the human inner world in the place of speculation about an outer world in the beyond. As a result, the highly characteristic phenomenon appears that the Neo-Platonist regards his own inner being as something foreign. One has taken things all the way to knowledge of the place at which the ultimate part of the world is to be sought; but one has wrongly interpreted what is to be found in this place. The Neo-Platonist therefore describes the inner experiences of his ecstasy like Plato describes the being of his supersensible world.

It is characteristic that Neo-Platonism excludes from the essential being of the inner world precisely that which constitutes its actual core. The state of ecstasy is supposed to occur only when self-consciousness is silent. It was therefore only natural that in Neo-Platonism the human spirit could not behold itself, its own being, in its true light.

The courses taken by the ideas that form the content of Greek philosophy found their conclusion in this view. They represent the longing of man to recognize, to behold, and to worship his own essential being as something foreign.

In the normal course of development within the spiritual evolution of the West, the discovery of egoism would have to have followed upon Neo-Platonism. That means, man would have to have recognized as his own being what he had considered to be a foreign being. He would have to have said to himself: The highest thing there is in the world given to man is his individual “I” whose being comes to manifestation within the inner life of the personality.

This natural course of Western spiritual development was held up by the spread of Christian teachings. Christianity presents, in popular pictures that are almost tangible, what Greek philosophy expressed in the language of sages. When one considers how deeply rooted in human nature the urge is to renounce one's own being, it seems understandable that this teaching has gained such incomparable power over human hearts. A high level of spiritual development is needed to satisfy this urge in a philosophical way. The most naive heart suffices to satisfy this urge in the form of Christian faith. Christianity does not present — as the highest being of the world — a finely spiritual content like Plato's world of ideas, nor an experience streaming forth from an inner light which must first be kindled; instead, it presents processes with attributes of reality that can be grasped by the senses. It goes so far, in fact, as to revere the highest being in a single historical person. The philosophical spirit of Greece could not present us with such palpable mental pictures. Such mental pictures lay in its past, in its folk mythology. Hamann, Herder's predecessor in the realm of theology, commented one time that Plato had never been a philosopher for children. But that it was for childish spirits that “the holy spirit had had the ambition to become a writer.”

And for centuries this childish form of human self-estrangement has had the greatest conceivable influence upon the philosophical development of thought. Like fog the Christian teachings have hung before the light from which knowledge of man's own being should have gone forth. Through all kinds of philosophical concepts, the church fathers of the first Christian centuries seek to give a form to their popular mental pictures that would make them acceptable also to an educated consciousness. And the later teachers in the church, of whom Saint Augustine is the most significant, continue these efforts in the same spirit. The content of Christian faith had such a fascinating effect that there could be no question of doubt as to its truth, but only of lifting up of this truth into a more spiritual, more ideal sphere. The philosophy of the teachers within the church is a transforming of the content of Christian faith into an edifice of ideas. The general character of this thought-edifice could therefore be no other than that of Christianity: the transferring of man's being out into the world, self-renunciation. Thus it came about that Augustine again arrives at the right place, where the essential being of the world is to be found, and that he again finds something foreign in this place. Within man's own being he seeks the source of all truth; he declares the inner experiences of the soul to be the foundations of knowledge. But the teachings of Christian faith have set an extra-human content at the place where he was seeking. Therefore, at the right place, he found the wrong beings.

There now follows a centuries-long exertion of human thinking whose sole purpose, by expending all the power of the human spirit, was to bring proof that the content of this spirit is not to be sought within this spirit but rather at that place to which Christian faith has transferred this content. The movement in thought that grew up out of these efforts is called Scholasticism. All the hair-splittings of the Schoolmen can be of no interest in the context of the present essay. For that movement in ideas does not represent in the least a development in the direction of knowledge of the personal “I.”

The thickness of the fog in which Christianity enshrouded human self-knowledge becomes most evident through the fact that the Western spirit, out of itself, could not take even one step on the path to this self-knowledge. The Western spirit needed a decisive push from outside. It could not find upon the ground of the soul what it had sought so long in the outer world. But it was presented with proof that this outer world could not be constituted in such a way that the human spirit could find there the essential being it sought. This push was given by the blossoming of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century. As long as man had only an imperfect picture of how natural processes are constituted, there was room in the outer world for divine beings and for the working of a personal divine will. But there was no longer a place, in the natural picture of the world sketched out by Copernicus and Kepler, for the Christian picture. And as Galileo laid the foundations for an explanation of natural processes through natural laws, the belief in divine laws had to be shaken.

Now one had to seek in a new way the being that man recognizes as the highest and that had been pushed out of the external world for him.

Francis Bacon drew the philosophical conclusions from the presuppositions given by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. His service to the Western world view is basically a negative one. He called upon man in a powerful way to direct his gaze freely and without bias upon reality, upon life. As obvious as this call seems, there is no denying that the development of Western thought has sinned heavily against it for centuries. Man's own “I” also belongs within the category of real things. And does it not almost seem as though man's natural predisposition makes him unable to look at this “I” without bias? Only the development of a completely unbiased sense, directed immediately upon what is real, can lead to self-knowledge. The path of knowledge of nature is also the path of knowledge of the “I.”


Two streams now entered into the development of Western thought that tended, by different paths, in the direction of the new goals of knowledge necessitated by the natural sciences. One goes back to Jakob Böhme, the other to René Descartes.

Jakob Böhme and Descartes no longer stood under the influence of Scholasticism. Böhme saw that nowhere in cosmic space was there a place for heaven; he therefore became a mystic. He sought heaven within the inner being of man. Descartes recognized that the adherence of the Schoolmen to Christian teachings was only a matter of centuries-long habituation to these pictures. Therefore he considered it necessary first of all to doubt these habitual pictures and to seek a way of knowledge by which man can arrive at a kind of knowing whose certainty he does not assert out of habit, but which can be guaranteed at every, moment through his own spiritual powers.

Those are therefore strong initial steps which — both with Böhme and with Descartes — the human “I” takes to know itself. Both were nevertheless overpowered by the old preconceptions in what they brought forth later. It has already been indicated that Jakob Böhme has a certain spiritual kinship with the Neo-Platonists. His knowledge is an entering into his own inner being. But what confronts him within this inner being is not the “I” of man but rather only the Christian God again. He becomes aware that within his own heart (Gemüt) there lies what the person who needs knowledge is craving. Fulfillment of the greatest human longings streams toward him from there. But this does not lead him to the view that the “I,” by intensifying its cognitive powers, is also able out of itself to satisfy its demands. This brings him, rather, to the belief that, on the path of knowledge into the human heart, he had truly found the God whom Christianity had sought upon a false path. Instead of self-knowledge, Jakob Böhme seeks union with God; instead of life with the treasures of his own inner being, he seeks a life in God.

It is obvious that the way man thinks about his actions, about his moral life, will also depend upon human self-knowledge or self-misapprehension. The realm of morality does in fact establish itself as a kind of upper story above the purely natural processes. Christian belief, which already regards these natural processes as flowing from the divine will, seeks this will all the more within morality. Christian moral teachings show more clearly than almost anything else the distortedness of this world view. No matter how enormous the sophistry is that theology has applied to this realm: questions remain which, from the standpoint of Christianity, show definite features of considerable contradiction. If a primal being like the Christian God is assumed, it is incomprehensible how the sphere of human action can fall into two realms: into that of the good and into that of the evil. For, all human actions would have to flow from the primal being and consequently bear traits homogeneous with their origin. Human actions would in fact have to be divine. Just as little can human responsibility be explained on this basis. Man is after all directed by the divine will. He can therefore give himself up only to this will; he can let happen through him only what God brings about.

In the views one held about morality, precisely the same thing occurred as in one's views about knowledge. Man followed his inclination to tear his own self out of himself and to set it up as something foreign. And just as in the realm of knowledge no other content could be given to the primal being — regarded as lying outside man — than the content drawn from his own inner being, so no moral aims and impulses for action could be found in this primal being except those belonging to the human soul. What man, in his deepest inner being, was convinced should happen, this he regarded as something willed by the primal being of the world. In this way a duality in the ethical realm was created. Over against the self that one had within oneself and out of which one had to act, one set one's own content as something morally determinative. And through this, moral demands could arise. Man's self was not allowed to follow itself; it had to follow something foreign. Selflessness in one's actions in the moral field corresponds to self-estrangement in the realm of knowledge. Those actions are good in which the “I” follows something foreign; those actions are bad, on the other hand, in which it follows itself. In self-will Christianity sees the source of all evil. That could never have happened if one had seen that everything moral can draw its content only out of one's own self. One can sum up all the Christian moral teachings in one sentence:

If man admits to himself that he can follow only the commandments of his own being and if he acts according to them, then he is evil; if this truth is hidden from him and if he sets — or allows to be set — his own commandments as foreign ones over himself in order to act according to them, then he is good.

The moral teaching of selflessness is elaborated perhaps more completely than anywhere else in a book from the fourteenth century, German Theology. The author of this book is unknown to us. He carried self-renunciation far enough to be sure that his name did not come down to posterity. In this book it is stated: “That is no true being and has no being which does not exist within the perfect; rather it is by chance or it is a radiance and a shining that is no being or has no being except in the fire from which the radiance flows, or in the sun, or in the light. The Bible speaks of faith and the truth: sin is nothing other than the fact that the creature turns himself away from the unchangeable good and toward the changeable good, which means that he turns from the perfect to the divided and to the imperfect and most of all to himself. Now mark. If the creature assumes something good — such as being, living, knowing, recognizing, capability, and everything in short that one should call good — and believes that he is this good, or that it is his or belongs to him, or that it is of him, no matter how often nor how much results from this, then he is going astray. What else did the devil do or what else was his fall and estrangement than that he assumed that he was also something and something would be his and something would also belong to him? That assumption and his “I” and his “me,” his “for me” and his “mine,” that was his estrangement and his fall. That is how it still is. For, everything that one considers good or should call good belongs to no one, but only to the eternal true good which God is alone, and whoever assumes it of himself acts wrongly and against God.”

A change in moral views from the old Christian ones is also connected with the turn that Jakob Böhme gave to man's relationship to God. God still works as something higher in the human soul to effect the good, but He does at least work within this self and not from outside upon the self. An internalizing of moral action occurs thereby. The rest of Christianity demanded only an outer obedience to the divine will. With Jakob Böhme the previously separated entities — the really personal and the personal that was made into God — enter into a living relationship. Through this, the source of the moral is indeed now transferred into man's inner being, but the moral principle of selflessness seems to be even more strongly emphasized. If God is regarded as an outer power, then the human self is the one actually acting. It acts either in God's sense or against it. But if God is transferred into man's inner being, then man himself no longer acts, but rather God in him. God expresses himself directly in human life. Man foregoes any life of his own; he makes himself a part of the divine life. He feels himself in God, God in himself; he grows into the primal being; he becomes an organ of it.

In this German mysticism man has therefore paid for his participation in the divine life with the most complete extinguishing of his personality, of his “I.” Jakob Böhme and the mystics who were of his view did not feel the loss of the personal element. On the contrary: they experienced something particularly uplifting in the thought that they were directly participating in the divine life, that they were members in a divine organism. An organism cannot exist, after all, without its members. The mystic therefore felt himself to be something necessary within the world-whole, as a being that is indispensable to God. Angelus Silesius, the mystic who felt things in the same spirit as Jakob Böhme, expresses this in a beautiful statement:

I know that without me God cannot live an instant,
Came I to naught, he needs must yield the spirit.

And even more characteristically in another one:

Without me God cannot a single worm create;
Do I not co-maintain it, it must at once crack open.

The human “I” asserts its rights here in the most powerful way vis-à-vis its own image which it has transferred into the outer world. To be sure, the supposed primal being is not yet told that it is man's own being set over against himself, but at least man's own being is considered to be the maintainer of the divine primal ground.

Descartes had a strong feeling for the fact that man, through his thought-development, had brought himself into a warped relationship with the world. Therefore, to begin with, he met everything that had come forth from this thought-development with doubt. Only when one doubts everything that the centuries have developed as truths can one — in his opinion — gain the necessary objectivity for a new point of departure. It lay in the nature of things that this doubt would lead Descartes to the human “I.” For, the more a person regards everything else as something that he still must seek, the more he will have an intense feeling of his own seeking personality. He can say to himself: Perhaps I am erring on the paths of existence; then the erring one is thrown all the more clearly back upon himself. Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) indicates this. Descartes presses even further. He is aware that the way man arrives at knowledge of himself should be a model for any other knowledge he means to acquire. Clarity and definiteness seem to Descartes to be the most prominent characteristics of self-knowledge. Therefore he also demands these two characteristics of all other knowledge. Whatever man can distinguish just as clearly and definitely as his own existence: only that can stand as certain.

With this, the absolutely central place of the “I” in the world-whole is at least recognized in the area of cognitive methodology. Man determines the how of his knowledge of the world according to the how of his knowledge of himself, and no longer asks for any outer being to justify this how. Man does not want to think in the way a god prescribes knowing activity to be, but rather in the way he determines this for himself. From now on, with respect to the world, man draws the power of his wisdom from himself.

In connection with the what, Descartes did not take the same step. He set to work to gain mental pictures about the world, and — in accordance with the cognitive principle just presented — searched through his own inner being for such mental pictures. There he found the mental picture of God. It was of course nothing more than the mental picture of the human “I.” But Descartes did not recognize this. The idea of God as the altogether most perfect being » brought his thinking onto a completely wrong path. This one characteristic, that of the altogether greatest perfection, outshone for him all the other characteristics of the central being. He said to himself: Man, who is himself imperfect, cannot out of himself create the mental picture of an altogether most perfect being. Consequently this altogether most perfect being exists. If Descartes had investigated the true content of his mental picture of God, he would have found that it is exactly the same as the mental picture of the “I,” and that perfection is only a conceptual enhancement of this content. The essential content of an ivory ball is not changed by my thinking of it as infinitely large. Just as little does the mental picture of the “I” become something else through such an enhancement.

The proof that Descartes brings for the existence of God is therefore again nothing other than a paraphrasing of the human need to make one's own “I,” in the form of a being outside man, into the ground of the world. But here indeed the fact presents itself with full clarity that man can find no content of its own for this primal being existing outside man, but rather can only lend this being the content of his mental picture of the “I” in a form that has not been significantly changed.


Spinoza took no step forward on the path that must lead to the conquest of the mental picture of the “I”; he took a step backward. For Spinoza has no feeling of the unique position of the human “I.” For him the stream of world processes consists only in a system of natural necessity, just as for the Christian philosophers it consisted only in a system of divine acts of will. Here as there the human “I” is only a part within this system. For the Christian, man is in the hands of God; for Spinoza he is in those of natural world happenings. With Spinoza the Christian God received a different character. A philosopher who has grown up in a time when natural-scientific insights are blooming cannot acknowledge a God who directs the world arbitrarily; he can acknowledge only a primal being who exists because his existence, through itself, is a necessity, and who guides the course of the world according to the unchangeable laws that flow from his own absolutely necessary being. Spinoza has no consciousness of the fact that man takes the image in which he pictures this necessity from his own content. For this reason Spinoza's moral ideal also becomes something impersonal, unindividual. In accordance with his presuppositions he cannot indeed see his ideal to be in the perfecting of the “I,” in the enhancement of man's own powers, but rather in the permeating of the “I” with the divine world content, with the highest knowledge of the objective God. To lose oneself in this God should be the goal of human striving.

The path Descartes took — to start with the “I” and press forward to world knowledge — is extended from now on by the philosophers of modern times. The Christian theological method, which had no confidence in the power of the human “I” as an organ of knowledge, at least was overcome. One thing was recognized: that the “I” itself must find the highest being. The path from there to the other point — to the insight that the content lying within the “I” is also the highest being — is, to be sure, a long one.

Less thoughtfully than Descartes did the two English philosophers Locke and Hume approach their investigation of the paths that the human “I” takes to arrive at enlightenment about itself and the world. One thing above all was lacking in both of them: a healthy, free gaze into man's inner being. Therefore they could also gain no mental picture of the great difference that exists between knowledge of outer things and knowledge of the human “I.” Everything they say relates only to the acquisition of outer knowledge. Locke entirely overlooks the fact that man, by enlightening himself about outer things, sheds a light upon them that streams from his own inner being. He believes therefore that all knowledge stems from experience. But what is experience? Galileo sees a swinging church lamp. It leads him to find the laws by which a body swings. He has experienced two things: firstly, through his senses, outer processes; secondly, from out of himself, the mental picture of a law that enlightens him about these processes, that makes them comprehensible. One can now of course call both of these experience. But then one fails to recognize the difference, in fact, that exists between the two parts of this cognitive process. A being that could not draw upon the content of his being could stand eternally before the swinging church lamp: the sense perception would never complement itself with a conceptual law. Locke and all who think like him allow themselves to be deceived by something — namely by the way the content of what is to be known approaches us. It simply rises up, in fact, upon the horizon of our consciousness. Experience consists in what thus arises. But the fact must be recognized that the content of the laws of experience is developed by the “I” in its encounter with experience. Two things reveal themselves in Hume. One is that, as already mentioned, he does not recognize the nature of the “I,” and therefore, exactly like Locke, derives the content of the laws from experience. The other thing is that this content, by being separated from the “I,” loses itself completely in indefiniteness, hangs freely in the air without support or foundation. Hume recognizes that outer experience communicates only unconnected processes, that it does not at the same time, along with these processes, provide the laws by which they are connected. Since Hume knows nothing about the being of the “I,” he also cannot derive from it any justification for connecting the processes. He therefore derives these laws from the vaguest source one could possibly imagine: from habit. A person sees that a certain process always follows upon another; the fall of a stone is followed by the indentation of the ground on which it falls. As a result man habituates himself to thinking of such processes as connected. All knowledge loses its significance if one takes one's start from such presuppositions. The connection between the processes and their laws acquires something of a purely chance nature.


We see in George Berkeley a person for whom the creative being of the “I” has come fully to consciousness. He had a clear picture of the “I's” own activity in the coming about of all knowledge. When I see an object, he said to himself, I am active. I create my perception for myself. The object of my perception would remain forever beyond my consciousness, it would not be there for me, if I did not continuously enliven its dead existence by my activity. I perceive only my enlivening activity, and not what precedes it objectively as the dead thing. No matter where I look within the sphere of my consciousness: everywhere I see myself as the active one, as the creative one. In Berkeley's thinking, the “I” acquires a universal life. What do I know of any existence of things, if I do not picture this existence?

For Berkeley the world consists of creative spirits who out of themselves form a world. But at this level of knowledge there again appeared, even with him, the old preconception. He indeed lets the “I” create its world for itself, but he does not give it at the same time the power to create itself out of itself. It must again proffer a mental picture of God. The creative principle in the “I” is God, even for Berkeley.

But this philosopher does show us one thing. Whoever really immerses himself into the essential being of the creative “I” does not come back out of it again to an outer being except by forcible means. And Berkeley does proceed forcibly. Under no compelling necessity he traces the creativity of the “I” back to God. Earlier philosophers emptied the “I” of its content and through this gained a content for their God. Berkeley does not do this. Therefore he can do nothing other than set, beside the creative spirits, yet one more particular spirit that basically is of exactly the same kind as they and therefore completely unnecessary, after all.

This is even more striking in the German philosopher Leibniz. He also recognized the creative activity of the “I.” He had a very clear overview of the scope of this activity; he saw that it was inwardly consistent, that it was founded upon itself. The “I” therefore became for him a world in itself, a monad. And everything that has existence can have it only through the fact that it gives itself a self-enclosed content. Only monads, i.e., beings creating out of and within themselves, exist: separate worlds in themselves that do not have to rely on anything outside themselves. Worlds exist, no world. Each person is a world, a monad, in himself. If now these worlds are after all in accord with one another, if they know of each other and think the contents of their knowledge, then this can only stem from the fact that a predestined accord (pre-established harmony) exists. The world, in fact, is arranged in such a way that the one monad creates out of itself something which corresponds to the activity in the others. To bring about this accord Leibniz of course again needs the old God. He has recognized that the “I” is active, creative, within his inner being, that it gives its content to itself; the fact that the “I” itself also brings this content into relationship with the other content of the world remained hidden to him. Therefore he did not free himself from the mental picture of God. Of the two demands that lie in the Goethean statement — “If I know my relationship to myself and to the outer world, then I call it truth” — Leibniz understood only the one.

This development of European thought manifests a very definite character. Man must draw out of himself the best that he can know. He in fact practices self-knowledge. But he always shrinks back again from the thought of also recognizing that what he has created is in fact self-created. He feels himself to be too weak to carry the world. Therefore he saddles someone else with this burden. And the goals he sets for himself would lose their weight for him if he acknowledged their origin to himself; therefore he burdens his goals with powers that he believes he takes from outside. Man glorifies his child but without wanting to acknowledge his own fatherhood.


In spite of the currents opposing it, human self-knowledge made steady progress. At the point where this self-knowledge began to threaten man's belief in the beyond, it met Kant. Insight into the nature of human knowing had shaken the power of those proofs which people had thought up to support belief in the beyond. One had gradually gained a picture of real knowledge and therefore saw through the artificiality and tortured nature of the seeming ideas that were supposed to give enlightenment about other-worldly powers. A devout, believing man like Kant could fear that a further development along this path would lead to the disintegration of all faith. This must have seemed to his deeply religious sense like a great, impending misfortune for mankind. Out of his fear of the destruction of religious mental pictures there arose for him the need to investigate thoroughly the relationship of human knowing to matters of faith. How is knowing possible and over what can it extend itself? That is the question Kant posed himself, with the hope, right from the beginning, of being able to gain from his answer the firmest possible support for faith.

Kant took up two things from his predecessors. Firstly, that there is a knowledge in some areas that is indubitable. The truths of pure mathematics and the general teachings of logic and physics seem to him to be in this category. Secondly, he based himself upon Hume in his assertion that no absolutely sure truths can come from experience. Experience teaches only that we have so and so often observed certain connections; nothing can be determined by experience as to whether these connections are also necessary ones. If there are indubitable, necessary truths and if they cannot stem from experience: then from what do they stem? They must be present in the human soul before experience. Now it becomes a matter of distinguishing between the part of knowledge that stems from experience and the part that cannot be drawn from this source of knowledge. Experience occurs through the fact that I receive impressions. These impressions are given through sensations. The content of these sensations cannot be given us in any other way than through experience. But these sensations, such as light, color, tone, warmth, hardness, etc., would present only a chaotic tangle if they were not brought into certain interconnections. In these interconnections the contents of sensation first constitute the objects of experience. An object is composed of a definitely ordered group of the contents of sensation. In Kant's opinion, the human soul accomplishes the ordering of these contents of sensation into groups. Within the human soul there are certain principles present by which the manifoldness of sensations is brought into objective unities. Such principles are space, time, and certain connections such as cause and effect. The contents of sensation are given me, but not their spatial interrelationships nor temporal sequence. Man first brings these to the contents of sensation. One content of sensation is given and another one also, but not the fact that one is the cause of the other. The intellect first makes this connection. Thus there lie within the human soul, ready once and for all, the ways in which the contents of sensation can be connected. Thus, even though we can take possession of the contents of sensation only through experience, we can, nevertheless, before all experience, set up laws as to how these contents of sensation are to be connected. For, these laws are the ones given us within our own souls.

We have, therefore, necessary kinds of knowledge. But these do not relate to a content, but only to ways of connecting contents. In Kant's opinion, we will therefore never draw knowledge with any content out of the human soul's own laws. The content must come through experience. But the otherworldly objects of faith can never become the object of any experience. Therefore they also cannot be attained through our necessary knowledge. We have a knowledge from experience and another, necessary, experience-free knowledge as to how the contents of experience can be connected. But we have no knowledge that goes beyond experience. The world of objects surrounding us is as it must be in accordance with the laws of connection lying ready in our soul. Aside from these laws we do not know how this world is “in-itself.” The world to which our knowledge relates itself is no such “in-itselfness” but rather is an appearance for us.

Obvious objections to these Kantian views force themselves upon the unbiased person. The difference in principle between the particulars (the contents of sensation) and the way of connecting these particulars does not consist, with respect to knowledge, in the way we connect things as Kant assumes it to. Even though one element presents itself to us from outside and the other comes forth from our inner being, both elements of knowledge nevertheless form an undivided unity. Only the abstracting intellect can separate light, warmth, hardness, etc., from spatial order, causal relationship, etc. In reality, they document, with respect to every single object, their necessary belonging together. Even the designation of the one element as “content” in contrast to the other element as a merely “connecting” principle is all warped. In truth, the knowledge that something is the cause of something else is a knowledge with just as much content as the knowledge that it is yellow. If the object is composed of two elements, one of which is given from outside and the other from within, it follows that, for our knowing activity, elements which actually belong together are communicated along two different paths. It does not follow, however, that we are dealing with two things that are different from each other and that are artificially coupled together.

Only by forcibly separating what belongs together can Kant therefore support his view. The belonging together of the two elements is most striking in knowledge of the human “I.” Here one element does not come from outside and the other from within; both arise from within. And here both are not only one content but also one completely homogeneous content.

What mattered to Kant — his heart's wish that guided his thoughts far more than any unbiased observation of the real factors — was to rescue the teachings relative to the beyond. What knowledge had brought about as support for these teachings in the course of long ages had decayed. Kant believed he had now shown that it is anyway not for knowledge to support such teachings, because knowledge has to rely on experience, and the things of faith in the beyond cannot become the object of any experience. Kant believed he had thereby created a free space where knowledge could not get in his way and disrupt him as he built up there a faith in the beyond. And he demands, as a support for moral life, that one believe in the things in the beyond. Out of that realm from which no knowledge comes to us, there sounds the despotic voice of the categorical imperative which demands of us that we do the good. And in order to establish a moral realm we would in fact need all that about which knowledge can tell us nothing. Kant believed he had achieved what he wanted: “I therefore had to set knowledge aside in order to make room for faith.”


The great philosopher in the development of Western thought who set out in direct pursuit of a knowledge of human self-awareness is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. It is characteristic of him that he approaches this knowledge without any presuppositions, with complete lack of bias. He has the clear, sharp awareness of the fact that nowhere in the world is a being to be found from which the “I” could be derived. It can therefore be derived only from itself. Nowhere is a power to be found from which the existence of the “I” flows. Everything the “I” needs, it can acquire only out of itself. Not only does it gain enlightenment about its own being through self-observation; it first posits this being into itself through an absolute, unconditional act. “The ‘I’ posits itself, and it is by virtue of this mere positing of itself; and conversely: The ‘I’ is, and posits its existence, by virtue of its mere existence. It is at the same time the one acting and the product of its action; the active one and what is brought forth by the activity; action and deed are one and the same; and therefore the ‘I am’ is the expression of an active deed.” Completely undisturbed by the fact that earlier philosophers have transferred the entity he is describing outside man, Fichte looks at the “I” naively. Therefore the “I” naturally becomes for him the highest being. “That whose existence (being) merely consists in the fact that it posits itself as existing is the ‘I’ as absolute subject. In the way that it posits itself, it is, and in the way that it is, it posits itself: and the ‘I’ exists accordingly for the ‘I,’ simply and necessarily. What does not exist for itself is no ‘I’ ... One certainly hears the question raised: What was I anyway, before I came to self-awareness? The obvious answer to that is: I was not at all; for I was not I... To posit oneself and to be are, for the ‘I,’ completely the same.” The complete, bright clarity about one's own “I,” the unreserved illumination of one's personal, human entity, becomes thereby the starting point of human thinking. The result of this must be that man, starting here, sets out to conquer the world. The second of the Goethean demands mentioned above, knowledge of my relationship to the world, follows upon the first — knowledge of the relationship that the “I” has to itself. This philosophy, built upon self-knowledge, will speak about both these relationships, and not about the derivation of the world from some primal being. One could now ask: Is man then supposed to set his own being in place of the primal being into which he transferred the world origins? Can man then actually make himself the starting point of the world? With respect to this it must be emphasized that this question as to the world origins stems from a lower sphere. In the sequence of the processes given us by reality, we seek the causes for the events, and then seek still other causes for the causes, and soon. We are now stretching the concept of causation. We are seeking a final cause for the whole world. And in this way the concept of the first, absolute primal being, necessary in itself, fuses for us with the idea of the world cause. But that is a mere conceptual construction. When man sets up such conceptual constructions, they do not necessarily have any justification. The concept of a flying dragon also has none. Fichte takes his start from the “I” as the primal being, and arrives at ideas that present the relationship of this primal being to the rest of the world in an unbiased way, but not under the guise of cause and effect. Starting from the “I,” Fichte now seeks to gain ideas for grasping the rest of the world. Whoever does not want to deceive himself about the nature of what one can call cognition or knowledge can proceed in no other way. Everything that man can say about the being of things is derived from the experiences of his inner being. “The human being never realizes just how anthropomorphic he is.” (Goethe) In the » explanation of the simplest phenomena, in the propulsion of one body by another, for example, there lies an anthropomorphism. The conclusion that the one body propels the other is already anthropomorphic. For, if one wants to go beyond what the senses tell us about the occurrence, one must transfer onto it the experience our body has when it sets a body in the outer world into motion. We transfer our experience of propelling something onto the occurrence in the outer world, and also speak there of propulsion when we roll one ball and as a result see a second ball go rolling. For we can observe only the movements of the two balls, and then in addition think the propulsion in the sense of our own experiences. All physical explanations are anthropomorphisms, attributing human characteristics to nature. But of course it does not follow from this what has so often been concluded from this: that these explanations have no objective significance for the things. A part of the objective content lying within the things, in fact, first appears when we shed that light upon it which we perceive in our own inner being.

Whoever, in Fichte's sense, bases the being of the “I” entirely upon itself can also find the sources of moral action only within the “I” alone. The “I” cannot seek harmony with some other being, but only with itself. It does not allow its destiny to be prescribed, but rather gives any such destiny to itself. Act according to the basic principle that you can regard your actions as the most worthwhile possible. That is about how one would have to express the highest principle of Fichte's moral teachings. “The essential character of the ‘I,’ in which it distinguishes itself from everything that is outside it, consists in a tendency toward self-activity for the sake of self-activity; and it is this tendency that is thought when the ‘I,’ in and for itself, without any relationship to something outside it, is thought.” An action therefore stands on an ever higher level of moral value, the more purely it flows from the self-activity and self-determination of the “I.”

In his later life Fichte changed his self-reliant, absolute “I” back into an external God again; he therefore sacrificed true self-knowledge, toward which he had taken so many important steps, to that self-renunciation which stems from human weakness. The last books of Fichte are therefore of no significance for the progress of this self-knowledge.

The philosophical writings of Schiller, however, are important for this progress. Whereas Fichte expressed the self-reliant independence of the “I” as a general philosophical truth, Schiller was more concerned with answering the question as to how the particular “I” of the simple human individuality could live out this self-activity in the best way within itself.

Kant had expressly demanded the suppression of pleasure as a pre-condition for moral activity. Man should not carry out what brings him satisfaction; but rather what the categorical imperative demands of him. According to his view an action is all the more moral the more it is accomplished with the quelling of all feeling of pleasure, out of mere heed to strict moral law. For Schiller this diminishes human worth. Is man in his desire for pleasure really such a low being that he must first extinguish this base nature of his in order to be virtuous? Schiller criticizes any such degradation of man in the satirical epigram (Xenie):

Gladly I serve all my friends, but do so alas out of liking;
Therefore it rankles me often that I'm not a virtuous man.

No, says Schiller, human instincts are capable of such ennobling that it is a pleasure to do the good. The strict “ought to” transforms itself in the ennobled man into a free “wanting to.” And someone who with pleasure accomplishes what is moral stands higher on the moral world scale than someone who must first do violence to his own being in order to obey the categorical imperative.

Schiller elaborated this view of his in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of the Human Race. There hovers before him the picture of a free individuality who can calmly give himself over to his egoistical drives because these drives, out of themselves, want what can be accomplished by the unfree, ignoble personality only when it suppresses its own needs. The human being, as Schiller expressed it, can be unfree in two respects: firstly, if he is able to follow only his blind, lower instincts. Then he acts out of necessity. His drives compel him; he is not free. Secondly, however, that person also acts unfreely who follows only his reason. For, reason sets up principles of behavior according to logical rules. A person who merely follows reason acts unfreely because he subjugates himself to logical necessity. Only that person acts freely out of himself for whom what is reasonable has united so deeply with his individuality , has gone over so fully into his flesh and blood, that he carries out with the greatest pleasure what someone standing morally less high can accomplish only through the most extreme self-renunciation and the strongest compulsion.

Friedrich Joseph Schelling wanted to extend the path Fichte had taken. Schelling took his start from the unbiased knowledge of the “I” that his predecessor had achieved. The “I” was recognized as a being that draws its existence out of itself. The next task was to bring nature into a relationship with this self-reliant “I.” It is clear: If the “I” is not to transfer the actual higher being of things into the outer world again, then it must be shown that the “I,” out of itself, also creates what we call the laws of nature. The structure of nature must therefore be the material system, outside in space, of what the “I,” within its inner being, creates in a spiritual way. “Nature must be visible spirit, and spirit must be invisible nature. Here, therefore, in the absolute identity of the spirit in us and of nature outside of us, must the problem be solved as to how a nature outside of us is possible.” “The outer world lies open before us, in order for us to find in it again the history of our spirit.”

Schelling, therefore, sharply illuminates the process that the philosophers have interpreted wrongly for so long. He shows that out of one being the clarifying light must fall upon all the processes of the world; that the “I” can recognize one being in all happenings; but he no longer sets forth this being as something lying outside the “I”; he sees it within the “I.” The “I” finally feels itself to be strong enough to enliven the content of world phenomena from out of itself. The way in which Schelling presented nature in detail as a material development out of the “I” does not need to be discussed here. The important thing in this essay is to show in what way the “I” has reconquered for itself the sphere of influence which, in the course of the development of Western thought, it had ceded to an entity that it had itself created. For this reason Schelling's other writings also do not need to be considered in this context. At best they add only details to the question we are examining. Exactly like Fichte, Schelling abandons clear self-knowledge again, and seeks then to trace the things flowing from the self back to other beings. The later teachings of both thinkers are reversions to views which they had completely overcome in an earlier period of life.


The philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is a further bold attempt to explain the world on the basis of a content lying within the “I.” Hegel sought, comprehensively and thoroughly, to investigate and present the whole content of what Fichte, in incomparable words to be sure, had characterized: the being of the human “I.” For Hegel also regards this being as the actual primal thing, as the “in-itselfness of things.” But Hegel does something peculiar. He divests the “I” of everything individual, personal. In spite of the fact that it is a genuine true “I” which Hegel takes as a basis for world phenomena, this “I” seems impersonal, unindividual, far from an intimate, familiar “I,” almost like a god. In just such an unapproachable, strictly abstract form does Hegel, in his logic, expound upon the content of the in-itselfness of the world. The most personal thinking is presented here in the most impersonal way. According to Hegel, nature is nothing other than the content of the “I” that has been spread out in space and time. Nature is this ideal content in a different state. “Nature is spirit estranged from itself.” Within the individual human spirit Hegel's stance toward the impersonal “I” is personal. Within self-consciousness, the being of the “I” is not an in-itself, it is also for-itself; the human spirit discovers that the highest world content is his own content.

Because Hegel seeks to grasp the being of the “I” at first impersonally, he also does not designate it as “I,” but rather as idea. But Hegel's idea is nothing other than the content of the human “I” freed of all personal character. This abstracting of everything personal manifests most strongly in Hegel's views about the spiritual life, the moral life. It is not the single, personal, individual “I” of man that can decide its own destiny, but rather it is the great, objective, impersonal world “I,” which is abstracted from man's individual “I”; it is the general world reason, the world idea. The individual “I” must submit to this abstraction drawn from its own being. The world idea has instilled the objective spirit into man's legal, state, and moral institutions, into the historical process. Relative to this objective spirit, the individual is inferior, coincidental. Hegel never tires of emphasizing again and again that the chance, individual “I” must incorporate itself into the general order, into the historical course of spiritual evolution. It is the despotism of the spirit over the bearer of this spirit that Hegel demands.

It is a strange last remnant of the old belief in God and in the beyond that still appears here in Hegel. All the attributes with which the human “I,” turned into an outer ruler of the world, was once endowed have been dropped, and only the attribute of logical generality remains. The Hegelian world idea is the human “I,” and Hegel's teachings recognize this expressly, for at the pinnacle of culture man arrives at the point, according to this teaching, of feeling his full identity with this world “I.” In art, religion, and philosophy man seeks to incorporate into his particular existence what is most general; the individual spirit permeates itself with the general world reason. Hegel portrays the course of world history in the following way: “If we look at the destiny of world-historical individuals, they have had the good fortune to be the managing directors of a purpose that was one stage in the progress of the general spirit. One can call it a trick of world reason for it to use these human tools; for it allows them to carry out their own purposes with all the fury of their passion, and yet remains not only unharmed itself but even brings forth itself. The particular is usually too insignificant compared to the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. World history thus presents itself as the battle of individuals, and in the field of this particularization, things take their completely natural course. Just as in animal nature the preservation of life is the purpose and instinct of the individual creature, and just as here, after all, reason, the general, predominates and the individuals fall, thus so do things in the spiritual world also take their course. The passions mutually destroy each other; only reason is awake, pursues its purpose, and prevails.” But for Hegel, the highest level of development of human culture is also not presented in this sacrificing of the particular individuals to the good of general world reason, but rather in the complete interpenetration of the two. In art, religion, and philosophy, the individual works in such a way that his work is at the same time a content of the general world reason. With Hegel, through the factor of generality that he laid into the world “I,” the subordination of the separate human “I” to this world “I” still remained.

Ludwig Feuerbach sought to put an end to this subordination by stating in powerful terms how man transfers the being of his “I” into the outer world in order then to place himself over against it, acknowledging, obeying, revering it as though it were a God. “God is the revealed inner being, the expressed self, of man; religion is the festive disclosing of the hidden treasures of man, the confessing of his innermost thoughts, the public declaration of his declarations of love.” But even Feuerbach has not yet cleansed the idea of this “I” of the factor of generality. For him the general human “I” is something higher than the individual, single “I.” And even though as a thinker he does not, like Hegel, objectify this general “I” into a cosmic being existing in itself, still, in the moral context, over against the single human being, he does set up the general concept of a generic man, and demands that the individual should raise himself above the limitations of his individuality.


Max Stirner, in his book The Individual and What Is His (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum), published in 1844, demanded of the “I” in a radical way that it finally recognize that all the beings it has set above itself in the course of time were cut by it from its own body and set up in the outer world as idols. Every god, every general world reason, is an image of the “I” and has no characteristics different from the human “I.” And even the concept of the general “I” was extracted from the completely individual “I” of every single person.

Stirner calls upon man to throw off everything general about himself and to acknowledge to himself that he is an individual. “You are indeed more than a Jew, more than a Christian, etc., but you are also more than a man. Those are all ideas; you, however, are in the flesh. Do you really believe, therefore, that you can ever become ‘man as such’?” “/ am man! I do not first have to produce man in myself, because he already belongs to me as all my characteristics do.” “Only I am not an abstraction alone; I am the all in all;... I am no mere thought, but I am at the same time full of thoughts, a thought-world. Hegel condemns what is one's own, what is mine ... ‘Absolute thinking’ is that thinking which forgets that it is my thinking, that I think, and that thinking exists only through me. As ‘I,’ however, I again swallow what is mine, am master over it; it is only my opinion that I can change at every moment, i.e., that I can destroy, that I can take back into myself and can devour.” “The thought is only my own when I can indeed subjugate it, but it can never subjugate me, never fanaticize me and make me the tool of its realization.” All the beings placed over the “I” finally shatter upon the knowledge that they have only been brought into the world by the “I.” “The beginning of my thinking, namely, is not a thought, but rather I, and therefore I am also its goal, just as its whole course is then only the course of my self-enjoyment.”

In Stirner's sense, one should not want to define the individual “I” by a thought, by an idea. For, ideas are something general; and through any such definition, the individual — at least logically — would thus be subordinated at once to something general. One can define everything else in the world by ideas, but we must experience our own “I” as something individual within us. Everything that is expressed about the individual in thoughts cannot take up his content into itself; it can only point to it. One says: Look into yourself; there is something for which any concept, any idea, is too poor to encompass in all its incarnate wealth, something that brings forth the ideas out of itself, but that itself has an inexhaustible spring within itself whose content is infinitely more extensive than everything this something brings forth. Stirner's response is: “The individual is a word and with a word one would after all have to be able to think something; a word would after all have to have a thought-content. But the individual is a word without thought; it has no thought-content. But what is its content then if not thought? Its content is one that cannot be there a second time and that consequently can also not be expressed, for if it could be expressed, really and entirely expressed, then it would be there a second time, would be there in the ‘expression’... only when nothing of you is spoken out and you are only named, are you recognized as you. As long as something of you is spoken out, you will be recognized only as this something (man, spirit, Christian, etc.).” The individual “I” is therefore that which is everything it is only through itself, which draws the content of its existence out of itself and continuously expands this content from out of itself.

This individual “I” can acknowledge no ethical obligation that it does not lay upon itself. “Whether what I think and do is Christian, what do I care? Whether it is human, liberal, humane, or inhuman, unliberal, inhumane, I don't ask about that. If it only aims at what I want, if I satisfy only myself in it, then call it whatever you like: it's all the same to me ...” “Perhaps, in the very next moment I will turn against my previous thought; I also might very well change my behavior suddenly; but not because it does not correspond to what is Christian, not because it goes against eternal human rights, not because it hits the idea of mankind, humanity, humaneness in the face, but rather — because I am no longer involved, because I no longer enjoy it fully, because I doubt my earlier thought, or I am no longer happy with my recent behavior.” The way Stirner speaks about love from this point of view is characteristic. “I also love people, not merely some of them but everyone. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy; I love because loving is natural for me, because I like it. I know no ‘commandment of love’ ...” To this sovereign individual, all state, social, and church organizations are fetters. For, all organizations presuppose that the individual must be like this or like that so that it can fit into the community. But the individual will not let it be determined for him by the community how he should be. He wants to make himself into this or that. J. H. Mackay, in his book Max Stirner, His Life and Work, has expressed what matters to Stirner: “The annihilation, in the first place, of those foreign powers which seek in the most varied ways to suppress and destroy the “I”; and in the second place, the presentation of the relationships of our intercourse with each other, how they result from the conflict and harmony of our interests.” The individual cannot fulfill himself in an organized community, but only in free intercourse or association. He acknowledges no societal structure set over the individual as a power. In him everything occurs through the individual. There is nothing fixed within him. What occurs is always to be traced back to the will of the individual. No one and nothing represents a universal will. Stirner does not want society to care for the individual, to protect his rights, to foster his well-being, and so on. When the organization is taken away from people, then their intercourse regulates itself on its own. “I would rather have to rely on people's self-interest than on their ‘service of love,’ their compassion, their pity, etc. Self-interest demands reciprocity (as you are to me, thus I am to you), does nothing ‘for nothing,’ and lets itself be won and — bought.” Let human intercourse have its full freedom and it will unrestrictedly create that reciprocity which you could set up through a community after all, only in a restricted way. “Neither a natural nor a spiritual tie holds a society (Verein) together, and it is no natural nor spiritual association (Bund). It is not blood nor a belief (i.e., spirit) that brings it about. In a natural association — such as a family, a tribe, a nation; yes, even mankind — individuals have value only as specimens of a species or genus; in a spiritual association — such as a community or church — the individual is significant only as a part of the common spirit; in both cases, what you are as an individual must be suppressed. Only in a society can you assert yourself as an individual, because the society does not possess you, but rather you possess it or use it.”

The path by which Stirner arrived at his view of the individual can be designated as a universal critique of all general powers that suppress the “I.” The churches, the political systems (political liberalism, social liberalism, humanistic liberalism), the philosophies — they have all set such general powers over the individual. Political liberalism establishes the “good citizen”; social liberalism establishes the worker who is like all the others in what they own in common; humanistic liberalism establishes the “human being as human being.” As he destroys all these powers, Stirner sets up in their ruins the sovereignty of the individual. “What all is not supposed to be my cause! Above all the good cause, then God's cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humaneness, of justice; furthermore the cause of my folk, of my prince, of my fatherland; finally, of course, the cause of the spirit and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is never supposed to be my cause. — Let us look then at how those people handle their cause for whose cause we are supposed to work, to devote ourselves, and to wax enthusiastic. You know how to proclaim many basic things about God, and for thousands of years have investigated ‘the depths of the Divinity’ and looked into His heart, so that you are very well able to tell us how God Himself conducts ‘the cause of God’ that we are called to serve. And you also do not keep the Lord's conduct secret. What is His cause then? Has He, as is expected of us, made a foreign cause, the cause of truth and love, into His own? Such lack of understanding enrages you and you teach us that God's cause is, to be sure, the cause of truth and love, but that this cause cannot be called foreign to Him because God is Himself, in fact, truth and love; you are enraged by the assumption that God could be like us poor worms in promoting a foreign cause as His own. ‘God is supposed to take on the cause of truth when He is not Himself the truth?’ He takes care only of His cause, but because He is the all in all, everything is also His cause; we, however, we are not the all in all, and our cause is small and contemptible indeed; therefore we must ‘serve a higher cause.’ — Now, it is clear that God concerns Himself only with what is His, occupies Himself only with Himself, thinks only about Himself, and has His eye on Himself; woe to anything that is not well pleasing to Him. He serves nothing higher and satisfies only Himself. His cause is a purely egoistical cause. How do matters stand with mankind, whose cause we are supposed to make into our own? Is its cause perhaps that of another, and does mankind serve a higher cause? No, mankind looks only at itself, mankind wants to help only mankind, mankind is itself its cause. In order to develop itself, mankind lets peoples and individuals torment themselves in its service, and when they have accomplished what mankind needs, then, out of gratitude, they are thrown by it onto the manure pile of history. Is the cause of mankind not a purely egoistical cause?” Out of this kind of a critique of everything that man is supposed to make into his cause, there results for Stirner that “God and mankind have founded their cause on nothing but themselves. I will then likewise found my cause upon myself, I, who like God am nothing from anything else, I, who am my all, I who am the single one.”


That is Stirner's path. One can also take another path to arrive at the nature of the “I.” One can observe the “I” in its cognitive activity. Direct your gaze upon a process of knowledge. Through a thinking contemplation of processes, the “I” seeks to become conscious of what actually underlies these processes. What does one want to achieve by this thinking contemplation? To answer this question we must observe: What would we possess of these processes without this contemplation, and what do we obtain through this contemplation? I must limit myself here to a meager sketch of these fundamental questions about world views, and can point only to the broader expositions in my books Truth and Science (Wahrheit und Wissenschaft) and The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (Die Philosophie der Freiheit).

Look at any process you please. I throw a stone in a horizontal direction. It moves in a curved line and falls to earth after a time. I see the stone at successive moments in different places, after it has first cost me a certain amount of effort to throw it. Through my thinking contemplation I gain the following. During its motion the stone is under the influence of several factors. If it were only under the influence of the propulsion I gave it in throwing it, it would go on forever, in a straight line, in fact, without changing its velocity. But now the earth exerts an influence upon it which one calls gravity. If, without propelling it away from me, I had simply let go of it, it would have fallen straight to the ground, and in doing so its velocity would have increased continuously. Out of the reciprocal workings of these two influences there arises what actually happens. Those are all thought-considerations that I bring to what would offer itself to me without any thinking contemplation.

In this way we have in every cognitive process an element that would present itself to us even without any thinking contemplation, and another element that we can gain only through such thinking contemplation.

When we have then gained both elements, it is clear to us that they belong together. A process runs its course in accordance with the laws that I gain about it through my thinking. The fact that for me the two elements are separated and are joined together by my cognition is my affair. The process does not bother about this separation and joining. From this it follows, however, that the activity of knowing is altogether my affair. Something that I bring about solely for my own sake.

Yet another factor enters in here now. The things and processes would never, out of themselves, give me what I gain about them through my thinking contemplation. Out of themselves they give me, in fact, what I possess without that contemplation. It has already been stated in this essay that I take out of myself what I see in the things as their deepest being. The thoughts I make for myself about the things, these I produce out of my own inner being. They nevertheless belong to the things, as has been shown. The essential being of the things does not therefore come to me from them, but rather from me. My content is their essential being. I would never come to ask about the essential being of the things at all if I did not find present within me something I designate as this essential being of the things, designate as what belongs to them, but designate as what they do not give me out of themselves, but rather what I can take only out of myself.

Within the cognitive process I receive the essential being of the things from out of myself. I therefore have the essential being of the world within myself. Consequently I also have my own essential being within myself. With other things two factors appear to me: a process without its essential being and the essential being through me. With myself, process and essential being are identical. I draw forth the essential being of all the rest of the world out of myself, and I also draw forth my own essential being from myself.

Now my action is a part of the general world happening. It therefore has its essential being as much within me as all other happenings. To seek the laws of human action means, therefore, to draw them forth out of the content of the “I.” Just as the believer in God traces the laws of his actions back to the will of his God, so the person who has attained the insight that the essential being of all things lies within the “I” can also find the laws of his action only within the “I.” If the “I” has really penetrated into the essential nature of its action, it then feels itself to be the ruler of this action. As long as we believe in a world-being foreign to us, the laws of our action also stand over against us as foreign. They rule us; what we accomplish stands under the compulsion they exercise over us. If they are transformed from such foreign beings into our “I's” primally own doing, then this compulsion ceases. That which compels has become our own being. The lawfulness no longer rules over us, but rather rules within us over the happenings that issue from our “I.” To bring about a process by virtue of a lawfulness standing outside the doer is an act of inner unfreedom; to do so out of the doer himself is an act of inner freedom. To give oneself the laws of one's actions out of oneself means to act as a free individual. The consideration of the cognitive process shows the human being that he can find the laws of his action only within himself.


To comprehend the “I” in thinking means to create the basis for founding everything that comes from the “I” also upon the “I” alone. The “I” that understands itself can make itself dependent upon nothing other than itself. And it can be answerable to no one but itself. After these expositions it seems almost superfluous to say that with this “I” only the incarnate real “I” of the individual person is meant and not any general “I” abstracted from it. For any such general “I” can indeed be gained from the real “I” only by abstraction. It is thus dependent upon the real individual. (Benj. R. Tucker and J. H. Mackay also advocate the same direction in thought and view of life out of which my two above-mentioned books have arisen. See Tucker's Instead of a Book and Mackay's The Anarchists.

In the eighteenth century and in the greater part of the nineteenth, man's thinking made every effort to win for the “I” its place in the universe. Two thinkers who are already keeping aloof from this direction are Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, who is still vigorously working among us. Neither any longer transfers the full being of our “I,” which we find present in our consciousness, as primal being into the outer world. Schopenhauer regarded one part of this “I,” the will, as the essential being of the world, and Hartmann sees the unconscious to be this being. Common to both of them is this striving to subordinate the “I” to their assumed general world-being. On the other hand, as the last of the strict individualists, Friedrich Nietzsche, taking his start from Schopenhauer, did arrive at views that definitely lead to the path of absolute appreciation of the individual “I.” In his opinion, genuine culture consists in fostering the individual in such a way that he has the strength out of himself to develop everything lying within him. Up until now it was only an accident if an individual was able to develop himself fully out of himself. “This more valuable type has already been there often enough: but as a happy chance, as an exception, never as willed. Rather he was precisely the one feared the most; formerly he was almost the fearful thing; — and out of fear, the opposite type was willed, bred, attained: the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal man, the Christian ...” Nietzsche transfigured poetically, as his ideal, his type of man in his Zarathustra. He calls him the Superman (Übermensch). He is man freed from all norms, who no longer wants to be the mere image of God, a being in whom God is well pleased, a good citizen, and so on, but rather who wants to be himself and nothing more — the pure and absolute egoist.

* * *



  1. Throughout this essay, “ideal” usually means “in the form of ideas.” –Ed.

  2. Second Chapter of Representative Men, “Plato; or the Philosopher”

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