George Walford and Bob Black: Letters

It is usually a mistake to join a fight when you don’t know how it started, but I would award the latest round to S. E. Parker (IC55). You say that ‘people who reject a commitment to truth cannot sensibly expect their statements to be taken seriously.’ This is on a par with the former practice of excluding atheists from testifying in court because, since they did not believe in Hell, they would lie under oath. The worst conclusion one is warranted in drawing about someone lacking a commitment to truth is that he is capable of lying. But everyone is capable of lying. Credibility cannot rest only on a person’s abstract conception of truth. Presumably the Pope has made a commitment to truth, since he thinks he’s infallible, but I’d take Parker’s word over his anytime. Wouldn’t you?

Why should a Stirnerist ever tell the truth? For the same reasons – minus moral duty – as anybody else. You provide the reason yourself. Truth is an instrument, a tool. It is useful. But the same tool is not the best one for every job.

I doubt you have considered the implications of your remark that whether a person should expect to be taken seriously has a bearing on whether he should be taken seriously (using ‘should’ in either a moralistic or practical sense). What I expect to happen when I make a statement depends largely on whom I make it to, something obviously irrelevant to the statement’s validity. No unfamiliar or unpopular idea, on your account, should be taken seriously. Since your ideas are mostly unfamiliar and / or unpopular, you cannot sensibly expect people to take them seriously, can you? So why go on with them? I’m not entering my ideas in any popularity contests.
Bob Black, Albany, NY.

We withdraw the comment that people who repudiate a commitment to truth cannot expect their statements to be taken seriously; Bob Black has the right of it when he says that their expectations do not matter. The question is whether people who do maintain this commitment can sensibly take them seriously. But the question of the popularity and familiarity of the ideas put forward in IC is more complex than (in this present letter) he recognises. A main effort of IC lies in drawing attention to the validity and value of ideas (strictly, assumptions) held by vast numbers of people. Only by Bob Black and those who think in the way he does are these ideas repudiated, only among this tiny minority are they unfamiliar and unpopular.

To assert that we cannot sensibly take Stirner seriously is hardly on a par with believing atheists more likely to lie than Christians. Stirner holds himself free to say, falsely, that he does accept deity if saying that happens to suit him at the time; the atheists, on the contrary, insisted on telling the truth about their beliefs whatever the consequences. This letter says that a Stirnerian would tell the truth ‘for the same reasons – minus moral duty – as anybody else.’ But that subtraction of moral duty is the point; it is what distinguishes Stirner. By repudiating a commitment to truth he marks himself off as an exception, warning us that an influence normally and properly assumed to operate does not apply in his case.

IC‘s central point about Stirner, reached after being engaged with him off and on over a decade or more, and after issuing several studies of his work that reflection has shown to be unsatisfactory, is that he has made it not merely difficult but impossible for clear thinking to take his work as a whole seriously. Do we take the bulk of Stimer’s book seriously? Then we are failing to take seriously the warning that Stimer holds himself free to lie whenever he finds it convenient. Do we take this warning seriously? Then we cannot sensibly take the bulk of the book seriously, since we have been warned not to make the usual assumption that the author is telling the truth.

Stirner tells us that we ought not take things seriously; not the state, not God, not love… and not truth either. Why should we want to take Stirner himself seriously? His book is fun, and there’s not too much of that around; let’s enjoy what we have.

This is the primal ideology, and we still fall back on it when there’s no need for anything more strenuous. It’s the ideology of ordinary daily life, of doing what you happen to feel like doing at the moment. It doesn’t seem important and it often gets taken for granted.

But it provides the ground and reason for all the other ideologies. They can’t exist without living people, but none of them can give us any reason for living. We don’t live on principle, or for Queen and country or because it is the scientific thing to do, or for the sake of the community either. We go on living because we find it pleasant and convenient to do so, because it is expedient. This primal ideology, the one at the base of the pyramid, accounts for the continuing presence of human life. All the rest of them, with all their consequences, they all follow from that.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.