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A Possible Solution to the Stirner-Nietzsche Question
Thomas H. Brobjer
Nietzsche's possible reading, knowledge, and plagiarism of Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own (1845) has been a contentious question and frequently discussed for more than a century now. In the Fall 1999 issue of JNS (73-79), John Glassford skillfully summarizes many of the arguments and judiciously concludes: "In short, the evidence as it stands suggests that Nietzsche may have taken the trouble to find out about Stirner at some point in his career; he may even have read some of Stirner's work. But there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Stirner's ideas influenced his own" (78). Glassford therefore assumes, following Löwith and Leopold, that the "startling similarities" between Stirner and Nietzsche are due to the "inevitable logic of post-Hegelian philosophy."
Nonetheless, examining the evidence of the case as presented by Glassford—and being aware that there is no symmetry between the arguments for that someone has read a certain book and against such reading (since the latter can only be based on arguments of absence)—seems to me to lead to a conclusion that Nietzsche probably had read (or knew about) Stirner (and this seems to me also to be Glassford's belief). This is also the conclusion most commentators have reached. However, the evidence can be somewhat augmented and a somewhat different conclusion drawn.
The arguments against Nietzsche's knowledge and reading of Stirner (as given by Glassford) is that he never mentions Stirner, that he did not borrow Stirner from the Basel University library, and that Resa von Schirnhofer claimed that Nietzsche never referred to him in conversations with her. The last two arguments are weak. They can be significantly strengthened by noting that we also have no other evidence of Nietzsche's reading of Stirner (receipts for books he bought, the content of his library, etc.) and that not only Resa, but that none of Nietzsche's closer friends, could remember him mentioning Stirner, including Franz Overbeck, Peter Gast, and others, with the exception of the two mentioned below. The first argument—that Nietzsche never mentions Stirner—does of course not prove that he had not read (or did not knew about) him. Nietzsche read many books and authors whom he [End Page 109] did not discuss or mention (as one can see by examining his library and the hundreds of receipts of books he bought). 1 However, the fact that Nietzsche never mentions Stirner or quotes or paraphrases any central passage from his book makes it highly unlikely that Stirner had a profound impact on Nietzsche's thinking. If Nietzsche had read Stirner's book before he became professor in Basel (1869), as Glassford suggests several times, such absence seems highly unlikely. At that early stage there could hardly have been any reasons for Nietzsche to "hide" the influence. But also if Nietzsche had read the book attentively later, it would seem highly improbable that he would have hidden it to the extent of not mentioning Stirner (or quoting some passage) in private letters and in his notebooks.
The arguments for Nietzsche's having read Stirner (and possibly for a strong influence of Stirner on Nietzsche) rest on certain similarities between their thinking, that the student Adolf Baumgartner, who borrowed Stirner from the university library in Basel in July 1874, claims that Nietzsche had recommended the book to him, and that Ida Overbeck (Franz's wife) claims that Nietzsche praised Stirner to her (once when Franz was not present), either in 1878-79 or between 1880 and 1883 (Nietzsche: "I was very disappointed in Klinger. He was a philistine, I feel no affinity with him; but with Stirner, yes, with him! [. . .] Now I have told you, and I did not want to mention it at all. Forget it. They will be talking about plagiarism, but you will not do that, I know" Gilman, 113f.).
These two statements seem to suggest that Nietzsche read Stirner, but on...