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Bakunin Nailed It

David Cowles

Nov 30, 2022

“Writing at the same time as Kierkegaard, 10 years before Nietzsche, and 50 years before Heidegger and Sartre, Bakunin got it right.”

It’s Sunday night and I’m doing what every boy does on a Sunday night: I’m reading 19th century philosophy; tonight, it’s Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876). Bakunin could be thought of as the St. Paul of anarchism. He didn’t invent anarchism, but he systematized it and popularized it as an alternative to the sterile socialism of Mark and Engels. Bakunin wrote:


  • “Man is able to project himself in his thought, examining and observing himself like a strange eternal object.

  • “By lifting himself in thought above himself, and above the material world around him, he reaches the representation of perfect abstraction, the absolute void.

  • “And this absolute (void) is nothing less than his capacity for (perfect) abstraction, which disdains all that exists and finds its repose in attaining complete negation. This is the ultimate limit of the highest abstraction of mind; this absolute nothingness is God.” (Emphases mine)


Nailed it! Writing at the same time as Kierkegaard, 10 years before Nietzsche, and 50 years before Heidegger and Sartre, Bakunin got it right. How so?


We find ourselves ‘thrown’ (Heidegger) onto the ‘beach of being’, ignorant, defenseless, thoroughly lost. Our one goal is to survive!  Survive now (praxis)… and develop a strategy to survive long term (gnosis).


We are surrounded by entities other than ourselves. We quickly see that our survival depends on understanding these entities, and ultimately, on influencing them. Viewing those entities through the prism of Indo-European language, we label them things (nouns) or events (verbs).


‘Things’ and ‘events’ are somewhat imprecise labels we affix to phenomena. We classify a phenomenon as a ‘thing’ or as an ‘event’ depending on whether we wish to call attention to its enduring essence or its existential transience: “Abide with me; fast falls the ev’n tide.”


We are like the away team on a future starship, dispatched to the surface of exoplanet XS325W to map its terrain – except, we are not mapping an exoplanet; we are mapping the phenomenon of Being itself.


Life is like a game of Battleship. It begins with a completely unconditioned ‘guess’. We note the results, and we add their coordinates to our emerging world map. This is my one and only random move. Every future move will be ‘informed’ by the results of all the moves that came before it.


Gradually, we move from absolute ignorance to something approaching certain knowledge. As we push the buttons and pull the levers that constitute ‘the world’, we are simultaneously mapping the terrain.


I’m hungry, I cry, I get fed. Now I associate crying with satiety, and I hypothesize a causal relationship between the two: post hoc ergo propter hoc. For the rest of my life, I will test and refine this hypothesis and look to extend it to other ordered pairs (of data) I uncover along the way.


Needs multiply: feed me, change me, sooth me. My gestures (crying) modulate. Crying works for this but not for that. A certain ‘style of crying’ seems better correlated with a certain result. My map of the world is gaining definition.


As I get older, my crying becomes more nuanced and less obvious, but make no mistake about it, it’s still crying, right up to the very end. Ah, the gift of life! Our survival is at stake from the moment of our birth (or conception). My first awareness is an awareness of discomfort, if not pain.


I resort to a series of random gestures in hopes that something will make this pain go away; et voilà, something does! Or does it? Have I discovered causality (Laplace)…or coincidence (Hume)? I will need to test my proposed correlation until I am so sure of the causal link that I am willing to ‘bet my life on it’.


Once satisfied, I can fill in my map with its first data point, an ordered pair (X = my behavior; Y = my comfort). Over the next 30,000 days or so, I’ll discover, test, and map many more such correlations.


Primal awareness is strangely complex: I am aware of phenomena that I classify as ‘self’ and I am aware of phenomena that I classify as ‘not-self’.  From my perspective, this is the primal distinction (not darkness and light as in Genesis); but by itself, it does not even come close to capturing the experience of being human. What’s missing? 

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Me! I’m missing from this model. I am aware of phenomena, ‘self’ and ‘not-self’, precisely because I am neither. If I were ‘self’, then there would be no need or even function for ‘not-self’. ‘Self’ would form a self-contained universe and we could have no knowledge of anything outside it. If ‘I’ were an element in ‘self’, I would be perfectly redundant and therefore precluded by Occam’s Razor, et al.


Also, it is hard to ignore the intuition that there is something fundamentally different between observing and being observed. ‘Objects’ are observed; ‘subjects’ observe. Granting for the moment that there is nothing more to conscious awareness than the operation of a network of neurons and excluding the possible existence of some mysterious, spiritual anti-substance, it is still difficult not to notice the difference between a subject’s awareness of an event and the objective event itself. “They’re not even the same sort of thing.”


 A world ‘with me’ and a world ‘without me’ would be exactly the same; but ‘to be’ is not to be the same but to be different, novel, unique, to matter, to have consequences. Were ‘I’ to be one of the elements of ‘self’, I would not matter, I would make no difference, my being would have no consequences; plus, the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, would have never been made – a cultural catastrophe if ever there was one!


Even so, I think it is safe to say that a majority of contemporary philosophers, scientists, etc. believe we live in just such a world – a world in which ‘I’ is an element of ‘self’. I say ‘believe’ because for many reductionists, mechanists, positivists and naïve realists, the proposition ‘I ɛ S’ is a matter of deep, almost religious, faith:


“It is this way because it has to be this way, even if it’s not!” We cling to our ‘enlightened’ secular model even though it predicts a universe that is frozen, lifeless, and void of any novelty – in other words, a universe that has virtually nothing in common with our world.


Bakunin argues convincingly that the ground of all phenomena cannot itself be a phenomenon.


The human experience is at least dialectic: I am aware of ‘self’ (thesis), I am aware of ‘not-self’ (antithesis), and I am aware of ‘being aware’ of self and not-self (synthesis). Neti, neti (Sanskrit): not this, not that, the keyword being ‘not’.


I am by being-not and being-not is a form of abstraction. When I am ‘not this ball’, I am abstracting from the ball its location, momentum, and sensory appearance. I have to have something ‘not to be’.

I cannot not-be ‘the ball’ per se because ‘ball’ is a noumenon, a Platonic Idea, not a phenomenon. According to Kant, I can’t ‘know’ a noumenon; I can only know its phenomenal aspect. Therefore, I cannot ‘not be’ the ball; I can only ‘not be’ the ball’s various characteristics.


To abstract is to de-concretize, and so “perfect abstraction” would result in an “absolute void” (Bakunin). I am the relentless spirit of restlessness at the heart of Being. As such, I “disdain all that exists”. I ‘negate it’ and it is only in such negation that I find any measure of “repose”.


“Rest in peace!” is not a final goodbye to a loved one. It is a battle cry: “Be Human!”


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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