Stirner proposed that most commonly accepted social institutions – including the notion of State, property as a right, natural rights in general, and the very notion of society – were mere illusions. He refered to them as "spooks" and defined "spooks" as abstract concepts / social constructs that people act as though really existed. They're essentially "ghosts of the mind" that nevertheless feel so real to an individual that they control the way that person acts and that can spread from one person to another.

Dawkins defined a "meme" as an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes, according to Dawkins, are concepts that exist only in our minds, but that spread and mutate in ways similar to the way viruses spread and mutate: they infect a host and get passed on from one host to another, in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with that host. Religions and ideologies are both described as meme complexes, which are collections of memes often found together.

To me, both concepts seem to be just different names for the same phenomenon. However, I can't say I've ever done any in depth analysis on the different characteristics of respectively a "spook" and a "meme". Hence my question...

Are there any differences / incompatibilities to consider between Stirner's "spooks" and Dawkins' "memes" or are they really just different names for what's basically the same concept?

  • It seems to me Stirner's spooks are closer to Nietzsche's fictions (although, according to Nietzsche some fictions are "healthy" and necessary) than to Dawkins's memes. Spooks and fictions are some stable ideological constructs, unlike viral and fleeting memes, which are not even constructs. Memeplexes would be closer, but they are still behaviors, not structures erected to support them.
    – Conifold
    Jul 26, 2017 at 21:25
  • @Conifold : I wasn't aware of Nietzsche's fictions, but they do indeed seem to correspond with Nietzsche's spooks... as well as Dawkins' memes. What is it that makes you think of Dawkins' memes as being fleeting? How are memeplexes anything but robust frameworks that in many cases completely completely dominate a person's thoughts and feelings? Jul 26, 2017 at 21:48
  • They are not "frameworks" at all, that is posited after the fact to "explain" behavior, ideological fictions, on the other hand, are institutionalized in the open (although I suppose they could be propped up by memeplexes). There was a recent question about Nietzsche's fictions
    – Conifold
    Jul 26, 2017 at 22:06
  • Not familiar with spooks but one potential difference is that for memes to be memes they have to transfer from one individual to another, with variation, and be subject to (a kind of) natural selection that favors the continued propagation of some variants relative to the other. If spooks, or a subset of them, don't have these evolutionary properties, then they wouldn't be memes.
    – Dave
    Aug 26, 2017 at 12:02
  • From what you are saying - there is a subtle difference here. A spook generally refers to an abstract social construct, but a meme can relate to any unit of replicating belief or behaviour - eg, soles of the feet are insulting, it is rude to ask a direct question, weaving a cane basket, throwing salt over your shoulder to ward off evil.
    – ChrisGuest
    Aug 26, 2017 at 12:47

3 Answers 3


I'm not particularly convinced by Dawkins analogy, interesting though it is at first sight; it's a variant of Darwinism as a philosophy - as opposed to biology - applied to both culture and epistemology. One might call it a revival of social Darwinism, like Spencerism, on the cultural plane, interpreting culture broadly to include science, the arts and religion.

I'm also not convinced in the way he labels a religion as an idea that like a virus that infects a host, and science as an idea - what? The deliberate rhetorical choice to label a way of living & thinking of whole peoples over a vast period of time appears to me disturbing, to say the least and ignores much of value.

That Stirner, as a fore-runner to extreme libertarianism is prepared to say society, the nation, the family and the state are all illusions or 'spooks' of the mind is more or less what one would expect him to say; but what does he intend to replace them with, if anything? If not anything, how does he expect people to cooperate, to discuss and to resolve differences? And sometimes to go to war, and to have rules by which that war is conducted - the treatment of prisoners, of civilians, the innocent? To raise families, to feed the populace, to continue with the arts and the sciences? A great deal is stripped away if these so called illusions are stripped away.

The West often makes a fetish of freedom, they call their markets free markets, and their world the free world; but freedom is not anything when it has no form, no shape, no substance; freedom when it means something brings along both responsibilities and obligations, as well as the freedom to bring a new world to life.

The main resemblance that I see between them is their rhetorical power, rather than the substance of their views; and their one-sidedness.

  • "he labels a religion as an idea that like a virus that infects a host, and science as an idea - what?" - Yes, this is an important thing; Dawkins' "theory" is not autoreflexive. It cannot explain itself; rather it posits itself as a deus ex machina, that comes from nowhere. In this sence, it is pure metaphysics. Aug 27, 2017 at 20:46
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    "what does he intend to replace them with, if anything? If not anything, how does he expect people to cooperate, to discuss and to resolve differences?" — I haven't gotten to reading more than a few chapters of "The Ego & its own" yet, so I'm anything but an expert on Stirner. However, as I understand it Stirner believes humanity needs to rid itself from illusions such as "God", "freedom" & "justice"... and he's suggesting humans should consciously & voluntarily choose to cooperate on the basis of mutual benefit at the individual level. Aug 28, 2017 at 8:12
  • (continued) While I agree with Stirner & Dawkins on the illusionary nature of "spooks" / "memes", I do not agree with Stirner's conclusions that that's a bad thing per se. My own views are more in line with Terry Pratchett, who - in his modern parable Hogfather - argues that humans need illusions to make sense of the universe. Pratchett argues that those very illusions are what makes us human; what puts us at "the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape." Aug 28, 2017 at 8:12

I suggest these are of the same type, elements of the ecology of fictions, but they are very different variants, and we can tell these two apart.

The State is not a meme. We are used to it. It inhabits us and is hard to put aside. but it would not spread automatically and spontaneously re-create itself if released into a new population on its own. It has been inculcated via complex interactions, and without them, it would not be appealing. The experiences that make it worthwhile need to come together and convince us. They are not automatic.

It may somehow based upon memes (parentood, compromise, orderliness, etc) but it is a 'memetic organism' not just a collection or network of memes like a belief system. There is more to it. It is a specific solution, crafted to leverage those memes. It is more like what your body is to your genes, than what the genes are themselves.

Various things like 'xenophobia', and 'fairness' appear to be 'memes', in that they get taken up by many people in each generation, and persist across time by simply spreading, because they have some kind of intrinsic appeal. But it is hard to think of them as mere illusions. The racial divide itself may be a 'spook', but our reaction to there being a tribal boundary presented to us is visceral. The idea that the world should be fair, when it isn't, has very real physical effects that the 'notion of rights' doesn't have.

The notion of rights does involve the meme that things should be fair, but like the relationship between The State, it is also made up of a few other memes (like that things should also be stable, and clear), and a lot of additional logic.

  • When Stirner called "the state" a "spook" or "fiction", he meant to say that it's an abstract concept we don't really need but that we tell ourselves we need to make sense of our lives... just like "fairness" or "justice" or "love". And contrary to eg. Nietzsche, Stirner seemed to believe that we're better off abandoning all of these "spooks" as he believed "spooks" - as a whole - were unhealthy and unnecessary. Jul 27, 2017 at 8:46
  • You seem to be arguing that us being used to the concept of "the state" distinguishes it from a meme. But what about notions like "fairness"... or "justice"... or "love"... or "God"? These are all concepts people are attached to and often use as the foundations of their entire worldview, but can you really say that they're anything but "memes"? Can you really say they are anything but lies we tell to fool ourselves into making sense of a fundamentally absurd universe? (I guess I've become an existentialist over the past few years) Jul 27, 2017 at 8:52
  • Interestingly, I believe your position that it's "hard to think of things like 'xenophobia', and 'fairness' as mere illusions" is best addressed by an old answer to the question of mine that virmaior deleted on grounds of not being "sourced in philosophy". How Ironic, really... Anyway, see this question on meta for details... Jul 27, 2017 at 8:57
  • And with respect to rights... I'd like to reference George Carlin on that. No one expressed better than him why the notion of "unalienable rights" is nothing but a lie we tell ourselves... another source who, I'm sure, would also be considered unsuitable by virmaior ;-) Jul 27, 2017 at 9:04
  • @JohnSlegers - the idea that there is actual "value" in a rectangular piece of coloured paper is obviously bogus. But if suddenly everybody stopped believing in it, society as we know it would immediatly crumble. So, is this obvious lie really a lie, or is it something a bit more complex than a mere lie or a mere truth? Jul 27, 2017 at 10:59

Dawkins talks about replicants, and he seems to fluctuate between two very different, and not obviously compatible, versions of his "theory": 1) memes are selected according to their ability to help their "hosts" to reproduce (for instance, religions that forbid reproductive control tend to spread because they make their faithful reproduce more), and 2) memes are selected according to their ability to reproduce themselves (for instance, religions that bid their faithful to actively proselitise tend to spread because those ideas reproduce more).

But anyway his emphasys is on reproduction.

Now, I haven't read Stirner, but I doubt very much he puts any emphasys on reproduction - at least not on the reproduction of ideas qua ideas or on the reproduction of human individuals. It is more likely that his "spooks" are instrumental to the cohesion of societies (which by the way is by far a more reasonable idea than Dawkins' - to quote himself - "amateur sociology").

  • Stirner is a philosopher. Dawkins is a biologist. It seems to me that they're describing the same concept, but they're using different semantics and focus on different criteria due to their different areas of expertise and their different professional backgrounds. Dawkins clearly based his concept of memes on genes... which - like memes - have two objectives : the reproduction of themselves and the reproduction of the organisms that carry them. A different focus and different semantics don't mean that the actual concept described hasn't got the same characteristics, though. Jul 27, 2017 at 10:54

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