The term alienation (estrangement) has many different meanings in everyday life, in science, and in philosophy; most of them can be regarded as modifications of one broad meaning which is suggested by the etymology and the morphology of the word—the meaning in which alienation (or estrangement) is the act, or result of the act, through which something, or somebody, becomes (or has become) alien (or strange) to something, or somebody, else.
In everyday usage alienation often means turning away or keeping away from former friends or associates. In law it usually refers to the transfer of property from one person to another, either by sale or as a gift. In psychiatry alienation usually means deviation from normality; that is, insanity. In contemporary psychology and sociology it is often used to name an individual's feeling of alienness toward society, nature, other people, or himself. For many sociologists and philosophers, alienation is the same as reification: the act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations, and actions into properties and actions of things that are independent of man and that govern his life. For other philosophers, "alienation" means "self-alienation" (self-estrangement): the process, or result of the process, by which a "self" (God or man) through itself (through its own action) becomes alien (strange) to itself (to its own nature).
History of the Concept
The concept of alienation was first philosophically elaborated by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Some writers have maintained that the Christian doctrine of original sin and redemption can be regarded as a first version of Hegel's doctrine of alienation and dealienation. According to others, the concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry. Still others have maintained that the source for Hegel's view of nature as a self-alienated form of Absolute Mind can be found in Plato's view of the natural world as an imperfect picture of the sublime world of Ideas. As investigation continues, probably more forerunners of Hegel will be discovered. But it seems established that Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx were the three thinkers who first gave an explicit elaboration of alienation and whose interpretation is the starting point for all discussions of alienation in present-day philosophy, sociology, and psychology.
It is a basic idea of Hegel's philosophy that whatever is, is, in the last analysis, Absolute Idea (Absolute Mind, Absolute Spirit, or, in popular language, God) and that Absolute Idea is neither a set of fixed things nor a sum of static properties but a dynamic Self, engaged in a circular process of alienation and dealienation. Nature is only a self-alienated (self-estranged) form of Absolute Mind, and man is the Absolute in the process of dealienation. The whole of human history is the constant growth of man's knowledge of the Absolute and, at the same time, the development of self-knowledge of the Absolute, who through finite mind becomes self-aware and "returns" to himself from his self-alienation in nature. Finite mind, however, also becomes alienated. It is an essential characteristic of finite mind (man) to produce things, to express itself in objects, to objectify itself in physical things, social institutions, and cultural products; and every objectification is, of necessity, an instance of alienation: the produced objects become alien to the producer. Alienation in this sense can be overcome only in the sense of being adequately known. Again, it is the vocation of man as man to serve as the organon of the self-knowledge of the Absolute. To the extent that he does not perform this function, he does not fulfill his human essence and is merely a self-alienated man.
Feuerbach accepted Hegel's view that man can be alienated from himself, but he rejected both the view that nature is a self-alienated form of Absolute Mind and the view that man is Absolute Mind in the process of dealienation. Man is not self-alienated God. On the contrary, God is self-alienated man; he is man's essence absolutized and estranged from man. And man is not alienated from himself when he refuses to recognize nature as a self-alienated form of God; man is alienated from himself when he creates and puts above himself an imagined alien higher being and bows before that being as a slave. The dealienation of man consists in the abolition of that estranged picture of man which is God.
Marx praised Hegel for having grasped that the self-creation of man is a process of alienation and dealienation. But he criticized Hegel for, among other things, having identified objectification with alienation and the suppression of alienation with the abolition of objectivity, for having regarded man as self-consciousness and the alienation of man as the alienation of his self-consciousness, and for having assumed that the suppression of objectification and alienation is possible only and merely in the medium of pure thought. Marx agreed with Feuerbach's criticism of religious alienation, but he stressed that the religious alienation of man is only one among many forms of man's self-alienation. Man not only alienates a part of himself in the form of God; he also alienates other products of his spiritual activity in the form of philosophy, common sense, art, morals, and so on. He alienates products of his economic activity in the form of commodities, money, capital, etc.; he alienates products of his social activity in the form of the state, law, and social institutions. Thus, there are many forms in which man alienates from himself the products of his own activity and makes of them a separate, independent, and powerful world of objects toward which he is related as a slave, powerless and dependent.
Nevertheless, man not only alienates his own products from himself; he also alienates himself from the very activity through which these products are produced, from the natural world in which he lives, and from other men. All these kinds of alienation are, in the last analysis, one; they are only different aspects of man's self-alienation, different forms of the alienation of man from his human "essence" or "nature," from his humanity. The self-alienated man is a man who is really not a man, a man who does not realize his historically created human possibilities. A nonalienated man would be a man who really is a man, a man who fulfills himself as a free, creative being of praxis.
The concepts of alienation and dealienation were elaborated by Marx in his early writings, especially in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written in 1844 and first published in 1932. In his later works the two concepts were basic, but they were used implicitly rather than explicitly. Their importance was therefore overlooked. In no exposition or interpretation of Marx's views written in the nineteenth century or in the first three decades of the twentieth did the concepts of alienation and dealienation play any important role. But since the publication of the Manuscripts and especially since World War II, they have become the object of passionate discussions, not only among Marxists but also among non-Marxists (especially existentialists and personalists), and not only among philosophers but also among psychologists (especially psychoanalysts), sociologists, literary critics, and writers.
Contemporary Interpretations and Definitions
Present-day writers who use the term alienation differ very much in the ways in which they understand and define it. Some authors think that the concept can be applied both to man and to nonhuman entities (to God, world, and nature, for instance); but most writers insist that it is applicable only to humans. Some of those who apply it only to humans insist that it can refer only to individuals and not to society as a whole. According to a number of such authors, the nonadjustment of the individual to the society in which he lives is a sign of his alienation. Others maintain that a society also can be alienated, or "sick," so that an individual who cannot adapt to the existing society is not, of necessity, alienated.
Many of those who regard alienation as applicable merely to individuals conceive it as a purely psychological concept referring to a feeling, or a state of mind. Others insist that alienation is not only a feeling but that it is also an objective fact, a way of being. Some of the writers who characterize alienation as a state of mind regard it as a fact or concept of psychopathology; others insist that although alienation is not good or desirable, it is not strictly pathological. They often add that one should distinguish alienation (a psychological state of the individual characterized by feelings of estrangement) both from anomie (relative normlessness in a social system) and from personal disorganization (disordered behavior arising from conflict within the individual).
Those who oppose characterizing alienation as a psychological concept usually say that it is also (or primarily) an economic, or political, or sociological, or ethical concept. Some insist that it is basically a concept of general philosophy, or a concept of ontology and philosophical anthropology.
According to Gwynn Nettler, alienation is a certain psychological state of a normal person, and an alienated person is "one who has been estranged from, made unfriendly toward, his society and the culture it carries" ("A Measure of Alienation," p. 672). For Murray Levin, "the essential characteristic of the alienated man is his belief that he is not able to fulfill what he believes is his rightful role in society" (Man Alone, p. 227). According to Eric and Mary Josephson, alienation is "an individual feeling or state of dissociation from self, from others, and from the world at large" (Introduction to Man Alone, p. 13). For Stanley Moore, the terms alienation and estrangement "refer to the characteristics of individual consciousness and social structure typical in societies whose members are controlled by, instead of controlling, the consequences of their collective activity" (The Critique of Capitalist Democracy, p. 125). According to Jean-Yves Calvez, alienation is "a general type of the situations of the absolutized subject who has given a world to himself, a formal world, refusing in this way the true concrete and its requirements" (La pensée de Karl Marx, p. 51); and according to Erich Fromm, "Alienation (or 'estrangement') means, for Marx, that man does not experience himself as the acting agent in his grasp of the world, but that the world (nature, others and he himself) remain alien to him. They stand above and against him as objects, even though they may be objects of his own creation. Alienation is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively, as the subject separated from the object" (Marx's Concept of Man, p. 44).
With such a variety of definitions, it is difficult to say which is the best one. One may reserve the term for a specific phenomenon in which one is interested and, consequently, define it in such a narrow way as to make the majority of existing uses of "alienation" entirely inadmissible; or one may define it so broadly as to make as many as possible of the existing uses at least partly admissible and then distinguish between different forms of alienation in order to account for the variety of phenomena and to prevent possible confusions. The latter course seems more promising.
Forms of Alienation
All authors who have used the concept of alienation have distinguished between different forms of alienation; but not all of them have done so explicitly. Hegel attempted no explicit classification of the forms of alienation; but since, for him, the essence of all development was a process of alienation and dealienation, different stages in the development of the Absolute could be regarded as so many forms of alienation. It would be much more difficult to develop a similar classification for Feuerbach's works because the essence of his philosophy was negation of systematic philosophy. "Alienated Labor," a well-known fragment in Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, seems to suggest that we should distinguish between four forms of man's alienation: the alienation of man from the products of his own activity, the alienation of man from his productive activity itself, the alienation of man from his human essence, and the alienation of man from other men. But in other places Marx talked about other forms and subforms of alienation not mentioned in this fragment. The enumeration seems to be defective also in that it puts on the same level forms of alienation that should not be at the same level.
Twentieth-century writers differed greatly in their enumeration of the basic forms of alienation. Frederick A. Weiss distinguished three basic forms (self-anesthesia, self-elimination, and self-idealization); Ernest Schachtel distinguished four (the alienation of men from nature, from their fellow men, from the work of their hands and minds, and from themselves); Melvin Seeman, five (powerlessness, meaninglessness, social isolation, normlessness, and self-estrangement); and Lewis Feuer, six (the alienation of class society, of competitive society, of industrial society, of mass society, of race, and of generations).
In listing five different forms of alienation, Seeman tried to define them strictly. According to him, powerlessness is "the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behavior cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or reinforcements, he seeks"; meaninglessness results "when the individual is unclear as to what he ought to believe—when the individual's minimal standards for clarity in decision-making are not met"; normlessness is the characteristic of a situation "in which there is a high expectancy that socially unapproved behaviors are required to achieve given goals"; isolation is characteristic of those who "assign low reward value to goals or beliefs that are typically highly valued in the given society"; and self-estrangement is "the degree of dependence of the given behavior upon anticipated future rewards, that is upon rewards that lie outside the activity itself" ("On the Meaning of Alienation," pp. 786, 788, 789, 790).
Instead of trying to enumerate all classifications of the forms of alienation that have been made so far, we shall only mention a few of the basic criteria according to which such classifications could be made and actually have been made.
(1) According to the nature of that which is alienated, we may distinguish between alienation of things and alienation of selves. And if we distinguish different types of things or selves, we may add further subdivisions. To those for whom the only self is man, alienation of self is only another name for the alienation of man. But they may distinguish between individual alienation and social alienation. We may classify as types of social alienation the alienation of societies as a whole (such as feudal societies and capitalist societies), the alienation of social groups (capitalists, workers, intellectuals, bureaucrats, producers, consumers, etc.), and the alienation of social institutions (such as the state, the church, and cultural institutions).
(2) According to the question, we can distinguish between alienation from something else or somebody else and alienation from oneself. The distinction is applicable only to alienation of selves; a thing cannot be alienated from itself. A self can be alienated either from something or somebody or from itself. According to the different kinds of "others" and according to the different aspects or sides of the self, further subdivisions can be added (for example, alienation from nature, alienation from fellow men, or alienation of the self from its body, its feelings, its needs, or its creative possibilities).
(3) According to whether that which is alienated is alienated through its own activity or through the activity of another, we could distinguish between alienation through others and alienation through oneself. Alienation of a thing can obviously be only an alienation through others. There can be different kinds of alienation of things (stealing, giving, and buying and selling). Alienation of self can be either alienation through others or an alienation through oneself.
The concept of self-alienation, found in Hegel and Marx and of the greatest interest for philosophy, is a result of applying a combination of the above three basic criteria. What Hegel and Marx called self-alienation is alienation of a self from itself through itself. They differ in that Marx recognized only one self-alienated self (man), while Hegel recognized two (man and God, or Absolute). Some writers hold that one could also speak about self-alienation of nature or of the world. In religious myths we find self-alienated angels (for example, Lucifer), and in children's stories and fables we find self-alienated animals (the cowardly lion, the naive fox) and even plants (a humpy fir tree, a stinking rose). But the concept of a self-alienated man is basic.
In what sense is it possible for a self (either an individual man or a society) to be alienated from itself? It seems plausible to say that to be self-alienated means to be internally divided, split into at least two parts that have become alien to each other. But in that case, why talk of self-alienation; why not, instead, simply refer to an internal division or split? The term self-alienation seems to suggest some or all of the following points. (1) The division of the self into two conflicting parts was not carried out from the outside but is the result of an action of the self. (2) The division into conflicting parts does not annihilate the unity of the self; despite the split, the self-alienated self is nevertheless a self. (3) Self-alienation is not simply a split into two parts that are equally related to the self as a whole; the implication is that one part of the self has more right to represent the self as a whole, so that by becoming alien to it, the other part becomes alien to the self as a whole.
One way to specify and clarify the inequality of the two parts into which a self-alienated self is split is to describe the self-alienation as a split between man's real "nature," or "essence," and his factual "properties," or "existence." The self-alienated man in such a case is a man who is not in fact what he is in essence: a man whose actual existence does not correspond to his human essence. Similarly a self-alienated society would be a society whose factual existence does not correspond to the real essence of human society.
How can the actual existence of man deviate from his real essence or nature? If one were to conceive man's essence as something shared by all men, then somebody alienated from man's essence could not be a man in fact. Accordingly, if alienation of man from his essence is possible, his essence must not be conceived as something that all men have in common.
One possible interpretation would be the conception of man's essence as an eternal or nontemporal idea of man toward which the real man ought to strive. This interpretation is full of difficulties and leads to unanswerable questions, such as Where and in what way does such an idea of man exist? What is the way or method to achieve an adequate knowledge of it? Why should a real man strive toward it?
Another interpretation would consist in conceiving man's essence as something actually belonging to men—not to all, but only to some men; for example, to the majority of all so-far-existing men or to the majority of future men. Whichever interpretation one chooses, new difficulties arise. Why should a majority be more representative of the nature of man than a minority? If we already allow the split into essence and existence, why should we not also allow the possibility of the split being present in the majority? And why should a future actuality have any advantage over the past and the present one?
The third, and perhaps the most promising, interpretation consists in saying that man's essence is neither an eternal idea nor a part of actuality, but the sum of historically created human possibilities. To say that a man alienates himself from his human essence would then mean that a man alienates himself from the realization of his historically created human possibilities. To say that a man is not alienated from himself would mean that a man stands on the level of his possibilities and that in realizing his possibilities he permanently creates new and higher ones. The third interpretation seems more plausible than the first two, but it too leads to difficulties. In what way do the possibilities exist, and how do we discover them? On what basis do we divide man's real possibilities into human and inhuman possibilities?
Self-Alienation and History
Another much-discussed question asks whether self-alienation is an essential, imperishable property of man as man or whether it is characteristic only of one historical stage in man's development. Some philosophers, especially existentialists, have maintained that alienation is a permanent structural moment of man's existence. Man as man is necessarily self-alienated; in addition to his authentic existence he leads a nonauthentic one, and it is an error to expect that he will one day live only authentically.
Opposed to this view is the view that the originally nonself-alienated man, in the course of development, alienated himself from himself, but that he will return to himself in the future. This view was held by Friedrich Engels and is accepted by many contemporary Marxists; Marx himself seems to have been inclined to think that man had always been self-alienated, but that in spite of this, he can and ought to overcome his self-alienation in the future. In this sense, Marx, in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, wrote about communism as the positive supersession of all alienation and the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human (that is, social) existence. Such a conception of communism as a dealienation of human community formed the basis of all of Marx's other works.
alienation in past and present
If we assume that the whole of history up to now has been a history of humanity's self-alienation, then it may be asked whether history has been characterized by the gradual elimination of alienation or by its permanent deepening. Those who believe in constant progress have maintained that alienation has always been diminishing. But many contemporary philosophers and sociologists have found that alienation has constantly increased, so that it is much deeper and more pervasive than ever before in contemporary capitalism and bureaucratic socialism. A third group of authors have maintained that alienation has diminished in some respects and increased in others. Some have insisted that the question cannot be answered simply in terms of more or less, that we should investigate different types of self-alienated individuals typical of different periods in human history. An interesting attempt in this direction was made by Erich Fromm, who distinguished four basic types of "nonproductive" (self-alienated) character orientations (the receptive, hoarding, exploitative, and marketing orientations), each typical of a successive stage of historical development. According to Fromm, all four are found in contemporary self-alienated society, but whereas the first three were inherited from earlier periods, the marketing orientation is "definitely a modern product," typical of twentieth-century capitalism (Man for Himself, pp. 62–81).
alienation in the future
For those who regard alienation as a historical phenomenon, the question about a possible end of alienation (dealienation or disalienation) naturally arises. Two main answers have been given.
According to one group of thinkers, absolute dealienation is possible; all alienation, both social and individual, can be once and for all abolished. The most radical among this group have even maintained that all alienation has already in principle been eliminated in socialist countries, that it exists there only as a case of individual insanity or as an insignificant remnant of capitalism. More realistic representatives of this view have not denied facts showing that in countries considering themselves socialist, many old forms and even some new forms of alienation exist. But they have insisted that in more mature stages of socialism all these forms of alienation are destined to disappear.
According to a second group, only a relative dealienation is possible. It is impossible to eliminate alienation completely and finally because human nature is not something given and unchangeable that can be fulfilled once and for all. It is possible, however, to create a basically nonalienated society that would stimulate the development of nonalienated, really human individuals.
The means recommended for overcoming self-alienation differ according to one's view of the essence of self-alienation.
Those who regard self-alienation as a psychological fact, as a fact of the life of the individual human self, dispute the importance or even the relevance of any external changes in circumstances and suggest the individual's own moral effort, a revolution within the self, as the only cure. Those who regard self-alienation as a result of the neurotic process are quite consistent in offering a psychoanalytical medical treatment; they regard the new creative experience of acceptance and meeting in a warm, truly mutual and trusting doctor–patient relationship as the main therapeutic factor.
Diametrically opposed to this view are those philosophers and sociologists who, basing their ideas on a degenerate variant of Marxism called economic determinism, hold that individuals are the passive products of the social organization, that the whole of social organization is determined by the organization of economic life, and that all economic life is dependent on the question of whether the means of production are or are not private property. For economic determinists, the problem of dealienation is reduced to the problem of social transformation, and the problem of social transformation is reduced to the abolition of private property.
In criticizing "the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing," Marx stressed that "it is men that change circumstances," so that "the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice (Praxis)" (Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, with Engels, New York, 1959, p. 244).
Those who have tried to elaborate such a conception have insisted that dealienation of the society and dealienation of individuals are closely connected: One cannot be carried out without the other or reduced to the other. It is possible to create a social system that would enable and even stimulate the development of dealienated individuals, but it is impossible to organize a society that would automatically produce such individuals. A nonalienated individual is an individual who fulfills himself as a free and creative being of praxis, and free creativity is not something that can be given as a gift or forced upon anyone from outside. An individual can become free only through his own activity.
It is not simply that dealienation of individuals cannot be reduced to dealienation of society; the dealienation of society, in turn, cannot be conceived as a change in economic organization that will automatically be followed by change in all other fields and aspects of social life. Far from being an eternal fact of social life, the split of society into mutually independent and conflicting spheres and the predominance of the economic sphere is, according to Marx, a characteristic of a self-alienated society. Therefore, the dealienation of society is impossible without abolishing the alienation of the different human activities from each other.
Finally, the problem of dealienation of economic life cannot be solved by the abolition of private property. The transformation of private property into state property does not introduce an essential change in the situation of the working man, the producer. The dealienation of economic life also requires the abolition of state property, that is, its transformation into real social property; and this can be achieved only by organizing the whole of social life on the basis of the self-management of immediate producers.
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Works on Hegel, Marx, and Engels
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Popitz, Heinrich. Der entfremdete Mensch. Zeitkritik und Geschichtsphilosophie des jungen Marx. Basel: Verlag für Recht und Gesellschaft, 1953.
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Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
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Lefebvre, Henri. Critique de la vie quotidienne. Paris: B. Grasset, 1947; 2nd ed., 1958.
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Levin, Murray B. The Alienated Voter. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.
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Moore, Stanley. The Critique of Capitalist Democracy. New York: Paine-Whitman, 1957.
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Whyte, William H., Jr. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.
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Easton, Loyd D. "Alienation and History in the Early Marx." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 22 (1961): 193–205.
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