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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 wordthe 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 believewhen 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 mennot 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. 6281).

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.

overcoming alienation

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 doctorpatient 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.

See also Absolute, The; Engels, Friedrich; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Marx, Karl; Ontology; Philosophical Anthropology; Plato.



Josephson, Eric, and Mary Josephson, eds. Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society. New York: Dell, 1962.

Sykes, Gerald, ed. Alienation: The Cultural Climate of Our Time. 2 vols. New York: G. Braziller, 1964.

classical works

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Das Wesen des Christentums. Leipzig, 1841. Translated by Marian Evans as The Essence of Christianity, 2nd ed. London, 1882.

Hegel, G. W. F. Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse. Heidelberg, 1817.

Hegel, G. W. F. Die Phänomenologie des Geistes. Bamberg and Würzburg, 1807. Translated by J. B. Baillie as Phenomenology of Mind. London: S. Sonnenschein, and New York: Macmillan, 1910; 2nd ed., 1931.

Hegel, G. W. F. Theologische Jugendschriften, edited by H. Nohl. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1907.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) 18571858. 2 vols. Moscow: Verlag für Fremdsprachige Literatur, 19391941; 2nd ed., Berlin, 1953.

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital. 3 vols. Hamburg, 18671894. Translated by S. Moore, E. Aveling, and E. Untermann as Capital. 4 vols. London, 18871909. Especially Vol. I, Ch. 1, Sec. 4.

Marx, Karl. Die oekonomisch-philosophischen Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844. In Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Berlin, 1932. Div. I, Vol. III. Translated by Martin Milligan as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. London, 1959.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Die deutsche Ideologie (18441845). In their Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe. Berlin, 1932. Div. I, Vol. III. Translated as The German Ideology, edited by R. Pascal. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938.

Works on Hegel, Marx, and Engels

Calvez, Jean-Yves. La pensée de Karl Marx. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1956.

Fromm, Erich. Marx's Concept of Man. New York: F. Ungar Publishing, 1961.

Hyppolite, Jean. Études sur Marx et Hegel. Paris: M. Rivière, 1955.

Kangrga, Milan. Eticki Problem u Djelu Karla Marxa. Zagreb, 1963.

Lukács, Georg. Der junge Hegel und die Probleme der kapitalistischen Gesellschaft. Zürich and Vienna: Aufbau-Verlag, 1948.

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Oizerman, T. I. Formirovanie Filosofii Marksizma. Moscow: Izd-vo sotsial'no ekon lit-ry, 1962.

Popitz, Heinrich. Der entfremdete Mensch. Zeitkritik und Geschichtsphilosophie des jungen Marx. Basel: Verlag für Recht und Gesellschaft, 1953.

Tucker, Robert. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

recent studies

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1941.

Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself. New York: Rinehart, 1947.

Fromm, Erich. Sane Society. New York: Rinehart, 1955.

Goldmann, Lucien. Recherches dialectiques, 3rd ed. Paris, 1959.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique de la vie quotidienne. Paris: B. Grasset, 1947; 2nd ed., 1958.

Lefebvre, Henri. Le matérialisme dialectique. Paris: F. Alcan, 1939.

Levin, Murray B. The Alienated Voter. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Lukács, Georg. Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Berlin, 1923.

Mills, C. Wright. White Collar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Moore, Stanley. The Critique of Capitalist Democracy. New York: Paine-Whitman, 1957.

Naville, Pierre. De l'aliénation à la jouissance. Paris: M. Rivière, 1957.

Pappenheim, Fritz. The Alienation of Modern Man: An Interpretation Based on Marx and Tönnies. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959.

Riesman, David, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

Whyte, William H., Jr. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.


Bell, Daniel. "The 'Rediscovery' of Alienation: Some Notes along the Quest for the Historical Marx." Journal of Philosophy 56 (1959): 933957.

Braybrooke, David. "Diagnosis and Remedy in Marx's Doctrine of Alienation." Social Research 25 (1958): 325345.

Cornu, Auguste. "L'idée d'aliénation chez Hegel, Feuerbach et K. Marx." La pensée no. 2 (1948): 6575.

Dean, Dwight. "Alienation and Political Apathy." Social Forces 38 (1960).

Dean, Dwight. "Meaning and Measurement of Alienation." American Sociological Review 26 (1961): 753758.

Duhrsen, Alfred. "Philosophic Alienation and the Problem of Other Minds." Philosophic Review 69 (1960): 211220.

Easton, Loyd D. "Alienation and History in the Early Marx." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 22 (1961): 193205.

Feuer, Lewis. "What Is Alienation? The Career of a Concept." New Politics 1 (3) (1962): 116134.

Garaudy, Roger. "O Ponjatii Otčuždenie." Voprosi Filosofii no. 8 (1959): 6881.

Glazer, Nathan. "The Alienation of Modern Man." Commentary 3 (April 1947).

Kraft, Julius. "Die Selbstentfremdung des Menschen." Geist und Tat (March 1956).

Löwith, Karl. "Man's Self-Alienation in the Early Writings of Marx." Social Research 21 (1954): 204230.

Nettler, Gwynn. "A Measure of Alienation." American Sociological Review 22 (1957): 670677.

Petrović, Gajo. "Man as Economic Animal and Man as Praxis." Inquiry 6 (1963): 3556.

Petrović, Gajo. "Marx's Theory of Alienation." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23 (1963): 419426.

Rose, Arnold M. "Alienation and Participation: A Comparison of Group Leaders and the 'Mass.'" American Sociological Review 27 (6) (1962): 834838.

Seeman, Melvin. "On the Meaning of Alienation." American Sociological Review 24 (1959): 783791.

Sommer, Robert, and Hall, Robert. "Alienation and Mental Illness." American Sociological Review 23 (1958): 418420.

"Symposium on Alienation and the Search for Identity." American Journal of Psychoanalysis 21 (2) (1961).

Vignaud, P. "L'aliénation selon Karl Marx." La vie intellectuelle (February 1937).

G. Petrović (1967)


views updated May 14 2018


Since 1964, many commentators have been speaking of a crisis of confidence in the United States, a malaise marked by widespread public belief that major institutions—businesses, labor unions, and especially the government, political parties, and political leaders—are unresponsive, remote, ineffective, and not to be trusted (Lipset and Schneider 1983). Alienation became the catchword for these sentiments, detected among discontented workers, angry youth, and militant minority groups. American leaders concerned about the increase in alienation found new relevance in ongoing discussions among sociologists and other social scientists, who have defined alienation, used survey research to measure the level of alienation in society, and have debated the causes, significance, and consequences of alienation and particularly, political alienation.


Theorists and sociological researchers have developed different definitions of alienation (Seeman 1975). Scholars influenced by the philosophical writings of Karl Marx have used the word alienation to mean self-estrangement and the lack of self-realization at work (Blauner 1964; Hodson 1996). Marx argued that although humans by their very nature are capable of creative and intrinsically rewarding work, the Industrial Revolution alienated workers from their creative selves and reduced workers to the unskilled tenders of machines (Braverman 1974). The worker produced machinery and other commodities that formed the capitalist system of workplace hierarchies and global markets, which the worker could not control. Rather, the system dominated workers as an alienated, "reified" force, apart from the will and interests of workers (Meszaros 1970). Whereas this oldest definition links alienation to the development of capitalism in modern society, some scholars see alienation as a characteristic reaction to the postmodern condition of fragmented multiple images and loss of individual identities and any shared meanings (Geyer 1996).

Alienation can also refer to the isolation of individuals from a community—a detachment from the activities, identifications, and ties that a community can provide. In addition, the concept of alienation has included the notion of cultural radicalism or estrangement from the established values of a society. Ingelhart (1981) has argued that the highly educated generation that came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s rejected their elders' traditional values of materialism, order, and discipline. Easterlin (1980, pp. 108–111 ) suggests that it is the relatively large cohort size of the Baby Boom generation that led them to suffer competition for jobs, psychological stress, discontent, and hence, generalized political alienation. On the contrary, Inglehart (1997) argues that baby boomers and succeeding generations will only express alienation against specific authoritative institutions, such as the police, the military, and churches. With succeeding generations increasingly espousing "postmaterialist" values such as the quality of life, self-realization, and participatory democracy, Inglehart finds a worldwide increase in some activities that reduce alienation such as petition-signing and political conversation.

Much of the literature on alienation in the 1990s focused on alienation from political institutions, and some writers have examined how alienation has changed in former authoritarian nations such as Argentina and South Africa and in Eastern Europe (Geyer 1996; Geyer and Heinz 1992). Sociologists interested in the political well-being of the United States have measured the extent to which individuals feel powerless over government (i.e., unable to influence government) and perceive politics as meaningless (i.e., incomprehensible; Seeman 1975). Such attitudes may be connected to a situation of normlessness, or anomie, which occurs when individuals are no longer guided by the political rules of the game (Lipset and Raab 1978). Social scientists have been concerned that alienation might reduce political participation through institutional channels such as voting, and might lead to nonconventional activity like protest movements and collective violence.


Political alienation consists of attitudes whereby citizens develop (or fail to develop) meanings and evaluations about government and about their own power (or powerlessness) in politics. Specifically, political alienation is composed of the attitudes of distrust and inefficacy. Distrust (also called cynicism) is a generalized negative attitude about governmental outputs: the policies, operations, and conditions produced by government. Compared to the simple dislike of a particular policy or official, distrust is broader in scope. Whereas distrust is an evaluation of governmental outputs, inefficacy is an expectation about inputs, that is, the processes of influence over government. People have a sense of inefficacy when they judge themselves as powerless to influence government policies or deliberations (Gamson 1971).

Researchers have sought to find opinion poll questions that yield responses consistently correlated to only one underlying attitude, of distrust for example. Mason, House, and Martin (1985) argue that the most "internally valid" measures of distrust are two questions: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about all of the time, most of the time, or only some of the time?" and "Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all people?" Similarly, a person's sense of inefficacy can be measured by asking the person to agree or disagree with the following statements, which contain the words "like me": "People like me don't have any say about what the government does" and "I don't think public officials care much what people like me think."

During election years since the 1950s, the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has posed these and other questions to national samples of citizens. Those replying that you can trust the government only some of the time or none of the time comprised 22 percent in 1964 but 73 percent in 1980. This percentage fell during President Ronald Reagan's first term but then increased through 1994 (reaching 78 percent) before falling to 67 percent in 1996. Those disagreeing with the statement that public officials care rose from 25 percent in 1960, to 52 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 1994 (Orren 1997; Poole and Mueller 1998).

In addition, polls indicate that in the same time period, increasing numbers of citizens felt that government was less responsive to the people (Lipset and Schneider 1983, pp. 13–29). This attitude, which can be termed system unresponsiveness, was measured by asking questions that did not use the words "like me." Responses to the questions thus focused not on the respondents' evaluations of their own personal power, but rather on their judgments of the external political system. (Craig 1979 conceptualizes system unresponsiveness as "output inefficacy").

What are the consequences of the increase in political alienation among Americans? Social scientists have investigated whether individuals with highly alienated attitudes are more likely to withdraw from politics, engage in violence, or favor protest movements or extremist leaders. Research findings have been complicated by the fact that the same specific alienated attitudes have been linked to different kinds of behaviors (Schwartz 1973, pp. 162–177).

The alienated showed little tendency to support extremist candidates for office. (The only exception was that high-status alienated citizens supported Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964. See Wright 1976, pp. 227, 251; Herring 1989, p. 98.) Social scientists have generally agreed that politically alienated individuals are less likely to participate in conventional political processes. During four presidential elections from 1956 to 1968, citizens with a low sense of efficacy and a low level of trust were less likely to vote, attend political meetings, work for candidates, contribute money, or even pay attention to the mass media coverage of politics. Although some studies fail to confirm that those with low trust are likely to be apathetic (Citrin 1974, p. 982), those with a low sense of political efficacy are indeed likely to be nonvoters, mainly because they are also less educated (Lipset and Schneider 1983, p. 341). In the United States, the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots declined between 1960 and 1980, while the percentage who expressed political inefficacy rose in the same period; Abramson and Aldrich (1982) estimate that about 27 percent of the former trend is caused by the latter. (See Shaffer 1981 for confirmation but Cassel and Hill 1981 and Miller 1980 for contrary evidence).

Piven and Cloward (1988) vigorously dispute the notion that the alienated attitudes of individuals are the main cause for the large numbers of nonvoters in the United States. Piven and Cloward construct a historical explanation—that in the early twentieth century, political reformers weakened local party organizations in cities, increased the qualifications for suffrage, and made voting registration procedures more difficult. Legal and institutional changes caused a sharp decrease in voting, which only then led to widespread political alienation. Voting participation, especially among the minority poor in large cities, continues to be low because of legal requirements to register in advance of election day and after a change in residence, and because of limited locations to register.

Some researchers have found that the politically alienated are more likely to utilize nonconventional tactics such as political demonstrations or violence. College students who participated in a march on Washington against the Vietnam War, compared to a matched sample of students from the same classes at the same schools, expressed more alienated attitudes, stemming from an underlying sense of inefficacy and system unresponsiveness (Schwartz 1973 pp, 138–142). Paige's (1971) widely influential study drew on Gamson's distinctions between trust and efficacy and showed that Blacks who participated in the 1967 riot in Newark, New Jersey, had low levels of political trust but high levels of political efficacy (i.e., high capabilities and skills to affect politics, measured indirectly in this instance by the respondents' level of political knowledge). However, Sigelman and Feldman's (1983) attempt to replicate Paige's findings in a seven-nation study discovered that the participants and supporters of unconventional political activity were only slightly more likely to feel both efficacious and distrusting. Rather than being generally distrusting, participants and supporters in some nations were more likely to be dissatisfied about specific policies. (See also Citrin 1974, p. 982 and Craig and Maggiotto 1981 for the importance of specific dissatisfactions).

Even though politically alienated individuals may sometimes be found in social movements, the alienation of individuals is not necessarily the cause of social movements. McCarthy and Zald (1977) have argued that alienation and indeed policy dissatisfactions and other grievances are quite common in societies. Whether or not a social movement arises depends on the availability of resources and the opportunities for success. The civil rights movement, according to McAdam (1982), succeeded not when blacks believed that the political system was unresponsive, but rather when blacks felt that some national leaders showed signs of favoring their cause.


Social scientists have argued that political alienation is concentrated in different types of groups—among those who dislike politicians of the opposing political party, in certain economic and racial groups, and among those dissatisfied with government policy. Each of these findings supports a different assessment of the causes and the importance of political alienation.

Partisan Bickering? First of all, high levels of political distrust can be found among those who have a negative view of the performance of the presidential administration then in office. Citrin (1974) concludes that widespread expressions of political distrust (cynicism) merely indicate Democratic versus Republican Party rivalries as usual. Cynicism, rather than being an expression of deep discontent, is nothing more than rhetoric and ritual and is not a threat to the system. Even partisans who intensely distrust a president from an opposing party are proud of the governmental system in the United States and want to keep it. However, King (1997) argues that distrust stems from a more serious problem, that congressional leaders and activists in political parties have become more ideological and polarized (see Lo and Schwartz 1998 on conservative leaders). The public has remained in the center but is becoming alienated from politicians whose ideologies are seen as far removed from popular concerns.

The alienation of social classes and minorities. Second, other researchers interested in finding concentrations of the politically alienated have searched not among people with varying partisan identifications, but rather in demographic groups defined by such variables as age, gender, education, and socioeconomic class. Many public opinion surveys using national samples have found alienation only weakly concentrated among such groups (Orren 1997). In the 1960s, the sense of inefficacy increased uniformly throughout the entire U.S. population, rather than increasing in specific demographic groups such as blacks or youth (House and Mason 1975). Using a 1970 survey, Wright (1976) noted that feelings of inefficacy and distrust were somewhat concentrated among the elderly, the poorly educated, and the working class. Still, Wright's conclusion was that the alienated were a diverse group that consisted of both rich and poor, black and white, and old and young, making it very unlikely that the alienated could ever become a unified political force.

Research on the gender gap, that is, the differing political attitudes between women and men (Mueller 1988), indicates that women are not more politically alienated than men (Poole and Muller 1998). In fact, a higher percentage of women compared to men support more government spending on social programs and a more powerful government with expanded responsibilities (Clark and Clark 1996) and thus are less distrustful of the broad scope of government. Some studies have shown that the politically alienated are indeed concentrated among persons with less education and lower income and occupational status (Wright 1976, p. 136; Lipset and Schneider 1983, pp. 311–315; Finifter 1970; Form and Huber 1971). Research that directly focuses on obtaining the opinions of minority and poor respondents has uncovered high degrees of political alienation among these groups. A survey of roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites in metropolitan Detroit in 1992 showed that blacks, compared to whites, evaluated schools and the police more negatively, distrusted local government more, and thought that participation in local politics was less efficacious (Bledsoe et al. 1996). Bobo and Hutchings (1966) oversampled minority residents of Los Angeles County and found that higher percentages of blacks compared to whites expressed "racial alienation," that is, the opinion that blacks faced inferior life chances, fewer opportunities, and unfair treatment. Blacks living in Detroit neighborhoods where over 20 percent of the residents are poor, were more likely than other blacks to say that they had little influence in community decisions and that community problems were complex and unsolvable (Cohen and Dawson 1993).

Wright argues that even though sizable numbers of persons express alienated attitudes, these people pose little threat to the stability of regimes, because they rarely take political action and even lack the resources and skills to be able to do so. Lipset (1963) has argued that apathy is a virtue because it allows elites in democratic societies to better exert leadership. (For a critique see Wolfe 1977, p. 301.) For many social scientists in the 1950s, widespread apathy was a welcome alternative to the alleged mass activism that had produced the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. However, Wright (1976, pp. 257–301) counters that since the alienated masses actually pose no threat to the contemporary political system, an increase in mass democratic participation, perhaps the mobilization of workers on the issues of class division, could very well be beneficial.

But the class mobilization that Wright envisions might turn out to be a middle-class affair (Teixeira 1996) rather than a working-class revolt. Whereas Lipset and Wright have been concerned about the concentration of political alienation in the lower socioeconomic strata, Warren (1976) emphasizes the alienation among "Middle American Radicals," who believe that they are disfavored by a government that gives benefits to the poor and to the wealthy. Feelings of inefficacy and distrust have increased the most among the middle strata—private-sector managers, middle-income workers, and a "new layer" of public-sector professionals (Herring 1989).

Unlike the poor, the middle strata have the resources to protest and to organize social movements and electoral campaigns, exemplified by protests against the property tax that culminated with the passage of Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts. Property tax protesters were middle-class homeowners who expressed their political alienation when they condemned "taxation without representation." Citizens who felt cut off from political decision making were the most likely to support the tax revolt (Lowery and Sigelman 1981). Protests centered around unresponsive government officials who continued to increase assessments and tax rates, without heeding the periodic angry protests of homeowners. Movement activists interpreted their own powerlessness and power in community and metropolitan politics, thereby shaping the emerging tactics and goals of a grass-roots citizens' movement (Lo 1995).

A Crisis for Democracy? Finally, other social scientists have found intense alienation among those with irreconcilable dissatisfactions about government policy, thus threatening to make effective government impossible. Miller (1974) argued that between 1964 and 1970, political distrust (cynicism) increased simultaneously among those favoring withdrawal and those favoring military escalation in the Vietnam War. Similarly, distrust increased both among blacks who thought that the civil rights movement was making too little progress, and among white segregationists who held the opposite view. The 1960s produced two groups—cynics of the left and cynics of the right, each favoring polarized policy alternatives (see also Lipset and Schneider 1983, p. 332). Cynics of the right, for example, rejected both the Democratic and Republican parties as too liberal. (Herring 1989 has developed a similar "welfare split" thesis, that more social spending has different effects on the distrust level of various groups but, overall, raises political distrust.) Miller concludes that increased cynicism, along with a public bifurcated into extreme stances on issues, makes it difficult for political leaders to compromise and build support for centrist policies. While agreeing with Wright that the alienated are divided amongst themselves, Miller argues that this fragmentation does indeed constitute a crisis of legitimacy for American politics.

For some social theorists, widespread political alienation is a sign of even deeper political contradictions. Throughout American history, as citizens have fought to extend their democratic freedoms and personal rights, businesses have used the notion of property rights to protect their own interests and stifle reform (Bowles and Gintis 1987). Wolfe (1977) sees political alienation as a symptom of how the democratic aspirations of the citizenry have been frustrated by the state, which has attempted to foster the growth of capitalism while at the same time maintaining popular support.


One diagnosis for overcoming alienation has been proposed by Sandel, Etzioni (1996), and others from the communitarian perspective, which promotes the values of civic commitment. Sandel (1996) argues that citizens today feel powerless over their fate and disconnected from politics because of an excessively individualist culture in the United States. America's leaders must encourage devotion to the common good, attachments to communities, volunteerism, and moral judgments and dialogues. Political alienation can be overcome through the associations and networks of civil society.

Others also trace political alienation back to its roots in society, but focus on work and economic hardships, which Marx long ago characterized as alienating and that now prevent the emergence of the caring and democratic public life envisioned by the communitarians (Bennett 1998). According to Lerner (1991), people experience a deep and debilitating sense of inefficacy (what he terms "surplus powerlessness") in their personal and family lives. Surplus powerlessness can be overcome through such measures as communities of compassion, occupational stress groups, and family support groups, which will build the attachments and religious values sought by the communitarians, while at the same time compassionate unions will seek to change power relations at work and in the society at large.

Alienation, originally a Marxist concept depicting the economic deprivations of industrial workers, is now a political concept portraying the plight of citizens increasingly subjected to the authority and the bureaucracy of the state in advanced capitalist societies. Perhaps returning to the original theorizing about alienation in the economic sphere can deepen our analysis of contemporary political alienation.


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views updated May 14 2018


Objectification and estrangement

Rationalization and disenchantment


Alienation, or estrangement, is a concept of considerable antiquity, whose metaphysical origins have been veiled in the course of time by the progressive secularization of Western thought. Historians of philosophy trace the concept back to the writings of Plotinus, whose doctrine of emanation assumed a procession from an ultimate undefinable source or principle to a multiplicity of finite beings: the undivided One unfolds into its various manifestations by a downward process linking the supersensible Being with a hierarchy of lower spheres and ultimately with the world of nature and material existence, matter being the lowest stage of the universe and the antithesis to the One. These Neoplatonic speculations had their counterpart in certain themes of early Christian theology, the gradual fusion of Christianity and Neoplatonism forming an important aspect of the Hellenistic era. For example, the Plotinian identification of matter with the principle of evil may be said to represent a link between Gnostic speculation and the theology of Augustine, whose writings in turn were to become an important source for the Lutheran interpretation of Christianity and therewith for the German Protestant tradition, which in the nineteenth century was secularized in the philosophical writings of Hegel and Feuerbach.

By a different route the Pauline view of the Incarnation furnished a theme for Luther, whose translation of the Greek term ekenosen (in the Latin Vulgate: exinanivit) as hat sich selbst geäussert led directly to Hegel’s use of the term Entäusserung. This may be freely translated as “self-alienation” if it is borne in mind that Hegel employed the concept in the Christological sense, since he inherited a theology that enabled him to conceive world history in terms leading back to the Lutheran tradition. Later usage, however, treated “alienation” as signifying “loss of being” or “estrangement.” In Feuerbach and Marx, Entäusserung became a synonym for Entfremdung (estrangement).

In his youthful theological writings (which were unpublished until the early twentieth century), Hegel, unknown to his contemporaries, had outlined a critique of historical Christianity which on some points anticipated Feuerbach’s treatment of the subject; but the notion that religion as such constitutes the alienation of man from his true being belongs to Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s transformation of theology into anthropology (a radicalization of certain elements of Hegel’s early thought) in turn served Marx as the starting point for his own reflections on the subject. Yet Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (1807), with its celebrated analysis of “the alienated spirit,” constitutes an important link with the postreligious view. It anticipated the secularization of an originally metaphysical concept. This process reached its critical point in the writings of the Young Hegelians, and notably in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (also known as the “Paris Manuscripts”).

In these writings of the young Marx, which remained unpublished until 1932 and which became genuinely influential only after 1945, the concept of “alienation” shed the metaphysical aura that it had still retained in Feuerbach and assumed a historical character. Alienation was no longer held to be inherent in man’s “being in the world,” but rather in his being in a particular historical world, that of “alienated labor.” Thus, Entfremdung was no longer seen as a particular moment in the Entäusserung of the pre-existing logos, although the notion of a “fall” from a state of perfection was retained in the concept of an anterior stage when men were not yet subject to that “alienation” which the division of labor, under capitalist exploitation, later imposed upon them.

It has been suggested that in thus emptying the Hegelian terminology of its theological content, Marx lost his hold on the philosophical dimension which sustained the thought of his contemporaries. Yet Feuerbach had already preceded him in inverting the traditional hierarchy of values that Hegel inherited from the Augustinian-Plotinian sources of Christianity. Feuerbach’s naturalism implied a rejection of the belief that matter was somehow inferior to spirit and thus signaled a reversion to the “materialist” naturalism of antiquity. The process was carried further in Marx, whose fragmentary anthropology—as outlined in the “Paris Manuscripts”—had cut its connection with religion altogether. Feuerbach’s deification of man, like Goethe’s “Promethean” poetry, was an important precondition of the Marxian viewpoint, but Marx was more down-to-earth, in a manner analogous to contemporary positivism. Where Feuerbach had sought to overcome man’s alienation by reintegrating his “split personality” through a religion of humanity, Marx emphasized the need for a radical transformation of society that would permit men to lead a “truly human” existence. The “true socialism” of Moses Hess, which by 1847 had begun to furnish Marx and Engels with a topic for their irony, may be described as the consistent application of Feuerbach’s anthropology to politics. By contrast, Marx from about 1846 onward no longer emphasized the theme of human self-estrangement, although in an important sense it remained a part of his mature thinking and even influenced his analysis of the economic process in Capital, e.g., in the well-known passage on the “fetishism of commodities.” The interest which the subject has retained for contemporary socialists is thus in the main bound up with a particular phase in Marx’s intellectual development.

The concern with human life under conditions of growing mechanization, specialization, and dependence on an “objectified,” or “reified,” external world, is a theme common to Marx and the postMarxists. Its roots may be traced back to eighteenth-century writers such as Herder and Schiller, whose reflections on history lent powerful support to the fashionable idealization of classical antiquity as a golden age in which man’s faculties developed to a totality whose conflicting elements were, for a brief moment, held in harmonious balance. The notion of “self-alienation” here acquired a meaning more in tune with the usual sense of “estrangement.” Even the Marxian critique of dehumanized proletarian existence under industrial capitalism was foreshadowed in Schiller’s remarks (in his Briefe über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen 1795) on the deadening and soul-destroying effect of specialization. There is a straight road from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters of 1795 to the “Paris Manuscripts of 1844,” though Schiller’s solution—which envisaged a recovery of the lost harmony in the spheres of art and education—seemed to Marx a characteristic example of the idealist tendency to seek refuge in a realm beyond that of ordinary material existence.

Objectification and estrangement

From the viewpoint of contemporary sociology, Marx—specifically the Marx of 1845–1847, who was no longer a philosopher and not yet an economist—appears as the crucial figure in the process whereby “alienation” was transformed from an ontological into a sociological concept. As an element in the idealist ontology of the early nineteenth century, alienation had once signified an ultimate datum of human existence, a theme developed at length by Hegel in his Science of Logic (1812–1816), where he makes play with the self-alienation inherent in the subject-object relationship, which is the precondition of knowing the world. What Hegel called Selbstentäusserung (selfexternalization) is Spirit’s characteristic mode of presenting the world of nature and history to the individual consciousness. This consciousness is “alienated” insofar as it does not apprehend the external world as objectified Mind, and its self-alienation (Selbstentfremdung) is overcome to the extent that this gap is closed by self-awareness. The stages whereby this metaphysical doctrine was transformed into the Marxian “materialism” can be followed in the writings of the Young Hegelians, culminating in the work of the youthful Marx. The crucial importance of Feuerbach’s atheism in this context lies in the fact that his self-alienated man has only an earthly habitation and thus requires a humanized world, a world made manlike, in order for him to feel at home. Feuerbach’s contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, who retained his hold on the Lutheran faith which the Young Hegelians had abandoned, arrived at a different conclusion and thus became the founder of religious existentialism. The point here is that Marx, by traveling in the opposite direction, was necessarily driven to the “materialist” conclusion that the solution to the theoretical problem of “alienation” lay in the practical activity of transforming a world in which men do not feel at home. This was the gist of the 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach,” which set out the credo of revolutionary humanism.

But in the process of reaching this position Marx had made use of the Hegelian categories of “externalization” and “estrangement,” notably in the 1844 “Paris Manuscripts,” where he transformed Hegel’s rudimentary analysis of the labor process (in the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter of the Phenomenology) into something new and revolutionary. Man, that is to say, generic man as a “species being” (Gattungswesen), is seen to have his essential being in labor, but this essence is at the same time taken away from him, i.e., “alienated,” by a world which is a verkehrte Welt (one standing on its head), a world in which “the worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces.”

With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men …

This fact expresses merely [the circumstance] that the object which labor produces … confronts it as something alien.… The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor [die Vergegenständlichung]. Labor’s realization is its objectification.… [This] realization of labor appears as … loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. (Marx [1844] 1964, pp. 107–108)

It is this state of affairs which defines the worker as a proletarian. “All these consequences result from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object” (ibid., p. 108). Alienated labor creates a world in which the real producer cannot recognize himself. Work, man’s existential activity, estranges him both from nature and from himself. This alienation (which the romantics had attributed to the increasing rationalization and specialization of the life process), Marx attributed to society, and specifically to the exploitation of the worker by the nonworker, i.e., the capitalist. This diagnosis underlay all Marx’s theorizing, although in his later writings it was no longer explicit. It had an obvious counterpart in the socialism of his contemporary Proudhon, in whom however the Rousseauist element was stronger. When Proudhon said, “Ce que I’Human-ité cherche dans la Religion et qu’elle appelle DIEU, c’est elle-même” ([1849] 1929, p. 62), he was echoing both Rousseau and Feuerbach. The political application appears in the statement immediately following: “Pour tout le reste, nous n’admettons pas plus le gouvernement de l’homme par rhomme, que 1’exploitation de de l’homme par l’homme …” (ibid. p. 62). The difference in tone points to the subsequent disputes between socialists and anarchists, whose “libertarian” credo was adequately formulated by Proudhon in the passage cited above.

The Marxian tradition, then, sees human self-estrangement as rooted in the form given to the labor process by modern society, i.e., industrial society. But unlike the romantics and their predecessors of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Marx attributed this dehumanization not to the division of labor as such but to the historic form it had taken under capitalism. That specialization was at the root of the trouble Marx did not doubt; but as late as 1875 he believed that “in a higher phase of the communist society” not only would “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor” disappear but even the “antithesis between mental and physical labor” would vanish. To say that this belief could only be grounded on irrational faith is perhaps to underrate the strength of Marx’s commitment to the optimistic world view of the Enlightenment with its hope of a better future in which man would at last be master over his circumstances. From this vantage point, which Marx shared with both the French materialists and the German idealists, the impetus given to the division of labor by modern technology appeared as a means for raising mankind to a higher level where these crutches might be discarded. The manner in which Marxism, and socialism generally, have developed this theme, however, is tied to the critique of one particular form of social organization. It therefore runs up against the argument that the division of labor itself, and the resulting fragmentation of the human personality, are rooted in technological conditions which are likely to survive any conceivable rearrangement of society.

Rationalization and disenchantment

In the generation following Marx the tacit abandonment of the earlier Utopian perspective was clearly an element in the emancipation of sociology from philosophy. The notion of a descriptive “science of society,” as developed in particular by Max Weber and his school, emerged pari passu with the positivist demotion of philosophy to a purely synoptic function, as the general link between the sciences or, alternatively, as the study of concepts common to all scientific investigators. With this view prevailing, a social science not grounded in traditional philosophy or metaphysics could easily dispense with general notions supposedly derived from the study of human nature or the human essence. The role of Marxism in this process was ambiguous, the later writings of Engels forming a link with the general trend of positivism. The dominant schools associated with Weber and Durkheim cut their connection with all branches of philosophy except for the theory of knowledge. The same process occurred in traditional psychology and in the new forms developed after about 1900 by Freud and his followers, although the Jungian school attempted to conserve the romantic universalism of the “philosophy of nature,” which had once formed a bond between Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling.

The importance of this break with philosophy is exemplified by the key role played in modern sociology by the ideal of a “value-free” science, which no longer sets itself up as a judge of social institutions, let alone as an instrument for helping men to attain either freedom or felicity. This de-liberate refusal to transcend the limitations imposed by empirical description is an aspect of the progressive rationalization of life, which exacts its tribute from the scholar no less than from the worker, technician, or administrator. The disillusionment inherent in the acceptance of the situation as unalterable is experienced not sadly as “estrangement” from a better world but stoically as the endurance of reality. Positivist sociology asserts the need for scientific neutrality in the face of structures whose permanent features are indifferent to individual desires and hopes, whether religious or secular. It draws its ethos from the refusal to indulge in a modernized version of the pathetic fallacy.

The classic statement of this position is to be found in the writings of Weber, where the disjunction of fact finding and valuation is accepted as the necessary fate of science in a disenchanted universe. “Disenchantment” (Entzauberung) is a key concept for Weber, just as Entäusserung is for Hegel or Entfremdung for the young Marx and the contemporary neo-Marxians. It relates to the discovery that the world is, in the literal meaning of the term, senseless, i.e., not the seat of a divinity or some other agency responsive to human desires. Tacit acceptance of this state of affairs forms part of that process of “rationalization” which Weber saw as the underlying element in the historical process. As mankind gradually sheds its illusions, it discovers itself in a world which, owing to the progressive application of science, becomes steadily more complex and at the same time less satisfying to the romantic craving for harmony. Technology imposes fresh burdens upon men at the very moment when—owing to a parallel process of rationalization—the old metaphysical hopes and certainties have crumbled. A broadly similar analysis, likewise remarkable for its stoical pessimism, is to be found in the later writings of Freud, where the stress falls on the abandonment of religious hopes and consolations (cf. his Future of an Illusion 1927 and Civilization and Its Discontents 1930).

The transformation of socialism into sociology, under the impact of political shocks and disappointments (notably since World War II), runs parallel to this development. Its most recent manifestation, the acceptance of a totally rationalized environment as unalterable and common to all major industrial societies, relates back to a theme already present in Saint-Simon, Comte, and Marx: the belief that the study of society discloses a mechanism of causation which asserts itself with the relentless force of natural law. In nineteenth-century socialism this conviction was balanced by faith in the ability of men—when delivered from their previous ignorance—to plan their lives in accordance with innate human needs and strivings, notably the desire for freedom, understood as the unfolding of personality in every individual. This faith, which binds the socialist movement to its ancestral liberal-humanist origins, still persists in an attenuated form wherever technology has transformed the preindustrial environment, but with the significant difference that the “humanization” of work is now envisaged as no more than a palliative. In the newer centers of industrial civilization a similar degree of skepticism will presumably have to await the dissipation of the inevitable first flush of technological enthusiasm. The alienation of labor as the self-alienation of man from his essence is a concept that presents considerable intellectual difficulties, and in any case it fails to satisfy the emotional needs of societies newly launched upon the adventure of modernization.

Since intellectual life generally reflects the prevailing social situation, the prominence in modern literature and art of concern over the role of the alienated individual in a “reified” world need occasion no surprise. This phenomenon dates back to the early years of the present century, when individualism first began to look problematical in western and central Europe, even though the societal organization of existence, by and large, still followed liberal-individualist lines. The impact of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s upset the traditional equilibrium between the individual and society, even in countries where the totalitarian experiment failed or was not permitted to occur. Both the official culture and the unofficial criticism of this culture show the marks of this experience, whose extreme point was the massive “liquidation” of individuals and groups in the interest of a “new order” imposed upon society by the state. This experience could not be accommodated within the traditional liberal-democratic conceptions. Hence it gave rise to critical reflections upon the probable character of a planned and centralized society in which human beings might be “alienated” en masse, not merely from their metaphysical essence but from their earthly existence, at the command of rulers raised by technology above the customary safeguards of popular control.

At a more trivial level, the situation reflects itself in the concern shown by intellectuals over the control of mass communications and the alarming possibility of an artificially contrived and predigested “pseudo culture” taking the place of creative spontaneity. Closely related are the controversies over the role of a therapeutic psychology whose conformism increasingly condemns it to the provision of spiritual tranquilizers (a function hitherto monopolized by religion).

These concerns appear to represent the contemporary form of a debate whose philosophic origins are attested by the very terms in which it is conducted. As has been shown in the preceding discussion, positivist sociology in the later nineteenth century fell heir to the unsolved problems of traditional metaphysics. These problems are related, in an obscure and mystifying fashion, to permanent human concerns which assert themselves with special force whenever a particular social and cultural integration fails to satisfy the elites of a given society. What appears at one level as the disintegration of traditional ways of life is reflected at a different level in the dichotomy of “facts” and “values.” Since the intellectuals as a group form a stratum of society in which material tension is immediately experienced in theoretical terms, their role in developing concepts which reflect their own peculiar situation is obviously crucial. Provisionally it may be suggested that the intelligentsia’s rejection of the modern world is central to the contemporary situation in philosophy. Yet this world is itself the creation of a rational science in which intellectuals have traditionally placed their faith. The paradox suggests that we may have come to the end of an important chapter in modern cultural history.

George Lichtheim

[See alsoLiterature, article onPolitical fiction; Marxism; Personality, Political; and the biographies ofEngels; Freud; Hegel; Marx; Proudhon; Weber, Max.]


Adorno, Theodore W. 1962 Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Suhrkamp.

Axelos, Kostas (1961) 1963 Marx: Penseur de la technique, Paris: Minuit.

Bell, Daniel 1959 The End of Ideology. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Calvez, Jean-Yves 1956 La pensée de Karl Marx. Paris: Seuil.

Cottier, Georges M.-M. 1959 L’athéisme du jeune Marx: Ses origines hégéliennes. Paris: Vrin.

Feuerbach, Ludwig a. (1840) 1957 The Essence of Christianity. New York: Harper. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1960 The Future of an Illusion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1930) 1958 Civilization and Its Discontents. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.

Gurvitch, Georges 1962 Dialectique et sociologie. Paris: Flammarion.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1795–1809) 1961 On Christianity: Early Theological Writings. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Written during the years 1795–1809. First published in 1907 as Hegels theologische Jugendschriften.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1807) 1961 The Phenomenology of Mind. 2d ed., rev. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1812–1816) 1951 Hegel’s Science of Logic. 2 vols. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Hyppolite, Jean 1955 Études sur Marx et Hegel. Paris: Rivière.

Kamenka, Eugene 1962 The Ethical Foundations of Marxism. London: Routledge; New York: Praeger.

Lichtheim, George (1961) 1965 Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. 2d ed., rev. London: Routledge; New York: Praeger. → A paperback edition was published by Praeger in 1965.

Marcuse, Herbert (1941) 1955 Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. 2d ed. London: Routledge. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Beacon.

Marx, Karl (1844) 1964 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers; London: Lawrence & Wishart. → First published in German in 1932. Sometimes referred to as the “Paris Manuscripts of 1844.”

Marx, Karl (1845) 1935 Theses on Feuerbach. Pages 73–75 in Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York: International.

Marx, Karl. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Edited by T. B. Bottomore and M. Rubel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Popitz, Heinrich 1953 Der entfremdete Mensch: Zeitkritik und Geschichtsphilosophie des jungen Marx. Basel: Verlag für Recht und Gesellschaft.

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph (1849) 1929 Oeuvres complètes. Volume 8: Les confessions d’un révolutionnaire. Paris: Rivière.

Runciman, Walter G. 1963 Social Science and Political Theory. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Schiller, Johann C. Friedrich (1795) 1845 The Aesthetic Letters, Essays and the Philosophical Letters of Schiller. Boston: Little. → First published as Briefe über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen.

Schiller, Johann C. Friedrich. Philosophische Schriften und Gedichte. Edited by Eugen Kühnemann. Leipzig: Meiner, 1922.

Tucker, Robert C. 1961 Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge Univ. Press.


views updated May 29 2018


The word alienation has a checkered history. Drawn originally from the vocabulary of the law, the word later appeared in connection with the treatment of persons who were, as ordinary people say, "not themselves." In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, property given away or sold was said to have been "alienated." This usage survives in the expression "inalienable rights"—rights that cannot be taken away, given away, or traded. The physician who treated the mentally ill was formerly called an "alienist." In contemporary usage, one speaks of being alienated from a former friend for whom one's affection has cooled or from a group in which one feels no longer comfortable. Alienation, in everyday English, refers to a specific loosening of ties to another person or a sense of estrangement from a group.

Philosophies of Alienation

In philosophy, by contrast, the word alienation has been used in a different sense to refer to estrangement from oneself, a profound disturbance within persons, their selves, and their lives. There is conflict or disconnection at the very heart of the alienated person's existence. Alienated lives do not form an intelligible whole; the alienated cannot tell a coherent story about their lives. Their lives lack meaning.

Philosophers have always said that human lives are more than a series of unconnected episodes, that they should form an intelligible whole. Hence people might ask whether human life as a whole, and especially their own, makes sense and whether it is a good life that serves a purpose and is meaningful. At the beginning of Plato's Republic, Socrates raises those questions in conversation with an old man nearing the end of his life. Plato's answer is that a good life is a just one. A just life, he also thinks, can be lived only in a just society, and thus the conversation about one's life, seen as a whole, leads to a long investigation into the just society. Aristotle gives a different answer to the question: A good life is dedicated to acquiring a set of moral virtues such as courage, temperance (self-discipline), and wisdom.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, new answers surfaced about what makes a life good. What matters in human life, according to the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), is not only its moral character, but whether a person manages to be an individual rather than a conformist—dominated by the beliefs, values, and practices of everyone else. Most persons, Rousseau complained, craved acceptance by their fellows and were willing, for the sake of this, to sacrifice any independent identity.

Since Rousseau, philosophic views of the good life have become divided. Many Continental European philosophers have demanded that human lives be not only morally good but also coherent and meaningful. The majority of Anglo-American philosophers, by contrast, have continued to think only about the moral rectitude of human lives, ignoring the question of alienation. The utilitarians, beginning with the Englishmen Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), explicitly reject the possibility of alienation. They insist that a life is a good one if it contains more pleasant episodes than unpleasant ones; the connection between these different episodes is of no interest. Thus there are disagreements among philosophers—rarely articulated and more rarely debated—about the importance of the concept of alienation.

But many thinkers have taken the idea of alienation very seriously (even though not all used the word alienation to name the condition). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), in The Phenomenology ofSpirit, described some forms that alienation takes in human lives. The alienated suffer from inner conflict and self-hatred. As a consequence, they are unhappy.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) agrees with Hegel on the self-hatred of the alienated and develops the idea further. Alienated lives are not disorganized by accident or because persons do not try to unify their lives, but because at the heart of alienation lies the unwillingness to be oneself. It is difficult for the alienated to accept themselves for who they are; it is more pleasant for one who is alienated to escape into fantasy and imagine oneself different: richer, more powerful, more intelligent, or more beautiful than one is. It is also difficult to accept responsibility for one's life. Alienation, Kierkegaard believes, cannot be overcome, but can be mitigated if one is fully in one's life by dedicating oneself to a single project in such a way that every part of one's everyday existence is affected by it. Kierkegaard also believed that this needed to be a Christian project—to live so as to manifest God's presence in even the smallest details of one's life, such as taking a walk in the park and thinking about what there will be for Sunday dinner.

The German philosopher and social critic Karl Marx (1818–1883) focused on alienation in a different aspect of life—namely at work. For Marx, working for wages was inevitably alienating. Wageworkers under the command of employers have no control over their work or even whether there is work for them at all. Employers are—for the majority of wage earners—able to hire and fire them at will. It is impossible to have a meaningful life if such a large part of it is under the control of another whose goals are at odds with one's own. The employer's goal is to make as much money as possible; workers want to earn as much as they can. But they also want their work to be clean, pleasant, and interesting. Employers care nothing about this as long as the money keeps rolling in. Spending a significant portion of one's life pursuing goals that are not one's own, alienates. It makes it impossible to be one's own person—one who pursues goals of one's own choosing.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) elaborates on the theme of conformism in his discussion of the "last man." Such persons want above all to be comfortable; they eschew all effort and anything that is even faintly unpleasant. Hence it is important for them to get along. In order not to stir up controversy by disagreeing with others, they have no ideas of their own. They do not think for themselves. There is nothing they believe in fervently and nothing they are willing to stand up and fight for. They want life to be easy and pleasant. Avoiding all challenges is the only challenge that remains. Although Nietzsche did not use the term, his "last man" is clearly suffering from alienation.

Writing after World War I, the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács (1885–1971) returned to Marx and elaborated on the claim that alienation is intimately connected with capitalism. Persons who sell their ability to work in the labor market treat themselves or at least important aspects of their persons as commodities—things meant to be exchanged for money. The skills and talents of persons thus become commodities that can be bought and sold—"alienated" in the old, legal sense. One's person and how it develops is no longer one's proper project, but is governed by the impersonal forces of the labor market. People are not able to study what most interests them because expertise in Egyptology, for example, does not promise to bring in a lot of money. Instead they go to business school and prepare themselves for the life of a junior executive and will, if they are lucky and sufficiently pliable (that is, a "team player"), end up as senior managers with a good income. They are forced to live where the work takes them. They dress the part of the executive. If they happen to have unpopular opinions, they will be wise to keep those to themselves. After a few years they may well forget they ever held them.

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), destined by his Bavarian family for the Catholic priesthood, became a secular philosopher instead. He rediscovered alienation when reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. In Being and Time, Heidegger argued that most people are not themselves. Their opinions ape everyone else's; they are addicted to all things new. There is nothing they stand for unless they manage to overcome the pressures toward alienation and win through to being "authentically" themselves.

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) argued in his early work, Being and Nothingness, that alienation is not merely commonly chosen—a view he ascribes to Heidegger—but is inherent in the structure of human beings. People do not only think and act but are observers and critics of themselves. They can never be fully engaged in any activity or relationship because a part of them always stands aside to observe and judge. Being split against oneself is essential to being human.

In the years after World War II, numbed by a new, hitherto unknown level of prosperity paired with insistent demands for political conformity, writers in the United States produced a sizable literature concerned with alienation. Philosophically inclined writers, such as Erich Fromm (1955) and Paul Tillich (1952), brought the previously unknown ideas of Continental existentialism to the English-speaking world. Poetry, novels, and popular works in social science deplored conformism. Variants on Marxist themes attracted considerable interest and discussion in the 1970s and 1980s when a number of authors, including Bertell Ollman (1976), István Mészáros (1975), and Richard Schmitt (1983) published studies on alienation that were clearly anchored in the Marxist tradition.

Origins of Alienation

Sometimes technology is named as the source of contemporary alienation. Because technology is always a means to some end, the dominance of technology in society assures that all attention is given to means while ends remain unexamined. In such a situation, human lives lack goals and purposes because, absorbed in technological efforts, humans are unable or unwilling to reflect about the purposes of their activities (Ellul 1967). This thesis, however, portrays human beings as the impotent playthings of technology and overlooks that technology is not only used by humans but is also our creation.

The question about the origins of alienation have occasioned other controversies. For many years, philosophers have debated whether alienation is intrinsic to human nature or the effect of specific social conditions. Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre place the origin of alienation in the structure of human existence. Marx and, in different ways, Nietzsche blame the existence of alienation on social and economic conditions. Existing social conditions produce alienation, but in a happier future alienation may well disappear. Neither side to this debate seems to have understood that the two alternatives—alienation as intrinsic to human nature or alienation as the product of social conditions—are not exclusive: Alienation is anchored in human nature, but it exists more acutely in some social settings than in others. Alienation is always possible. But in some societies it is well-nigh unavoidable, whereas in others it is only a remote possibility.

Alienation springs from human nature insofar as it is characteristic of human beings to reflect about their lives as a whole. They ask whether their lives have a purpose, or whether their identity is well integrated. Gifted with certain capacities for reflection and the need to be able to tell a coherent story about their lives, they are, therefore, susceptible to alienation. But these general human characteristics do not inevitably produce actual alienation. Alienation arises when societies, as does America's, make conflicting and irreconcilable demands, for instance, when it asks one to love one's neighbor as oneself at the same time as it exhorts people to be aggressive competitors who give no quarter in the great contest for wealth and power. American society asks its citizens to be free and autonomous beings after hours but, during the day, to work in hierarchical organizations, in which one must be subservient and obedient to employers and supervisors. Surrounding daily life is a chorus of voices telling people to buy this, to buy that, to look like this model, or to have their house look like some dream house. Americans are told how their children must appear and how they themselves must spend their days and enjoy their leisure. Throughout one's waking life, these voices are never silent. Consequently, it is no wonder that there is a pervasive sense among Americans that their lives are not their own (Schmitt 2003). A variety of aspects of American society make it extremely difficult for Americans to live lives that are coherent and to be persons who pursue goals of their own choosing. American society fosters alienation.

Questioning Alienation

However interesting, such historical discussions of alienation remain extremely general. A number of original thinkers have provided a range of insights into alienation, but professional philosophers have mostly been content to repeat and embroider these original insights instead of developing them in greater detail. As a consequence, many important questions about alienation remain unanswered.

The concept of alienation refers to important characteristics of the modern social world. But it also directly refers to each person separately. If alienation is pervasive in modern society, as many authors have alleged, people must reflect, each with respect to their own person, whether they are conformists and therefore alienated or whether they lead lives of their own. But such questions about one's own conformism or independence are not easily answered. Humans are social beings, learning from others and sharing ideas with them. As a social process, is that participation in thinking a sign of conformism and hence of alienation? For example, Western people share the belief that freedom is important and that democracy is preferable to tyranny. Does that make Westerners conformists and manifest their alienation? Surely, there is an important distinction between sharing the ideas of one's fellow citizens and being conformist. But that difference remains unclear, and the discussions of philosophers do not provide much help. The idea of conformism, as one finds it in the literature about alienation, is not sufficiently specific to be useful to the individual's self-examination with respect to conformism and alienation.

Conformism is only one of several constituent concepts of alienation that have not been sufficiently developed. The alienated are often described as not being themselves with lives lacking unity and identities fragmented. But postmodern thought has provided an important reminder: that selves are multiple and complex (Flax 1987). Most people have more capabilities than they are able to develop; in different contexts—as their parents' child or as the boss at work—their personalities differ. People change over a lifetime and are rather different persons at seventy than at seventeen. Are all these diversities within one person signs of alienation? Are there not important differences between the alienated personality, which is vague and poorly delineated, and the complexities of the multiple aspects that well-constituted persons display in the different contexts of their lives and over an entire lifetime?

Traditional discussions of alienation have concealed the complexity of alienation in another respect. Human beings are very different from one another; they lead different kinds of lives because they are born into different conditions, have different abilities and defects, think in different ways, and have different character structures. The general symptoms of alienation mentioned in the literature will manifest themselves differently in different lives. Aimlessness leads to complete idleness in some lives, whereas in others it takes the form of frantic busyness—all of it trivial. The self-hatred of the alienated appears in some persons as constant self-deprecation and jokes at one's own expense, and in others as pompous self-importance. One does not really understand alienation until one is able to tell many concrete stories about the alienation of different persons, differently situated and therefore manifesting alienation in very different, sometimes, flatly contradictory ways.

The possibility of alienation flows from the human need to reflect about one's life (to ask whether it is coherent and has a purpose) and about one's person (whether one is autonomous or conformist). It is tempting to evade these reflections because their results are often confusing or discouraging when one finds that one's life is aimless or one's person ill delineated. As Kierkegaard pointed out forcefully, one can evade the pain of reflection about one's life by discoursing abstractly about alienation while refusing to try to apply this abstract philosophical discourse to one's own person and one's own life. The refusal to take one's own life and person sufficiently seriously to reflect about their meaning and coherence is one form of being alienated, of being a fractured person leading a haphazard life. Philosophical discussions of alienation foster this form of alienation because the very generality and lack of precision of many philosophical discussions of alienation make it difficult to engage in serious self-reflection.


SEE ALSO Existentialism;Freedom;Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;Kierkegaard, Søren;Marx, Karl.


Aristotle. (1999). Nichomachean Ethics, 2nd edition, trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Flax, Jane. (1987). "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory." Signs 12(4): 621–638.

Fromm, Erich. (1955). The Sane Society. New York: Rinehart.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1979). Herland. New York: Pantheon.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. (1952). Phänomenologie des Geistes [Phenomenology of spirit]. Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner.

Heidegger, Martin. (1953). Sein und Zeit [Being and time]. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1941). Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1954). Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Lukács, György. (1971). History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, Karl. (1964). Early Writings, ed. and trans. T. B. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mészáros, István. (1975). Marx's Theory of Alienation, 4th edition. London: Merlin Press.

Mill, John Stuart. (1949 [1863]). Utilitarianism. In The English Utilitarians, ed. John Plamenatz. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1954). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking.

Ollman, Bertell. (1976). Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, 2nd edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Plato. (1920). Plato's Republic. In The Dialogues of Plato, 2 vols., trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Random House.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1950). Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind. In The Social Contract, and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole. New York: Dutton.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1956). Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.

Schmitt, Richard. (1983). Alienation and Class. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.

Schmitt, Richard. (2003). Alienation and Freedom. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Tillich, Paul. (1952). The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


views updated May 14 2018


The notion of alienation is a very unusual one because it is at once an attempt to explain a widespread feelinga very subjective, somewhat indefinable feelingand a critique of the nature of any society that regularly produces it.

This was not always so. The feeling that one is not at home in the world, the sense of estrangement from one's surrounding, oneself, and other people, appears to be as old as history; for most world religions (Buddhism, most strains of Christianity and Daoism, Sufi strands in Islam) this feeling was seen mainly as reflecting a profound insight into the truth of the human condition. Hermits, monks, and meditators often actively valued or cultivated feelings of alienation as a way to something higher. Calvinism came closer to the modern conception in seeing feelings of isolation and emptiness as a sign of humanity's fall from grace, but it was really only in the nineteenth century that the modern understanding of the term came into being. This conception was closely tied to the experience of living in a vast, impersonal, industrial city. Feelings of alienation were particularly prone to strike those who in earlier generations might have been considered likely victims of melancholia: intellectuals, artists, and youth. The effects were much the same: depression, anxiety, hopelessness, suicide.

One might distinguish two main strains in the modern alienation literature: one that stressed the experience itself as an unavoidable (though possibly ameliorable) effect of the impersonal, bureaucratized nature of modern life, entailing the loss of any ability to use that experience to attain some deeper, more genuine truth about the worldsince with the death of God and traditional structures of authority, most of these truths were considered definitively lost. The other, drawing on older theological traditions, saw alienation as the key to the true, hidden nature of the modern (i.e., capitalist, industrial) order itself, showing it to be an intolerable situation that could be resolved only by overthrowing that order and replacing it with something profoundly different.

The first tradition can be found in social thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Émile Durkheim, or Max Weber; novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Franz Kafka; and philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche. Here alienation is the darker underside of all the positive values of modernity, the experience of those sundered from all previous sources of meaning: community, hierarchy, the sacred. It is the point where individualism becomes isolation, freedom becomes rootlessness, egalitarianism becomes the destruction of all value, rationality, an iron cage.

Probably the most famous formulation within this genre was Émile Durkheim's (18581917) notion of anomie. Observing that suicide rates tend to go up during times of both economic boom and economic collapse, Durkheim concluded that this could only be because both booms and busts threw ordinary people's expectations so completely in disarray that they ended up in a state of lacking norms, unable to determine what they had a right to expect or even want from life and unable to imagine a time when they could. This kind of analysis could lead either to a resigned pessimism, the assumption (favored by social conservatives) that public life in modern society can never really be anything but alienated, or to a liberal approach that saw alienation as a form of deviance or lack of proper integration that policymakers should ideally be able to ameliorate or even overcome.

The other tradition can be traced to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), who drew heavily on theological sources. For Hegel, "alienation" was a technical term, a necessary moment in the process whereby Spirit (which for Hegel was simultaneously God, Mind, Spirit, and Human Self-Consciousness) would achieve true self-knowledge. Human history involved the same story: Mind would project itself out into the world, creating, say, Law, or Art, or Science, or Government; it would then confront its creations as something alien to it and strange; then, finally, coming to understand that these alienated forms are really aspects of itself, would reincorporate them and come to a richer self-conception as a result.

Karl Marx (18181883) remained true to this dialectical approach but concentrated on the material creativity of work, emphasizing that under capitalism, not only the products of one's labor but one's labor itself, one's very capacity to createand for Marx, this is one's very humanitybecomes a commodity that can be bought and sold and hence appears to the worker as an "alien force." Insofar as Marx shares Hegel's optimism, and sees this dilemma as opening the way to a new, revolutionary society, all this is much in line with the older, theological conception in which alienation, however painful, is a realization about the truth of one's relation to the world, so that understanding this becomes the key to transcending it. Twentieth-century Marxists, though, have not been so uniformly optimistic.

While Marxist regimes officially claimed to have eliminated the problem of alienation in their own societies, Western Marxism, starting with György Lukács (18851971) and climaxing with the Frankfurt School, forced to explain the lack of revolutionary change in industrial democracies, gradually became a prolonged meditation on the varied forms of alienation (reification, objectification, fetishism, etc.) in modern life. This emphasis set the tone for an outpouring of literature on the subject in the mid-twentieth century, not all of it Marxist.

France in the 1950s and early 1960s saw the emergence of a particularly rich body of alienation theory, ranging from the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, which attempted to formulate an ethics for the isolated individual, to a variety of Marxist approaches, of which the most extravagantand influentialwas developed by the Situationist International, whose members saw modern consumer society as a gigantic "spectacle," a vast apparatus composed of not only media images but market logic, the rule of experts, and the nature of the commodity form, all combining together to render individuals passive and isolated spectators of their own lives. Like many of the radical art movements from which they emerged, the Situationists were dedicated to imagining ways to revolutionize everyday life itself as a way of overcoming the "living death" of capitalist alienation.

After the failed insurrection of May 1968 in France, this literature on alienation rapidly disappeared in the face of poststructuralist critiques that argued it was impossible to talk about a human subject alienated from society or from itself because the subject was itself an effect of discourse and hence a social construct. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, these critiques spread outside France and the theme of alienation has, as a result, largely disappeared from intellectual debate in the early twenty-first century.

There are two main exceptions. First, in its radical, redemptive form, the idea of alienation has remained alive in artistic and revolutionary circles largely outside the academy. Situationism, for example, is still very much at the center of the (increasingly international) anarchist and punk scenes, both of which are largely rebellions against the meaninglessness and alienation of "mainstream" urban, industrial, or postindustrial life. These themes have suddenly reemerged to public attention with the rise of the "antiglobalization" movement, though they have still found almost no echo in the academy.

Second, in its more liberal, ameliorative form, the idea of alienation became ensconced in certain branches of sociology and hence reemerged in what is increasingly called "postmodern" alienation theory. When American sociologists started taking up the theme of alienation systematically in the 1950s and 1960s, they began by making it into a factor that could be quantified. Various questionnaires and techniques of tabulating an individual's degree of alienation were developed; surveys then revealed, not entirely surprisingly, that aside from students, those who scored highest for alienation were, precisely, aliens, immigrants, or else members of minority groups already defined as marginal to mainstream American life. Over the course of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, this sociological work has converged with an interest in identity and identity-based social movements to yield a new, "postmodern" body of alienation theory.

On the individual level, alienation is said to occur when there is a clash between one's own self-definition and the identity assigned one by a larger society. Alienation thus becomes the subjective manner in which various forms of oppression (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) are actually experienced and internalized by their victims. As a result, where the older revolutionary conception sees alienation as essential to the fundamentally violent, antihuman nature of "the mainstream," postmodern theories now once again see alienation as a measure of exclusion from the mainstream. On the social level, the postmodern conception of alienation is said to be caused by a surfeit rather than a lack of freedom; a notion that appears almost impossible to distinguish from what were, in the late nineteenth century, called "modern" concepts of alienation. So far, these two traditions have barely come into contact with each otherexcept, perhaps, in recent environmentalist ideas about "alienation from nature." How or whether they will make contact remains an open question.

See also Existentialism ; Identity ; Person, Idea of the ; Society .


Geyer, Felix, ed. Alienation, Ethnicity, and Postmodernism. London and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Schmitt, Richard, and Thomas E. Moody, eds. Alienation and Social Criticism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994.

Schweitzer, David, and Felix Geyer, eds. Alienation Theories and De-Alienation Strategies: Comparative Perspectives in Philosophy and the Social Sciences. London: Science Reviews, 1989.

David Graeber


views updated Jun 08 2018



Alienation is a term that is employed commonly in a number of disciplines to describe and explain the sense of estrangement that organizes the relationship between the subject and itself on the one hand and the subject and its relationship to history, power, and authority on the other hand: estrangement from the state in Georg Hegel, from God in Ludwig Feuerbach, from labor in Karl Marx, or from essential sexuality in Sigmund Freud. Anthropology, philosophy, economic theory, sociology, and political science all refer to the tensions that result from the sense of alienation experienced by the subject. The word alienation, however, comes from the Latin term alius, meaning other or another, from which the term alienus, meaning of another place or person, is derived. In this way the meaning of alienation has a spatial and existential significance. In the fifteenth century it came to mean the loss of mental faculties and thus the presence of insanity, and by the mid-nineteenth century physicians who concerned themselves with mentally disturbed patients were called alienists.

Alienation is a developmental process in Hegels The Phenomenology of Mind (1807) and in 1844 writings by Marx that engage two gestures: Entfremdung (estrangement) and Entáuberung (externalization). The unhappy consciousness of Hegel is unhappy precisely because it is conscious of its own divisions, of its alienated relationship to its world, and thus cannot attain the unity that it seeks. In the ideality of the state this unhappy consciousness materializes itself as a subject. In Marx, labor itself is an object from which the worker is alienated, a realization that becomes possible only through the development of class consciousness. This materialization of the subject in late Marx (Grundrisse [1867] and Das Kapital [1857-1858]) through the experience of alienation from the labor process acquires a materiality that is expressed in Vergegenständlichung (reification), enabling the transformation of Hegels idealism into Marxs materialism, a point that later, as reification, acquires centrality in the work of Gyorgy Lukács and the Frankfurt School.

In Marx the worker experiences the object of his or her labor as alien and threatening so that, despite the fact that it has been produced through the workers labor, it is not accessible to the worker. For Marx abstracted forms of consciousness such as religion are symptomatic of the alienating experiences of workers, and only through the recognition of those forms as symptomatic of a frustrated historical experience, along with the abolition of capitalist ownership of the means of production that will interrupt the alienation of the worker from his or her labor, can they be overcome and allow for the emancipation of the subject.

For Feuerbach (1841) religion constitutes the alienated form of human realization of the divided subject. This is a process in which the subject understands itself as having been alienated from its own human essence and has turned that essence into an abstracted object of worship. In Future of an Illusion ([1928] 1975), Moses and Monotheism (1938), and Civilization and Its Discontents [1930] 1962), Freud recognizes civilization as the location where the understanding of the frustrated relationship of the subject with itself takes place. The overcoming of the sense of alienation is engendered either by the recovery of the subjects relationship to the divine (in the theological tradition) or by the recovery of the libido (in Freud). However, since alienation belongs to the historical process of subject formation and recognition, a process that reveals as much as it constitutes the process of civilization itself, alienation is taken to be the ransom of civilization, a point of no return (to nature or essence) for the human subject.

In the work of the Frankfurt School, particularly in that of Theodor W. Adorno (Horkheimer and Adorno [1944] 1972), alienation is the result of the rationalization of the process of cultural production, a process that is analogous to the injustice that is produced through the rationalization of the market. In that sense Adorno sees alienation not as part of the process of subject formation that has within it the potential for emancipation, as Marx saw it becoming as part of the historical process, but as constitutive of the new, modern subject that rests on reason, a reason that in modernity has become bankrupt without any prospects of resistance.

SEE ALSO Alienation-Anomie; Consciousness; Frankfurt School; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Lukacs, Georg; Marx, Karl; Power; Religion; Sexuality


Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas. [1841] 1957. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Harper.

Freud, Sigmund. [1928] 1975. Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton.

Freud, Sigmund. [1930] 1962. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton.

Freud, Sigmund. 1939. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage.

Hegel, Georg W. F. [1807] 1967. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. with an introduction and notes by J. B. Baillie and with an introduction by George Lichtheim. New York: Harper & Row.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. [1944] 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press.

Marx, Karl. [1844] 1988. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Milligan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Marx, Karl. [1857-1858] 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. and with a foreword by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Random House.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1967. Capital Vol. 1, A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, ed. Frederick Engels. New York: International Publishers.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Paperbacks.

Neni Panourgiá


views updated May 18 2018


Inscribed in the opposition between the Same and the Other, alienation describes the condition of the subject who no longer recognizes himself, or rather can only recognize himself via the Other. The philosophical background of this concept derives from Hegel and then Marx. Classical psychiatry used the term to classify any mental illness in which the subject no longer knew who he was. Thanks to Jacques Lacan's study of Hegel's master/slave dialectic, the term no longer refers only to mental alienation, but retains the meaning it has in philosophy.

For Lacan, who followed Hegel on this point, human desire is constituted by mediation: "Man's desire finds its meaning in the other's desire, not so much because the other holds the keys to the desired object, but because his first objective is to be recognized by the other" (Lacan, p. 58). Specifically, the objective is to be recognized by the Other as a desiring subject, because the first desire is to have one's desire recognized. The conclusion is Lacan's well-known formula: "Man's desire is the desire of the Other," which doesn't mean that one desires another as object, but that one desires another desire, and wants to have one's own desire recognized by the Other. This is an echo of Hegel's master/slave dialectic (a struggle for pure prestige) where each consciousness wants to be recognized by the Other without recognizing it in turn ("each consciousness seeks the death of the other").

In this fight to the death, the one who accepts death in order to win becomes the Master; the other will become the slave. But the Master is taken in a trap, for he owes his status to the recognition of a slave-consciousness. The slave, however, will be liberated by the Master as his work extracts from things the consciousness of self that was lost in the struggle. The slave will end up, in the Marxist perspective, transforming the world in such a way that there is no place for the Master.

Thus the theme of alienation in Lacan refers to what is called a forced choice, or vel, which is the Latin word expressing an alternative where it is impossible to maintain two terms at once. The vel is alienating in that it gives a false choice, a forced choice ("your money or your life," "me or you"). The Master's freedom, which must pass through death to attain consciousness of self, is no freedom. Lacan derived several consequences from this structure of alternative, particularly in his critique of the Cartesian cogito, by indicating that thought and being cannot coincide. Thus, "I am where I do not think" and "it thinks there where I am not."

Piera Aulagnier also took up the notion of alienation, but even though she borrowed from Lacan the relation of desire to the Other, her view more closely approached Freud's thinking about collective hypnosis and its relation to the ego ideal. However, she worked in an entirely different context, refusing to make alienation one of the givens of human existence, but instead seeing it as one of the ways the psyche attempts to resolve conflict. First, she defined the notion of alienation by its goal, which is "to strive for a non-conflictual state, to abolish all causes of conflict between the identifying subject and the object of identification, between the I and its ideals" (Aulagnier, 1979). Thus she connects the notion to the aims of Thanatos, as a "desire for non-desire" and it can then be used in fields as diverse as collective psychology, passionate love, gambling, and drug addiction.

Nevertheless, Piera Aulagnier insists that alienation rests on an encounter between the desire for self-alienation, on the one hand, and the desire to alienate, on the other. The process of alienation seeks to erase the tension arising from this difference, whether it involves a subject that seeks to identify himself with the object identified, or a subject that wants to bring together the self image that comes back to him from others and the others themselves. Thus alienation appears to be a pathological modality, like neurosis or psychosis, that attempts to regulate the conflict between identifying subject and the object identified. Whereas the neurotic differentiates between his self and its idealization and the psychotic posits the latter as realized in a delusion, the alienated subject idealizes an other who provides him with certainty. Unable to make these ideals a spur to progress, alienation produces a short circuit through the mediation of an idealized force. Alienation becomes even more effective when the alienated subject misapprehends "the accident occurring in his or her thought" (Aulagnier, 1979). It is as though this subject, once a prisoner, no longer has the objectivity needed to judge the situation.

In cases where a group feels alienated, not only is a group of subjects oppressed by a group of masters, but oppression infiltrates all relationships within the group. "Thus whatever the position one may occupy at the moment, every subject is both a victim and a potential murderer, given that one could always find oneself in the opposite position a moment later" (Aulagnier, 1979). If Jacques Lacan is indebted to Hegel, Piera Aulagnier leans on Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, both of whom revisit the historical experiences that have left their mark on the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the gulag.

But how does it happen that the subject chooses one outcome of alienation, rather than another? Piera Aulagnier would start from the metapsychological perspective on the conflict between the identifying subject and the object identified. This conflict is inscribed at the heart of a pathological relation to the ideal ego and to the ideal agencies in general. Alienation is characterized (as is psychosis, but in a different way) by an asymmetry between the I and its object, with no reciprocity between what the one recognizes and what the other recognizes. Thus a dominant pole is created (passionate investment in an object, the God-drug, Chance) by means of which the subject's response will be alienated from the object that is seen as invulnerable; conversely the psychotic, who also recognizes the asymmetry in the relation, is going to try to flee from it and create outside of it a delusional object of identification that others refuse to recognize.

The notion of alienation as Piera Aulagnier conceives of it allowed for a reconsideration the nosographical categories. She particularly opened up a domain for renewed investigations on the question of addictions and on the perversions.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Ego ideal; I; Ideology; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Mirror stage; Passion.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les destins du plaisir: aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. InÉcrits: a selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1953)

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1998). Penser la psychose. Une lecture de l'œuvre de Piera Aulagnier. Paris: Dunod.

Palmier, Jean-Michel. (1969). Lacan. Paris:Éditions universitaires.

Further Reading

Bychowski, Gustav. (1967). The archaic object and alienation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48, 384393.

Khan, Masud. (1979). Alienation in perversions. New York: International Universities Press.


views updated May 18 2018

alienation In the most general terms, this concept describes the estrangement of individuals from one another, or from a specific situation or process. It is central to the writings of Karl Marx and normally associated with Marxist sociology. There are philosophical, sociological, and psychological dimensions to the argument. (These are most usefully expounded in J. Torrance's Estrangement, Alienation and Exploitation, 1977.)

The philosophical discussion falls largely outside the domain of sociology (though Marxists might argue that these sorts of disciplinary distinctions are inappropriate). It is sometimes claimed that the three major influences on Marx's writings were German idealist philosophy ( Hegel and Feuerbach), British political economy ( Owen, Ricardo, Smith), and French utopian socialism ( Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Fourier). Alienation as a philosophical concept is the most obvious legacy of the first of these. Hegel provided Marx with the philosophical means to overcome the Kantian dualism of is and ought, since for Hegel, the actual was always striving to become the ideal. The passage of the self-creating, self-knowing idea through history, its alienation through externalization and objectification and its reappropriation through knowledge, provided Marx with his revolutionary imperative. Turning Hegel on his head and rooting his own ideas in a materialist vision, Marx argued that humanity is lost in the unfolding historical epochs, but at the same time created and found again with the advent of communism, which represents the complete return of individuals to themselves as social beings.

This philosophical and teleological conception of alienation permeates Marx's writings. However, sociological discussion of the term relates more to his argument that estrangement is a consequence of social structures which oppress people, denying them their essential humanity. Alienation is an objective condition inherent in the social and economic arrangements of capitalism. In this sense it is the centrality of alienated labour that most clearly describes the concept. Labour-power defines humanity—the ‘species being’—wherein the satisfaction of needs develops the powers and potential of human beings. However, all forms of production result in ‘objectification’, by which people manufacture goods which embody their creative talents yet come to stand apart from their creators. Alienation is the distorted form that humanity's objectification of its species-being takes under capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others and in so doing generate alienated labour. Marx attributes four characteristics to such labour: alienation of the worker from his or her ‘species essence’ as a human being rather than an animal; alienation between workers, since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship; alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker's control; and, finally, alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions. The last of these generates the psychological discussion about alienation as a subjectively identifiable state of mind, involving feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and discontent at work—especially when this takes place within the context of large, impersonal, bureaucratic social organizations.

It is impossible to extricate Marx's ideas about alienation from his wider sociological discussion of the division of labour, the evolution of private property relations, and the emergence of conflicting classes. In the Marxian terminology, alienation is an objectively verifiable state of affairs, inherent in the specific social relations of capitalist production. However, subsequent researchers have tended to neglect these structural considerations, and attempted instead to operationalize the concept in terms of a range of specifically cognitive and attitudinal characteristics. The ‘psychological state’ of alienation was said by Melvin Seeman (‘On the Meaning of Alienation’, American Sociological Review, 1959)
to comprise the dimensions of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, normlessness, and self-estrangement. In a famous study of factory workers, Robert Blauner attempted to link these dimensions of subjective alienation to particular types of work situation, arguing that the technologies associated with craft, machine, assembly-line, and continuous-process production show a curvilinear association with alienation. That is, ‘in the early period, dominated by craft industry, alienation is at its lowest level and the worker's freedom at a maximum. Freedom declines and the curve of alienation … rises sharply in the period of machine industry. The alienation curve continues upward to its highest point in the assembly-line technologies of the twentieth century … in this extreme situation, a depersonalised worker, estranged from himself and larger collectives, goes through the motions of work in the regimented milieu of the conveyer belt for the sole purpose of earning his bread … But with automated industry there is a countertrend … automation increases the worker's control over his work process and checks the further division of labour and growth of large factories’ (Alienation and Freedom, 1964). At this juncture, the discussion of alienation merely becomes part of a larger debate about the subjective experience of work generally, and job satisfaction in particular.

Many of the doctrines allied to employee self-management, as in Yugoslavia during the post-war period, are linked explicitly to the task of overcoming alienation by means of collective ownership and control. Profit-sharing and employee share-ownership schemes all owe some debt to the concept of alienated labour. Paradoxically, the ownership characteristics of state socialist societies increased the sense of alienation and powerlessness, since in that property vacuum the fact that no one seemed to own state property was more demoralizing than the active ownership of the free-market variety that so troubled Marx. See also WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF.


views updated May 14 2018


The state of being emotionally separated from others and from one's own feelings.

Alienation is a powerful feeling of isolation and loneliness, and stems from a variety of causes. Alienation may occur in response to certain events or situations in society or in one's personal life. Examples of events that may lead to an individual's feeling of alienation include the loss of a charismatic group leader, or the discovery that a person who served as a role model has serious shortcomings. Examples of personal events are a death in the family , a job change, divorce , or leaving home for the first time. Although most people may find that such occurrences trigger temporary feelings of disillusionment or loneliness, a small percentage will be unable to overcome these events, and will feel hopelessly adrift and alone.

Many sociologists have observed and commented upon an increase in this feeling of alienation among young people since the 1960s. They attribute this alienation to a variety of societal conditions: the rapid changes in society during this period, the increase in alcohol and drug abuse, violence in the media, or the lack of communal values in the culture at large. Some sociologists observe that individuals become alienated when they perceive government, employment, or educational institutions as cold and impersonal, unresponsive to those who need their services. Entire groups may experience alienationfor example, ethnic minorities or residents of inner city neighborhoods who feel the opportunities and advantages of mainstream society are beyond their reach.

Feeling separated from society is not the only way a person experiences alienation: sometimes the individual feels alienation as disharmony with his or her true self. This condition develops when a person accepts societal expectations (to take over a family business, for example) that are counter to the person's true goals, feelings, or desires (perhaps to be a teacher). He may appear to be successful in the role others expect him to assume, but his true wish is hidden, leaving him feeling deeply conflicted and alone.

In the workplace, jobs have become increasingly specialized since the 1700s and the Industrial Revolution. Workers may see little connection between the tasks they perform and the final product or service, and may thus feel intense loneliness while in the midst of a busy work environment. In the 1840s, American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) observed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." Thoreau dealt with his own feelings of alienation by retreating to a solitary, simple life on the banks of Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts. He felt less isolated there even though he lived in solitudethan when he lived in a town, surrounded by people. When living in town, his feelings of alienation confronted him daily, since his activities did not reflect his true feelings and desires.

Alienation is expressed differently by different people. Some become withdrawn and lethargic; others may react with hostility and violence; still others may become disoriented, rejecting traditional values and behavior by adopting an outlandish appearance and erratic behavior patterns. As society undergoes rapid changes, and traditional values and behavioral standards are challenged, some people find little they can believe in and so have difficulty constructing a reality in which they can find a place for themselves. It is for this reason that social and cultural beliefs play such an important role in bringing about or averting a feeling of alienation.

Psychologists help people cope with feelings of alienation by developing exercises or designing specific tasks to help the person become more engaged in society. For example, by identifying the alienated individual's true feelings, the psychologist may suggest a volunteer activity or a job change to bring the individual into contact with society in a way that has meaning for him or her.

Some have proposed treating the epidemic of alienation among America's young people by fostering social solutions rather than individual solutions. One such social solution is the idea of communitarianism, a movement begun early in the 1990s by Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Etzioni became a popular speaker and writer in the mid-1990s with the publication of his book, The Spirit of Community. Etzioni advocates a return to community values to replace the rampant alienation of contemporary culture, education to reinforce shared societal morals focusing on family values, and strictly enforcing anti-crime measures. This movement has met serious criticism, however; civil libertarian groups are concerned about communitarian beliefs that certain rights can and should be restricted for the good of the community.

Further Reading

D'Antonio, Michael. "I or We." Mother Jones (May-June 1994): 20+.

Foster, Hal. "Cult of Despair." New York Times (30 December 1994): A3.

Guinness, Alma, ed. ABCs of the Human Mind. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1990.

Jackson, Richard. "Alone in the Crowd: Breaking the Isolation of Childhood." School Library Journal (November 1995):24.

Upton, Julia. "A Generation of Refugees." The Catholic World ( September-October 1995): 204+.

See also Loss and grief


views updated May 18 2018

alienation Term used in psychology to mean a feeling of estrangement and separation from other people. In existential psychology this meaning is extended to include the perception that one is alienated or estranged from one's ‘real self’ because of being forced to conform to society's expectations. The sociological definition of alienation derives from the work of Hegel and Marx. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1930), Marx outlined four types of alienation caused by industrial capitalism: the commodification of labour, dissociation from the products of one's labour, social detachment, and estrangement from one's own human essence.