In the realm of philosophy, and especially within modern and postmodern philosophy,much has been written regarding the concept of alienation. Indeed, this very idea of alienation has played a central role in the work of some of the most influential thinkers, thinkers that have played a predominating role not only in progressing the thought of their time and context but, thinkers who still loom large within the current parameters of philosophic inquiry. Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx, for instance, have each given the idea of alienation a seat at the center of their philosophical projects. Even Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre have all had something integral to say on the topic of alienation. However, for each thinker it has meant something drastically different.
For Hegel, alienation is a kind of false consciousness. Phil Gasper (2009) says that Hegel uses alienation to describe “the way in which the products of reason or mind are not recognized by conscious as its own creation but are experienced as alien powers over and above consciousness”. Feuerbach, likewise, describes alienation as false consciousness brought on by religion. In this regard, alienation is specifically false consciousness about God, that is, humanity separates and projects its best and most admirably desired qualities onto divinity, perceiving the traits that were originally from themselves as alien to themselves. In either case alienation is merely intellectual or cognitive.
Marx, on the other hand, does not define alienation as false consciousness. Though forms of false consciousness can occur as a result of alienation, alienation, is the resultant experience of material conditions in which one is “dominated by real external powers” of “the social and economic system in which we live” (Gasper, 2009). Similarly, for Hannah Arendt alienation is not wholly matter of the intellect or cognition but, is phenomenologically grounded in the experience of actual events, conditions, and systems. Yet, Arendt (1998) extends the consideration of alienation well beyond the self, saying that “World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age” (p. 254). Arendt goes on to differentiate two different types of alienation in her assessment of the modern age, world alienation and earth alienation (d’Entreves, 2008, sec. 3). Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves (2008) explains that “World alienation refers to the loss of an intersubjectively constituted world of experience and action by means of which we establish our self-identity and an adequate sense of reality” and that “Earth alienation refers to the attempt to escape from the confines of the earth” (sec. 3). Here, d’Entreves (2008) goes on to say that earth alienation is “spurred by modern science and technology” which seeks “for ways to overcome our earth-bound condition by setting out on the exploration of space, by attempting to recreate life under laboratory conditions, and by trying to extend our given life-span” (sec. 3).
Through both hermeneutics, history, and phenomenology Arendt takes her place amongst the great thinkers that have propounded the idea of alienation, recognizing that it is not only a predominant experience within the human condition but, also that is not inherent within the human condition. Alienation is brought about through external forces which are man-made. As such, alienation can be overcome, not through a mere re-appropriation or reconstitution of intellectual consciousness but, only through directly and actively addressing the very forces, conditions, and systems which have given rise to and have continued to perpetuate alienation.
Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
d’Entreves, M. P. (2008). Hannah Arendt. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/arendt/
Gasper, P. (2009). Marxism and Alienation [Audio File]. Retrieved from