ALIENATION (Latin alienatio; from alienus—belonging to someone else, foreign; alius—other)—a process of a practical and social nature in which the products of human activity (e.g., ideas, products of work, institutions) become autonomous (are liable to reification and estrangement) with respect to their creators. As a result, they lose control over their products and even become subordinate through their own products to rules of action that they perceive as being alien or opposed to their original intention.
The concept of alienation is closely connected with sociological, economic, psychological, and political contexts, but the basic definition is a philosophical meaning that refers in particular to a conception of man. The other conceptions of alienation can be rationally justified only in a secondary sense: the sociological conception (the alienation of an individual or group from the social milieu), the psychological conception (a loss of the feeling of one’s own personhood), the political conception (the domination of social life by mechanisms of power that do not depend upon individuals); the pedagogical conception (e.g. the process of taking children from their parents and breaking the bond between parents and children), the theological conception (alienation from the order of grace as a result of original sin—according to Paul Tillich), and other conceptions.
THE HISTORY OF THE CONCEPTION. The beginnings of the theory of alienation (although the term was not yet used) may be found in the philosophy of J. J. Rousseau who thought that every man is by nature free, good, and happy, but is subject to an alienating deformation because he lives in a society that is a human product. Among other philosophers (including G. W. F. Hegel and existentialists) we find oppositions intended to explain this thesis (nature—culture, “the private man”—citizen) and a call to build a harmony between the existence of the emancipated man (who is distinguished by his “authentic” personality) and the ideal society. In G. W. F. Hegel’s conception, alienation acquires a metaphysical dimension: it is a basic dialectical mechanism whereby being is externalized (Entäusserung) from itself. It comprehends its own externalization (das Andere) in metaphysical reflection as other and alien (Entfremdung). Thereby it acquires self-knowledge and brings to realization that which constitutes its real essence. Since alienation is the dynamic foundation for all development, it makes possible the evolution of nature (the process of the emergence of the world of nature from the absolute idea), and makes it possible to arrive though successive forms of the absolute spirit to the full realization of the idea or history. Man (the subjective spirit) has a special role in the development of history. Man finds himself in a relation where he is mediated by his own objectified products (the objective spirit); man has the task of overcoming epistemological alienation by becoming conscious of his identity-in-spirit with his own products (the illusory character of alienation), and thereby also to discover the unity of himself, the world, and the Absolute. This end is to be reached by philosophical knowledge that levels the boundaries between man’s being (culture) and nature. Human works would create a reality in harmony with the ideal sphere, namely with the reality marked by the knowledge of God. L. Feuerbach was critical of Hegel’s views on alienation from the perspective of the philosophy of religion and in psychological and anthropological terms. Man as a natural being realizes his need for transcendence when he creates a form of God by the power of his imagination. Man places in one being a collection of the best human features with qualities raised to the maximum (autoalienation). In this conception, the supreme being dominates man’s life and subordinates man to religious purposes: “every religion […] is iconolatry” (L. Feuerbach, Wykłady o istocie religii [Lectures on the essence of religion], Wwa 1981, 211). Victory in the form of atheism over religious alienation means in anthropological terms that man, regarded as a religious being, recovers his human essence, and at the same time he returns to complete humanity, freedom, and creative expansion.
The concept of alienation plays a central role in the system of K. Marx. He referred to his predecessors and in his critique of social relations in the capitalist system he gave the category of alienation a philosophical and economic sense: alienation is the objectification of human action, which under the conditions of private ownership of the means of production acquires its own autonomous being, turns against man, and threatens his essence. Marx lists four kinds of alienation: (1) the alienation of the product of work (the product of man’s work rules him—the pressure of commodities or capital); (2) the alienation of the process of work (work itself becomes a commodity that enslaves the subject); (3) the alienation of essence (the specific essence) of man (social relations that have been deformed by alienation of product and alienation of work hinder the process of man’s self-creation, objectify him, and make him into an object of manipulation); (4) alienation of inter-human relations (people are deprived of the feeling of personal connections and treat each other as things or commodities and in accordance with the laws of production and the market). The premises of historical materialism are that economic alienation underlies all other forms of alienation, that private property should be abolished by revolution as a means to destroy the alienation of work, and as a consequence man would be emancipated and the society of “the true man” would be established (communism). While Marx made an important contribution when he posed the problems of the alienation of human work (praxis) and the degradation of man and culture in a clear light, the problem could not be resolved at all on the basis of the theory of the author of Das Kapital. The basic weakness of his theory was that it lacked a rationally justified metaphysical conception of man’s subjectivity; the human being was defined in terms of society as the “sum of social relations&rdquo. His theory did not provide any rational grounds for defending human rights in the face of alienation, nor did it supply sufficient philosophical grounds for seeking the defeat of alienation. As demonstrated by a discussion within Marxism (especially the discussion surrounding A. Schaff’s book Marksizm a jednostka ludzka [Marxism and the human individual], the theory of alienation diagnosed the shortcomings and lack of cogent arguments in the entire philosophical system of Marxism and provided stronger reasons for questioning it.
In existentialism, alienation is an essential component of man’s condition. According to Kierkegaard, man’s being depends upon a constant tension between existence and essence, the choice between despair or surrender to alienation in the form of inauthenticity in being, the loss of freedom, the reification of ideals, etc. J. P. Sartre adds to this ontological and existential characterization the aspect of alienation between people. This aspect is expressed in the constant tendency of man as an individual to objectify (essentialize) the other while protecting himself from being perceived as a thing (the famous analysis of the scene in the corridor in Being and Nothingness). He thought that one way to defend oneself against alienation was in authentic existence wherein the individual makes a radical affirmation of his own freedom. In the philosophy of personalism, E. Mounier writes of the danger in unilateral attitudes. He presents two types of alienation: the alienation of Narcissus where a man is immersed in himself, and the alienation of Hercules where a man is immersed in the world of things. Both are examples of men losing personal values and being alienates from themselves as persons.
K. Wojtyła made an original attempt to explain the problem of alienation in the context of personalistic philosophy. The phenomenon of alienation here is placed in the context of a broadly conceived theory of praxis that explains man’s action, the action of the self-aware subject and efficient cause of his own deeds, both in terms of the transformation and creation of reality and the realization (or deformation) of his self as a person. Alienation is opposed to participation. Participation is the fundamental form of man’s co-existence with the other and with the community; a person who realizes his disposition to participate in humanity at the same time completes himself. Alienation consists in all the obstacles that make man unable to participate in humanity and at the same time fulfil himself as a person. While the Marxist conception reduces alienation to economic causes, Wojtyła thinks that alienation consists in substituting means for the end of human action, and substituting the end for the means. There are various ways to combat alienation (a right organization of work, the increase in communication between people, etc.), and their common point of reference is that the human person exists and acts with others and thereby finds “an authentic sense of participation” (Uczestnictwo czy alienacja [Participation or Alienation]).
In terms of praxis, man constantly faces the risk of alienation as he creates culture and in turn is influenced by culture. This applies especially to a highly developed civilization in which special interests and technology predominate. Both the theory of alienation and the search for ways of combating it ultimately depend upon the conception of man that underlies a culture that is threatened by alienation. Alienation resides in the relation of man to his products, to other persons, and to himself. The result is that he has feels that he is a stranger, an enemy or powerless before the world surrounding him. If we accept a realistic conception of the person, we discover in the phenomenon of alienation two dimensions which correspond to two dimensions of human praxis: the objective dimension (the transformation of reality) and the subjective dimension (the influence of praxis on the acting subject). The human being as a subject is prior to action, but is fulfilled by action in the existential dimension. Every act apart from the objective effect leaves a “footprint” (what is called a non-transitive effect) in the acting subject. Acts of praxis determine man’s existential realization or deformation, as the case may be. With respect to praxis, the alienating factors may be things that man has produced, acquired, or consumed, other people, societies, institutions, organizations, or himself. In this connection, we should distinguish the process of alienation from self-alienation. At the root of alienation we most often find a wrong theory of man, especially some form of individualism or totalitarianism, and these may result in deformations of culture or a faulty social, economic, political, or international system. A full bilateral approach to praxis will enable us to evaluate the causes of alienation as a whole (e.g., political action falls under both the criterion of effectiveness and the criterion of ethics). This approach creates a more effective field of defense against alienation.
With respect to the primacy of the human person (man is a subject is prior to action), the criteria in searching for methods to remove alienation or to defend against it cannot be reduced merely to a social or political dimension, etc. The correction of social structures or the reconstruction of the political system are not effective means for removing alienation if they are not accompanied by a moral effort on the part of the person who is opposing alienation. The basic criterion for defense against alienation is the value of the development of the human person and the common good of the society of persons.
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