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History of the Human Sciences

23(4) 2136
Alienation, authenticity The Author(s) 2010
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DOI: 10.1177/0952695110375763
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Gavin Rae
American University Cairo, Egypt

Abstract
While many commentators have held that the concept alienation is of crucial
importance when attempting to understand human existence, others have held that it
is an inherently empty concept that we should abandon. In this article, I refute the
latters charge by showing that each conception of alienation is underpinned by a
normative ontological conception of the preferable, or authentic, self and show that
the concept alienation has ethical, existential and socio-political uses. From this I con-
clude that, when properly understood, the concept alienation can provide us with vital
insights into human existence.

Keywords
alienation, authenticity, human existence, self-understanding, the self

By simultaneously describing how an individual experiences his or her own existence


and what he or she can ultimately hope to be, alienation is, and has been seen to be,
a concept that is of crucial importance when attempting to understand human existence.
But what constitutes alienation or what alienation is, is not and has not been uncontested.
As we will see, its contested nature has led some commentators to maintain that it is an
inherently empty concept we should abandon. In this article, I refute this by: (1) recon-
ceptualizing the concept alienation to disclose its constitutive relation to a normative
ontological conception of the preferable, or authentic, self; (2) showing that the concept
alienation has ethical, existential and socio-political uses; and (3) arguing that the con-
stitutive link between alienation and authenticity ensures that the various conceptions of
alienation agree, in general outline, on what is required to overcome alienation. This

Corresponding author:
Gavin Rae, Department of Philosophy, American University Cairo, AUC Avenue, P.O. Box 74, New Cairo
11835, Egypt.
Email: gavinrae101@hotmail.com
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22 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

leads me to conclude that, rather than reject the concept, we must properly understand it
by understanding its normative ontological grounding, and seek to incorporate it into
attempts to understand the actual self.
To outline my argument, I split this article into three sections. In the first section,
I show that while the concept alienation has had many different meanings each has
been constitutively tied to, and underpinned by, a specific conception of the authentic
self. However, we should not think that the concept alienation is tied to a generic ahis-
toric conception of the self. Rather, each conception of the authentic self is a normatively
grounded socio-historical construction of what the actual self should strive to look like.
The prescriptive aspect of authenticity ensures that both alienation and authenticity are
inherently ethical concepts that can be used to describe not only the ethical validity of the
actual selfs way of life, but also how the actual self should act.
In the second section, I develop this argument by showing that explicitly understand-
ing alienation in terms of its relation to a preferable conception of the self had to wait
until a specific conception of the self became dominant at the end of the 17th century.
The conception of the self that became dominant at this time was focused around an
ontological entity called the individual defined by free creative self-expression. Thus,
the question as to whether the actual self existed as a creative being or whether it did not
and was therefore alienated from its creative essence became more philosophically and
existentially important. However, I argue that while it took the arrival of this specific
conception of the self to bring the concept alienation to explicit philosophical and exis-
tential focus, we should not think that alienation is always, or need always be, constitu-
tively tied to this conception of the authentic self. Rather, each conception of the self
implicitly posits a conception of authenticity by virtue of defining the self in a particular
manner.
In the third section, I return to a point made in the first section of this article by appeal-
ing to Martin Heideggers (2003: 32) insistence that each human being is defined by an
ontological structure of care-for-self. I argue that this ensures that each actual self pre-
reflectively desires to overcome its alienation and live authentically. However, while
I argue that the actual self desires to overcome its alienation and live authentically, I also
recognize that an alienated mode of being is still a mode of being with its own way of
life, norms and values. This leads me to engage with certain commentators who have
identified different positive and negative forms of alienation. However, I aim to go
beyond these commentators by recognizing, in line with Hegels analysis of alienation,
that it is the experience of alienation that leads the actual self to strive to overcome its
alienated state of being. Thus, rather than simply hold that certain forms of alienation
are inherently negative or positive, I argue that we have to recognize that all forms of
alienation ultimately play a positive role in shaping the actual selfs sense of self and its
efforts to overcome its alienation.
It should be clear from this brief synopsis that the discussion will touch on many dif-
ficult and large topics. I do not pretend that it is possible to take into consideration all of
the complex matters that arise from the important existential issues discussed; such an
endeavour would require far more than one article. My aim is both more general and
more modest in so far as it contents itself with contributing to the debate about alienation,

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authenticity and the self by simply bringing some unexplored, and often ignored, connec-
tions between these concepts to the fore.

Understanding Alienation
Brian Baxter (1982: 3) has noted that to be alienated from something presupposes the
existence of an opposite state of non-alienation. In accordance with this interpretation,
I understand that the concept alienation only gains its meaning in contrast to non-
alienation or, as I will call it, authenticity. While alienation and authenticity are, in one
sense, opposed in so far as they describe opposed ways of being, they are, in another
sense, constitutively related in so far as to describe one also discloses the other. If we
understand what it is to be alienated, we also, at least implicitly, understand what it is
to be authentic. Similarly, if we understand what it is to be authentic, we, at least, impli-
citly understand that if we lack those aspects of being that constitute an authentic way of
being, we are alienated.
But understanding alienation is not simply grounded in a desire to understand what
the actual self is or how it actually exists. By implicitly disclosing what it is to be authen-
tic, a description of alienation also provides us with an understanding of what the actual
self should be, what it should strive for, and, ultimately, the way it should comport itself.
This prescriptive aspect ensures that alienation is, as Allison Weir (2009: 543) notes,
intimately linked to ethics. It is precisely because the concept alienation describes
an actual existential situation and points towards future action that the actual self should
seek to realize, that ensures it can provide us with real insight into the human condition in
general, a specific individuals way of being, and the possibilities constitutive of an indi-
viduals life because of it.
However, two questions have to be answered before we can understand the concept
alienation: (1) do we, in fact, want to be or understand what it is to be authentic?; and
(2) what is it to be authentic?
In response to the first, I want to suggest that the question of what it is to be human is
one that has haunted humans throughout history. What it is to be human is one of the
crucial questions that we seek to, and have sought to, answer. The exhortation to Know
Thyself inscribed on the Tomb of Apollo at Delphi demonstrates that the issue of what it
is to be human is one that has driven western philosophy since its inception. Indeed, as
one commentator notes, in a sense much of the history of the West has been conditioned
by this quest for the meaning of true being in personal and social existence (Wainwright,
1980). On this interpretation, the quest for self-understanding has not only driven west-
ern philosophy; it has driven the history of western society in general. Its importance has
not diminished as a result of the passing of time. Indeed, Georges Bataille (1999: 153)
goes so far as to maintain that it is human to search, from lure to lure, for a life that is at
last autonomous and authentic.
But the question of what it is to be human is grounded in the following fundamental
assumption: each human cares about what he or she is. Martin Heidegger (2003: 32) has
forcibly emphasized this point through his insistence that the human being is unique
among beings because it is the only being that cares about its being. It is only because
we care about who and what we are that we are driven to question ourselves. It is because
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24 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

we care about who or what we are that the question of alienation not only arises, but con-
tinually interests us. We want to know why we are alienated and what, if anything, we
can do to overcome it.
But despite all analyses of alienation being grounded in a sense of care-for-self, the
concept alienation has had a long and varied life in terms of both its history and the
ways it has been understood. While it emanates from, and was used in, the religious dis-
course to discuss the Fall of Man, its use has not been confined to this discourse. It is a
concept that has taken on a variety of different meanings in a variety of different dis-
courses. Richard Schacht (1994: 38) has identified three historical uses of the concept:
a legal meaning based on the exchange of property; a psychological meaning relating
to a form of mental illness; and an ontological meaning that refers to a condition of
separation or estrangement from someone or something other than oneself, with which
one once was or ideally should be united. In contrast to this characterization, and while
he proposes a similar tripartite structure, Nathan Rotenstreich (1963) maintains that the
concept has been used in the legal, psychological and religious discourses. However, as
I see it, there is no reason why the two taxonomies cannot be synthesized. On my inter-
pretation, the concept alienation has been used to describe a variety of phenomena in
the legal, psychological, religious and ontological discourses.
However, the ambiguity of, and confusion over, the meaning of the concept led
Martin Bronfenbrenner (1973) to reject it as nothing more than noise. For him, the
different usages of the concept demonstrate that it does not actually describe anything.
It is simply a fashionable concept that lacks precision or real legitimacy. As such, it does
not and cannot help us to understand human existence. We should not talk of alienation
any more; we should lay it to rest and find alternative concepts to describe the variety of
phenomena that the concept alienation has been used to describe. In agreement, Alfred
Lee (1972) even went so far as to write an obituary for the concept.
However, Ignace Feuerlicht disagrees with these critics. For Feuerlicht, the ambiguity
of the concept alienation is its greatest quality. After all, some of the most powerful
words, words that have aroused and impassioned millions of people, words that language
and perhaps even science can hardly do without are equally difficult to define. Consider,
for example, freedom and love (Feuerlicht, 1978: 17). For Feuerlicht, those critics
who seek to remove the concept from our lexicon simply because it has been used in
many different ways are mistaken. Rather than reject the concept, we can reject its uses
and reconceptualize the concept to attain a better understanding of it. Its importance
grows when we remember that alienation relates to authenticity, something each individ-
ual is interested in. It is a concept that we need if we are to understand the human con-
dition. As Richard Schacht (1992: 6) explains, the notion of self-alienation has a future,
and a role to play in philosophy and critical social theory, because reflection upon the
quality of human life and the human good has a future. I would suggest, therefore, that
rather than reject the concept alienation outright, we must reconceptualize it in a spe-
cific way to properly understand it.
More specifically, I would suggest that alienation needs to be reconceptualized so
that it focuses on the ontology of the authentic self that underpins the discussion. It is
only because each discussion of alienation is grounded in a conception of what the actual
self should be like that it is possible to maintain that the actual self is alienated. For this
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reason, and in line with the ontological sense of the term noted earlier, I suggest that we
recognize that the fundamental defining feature of the concept alienation is its relation
to a conception of the preferable, or authentic, self. Not only can the alternative historical
usages of the concept be understood by different concepts, but, in fact, the alternative
historical usages of the concept are implicitly tied to a notion of an authentic self. This
is because a notion of the authentic self acts as a standard against which a way of being is
compared to determine whether that way of being is authentic. If the way of being cor-
responds to the notion of authenticity then the life is said to be authentic, if not, then it is
said to be alienated. For example, the religious usage of the concept states that a separa-
tion between God and the individual is alienating. However, this relation is only alienat-
ing because the religious discourse implicitly understands authenticity to be constituted
by a specific relation between God and the individual: if the individual lacks this authen-
tic relation then she or he is alienated. I will return to this issue in the next section.

Alienation and the Modern Self


But while alienation can only be understood by making explicit the conception of the
authentic self that underpins the analysis, it is only relatively recently that alienation
came to be explicitly understood in relation to the self. While previous historical periods
had a dominant understanding of the self, these were so structured that either the issue of
alienation was not explicitly related to the self or the historys dominant conception of
the self failed to identify and explicitly recognize the issue of alienation. It was only once
the underlying logic of conceptions of the self took a specific form that the modern onto-
logical understanding of the term became explicit and the importance of the concept
alienation could be explicitly recognized. The modern ontological understanding of
alienation has, therefore, resulted from and had to await the occurrence of two events:
first, the development of a specific conception of the self; and, second, this particular
conception of the self taking on a dominant position in questions of epistemology.
Charles Taylor (2004: 143, 186, 389) has highlighted that the modern conception of
the self, which began to develop at the end of the 17th century, was radically different to
the ancient conception of the self. The conception of the self that arose was based on a
questioning of what it is to be human, an increased emphasis on reflexivity, and the self
being positioned as the Archimedean point of existence. This is in contrast to previous
understandings of the self where the self was defined in terms of an often subordinate
relation to external things such as God, nature, or animals. This alteration in the con-
ception of the self was accompanied by an increased awareness of the role of feelings and
emotions in human affairs. A reflexive questioning of what it is to be human, a focus on
the inherent possibilities of the self, a definition of the self that held that its essential
ontological feature is free, expressive creativity, and the creation of a definitive element
called the individual ensured that the individual questioned whether he or she was liv-
ing in accordance with his or her creative essence. It was the coalescing of these various
elements throughout a number of discourses that led to the concept alienation having a
prominent position in philosophical and existential questions.
But while there were numerous epistemological, socio-historical and philosophical
issues that coalesced together at a specific historical point to ensure that a specific
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26 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

conception of the self was not only created, but also attained a prominent position in
human affairs, this does not mean that the concept the individual can be reduced to its
epistemological underpinnings. If this were the case, Michel Foucaults (2003: 422)
famous assertion that not only is man ... an invention of recent date but one nearing its
end would perhaps be true. This would not just mean that a concept that the modern
world holds dear would disappear. It would mean that, because the concept the individ-
ual and all questions constitutively related to the individual, including the question of
alienation, would be wholly dependent on the epistemological structures dominant at
that particular point in time, they could be rejected as historically contingent. On this
understanding, rather than being an important ahistoric existential issue, alienation is
a relative and historically contingent one.
However, as I understand it, alienations importance is not grounded in a historically
contingent epistemological formation. While I do not think the many non-ontological
meanings of the term accurately understand it, its long history shows that it has been used
in many ways that do not explicitly focus on its relation to the self. We must, therefore,
look for another explanation that accounts for why the concept alienation, which has
been around for millennia, only relatively recently gained its central position in questions
of human existence.
To answer this, I think we have to recognize that alterations in epistemes do not neces-
sarily mean that the questions that result are wholly new questions or that questions that
were previously asked are no longer relevant. Alterations in epistemes may allow issues
that were always discussed to be approached in new innovative ways. Equally, it may
allow issues that were always implicit in human concerns to become explicit. Rather than
reject the concept alienation as wholly historically contingent, we can say that the issue
of alienation has always been an implicit aspect of the human condition but the means to
fully understand it had to await specific socio-historical developments that led to the cre-
ation of a particular episteme based around a specific conception of the individual.
On my interpretation, therefore, the concept alienation did not simply come into
existence when the modern episteme arose. Its history shows that it has been around for
much longer than that. I would suggest, however, that what the epistemological altera-
tion that took place at the end of the 17th century did do was allow the concept aliena-
tion to gain an explicit and prominent position in human enquiry. This alteration created
a new way of conceptualizing the individual and provided new ways of understanding
her or his existential situation. It was through the combination of a new conception of
the individual and a new epistemological formation that placed subjectivity at its core
that the individual was able to understand himself or herself in a way that he or she had
not previously been able to. In other words, the subject-centred nature of modern thought
allowed the constitutive link between the notion of alienation and the self that had always
been implicit to become explicit.
However, while understanding the constitutive link between alienation and the ontol-
ogy of the self had to wait until a specific conception of the self became dominant, con-
trary to Kwame Appiahs (2005: 17, 107) apparent insistence, this does not mean that all
forms of authenticity are grounded in the same conception of the self. For Appiah,
authenticity relates to a conception of the self that holds that there is an inner core of
subjectivity that defines what the individual truly is. While Appiah criticizes such a
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conception of the self for failing to understand the crucial role that self-development and
creativity play in human existence, I want to suggest that authenticity does not simply
delineate or relate to a conception of the self that holds that there is an already present
inner subject core that defines what the individual truly is. Authenticity is defined in
relation to a normative socio-historically grounded conception of the preferable self that
the actual self should strive to realize. This ensures that authenticity is not simply under-
pinned by one specific conception of the self. Different conceptions of authenticity are
possible because different conceptions of the self are possible.
For example, philosophers of the self who define the self in terms of a fixed ontolo-
gical substance implicitly maintain that the actual self is alienated if it does not reflec-
tively understand and affirm its fixed ontological essence. This ensures that this
conception of the self maintains that the actual self is authentic if it does reflectively
understand and affirm its fixed ontological essence. Alternatively, conceptions of the
self, such as Hegels, that hold that the self is defined by an ontological potential to
be made actual through the actions and interactions of the actual self, implicitly outline
a conception of authenticity that is defined by whether the actual self has realized its
ontological potential. Even conceptions of the self that do not posit any essential onto-
logical features still implicitly posit a conception of authenticity by virtue of defining the
self in terms of ontological non-identity. For theorists of ontological non-identity, living
authentically requires that the actual self reflectively recognizes that not only does it not
have any fixed ontological identity, but that this means it is a constant becoming of its
own making. Put differently, for theorists of ontological non-identity, the self alienates
itself from its ontological non-identity if it understands itself and comports itself in a
manner that affirms itself as having an ontological identity.
Thus, each conception of the self implicitly proposes a conception of authenticity that
the actual self should seek to live in accordance with. The constitutive link between
authenticity and alienation also means that each conception of the authentic self provides
the means to identify forms of alienation. I would suggest that this link is constitutive and
must be remembered. Alienation always defines a mode of being in which the actual self
is separated or split from an aspect or aspects of a particular normative conception of
what the actual self should look like. This may be a separation from a previous unity
or it may be that alienation arises from certain aspects of the self simply not having been,
nor currently being, present in the individuals existential situation. In both cases the
authentic self has not been realized and alienation results.
It is for this reason that the definition that Richard Schacht (1994: 38) provides where
alienation refers to a condition of separation or estrangement from someone or some-
thing other than oneself, with which one once was or ideally should be united, is not
wholly accurate. While I think he is correct to highlight alienations relation to the self,
he is wrong to identify alienation with mere separation from something that once was in
unity with the self. Similarly, I think Claude Fischer (1976: 42) is mistaken when he
maintains that alienation is the state in which the actor fails to perceive a positive inter-
dependence between himself and social relationships or other objectifications.
To maintain that alienation arises whenever the individual fails to positively identify
with any social relationship or objectification fails to understand that alienation describes
a more nuanced and multifaceted existential situation than one of simple separation from
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28 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

the objective world. As Jerome Segal (1991: 129) correctly notes, alienation is not the
same as merely experiencing something as not belonging to oneself. Just because an
individual has become separated from something does not mean that she or he is alie-
nated. Not all forms of separation are alienating: the actual self is alienated only when
it is separated from, at least, one aspect of what is deemed to be necessary for it to be
authentic. For this reason, what constitutes alienation is specific to the conception of
authenticity that underpins the analysis.
Alessandro Ferrara (1997) makes this point by distinguishing between antagonistic
and integrative conceptions of the authentic self. This leads him to note that an antag-
onistic conception of the authentic self views authenticity as primarily linked with
breaking free from the constraints of an entrenched social order, whereas other notions
of authenticity carry no such implication (Ferrara, 1997: 82). This supports my argu-
ment that different conceptions of the self will lead to different understandings of authen-
ticity and alienation. If the authentic self is characterized in an antagonistic way to
society, as Ferrara insists the early Sartre, Heidegger and Nietzsche characterize it, then
the actual self will be alienated if it integrates itself into the norms and values of its soci-
ety. However, for those conceptions of the authentic self, Ferrara specifically names
Hegel and Taylor in this category, that define the authentic self in an integrationist man-
ner; existing in a relation of pure opposition to a specific conception of society leads the
actual self to be alienated. According to integrative conceptions of the authentic self,
integrating into a certain form of community is precisely what authenticity requires.
Different conceptions of the authentic self do, therefore, lead to different analyses and
understandings of alienation. Practically, this can, as Michael Jensen (2008) notes, create
problems because one person may act in a manner that is in accordance with his or her
conception of authenticity, but which is radically different to another individuals con-
ception of authenticity. This gives rise to a number of questions, questions that I will
merely highlight without seeking to answer, including: is there a transcendent standard
against which to judge the various conceptions of authenticity or is it, as Charles Taylor
(2003: 73) argues, that we must simply engage in a battle over authenticitys meaning? If
it is the former, what is this transcendent standard and what legitimizes it? If it is the lat-
ter, does this battle occur at the individual or the social level or, indeed, on both levels
simultaneously? And how, if at all, can disputes between different conceptions of
authenticity, which entail different conceptions of morality and ethics, be resolved?

The Existential and Socio-Political Uses of Alienation


Despite these issues, I want to suggest that, because each conception of alienation gains
its meaning from its negative relation to a specific conception of the preferable, or
authentic, self, authenticity is the privileged form of being in the relation, alienation the
debased form of being.
However, we should not think that the individual has explicitly to experience a sense
of alienation to be alienated. While the individuals subjective perception plays a part,
alienation is not solely dependent on her or his subjective perception. Put differently, the
actual self can be alienated even though it does not explicitly experience a sense of
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alienation. Alternatively, it may think of itself as alienated when it actually is not because
it fails to properly understand what being authentic entails.
To explain how this is possible it may be helpful, at this point, to introduce Jean-Paul
Sartres (2003: 9) distinction between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness. Dan
Zahavi (1999: 33) explains that prereflective self-awareness ... is an immediate, implicit,
irrelational, nonobjectifying, nonconceptual, and nonpropositional self-acquaintance,
[while] reflective self-awareness ... is an explicit, relational, mediated, conceptual, and
objectifying thematization of consciousness. Importantly, it is the non-reflective con-
sciousness which renders the reflection possible (Sartre, 2003: 9). In other words, when-
ever consciousness reflects on what it is doing, it is already pre-reflectively self-conscious
of itself doing the activity. It is for this reason that we can spontaneously answer a question
about an activity we are engaged in.
However, this does not mean that the contents of the pre-reflective and reflective con-
sciousnesses always match. Sartres discussion of pure and impure forms of reflection,
where the former allows the actual self to accurately and reflectively understand its pre-
reflective experience while in the latter its reflective understanding is different from its
pre-reflective experience, demonstrates that consciousness can be mistaken about its pre-
reflective experience (Sartre, 2003: 17784).
This distinction is important for my discussion because it accounts for the ways in
which consciousness can be alienated. For example, consciousness can reflectively
understand itself to be alienated despite not actually being alienated because its pre-
reflective experience accords with the conception of the authentic self that underpins the
discussion. Alternatively, consciousness can reflectively understand itself to be authentic
despite its pre-reflective experience not actually conforming to the constitution of the
authentic self that underpins the discussion. Because its pre-reflective and reflective
self-understanding differ in both these examples, consciousness is alienated because it
fails to properly reflectively understand itself and/or its pre-reflective experience. This
allows me to distinguish between, what I will call, the philosophical and psychological
experiences of alienation.
As I have argued, alienation occurs if and when the individual does not live in accor-
dance with and consciously understands what the conception of the authentic self that
grounds the discussion requires. The philosophical sense of alienation describes the
actual self that is actually alienated, is reflectively aware of its alienation, and reflectively
understands why it is alienated. When such reflective self-knowledge and understanding
is combined with the actual selfs fundamental care-for-self, it is hoped the actual self
will purposefully and reflectively strive to alter its existence to overcome its alienation.
The psychological sense of the term is subordinate to the philosophical sense of the
concept. It is differentiated from the philosophical sense of the term by the epistemolo-
gical awareness the actual self has of the relation between its own existential situation
and what it is to be authentic. In the psychological sense of the concept, the actual
self is reflectively mistaken about its own authenticity. It lacks the reflective awareness
of how it exists or is mistaken about what it is to be an authentic self and
reflectively understands itself to be living authentically when it is, in fact, living
inauthentically. Alternatively, because the actual self is mistaken about what constitutes
authenticity, or is mistaken about its own actions, it may think it is alienated when it
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30 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

does, in fact, live in the manner deemed to be authentic. It is only once all the aspects of
the authentic self exist and the actual self has explicit reflective knowledge of this that it
can be said to have overcome its alienation. For the actual self to think that it is not alie-
nated, or indeed that it is, does not necessarily make it so.
For this reason, overcoming alienation is a complex and multi-faceted task. It is not
sufficient that the actual self simply exists and reflectively understands itself to exist in
conformity with the conception of the authentic self that underpins the discussion; its
understanding of what it is to be authentic must also be accurate. This ensures that the
actual self that thinks it is alienated when it actually exists in the manner deemed to
be authentic is, in fact, alienated. Alternatively, the actual self that reflectively under-
stands itself to be authentic when its actual mode of being does not conform to the
actions or content defined by the conception of authenticity that underpins the discussion
is, in fact, alienated.
Thus, I suggest that, while the specific content of alienation differs according to the
specific conception of authenticity that underpins it, not only does each discussion of the
concept alienation share a common underlying logic by virtue of its oppositional rela-
tion to a specific normative conception of authenticity, but each agrees that to overcome
alienation requires that the actual self: (1) exists in the manner deemed to be authentic;
(2) accurately understands what it is to be authentic; and (3) reflectively understands that
it is actually living in accordance with what is deemed to be authentic.
But I disagree with Morton Kaplans (1976: 161) insistence that the attempt to over-
come alienation is synonymous with the attempt to become perfect. While the specifics
of a post-alienated existence will differ according to the conception of authenticity that
grounds the discussion, I think we have to realize that the most realistic discussions will
recognize that not only will human existence, alienated or non-alienated, never be per-
fect, but that we should not seek to understand or realize it in those terms. We have to
understand that tragedy, heartache and existential difficulties are part of the human exis-
tence. Part of the challenge of human existence is learning to deal with these existential
difficulties. To seek an existence free from the experience of existential difficulties is,
I would argue, not only unrealistic, but also to seek an existence that is not truly human.
But neither should we think that the experience of an alienated individual is wholly
negative. As Hegel (2005: 279) notes, the ugliest man, the criminal, the invalid, or the
cripple is still a living human being. In line with this insight, I want to suggest that this
holds for an alienated life; to be alienated is still a way of being with its own logic, goals,
ends and possibilities. While its alienation ensures that it does not live in accordance with
what is deemed to be the highest ethical life, the alienated self still exists; it still lives a
life. Thus, the question becomes: is an alienated life wholly without merit or is it possible
that being alienated can, in some ways, be existentially beneficial?
On this point, Ramakant Sinari (1970) makes a distinction between sick and
healthy forms of alienation to highlight that a certain form of alienation can be bene-
ficial for the actual self. According to Sinari, sick forms of alienation occur when the
individual is simply alienated from what is considered to be constitutive of the authentic
self. He or she does not experience any positive aspects from his or her alienation. The
consequences of this form of alienation are somewhat familiar: crime, mental illness,
suicide, social isolation, anomie and a general subjective disenchantment with the world.
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Rae 31

In contrast, healthy forms of alienation contribute to the individuals self-perception


and/or perception of the world. They allow her or him to gain new experiences and
insights and use these in a manner that allows her or him, and/or others, to become
authentic. As Sinari explains, history would have been poor without Socrates, Christ,
Moses, Buddha, Luther, Marx, Gandhi, who transcended their fellow men, made their
own selves their abode, and eventually gave birth to new values (Sinari, 1970: 129).
From this we can say that the experience of alienation may be, but is not necessarily,
useful for those who wish to criticize social norms. It may allow them to gain new per-
spectives on society which can be used to determine whether the existing social struc-
ture facilitates the development and existence of the authentic self. If the individual
judges that existing social structures do not allow him or her to be authentic, then,
as we have already identified, his or her alienation will also point towards the social
structures and the type of relation with these social structures that he or she must
develop to become authentic.
However, I want to make it clear, in a way that Sinari does not, that not all forms of
social criticism that arise from healthy forms of alienation are equally valid. Social crit-
icism that results from alienation can only be described as healthy if it allows the indi-
vidual to relate to her or his being in a manner that either immediately realizes or
facilitates the realization of the conception of the authentic self that grounds the concep-
tion of alienation. Social criticism grounded in alienation does not necessarily disclose
authentic states of being; it can lead to more alienating social structures.
In line with this insight, Marianna Papastephanou (2001) helpfully distinguishes
between contingent and endemic forms of alienation. Contingent forms of alienation
arise because of socio-historical circumstances that constrain the actual selfs reflective
self-understanding and activity. Endemic forms of alienation are both necessary and pos-
itive for the development of the actual selfs reflective self-understanding. While the for-
mer can be overcome by socio-political action that alters the cultures and socio-historical
institutions that the actual self inhabits, the latter cannot be overcome without destroying
the actual selfs sense of identity. In other words, the actual selfs sense of identity is
constitutively tied to its battle with and against alterity. This battle with alterity is seen,
by Papastephanou, to be crucial to the actual selfs sense of self-identity.
While this assumes that the actual selfs sense of identity emanates from some form of
relation with/to alterity, I think the general distinction Papastephanou makes between
contingent socio-historical forms of alienation that can be overcome through socio-
political action and endemic forms of alienation that are necessary for the actual selfs
sense of identity is a useful one in so far as it helps us to distinguish between different
forms of alienation. But I want to suggest that we go beyond the binary opposition Papas-
tephanou employs between negative and positive forms of alienation and realize that the
experience of all forms of alienation, ultimately, contributes to the actual selfs attempts
to overcome its alienation.
On this point, it may be helpful to appeal to Hegels analysis of alienation.
Papastephanou rightly notes that the term alienation in Hegels analysis translates
two German words: Entausserung and Entfremdung. The former designates the pro-
cess whereby consciousness externalizes itself in objective form and through this
self-objectification learns that it is not a pure subject, but an organic spiritual synthesis
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32 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

of subjectivity and objectivity. The latter is immediately negative in so far as con-


sciousness fails to properly understand itself. This leads Papastephanou to hold that,
for Hegel, the former is rather positive and the latter negative (Papastephanou,
2001: 81).1 However, this is only half the story.
As I understand it, Hegel holds that it is the combination of the two senses of the term
alienation that ultimately drives consciousness to alter its self-understanding until it
comes to the form of consciousness called Absolute Knowing where it does fully under-
stand its ontological structure by reflectively understanding that it is a living spiritual
synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity. Put differently, while estrangement is immedi-
ately negative in so far as the actual consciousness does not properly understand itself,
it is the experience of being estranged from its true self that drives consciousness to alter
its self-understanding until it does properly understand itself in Absolute Knowing. Exter-
nalizing itself in objective form is a crucial aspect of this process because, by recognizing
itself in the object it creates, consciousness comes to understand that it is not a pure subject
confronting an objective world; it is a spiritual synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity.
While Hegels analysis is grounded in a specific conception of the non-alienated con-
sciousness, the general lesson of his analysis is that while analyses of alienation, such as
Papastephanous, that distinguish between purely positive and negative forms of aliena-
tion may be valid and useful when describing the immediate experience of different
forms of alienation, we have to go beyond this binary opposition and understand that the
actual self does not discover what it truly is by simply replacing the negativity of aliena-
tion with the positivity of authentic being. In other words, it is not by fleeing from neg-
ative experiences that the actual self learns about itself; the actual self

wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as
something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that
it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something
else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarry-
ing with it. (Hegel, 1977: 19)

Rather than simply ignoring or attempting to overcome negative experiences at the earliest
and easiest convenience, Hegel exhorts us to recognize that negative experiences play a
crucial and formative role in our existence. It is only by struggling with our demons that
we come to understand who we are and what we are capable of. Therefore, while the expe-
rience of alienation may be immediately experienced negatively, the negative experience
of alienation is, for Hegel, necessary if the actual self is to overcome its alienation.
Following this insight, I want to suggest that while the positive/negative binary
dichotomy is useful when characterizing the immediate experience of different forms
of alienation, ultimately, we have to be more subtle and realize that while it may be
an undesirable experience, the experience of, and battle against, alienation: (1) positively
contributes to the actual selfs sense of self-identity; and (2) is the impetus that motivates
the actual self to try to overcome its self-alienation.
But it may be objected that if overcoming alienation is so existentially difficult, if the
actual self can live in an alienated state, and indeed alienation has its uses, then why
would and why should the actual self strive to overcome its alienation?
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Rae 33

It is here that the ethical aspect of the concept alienation comes to the fore. As I
previously noted, the binary opposition between authenticity and alienation is
constitutively linked to an ethical imperative that holds that it is ethically better to
overcome the negativity of alienation and live in conformity to the notion of the
authentic self that underpins the discussion. For this reason, and even though an alienated
life is still a life in its own right with its own possibilities and values, the actual selfs onto-
logical structure of care-for-self and the ethical imperative inherent in the concept aliena-
tion ensure that striving to overcome its alienation is an inherent pre-reflective desire of
every actual self. Thus, no matter how comfortable or enjoyable it may be, each actual self
is not simply content to live an alienated life; each pre-reflectively desires to live an authen-
tic life. Indeed, because there is an ethical aspect to alienation that holds that an alienated
life is a debased life in comparison to an authentic life, if the actual self does not reflectively
strive to overcome its alienation, its alienated mode of being is not simply undesirable, it is
unethical.
Yet the discussion of a concept as historically constituted as this one, is, at best, only
partial if the causes of this existential condition are not understood. It must be remem-
bered, however, that this process of causation is not the static, unitary causation found in
mechanized scientific methodology, nor is it simply that alienation results from an exter-
nal cause. While the specific causes of alienation will depend on the conception of the
authentic self that grounds any discussion of alienation, I would suggest that, in general,
its causes are complex, multi-faceted and, importantly, non-biological.
It is because alienation does not have a biological aspect to it that Martin
Bronfenbrenners (1973) suggestion that alienation may be a disease fails to under-
stand not only what disease is, but also what alienation describes. Alienation relates
to the way the actual self reflectively lives and comports itself in the world as this is
defined in relation to a specific normative conception of the preferable, or authentic,
self; it does not define a physical disease or ailment.
However, this requires that I introduce a subtle point that recognizes that while
alienation is not a disease, disease can lead to alienation if the disease prevents the indi-
vidual from living in accordance with the conception of the authentic self that underpins
the discussion. But while the body may prevent the individual from living authentically
this is not due to the body itself. Rather, it is due to the way the body permits the indi-
vidual to exist in relation to his or her world. In other words, alienation arises from the
way the individuals body allows him or her to exist rather than from the individuals
body itself. This is why diseases, such as HIV/Aids, influenza and malaria, are not alie-
nating in themselves even though they may lead to alienation. Because alienation is a
relational concept that defines an individuals reflective self-understanding and existen-
tial comportment in relation to a normative conception of authenticity, it cannot be
described or thought of in bio-genetic terms.
This subtle, but important, distinction again demonstrates the inherent complexity and
multi-faceted nature of the concept alienation. As I have argued throughout, its com-
plexity and multi-faceted nature ensure it is a concept that is crucial to the disclosure
of important ontological and existential truths about the actual self. Rather than reject
the concept, we must take it seriously, uncover its normative ontological grounding, and
seek to incorporate it into attempts to understand the actual self.
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34 History of the Human Sciences 23(4)

Note
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the three anonymous reviewers from History of the
Human Sciences for their detailed and very helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.
1. It must be recognized, however, that in her own analysis of alienation, Papastephanou does not
follow what is, on her reading, Hegels binary opposition between the positivity of Entausser-
ung and the negativity of Entfremdung. Instead, she inverts this distinction and holds that the
process of Entausserung is wholly negative while Entfremdung is a necessary factor in knowl-
edge acquisition and critical self-consciousness (Papastephanou, 2001: 81). This, however,
does not alter the fact that her analysis fails to explicitly recognize that, in the Phenomenology
of Spirit, Hegel does not simply hold that certain forms of alienation are wholly negative and
others wholly positive. His point is subtler than this in so far as he shows that the experience of
all forms of alienation ultimately contributes to the journey to Absolute Knowing that enables
consciousness to overcome its self-alienation.

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Biographical Note
Gavin Rae recently completed his doctorate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of
Warwick, England. His doctoral thesis, entitled Hegel, Sartre, & the Ontological Structure of
Consciousness, provided a critical, comparative analysis of the different ways that Hegel and
Sartre understand that consciousness can be alienated. In broader terms, he is interested in all
aspects of post-Kantian continental philosophy, but especially in philosophies of individual and
social transformation.

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