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Rahel Jaeggi, Frederick Neuhouser, Alan Smith, Frederick Neuhouser

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Rahel Jaeggi, Frederick Neuhouser, Alan Smith, Frederick Neuhouser

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The Hegelian-Marxist idea of alienation fell out of favor after the postmetaphysical rejection of humanism and essentialist views of human nature. In this book Rahel Jaeggi draws on the Hegelian philosophical tradition, phenomenological analyses grounded in modern conceptions of agency, and recent work in the analytical tradition to reconceive alienation as the absence of a meaningful relationship to oneself and others, which manifests in feelings of helplessness and the despondent acceptance of ossified social roles and expectations.

A revived approach to alienation helps critical social theory engage with phenomena such as meaninglessness, isolation, and indifference. By severing alienation's link to a problematic conception of human essence while retaining its social-philosophical content, Jaeggi provides resources for a renewed critique of social pathologies, a much-neglected concern in contemporary liberal political philosophy. Her work revisits the arguments of Rousseau, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, placing them in dialogue with Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, and Charles Taylor.

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ALIENATION IS A RELATION OF relationlessness. This, condensed into a very brief and abstract formulation, is the starting point of my reflections here. According to this formulation, alienation does not indicate the absence of a relation but is itself a relation, if a deficient one. Conversely, overcoming alienation does not mean returning to an undifferentiated state of oneness with oneself and the world; it too is a relation: a relation of appropriation. The principal idea underlying my reconstruction of the concept of alienation is the following: in order to make the concept of alienation fruitful once again, we must give a formal account of it. In contrast to providing a substantial definition of what one is alienated from in relations of alienation, it is the character of this relation itself that must be defined; what the concept of alienation allows us to diagnose is various ways in which relations of appropriation are disturbed. These relations of appropriation must be understood as productive relations, as open processes in which appropriation always means both the integration and transformation of what is given. Alienation is a failure to apprehend, and a halting of, the movement of appropriation. It is possible, using these ideas, to give a consistent account of processes of alienation without recourse to an Archimedean point beyond alienation.
With this approach, I will argue, it is possible to overcome two problems the theory of alienation frequently confronts: on the one hand, its essentialism and its perfectionist orientation around a conception of the essence or nature of human beings (or an objectivistically conceived ideal of the good life); on the other hand, the ideal of reconciliation—the ideal of a unity free of tension—that seems to be bound up with alienation critique when it takes the form of social theory or of a theory of identity. Regarding alienation as a relation of disturbed or inhibited appropriation of world and self brings into view an illuminating connection between freedom and alienation. Insofar as freedom presupposes that one can make what one does, and the conditions under which one does it, one’s own, overcoming alienation is a necessary condition of realizing freedom.
The first part of this study seeks to introduce the problem domain marked off by the concept of alienation. It first goes into (1) the various dimensions of the concept and of the phenomenon of alienation—into how alienation reveals itself both in everyday language and in philosophical treatment of the concept. This will be deepened with the help of (2) a more precise consideration of alienation’s theoretical starting points and of how they are arrived at both in Marx’s theory and in Heidegger’s existential ontology. Against this background, after the concept’s potential as a foundational concept of social philosophy has been revealed, (3) its structure as well as the problems associated with it will be discussed. Finally, I will outline (4) my suggestions for reconstructing the concept as carried out in the remainder of the book.
THE CONCEPT OF ALIENATION REFERS to an entire bundle of intertwined topics. Alienation means indifference and internal division, but also powerlessness and relationlessness with respect to oneself and to a world experienced as indifferent and alien. Alienation is the inability to establish a relation to other human beings, to things, to social institutions and thereby also—so the fundamental intuition of the theory of alienation—to oneself. An alienated world presents itself to individuals as insignificant and meaningless, as rigidified or impoverished, as a world that is not one’s own, which is to say, a world in which one is not “at home” and over which one can have no influence. The alienated subject becomes a stranger to itself; it no longer experiences itself as an “actively effective subject” but a “passive object” at the mercy of unknown forces.1 One can speak of alienation “wherever individuals do not find themselves in their own actions”2 or wherever we cannot be master over the being that we ourselves are (as Heidegger might have put it). The alienated person, according to the early Alasdair MacIntyre, is “a stranger in the world that he himself has made.”3
Even in our first encounters with the topic we can see that alienation is a concept with “fuzzy edges.” The family resemblances and overlaps with other concepts such as reification, inauthenticity, and anomie say as much about the domain within which the concept operates as do the complicated relations among the various meanings it has taken on in both everyday and philosophical language. If the “experiential content” of the concept feeds off of the historical and social experiences that have found expression in it,4 it is also the case that, as a philosophical concept, alienation has influenced the interpretations of self and world held by individuals and social movements. These “impure” mixes make for a diverse field of phenomena that can be associated with the concept of alienation.5
■ As linguistic usage would have it, one is alienated from oneself insofar as one does not behave as one “genuinely” is but instead “artificially” and “inauthentically” or insofar as one is guided by desires that in a certain respect are not “one’s own” or are not experienced as such. One lives then (already according to Rousseau’s critical diagnosis) “in the opinions of others” rather than “in oneself.” According to this conception, role behavior and conformism count, for example, as alienated or inauthentic; but talk of “false needs” by critics of consumerism also belongs to the domain of phenomena that can be theorized as alienation.
■ “Alienated” describes relations that are not entered into for their own sake, as well as activities with which one cannot “identify.” The worker who thinks only of quitting time, the academic who publishes solely with a view toward the citation index, the doctor who cannot for a moment forget her fee scale—all are alienated from what they do. And someone who cultivates a friendship only because it serves her own interests has an alienated relation to the person she takes to be her friend.
■ Talk of alienation can also refer to detachment from one’s social involvements. In this sense one can become alienated from one’s life partner or from one’s family, from one’s place of origin, or from a community or a cultural milieu. More specifically, we speak of alienation when someone cannot identify with—grasp as “her own”—the social or political institutions in which she lives. Social isolation or excessive demands for privacy can also be regarded as symptoms of alienation. Slightly romanticized, alienation is sometimes understood as an expression of “rootlessness” and “homelessness,” which conservative cultural critics trace back to the complexity or anonymity of modern life or to the “artificiality” of a world that is experienced only through the lens of public media.
■ The depersonalization and reification of relations among humans, as well as of their relations to the world, counts as alienated insofar as these relations are no longer immediate but are instead (for example) mediated by money, insofar as they are not “concrete” but “abstract,” insofar as they are not inalienable but objects of exchange. The commodification of goods or domains that were previously not objects of market exchange is an example of alienation in this sense. The claim that bourgeois society, dominated by relations of equivalence (as Adorno might have put it), destroys the uniqueness of things and of human beings, destroys their particularity and nonfungibility, is a critique of alienation that one encounters even beyond the boundaries of Marxism.
■ Alienation means—a dominant theme already in Goethe’s time—the loss of the “whole human being,” the fragmentation and narrowing of activities produced by a specialized division of labor as well as the failure to realize human capacities and expressive possibilities that arise from it. As a mere “cog in the machine,” the alienated worker is deindividualized and carries out a narrow, partial function within a larger process he cannot see in its entirety and over which he has no control.
■ Relationships can be described as alienated in which institutions appear as all-powerful or where systemic constraints appear to provide no place for free action. In this sense alienation or reification refers to a condition in which relations take on an independent existence (Verselbständigung) that stand over and against those who constitute them.6 The “dead marriage” is in this sense just as much a phenomenon of alienation as certain administrative boards in modern democracies; the same holds for the “iron cage” of welfare state bureaucracy or when economic constraints eliminate possibilities for free action.
■ The “absurd” can also be regarded as belonging to the family of phenomena covered by the term alienation. The characters created by Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus are only the most well-known literary examples of individuals who experience utter detachment and meaninglessness.
What then is alienation? “It seems that whenever he feels that something is not as it should be, he characterizes it in terms of alienation.”7 This remark of Richard Schacht’s about Erich Fromm seems an apt description of how the concept is often used (and not only by Fromm). However, as varied as the aforementioned phenomena might be, they provide an initial sketch of the concept of alienation. An alienated relation is a deficient relation one has to oneself, to the world, and to others. Indifference, instrumentalization, reification, absurdity, artificiality, isolation, meaninglessness, impotence—all these ways of characterizing the relations in question are forms of this deficiency. A distinctive feature of the concept of alienation is that it refers not only to powerlessness and a lack of freedom but also to a characteristic impoverishment of the relation to self and world. (This is how we should understand the dual meaning Marx means to convey when he describes alienation in terms of the “double loss of reality” of the world and the human being: having become unreal, the individual fails to experience herself as “effective,” and the world, having become unreal, is meaningless and indifferent.) It is the complexity of these interrelations that has made alienation into the key concept of diagnoses of the crisis of modernity and one of the foundational concepts of social philosophy.
As an expression of a crisis in contemporary consciousness (as Hegel might have regarded it), the modern discussion of alienation stretches from Rousseau and Schiller, via Hegel, to Kierkegaard and Marx. Elevated to the “sickness of civilization par excellence,”8 alienation became, from the eighteenth century onward, a cipher used to communicate the “uncertainty, fragmentation, and internal division” in humans’ relations to themselves and to the world that accompanied the growth of industrialization. It was this diagnosis that Marx captured in his theory of alienation and put to work in his critique of capitalism. And the “modern human’s loss of an essential definition or calling” shapes the existentialist question,9 deriving from Kierkegaard, of what it means both to be oneself and to lose oneself. To this tradition, experiences of indifference and radical foreignness appear as nothing less than an ontologically situated misapprehension of the world and the human’s relation to self and world, which, despite all divergences from the Marxian diagnosis, also has something in common with it. Diagnoses of alienation in their modern form always concern (for example) freedom and self-determination and the failure to realize them. Understood in this way, alienation is not simply a problem of modernity but also a modern problem.
One could give a (very) short history of the modern theory of alienation as follows:
1. Even if the term itself is absent, Rousseau’s works contain all the key ideas that theories of alienation (in the social-philosophical sense), both past and present, have relied on.10 Rousseau begins his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men” (1755) with a striking image: “Like the statue of Glaucus, which time, sea, and storms had so disfigured that it less resembled a God than a ferocious Beast, the human soul, the human soul altered in the lap of society by a thousand forever recurring causes, by the acquisition of a mass of knowledge and errors, by the changes that have taken place in the constitution of Bodies, and by the continual impact of the passions, has, so to speak, changed in appearance, to the point of being almost unrecognizable.”11 The disfigurement Rousseau speaks of here is the deformation of human beings by society: with his nature divided, alienated from his own needs, subjected to the conformist dictates of society, in his need for recognition and with his sense of self-worth dependent on the opinions of others, the social human being is artificial and disfigured. The mutual dependence of civilized humans, their unlimited needs produced by social contact, and their finding their orientation in others give rise at once, according to Rousseau, to domination and enslavement as well as to a loss of authenticity and (self-) alienation—to a condition, in other words, directly opposed to the autonomy and authenticity of the state of nature, conceived as a condition of self-sufficiency.
There are two apparently opposed ideas that have made Rousseau’s thought influential as a theory of alienation: first, the development of the modern ideal of authenticity as an undisturbed agreement with oneself and one’s own nature and, second, the idea of social freedom, as expressed in Rousseau’s formulation of the principal task of the Social Contract. If in the Second Discourse Rousseau vividly describes the alienated character of (as he sees it there) the exclusively negative effects of socialization, he also, in the Social Contract, invents the normative ideal of an unalienated form of socialization. Without wanting to deny the tensions internal to Rousseau’s work, one could describe the connection between the two ideas as follows: the gap between authentic selfhood and society that Rousseau so eloquently articulated gives rise, in accordance with his own presuppositions, to an aporia that can be resolved only by establishing a condition in which individuals live within social institutions that they can experience as their own. On the one hand, the alienated human described by Rousseau loses herself insofar as she establishes relations to others: the natural human “lives within himself; sociable man always outside himself.”12 On the other hand, the human being can regain herself only through society. Since restoring the self-sufficiency of the state of nature—and with it a freedom that requires independence and detachment from others—comes at too high a price (the price of losing such specifically human qualities as reason and the capacity for reflection),13 the solution to the problem of alienation cannot lie in dissolving social bonds but only in transforming them. The mutual dependence of socialized individuals, experienced as alienating, must be reconfigured in accordance with the idea, set out in the ...

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