Philosophy as Alienation

by Carl Pierer

Sartre2In the book “Existentialism – A Reconstruction” David E. Cooper devotes an entire chapter to inquiring the relation between philosophy and alienation. Cooper's interest is to make the point that “the issues of alienation are pivotal in existentialist thought” ([1], p.31). To do so, he includes a brief sketch of Hegel's and Marx' ideas concerning alienation. In line with these two thinkers, Cooper gives a rough outline for an argument that alienation is at the heart of the philosophical adventure. Since he is right in claiming that this take on philosophy amounts to a drastic shift in perspective for the (analytic) philosophy student, the idea deserves to be argued for.

The term “alienation” is strongly associated with the allegedly impenetrable, obscurantist writings of thinkers such as Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre. Sentences like “(…) the terminology in which I have so far discussed alienation – ‘at home with', ‘separated from', etc. – is both vague and figurative. It may be that the sense of alienation is resistant to literal, analytical definition” ([1], p. 25) hardly make the concept more palatable. Yet, in spite of many different thinkers stretching the concept of alienation to fit their needs, it seems that there is a core which can be distilled. The aim is not to find a one size fits all, but to establish a tentative runway from which the various writers can take off. In this context, such a proposed fundament must be general and abstract enough so as to account for various pulls into different directions. However, a rigorous stress test would go beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, testing the proposed definition with Marx and Heidegger, two writers in whose thinking alienation plays a crucial role, will have to suffice. With a sketched definition of alienation an argument for understanding philosophy as an attempt to overcome alienation, rather than acquiring knowledge, can be proposed.

Upon encountering the world, there is – at the very least – a perceived dichotomy. On the one hand, there is something that belongs to me, and there is something external to me. There is an I and a not-I. To realise this is to experience alienation. To take up Bertrand Russell's example in his Problems of Philosophy: “(…) let us concentrate our attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives a wooden sound.” ([2], p. 11) For the sake of argument, let us grant Russell the concept of table, of sense data, etc. Even if we strip ourselves of scepticism about these, there is an object presupposed. A something we can concentrate our attention on. This subject-object distinction is inherent in the grammatical structure of transitive verbs. To see means to see something. Without leaving the surface level, it appears that – intuitively, in our way of living – we distinguish between two entities: the I and the not-I. Alienation, then, denotes the partition of our existence into these two subsets.


As sketched in the famous essay “Estranged Labour” in “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, Marx sees alienation as four-fold. He is concerned with the labourer's alienation from a) the product of her labour, b) the labour itself, c) species being and d) from other human beings.

a) The labourer produces something, which is outside her: “The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor.” ([3], p. 108).

b) Her labour, the “producing activity”, is external. This is because work is not essential to her being, as Marx remarks with a pun: “He [i.e. the labourer] is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.” ([3], p. 110) Furthermore, labour is not good in and of itself, but rather a means to obtain some other good. “Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another” ([3], p. 111).

c) Estranged labour as an activity alienates the labourer from her species. Marx claims that “(…) free, conscious activity is man's species character” ([3], p. 113). The problem lies not so much with labour in general, as with the particular form taken by the worker. Because the object of her work is taken away, because she does not retain what she has produced, she cannot possibly realise herself in her labour. Rather, labour is conceived as something to get done, in order to then dwell in a different activity; crudely put: “Business before pleasure”. Therefore, Marx continues, “estranged labor turns (…) Man's species being, both nature and his spiritual species property, into a being alien to him, into a means to his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual essence, his human being.” ([3], p. 114)

d) Because of alienating the labourer from her species, estranged labour also estranges her from fellow humans.

These four aspects of alienation evoked by estranged labour are grounded in the underlying partition into an I and a not-I. This is particularly clear with Marx's talk of “the objectification of labour”. For Marx, the alienation happens when the labourer's creation is snapped away from her. This is the point at which the created becomes an object independent of the creator, the labourer. The product of her working has ceased to be hers, it is now a distinct entity. Thus, she is alienated from it. In the light of the second aspect, work appears as a means to obtain some other good. Work is not essential to the labourer, it serves as a tool. Again, it is instantiated as something distinct from the labourer, by the help of which she can acquire what she really wants. Because she is not ‘at home' when she is ‘at work', because the work has to be done, it is external to her. Her work manifests itself as outside her. This second alienating aspect of estranged labour relies on distinguishing between the I and the not-I. The argument for the third and fourth aspect is similar.

The concept Heidegger has in mind when writing about alienation, however, is very different. Indeed, he scarcely uses the term “Entfremdung”, applying it only to alienation from the self. In this restricted sense, Heidegger sees the Dasein as alienated from itself if it ignores its ownmost mode of existence. Alienated from itself, the Dasein does not recognise itself, it is “closed off”. “This ‘absorption in …' [Aufgehen bei …] has mostly the character of Being-lost in the publicness of the ‘they'. (…) ‘Fallenness' into the ‘world' means an absorption in Being-with-one-another (…)” ([4], p. 220). So, the Dasein as absorbed in the “they”, means that the Dasein does not perceive its own possibility. It is restricted by being with others, by taking up the impersonal “they”. What “they” do sets pathways for the Dasein. Since it does not realise its fallenness, it does not see that it has the possibility to “be more”, to act in a way different from the one prescribed by the “they”. Heidegger's expressions here have bad connotations, but still he distances himself from any evaluative claim whatsoever. Rather, as Cooper points out: “'Fallenness', life ‘in the “they”', is (…) a necessary, a priori feature of Being-in-the-world.” ([1], p. 112) Fallenness alienates the Dasein from itself, because it mistakes one mode of being as its mode of being. Alienation for Heidegger is a misunderstanding about the nature of Dasein.

Matters are a bit more complicated with Heidegger than with Marx because here the alienation, the split into I and not-I, is internal to the Dasein. In the “they”, there is a distinction made for the Dasein between things permissible and things impossible. On the one hand, there is a mode of being for the Dasein in the “they”. This is perceived to be part of the Dasein, it is its I. On the other hand, there is a realm of possibilities that are perceived as impossible, because people (“they”) don't do that (cf. [4], pp. 163-159). Here, this is beyond the reach of the Dasein, it is not-I. But because this line partitions modes of being of the Dasein into two classes, Dasein is alienated from itself (rather than from something external to it).


There seems to be a strong attraction to recount philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge. It is no coincidence that Simon Blackburn opens his introduction to philosophy with a chapter on knowledge: “Perhaps the most unsettling thought most of us have, often quite early on in childhood, is that the whole world might be a dream; that the ordinary scenes and objects of everyday life might be fantasies.” ([5], p. 9) Or consider Russell again, in his opening chapter “Appearance and Reality”: “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?” ([2], p. 8?) To these thinkers it seems philosophy is first and foremost concerned with questions about knowledge: what do we know, how do we know, what can we know? Against this conception, Cooper suggests that epistemological questions are derivative of the much more pressing problem of alienation. A philosopher cannot take up a stone in her hand and wonder “Is this stone real?” without first positing the alienating split into I and not-I. The problem of whether the stone exists as it appears to me arises precisely because the stone is not part of myself. To deal with the questions asked as starting points by Blackburn and Russell is just to tackle one of the faces of alienation. As Cooper writes: “What is really disturbing in Descartes' ‘methodological doubt' is not that it gets people to wonder seriously if the world exists. Indeed, one must ask with Wittgenstein and Heidegger what it would be like to entertain such worries. Can one even pretend to entertain them? How could such doubts, ‘idle' at best, be the well-spring of philosophy?” ([1], p. 23) Rather, the uncanny implication is that the world is not essential to my being. Suddenly, I could be independent of the world, whether real or deceptive illusion. Cartesian doubt understood in this way splits the world into two separate realms, the I and the not-I. This, Cooper's rereading of Descartes, points to a major shortcoming of the epistemological construal: It is based on the more basic, alienating approach to the world.

It might be asked why this should be seen as a flaw. Granted that understanding philosophy epistemologically is based off a primary alienation, why should this be a problem for the traditional construal? By depicting the philosopher as standing before the world in awe, trying to figure out what he can know about it, this picture fails to capture the initial motivation for philosophical inquiry. However, missing the starting point means to lose one's footing. Taking the search for knowledge seriously implies asking about the origins of philosophy. Wanting to know includes wanting to know why one wanted to know in the first place. But the thirst for knowledge is not self-quenching; the circularity of knowing for its own sake is not satisfying because this is an arbitrary shortcut. Anything can be explained self-referentially: A is because A is. There needs to be an external source, which is provided by the concept of alienation.

Considering philosophy as dealing with alienation has further advantage. The role of alienation has been widely ignored in the analytic tradition. Continental schools have been dismissed as obscure, lacking methodology or plainly literature. However, if philosophy's first concern is alienation in its variety (from emotional to metaphysical), then approaches such as Existentialism have as much to say about it as, say, Virtue Epistemology.

With these rough ideas philosophy as alienation should appear at least as an alternative way of looking at philosophy. More work needs to be done to spell out what exactly alienation is and, perhaps more importantly, how or if different aspects of alienation relate to one core concept.


[1]: Cooper, D. E. (1999). Existentialism – A Reconstruction. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

[2]: Russell, B. (1945). The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

[3]: Marx, K. (1970). Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. (D. J. Struik, Ed.) London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.

[4]: Heidegger, Martin (2001). Being and Time. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

[5]: Blackburn, Simon (1999). Think. Oxford University Press.