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Alienation refers to the estrangement that occurs in the relation between an individual and that to which he or she is relating. This break in the relation occurs in a variety of forms, such as the estrangements between an individual and his or her social community, natural environment, own self, or even God. As a psychological and theological notion, alienation has its origins in both classical philosophy and Christian theology. As a more specifically philosophical term, the idea became prominent in the nineteenth century beginning with G. W. F. Hegel and developed further, though in different directions, by Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. In the twentieth century, the notion was further explored, particularly in the schools of phenomenology and existentialism, which included thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Christian theologians have suggested that the three levels of alienation (individual alienation from one's own self, social alienation from one another, and environmental alienation from all things) can be addressed by restoring the "image of God" (Genesis 1:27-28), lost due to the human fall, at three different levels of relationship: as an individual being who is true to the God within the self, as a social being in relationship to others, and as a natural being who lives in harmony with all creation.


Historical Origins

Classical philosophy

Although the philosophical notion of alienation was not fully developed until the modern period, it has its roots in classical thought. In the Republic, for example, Plato considers the psyche of the human soul as being a tripartite relation between reason, emotion, and the senses. A human being, then, only achieves psychological harmony or happiness through a rightly ordered soul that balances these parts in the appropriate manner. Plato develops this ideal order not only psychologically, but socially and politically as well. For in the ideal Polis there should be a similar harmony or order where each part is in concord with the whole and so members of each class maintain their proper station. The Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus, push this Platonic notion further in an ontological and quasi-mystical direction, where the rightly ordered soul is properly attuned to the Good or One. For this reason, whenever the soul directs its reason, desire, or attention to lower things it results in a form of alienation.

Christian theology

In the classical Christian tradition, alienation is developed even further in a theological direction. Here alienation is understood as the estrangement of the individual soul from God, which initially occurred through original sin and the fall of humanity. Saint Augustine succinctly captures the basic idea in his famous phrase in the opening of Confessions where he states, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Throughout Confessions Augustine offers a philosophical autobiographical analysis of his own self-estrangement in which his will is divided or torn in many directions. Throughout the work, St. Augustine describes his process of conversion or transformation in which both the will and reason are redirected toward their proper origin and end, namely, God. Only in this way, then, is the alienation of self and the dividedness of the soul finally overcome.

Nineteenth-century Alienation

Hegel and dialectical alienation

In Hegel, the notion of alienation is developed through his interpretation of history as a dialectical unfolding of Spirit (Geist). In its initial historical stages, Spirit is understood as divorced from the objective world and so suffers a kind of alienation from itself. In other words, to view the world as an “objective reality” separated from my consciousness is merely a form of alienation. Likewise, to view my consciousness as separate from Universal consciousness (rather than being a “moment” of it) is also a form of alienation. The overcoming of alienation occurs, then, as self-consciousness increases by recognizing that the external world is not separate from the interiority of consciousness. Over time and through the development of cultures Spirit realizes itself through higher forms and manifestations of consciousness and self-knowledge. This same dialectical relation holds in the development of the social, political, and ethical domains as well. Here too, alienation is overcome in the increasing recognition of the unity of relations which culminates in the recognition that the “I is the We, and the We the I.” Ultimately, though, Hegel gives priority to philosophy and thought such that the highest unity and self-fulfillment occurs in the absolute knowledge of self-consciousness.

Kierkegaard and the existential alienation of self

Although inheriting certain aspects of Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Kierkegaard strongly objected to Hegel’s rationalism as well as his subsuming of the individual person within the collective or social whole. In contrast, Kierkegaard emphasized the existential singularity of the human person, and argued that the task of the self is the overcoming of alienation through its own self-becoming. Kierkegaard too considered the individual as alienated, but not because he or she has not been properly amalgamated within the collective whole. Rather, Kierkegaard argued that such social amalgamation is itself a deceptive form of alienation. For more often than not, the uniqueness of the individual in his or her particularity is stifled or suppressed by the demands of the social structure. Here, then, a deeper form of alienation is exposed as the self’s conformity to social demands. In becoming an authentic self, then, Kierkegaard hearkens back to a more Augustinian Christian theology where faith is understood as the absolute relation to the Absolute. This relation, which is the immediacy of faith, transcends the individual’s relation to society as a social self. In contrast, this absolute relation to the Absolute sets one on the road to attaining a higher selfhood made possible only by God.

Marx and the alienated worker

The writing of Karl Marx was also greatly influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. Marx, however, stood Hegel’s dialectical idealism on its feet by reinterpreting it as dialectical materialism. Unlike Hegel’s rationalism, Marx puts the emphasis upon the economic, social, and political forces that are dialectically unfolding throughout history. In terms of alienation, Marx directed his critique at capitalism, which, as a force, alienates the worker in a number of ways. First, the modes of production that were being developed during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century resulted in the worker being alienated from the product he was producing; for not only was he isolated from the final product by being limited to an isolated part in the production, but he was also cut off from the fruits of the labor in term of profit. Moreover, the worker was alienated from the activity of the labor. Isolated to a mundane and usually repetitious function in the process of production, the worker’s labor was restricted to a mechanistic rather than human employment (such as craftsmanship being replaced by the machinery of mass production). Finally, there occurred the alienation between human persons in terms of the employer-employee relation. Here, Marx’s general critique of capitalism can be seen in common economic terms such as “human expenditures” or “human resources” where real human beings are reduced to the logic of assets and liabilities, profits, and losses. Insofar as Marx’s view of history is interpreted as teleologically moving toward a utopia, alienation will be overcome when capitalism is replaced by some form of communism.

Twentieth-Century Existential Alienation

Heidegger and ontological alienation

In the twentieth century, the notion of alienation assumed much attention, particularly in existential philosophy. Martin Heidegger, for example, focused on a kind of “ontological alienation” in which human beings are often “fallen” in their own modes of understanding. Heidegger analyzes certain phenomena such as “idle talk,” “everydayness,” and “the they.” Briefly stated, idle talk or chatter occurs whenever a topic or subject is discussed in the everyday attitude of ‘the they’. In other words, the subject is talked about as “the already known”; for instance, as in, “you know what they say.” ‘The they’, then, represents a kind of anonymous authority who are “in the know.” In such a mode, there is nothing new to question or discover for it has all already been said and so merely needs to be repeated. Heidegger contrasts this alienated or fallen understanding with his concept of authenticity. In authenticity, a more original mode of questioning occurs as a kind of openness or wonder to that which is under discussion. The alienation of idle talk is overcome through an authentic discourse which makes the subject under discussion one’s own. As Heidegger says, “Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own.”

It is precisely making this thing one’s own, in one’s own self-understanding, that an authentic understanding is achieved.

Sartre and ethical alienation

Like Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre speaks of alienation and authenticity but interprets the terms in a more ethical manner. For Sartre, alienation occurs in the “bad faith” that refuses the responsibility and freedom of human existence. As an outright atheist, Sartre argues that because God does not exist, human beings are free to create the meaning and value of their lives. Such freedom, however, is initially experienced as a tremendous burden when they realize that they have no one but themselves to rely on. Only humans, then, can be praised or blamed for their successes and failures in life and whatever meaning they do or do not achieve. Alienation occurs when humans refuse to accept responsibility for this freedom. They can either deny the actuality of whom they are (based on their past choices) or else deny the possibility of who they might become (through our future choices). Authenticity is achieved (and so alienation overcome) by not taking flight in the face of this existential anxiety or dread. Instead humans assume responsibility for their choices and in turn the creation of their selves.

Religion and Overcoming Alienation

It can be understood from above that a variety of views of alienation have historically been suggested, ranging from Christian to Marxist views. All of them, however, seem to be able to be put under three main categories: alienation from one's own self (Plato, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre); alienation from one another (Hegel, Marx); and alienation from all things (Hegel, Marx). According to a 2004 Vatican statement,"[1] the three categories of alienation can be explained in terms of the lack of the "image of God," a biblical notion in Genesis 1:27-28. This understanding of alienation has become widespread in Christianity.[2] Alienation from one's own self occurs when one fails to accomplish an authentic self in the image of God, often mistakenly clinging to an "objectified" God. Alienation from one another means the failure to realize true human and social relationships in the image of God, oftentimes only sticking to an externalized structure or system in society. Alienation from all things is the absence of one's genuine relations with all things in the image of God, not being able to claim true stewardship. Hence the key to solving the problem consists in restoring the image of God, damaged by the human fall, at three different levels of relationship: one's individual relationship to oneself, one's human relationship to another, and one's relationship to the creation. This presupposes that the image of God is a real source of relationship, being "essential dialogical or relational in its ontological structure,"[3] and that Genesis 1:27-28 talks about the three levels of relationship based on this image of God, when it says:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (NIV).

Restoring all the three levels of relationship is important, and none of them should be excluded in favor of the others. But, there seems to be some need for prioritization, because restoring the last two without first realizing the first would be difficult. Thus, for example, it would be hard to solve the type of alienation in an unjust society pointed out by Marx without first accomplishing an authentic self in the image of God. Existentialist religions such as Buddhism agree on the priority of the enlightened self before tackling the other two kinds of alienation.[4]


  1. "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God." Vatican Library. Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  2. See, for example, Grace Family Ministry: "Imago Dei" Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  3. "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.".Vatican Library. Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  4. Robert Hattam. Awakening-Struggle: Towards A Buddhist Critical Social Theory. (Flaxton: PostPressed, 2004. 978-1876682574 ).


  • Augustine, Saint. Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin, 1961. ISBN 014044114X
  • Hattam, Robert. Awakening-Struggle: Towards A Buddhist Critical Social Theory. Flaxton: PostPressed, 2004. 978-1876682574
  • Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. ISBN 0198245971
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. ISBN 0060638508
  • Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. ISBN 0691020280
  • Marx, Karl. Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0198782659
  • Plato. The Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. ISBN 0872201368
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415278481

External Links

All links retrieved September 20, 2012.

General Philosophy Sources


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