The term alienation has been used over the ages with varied and sometimes contradictory meanings. In ancient history it could mean a metaphysical sense of achieving a higher state of contemplation, ecstasy or union—becoming alienated from a limited existence in the world, in a positive sense. Examples of this usage have been traced to neoplatonic philosophers such as Plotinus (in the Greek alloiosis). There have also long been religious concepts of being separated or cut off from God and the faithful, alienated in a negative sense. The New Testament mentions the term apallotrioomai in Greek—"being alienated from". Ideas of estrangement from a Golden Age, or due to a fall of man, or approximate equivalents in differing cultures or religions, have also been described as concepts of alienation. A double positive and negative sense of alienation is broadly shown in the spiritual beliefs referred to as Gnosticism.
Alienation has also had a particular legal-political meaning since at least Ancient Roman times, where to alienate property (alienato) is to transfer ownership of it to someone else. The term alienation itself comes from the Latin alienus which meant 'of another place or person', which in turn came from alius, meaning "other" or "another". An alienus in ancient Roman times could refer to someone else's slave. Another usage of the term in Ancient Greco-Roman times was by physicians referring to disturbed, difficult or abnormal states of mind, generally attributed to imbalanced physiology. In Latin alienatio mentis (mental alienation), this usage has been dated to Asclepiades. Once translations of such works had resurfaced in the West in the 17th century, physicians again began using the term, which is typically attributed to Felix Platter.
In medieval times, a relationship between alienation and social order has been described, mediated in part by mysticism and monasticism. The Crusades and witch-hunts have been described as forms of mass alienation.
In the 17th century, Hugo Grotius put forward the concept that everyone has 'sovereign authority' over themselves but that they could alienate that natural right to the common good, an early social contract theory. In the 18th century, Hutcheson introduced a distinction between alienable and unalienable rights in the legal sense of the term. Rousseau published influential works on the same theme, and is also seen as having popularized a more psychological-social concept relating to alienation from a state of nature due to the expansion of civil society or the nation state.
In the same century a law of alienation of affection was introduced for men to seek compensation from other men accused of taking away 'their' woman.
In the history of literature, the German Romantics appear to be the first group of writers and poets in whose work the concept of alienation is regularly found. Around the start of the 19th century, Hegel popularized a Christian (Lutheran) and Idealist philosophy of alienation. He used German terms in partially different senses, referring to a psychological state and an objective process, and in general posited that the self was an historical and social creation, which becomes alienated from itself via a perceived objective world, but can become de-alienated again when that world is seen as just another aspect of the self-consciousness, which may be achieved by self-sacrifice to the common good.
Around the same time, Pinel was popularizing a new understanding of mental alienation, particularly through his 'medical-philosophical treatise'. He argued that people could be disturbed (alienated) by emotional states and social conditions, without necessarily having lost (become alienated from) their reason, as had generally been assumed. Hegel praised Pinel for his 'moral treatment' approach, and developed related theories. Nevertheless, as Foucault would later write, '...in an obscure, shared origin, the 'alienation' of physicians and the 'alienation' of philosophers started to take shape — two configurations in which man in any case corrupts his truth, but between which, after Hegel, the nineteenth century stopped seeing any trace of resemblance.'
Two camps formed following Hegel, the 'young' or 'left' Hegelians who developed his philosophy to support innovations in politics or religion, and the 'old' or 'right' Hegelians who took his philosophy in a politically and religiously conservative direction. The former camp has had a more lasting influence and, among them, Feuerbach differed from Hegel in arguing that worship of God is itself a form of alienation, because it projects human qualities on to an external idea, rather than realising them as part of the self.
Marx was initially in the Young Hegelian camp and, like Feuerbach, rejected the spiritual basis, and adapted Hegel's dialectic model to a theory of (historical) materialism. Marx's theory of alienation is articulated most clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology (1846). The 'young' Marx wrote more often and directly of alienation than the 'mature' Marx, which some regard as an ideological break while others maintain that the concept remained central. There is generally held to be a transition from a philosophical-anthropological (Marxist humanism) concept (e.g. internal alienation from the self) to a structural-historical interpretation (e.g. external alienation by appropriation of labor), accompanied by a change in terminology from alienation to exploitation to commodity fetishism and reification. Marx's concepts of alienation have been classed into four types by Kostas Axelos: Economic and Social Alienation, Political Alienation, Human Alienation, and Ideological Alienation.
In the concept's most prominent use, it refers to the economic and social alienation aspect in which workers are disconnected from what they produce and why they produce. Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism. Essentially, there is an "exploitation of men by men" where the division of labor creates an economic hierarchy (Axelos, 1976: 58). His theory of alienation was based upon his observation that in emerging industrial production under capitalism, workers inevitably lose control of their lives and selves by not having any control of their work. Workers never become autonomous, self-realized human beings in any significant sense, except in the way the bourgeoisie wants the worker to be realized. His theory relies on Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841), which argues that the idea of God has alienated the characteristics of the human being. Stirner would take the analysis further in The Ego and Its Own (1844), declaring that even 'humanity' is an alienating ideal for the individual, to which Marx and Engels responded in The German Ideology (1845). Alienation in capitalist societies occurs because in work each contributes to the common wealth but they can only express this fundamentally social aspect of individuality through a production system that is not publicly social but privately owned, for which each individual functions as an instrument, not as a social being. Kostas Axelos summarizes that for Marx, in capitalism "work renders man an alien to himself and to his own products." "The malaise of this alienation from the self means that the worker does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy....The worker only feels himself outside his work, and in his work he feels outside himself....Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is avoided like the plague.". Marx also wrote, in a curtailed manner, that capitalist owners also experience alienation, through benefiting from the economic machine by endlessly competing, exploiting others and maintaining mass alienation in society.
The idea of Political Alienation refers to the idea that "politics is the form that organizes the productive forces of the economy" in a way that is alienating because it "distorts the logic of economic development".
In Human Alienation, individuals become estranged to themselves in the quest to stay alive, where "they lose their true existence in the struggle for subsistence" (Axelos, 1976: 111). Marx focuses on two aspects of human nature which he calls "historical conditions." The first aspect refers to the necessity of food, clothes, shelter, and more. Secondly, Marx believes that after satisfying these basic needs people have the tendency to develop more "needs" or desires that they will work towards satisfying, hence, humans become stuck in a cycle of never ending wants which makes them strangers to each other.
When referring to ideological alienation, Axelos proposes that Marx believes that all religions divert people away from "their true happiness" and instead turn them towards "illusory happiness".
There is a commonly noted problem of translation in grappling with ideas of alienation derived from German-language philosophical texts: the word alienation, and similar words such as estrangement, are often used interchangeably to translate two distinct German words, Entfremdung and Entäußerung. The former means specifically interpersonal estrangement, while the latter can have a broader and more active meaning that might refer also to externalization, relinquishment, or sale (alienation) of property. In general, and contrary to his predecessors, Marx may have used the terms interchangeably, though he also wrote "Entfremdung...constitutes the real interest of this Entäußerung."
Late 1800s to 1900s
Many sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were concerned about alienating effects of modernization. German sociologists Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies wrote critical works on individualization and urbanization. Simmel's The Philosophy of Money describes how relationships become more and more mediated by money. Tönnies' Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (Community and Society) is about the loss of primary relationships such as familial bonds in favour of goal-oriented, secondary relationships. This idea of alienation can be observed in some other contexts, although the term may not be as frequently used. In the context of an individual's relationships within society, alienation can mean the unresponsiveness of society as a whole to the individuality of each member of the society. When collective decisions are made, it is usually impossible for the unique needs of each person to be taken into account.
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted a major study of alienation in modern society with White Collar in 1951, describing how modern consumption-capitalism has shaped a society where you have to sell your personality in addition to your work. Melvin Seeman was part of a surge in alienation research during the mid-20th century when he published his paper, "On the Meaning of Alienation", in 1959 (Senekal, 2010b: 7–8). Seeman used the insights of Marx, Emile Durkheim and others to construct what is often considered a model to recognize the five prominent features of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement (Seeman, 1959). Seeman later added a sixth element (cultural estrangement), although this element does not feature prominently in later discussions of his work.
In a broader philosophical context, especially in existentialism and phenomenology, alienation describes the inadequacy of the human being (or the mind) in relation to the world. The human mind (as the subject who perceives) sees the world as an object of perception, and is distanced from the world, rather than living within it. This line of thought is generally traced to the works of Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, who, from a Christian viewpoint, saw alienation as separation from God, and also examined the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. Many 20th-century philosophers (both theistic and atheistic) and theologians were influenced by Kierkegaard's notions of angst, despair and the importance of the individual. Martin Heidegger's concepts of anxiety (angst) and mortality drew from Kierkegaard; he is indebted to the way Kierkegaard lays out the importance of our subjective relation to truth, our existence in the face of death, the temporality of existence and the importance of passionately affirming one's being-in-the-world. Jean-Paul Sartre described the "thing-in-itself" which is infinite and overflowing, and claimed that any attempt to describe or understand the thing-in-itself is "reflective consciousness". Since there is no way for the reflective consciousness to subsume the pre-reflective, Sartre argued that all reflection is fated to a form of anxiety (i.e. the human condition). As well, Sartre argued that when a person tries to gain knowledge of the "Other" (meaning beings or objects that are not the self), their self-consciousness has a "masochistic desire" to be limited. This is expressed metaphorically in the line from the play No Exit, "Hell is other people".
In the theory of psychoanalysis developed around the start of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud did not explicitly address the concept of alienation, but other analysts subsequently have. It is a theory of divisions and conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind, between different parts of a hypothetical psychic apparatus, and between the self and civilization. It postulates defense mechanisms, including splitting, in both normal and disturbed functioning. The concept of repression has been described as having functionally equivalent effects as the idea of false consciousness associated with Marxist theory.
A form of Western Marxism developed during the century, which included influential analyses of false consciousness by György Lukács. Critics of bureaucracy and the Protestant Ethic also drew on the works of Max Weber.
Figures associated with critical theory, in particular with the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm, also developed theories of alienation, drawing on neo-Marxist ideas as well as other influences including neo-Freudian and sociological theories. One approach applies Marxist theories of commodification to the cultural, educational and party-political spheres. Links are drawn between socioeconomic structures, psychological states of alienation, and personal human relationships. In the 1960s the revolutionary group Situationist International came to some prominence, staging 'situations' intended to highlight an alternative way of life to advanced capitalism, the latter conceptualized as a diffuse 'spectacle', a fake reality masking a degradation of human life. The Theory of Communicative Action associated with Jürgen Habermas emphasizes the essential role of language in public life, suggesting that alienation stems from the distortion of reasoned moral debate by the strategic dominance of market forces and state power.
This critical program can be contrasted with traditions that attempt to extract problems of alienation from the broader socioeconomic context, or which at least accept the broader context on its own terms, and which often attribute problems to individual abnormality or failures to adjust.
After the boom in alienation research that characterized the 1950s and 1960s, interest in alienation research subsided (Geyer, 1996: xii), although in sociology it was maintained by the Research Committee on Alienation of the International Sociological Association (ISA). In the 1990s, there was again an upsurge of interest in alienation prompted by the fall of the Soviet Union, globalization, the information explosion, increasing awareness of ethnic conflicts, and post-modernism (see Geyer, 1996). Geyer believes the growing complexity of the contemporary world and post-modernism prompted a reinterpretation of alienation that suits the contemporary living environment. In late 20th and early 21st century sociology, it has been particularly the works of Felix Geyer, Lauren Langman and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman that address the issue of alienation in the contemporary western world.