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Alienation describes an individual or social condition in which an originally natural relationship between humans is abolished, inverted, disturbed or destroyed. This can affect a person's relationship with himself, with his fellow human beings, with nature , with his work or the product of his work.

The term is a central component of cultural criticism .


The term goes back to the Latin words alienatio (alienation, alienation, giving away a thing in someone else's possession, rubbish) and alienare (alienate, alienate, divide, bring into foreign power, give into foreign hands) back, which is the classic bourgeois English political Economy the "alienation" of an object, which is thereby "alienated" from its producer, and the natural law theories of the social contract of the 18th century the "transfer" (the alienation, the "loss") of the original freedom to a power that is alien to the individual (Society, ruler).


  1. "Alienation" is the socially driven and irreversible process of appropriating nature and its material and spiritual transformation into culture, including the institutions that act as foreign-determined as soon as they dominate people and oppose their individual and collective desires.
  2. “Alienation” is also used to describe the individual feeling of isolation and isolation from all other living beings and things, which is capable of enhancement, and which people are able to achieve by virtue of their self-reflection, and which attempts are made to bridge through psychological constructs. Connections between these aspects exist in particular in the necessary opposing position of humans to nature and the resulting feelings of isolation and separation of the individual humans from everything else.
  3. “Alienation” “denotes becoming alienated (also alienating), whereby this alienation is a self-inflicted one, the own activity of the person - whether individual, group or humanity in general - who sees or is seen alienated is the cause of alienation, like it is one's own (or appropriated) that appears or acts strange . "( Achim Trebeß )
  4. Alienation is a central point of criticism of capitalism , especially with Karl Marx (based on Hegel ). In the context of his critique of work , he argues that man - through production that is only oriented towards profit (or surplus value ) - is alienated from his product as well as from himself, see also alienated work , reification and alienation .
  5. “Processes of alienation are inevitable in any development. Overcoming alienation is therefore part of the development of subjectivity as an anthropological constant. But humans are always at risk of not overcoming alienation. "(Jonas Wollenhaupt)
  6. “The concept of alienation is indispensable for social psychology, sociology and social philosophy. On the one hand, social suffering could otherwise hardly be adequately described, on the other hand, alienation is a historically recurring feeling that is indispensable for critical social theories. Alienation also marks an ethically necessary quantity of critical theory. "(Jonas Wollenhaupt)

In philosophy

The concept of alienation is a basic concept in philosophy. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece . The distinction between leisure and subservient activities can already be made out in Aristotle . The latter are fundamentally alienating, since the subject is not with himself in his activity. In the philosophical-theological theories of Gnosis and the Middle Ages , alienation then becomes alienation from God. Accordingly, this can only be overcome by a godly way of life. Only in the Renaissance is the self and with it self-alienation brought back into focus. In German philosophy, “alienation” denotes, on the one hand, the legal and economic sale of something, e.g. B. of possession and freedom , and on the other hand, the detachment from the only worldly , in preparation for the divine . In this sense, the term was marked positively and remained so until the 19th century, until the Romantic era and thanks to the Weimar Classicism, which was oriented towards antiquity . By the gods man was arranged in the all-embracing finitude of the universe . Romanticism's enthusiasm for the Middle Ages brought with it the negatively connoted alienation as the downside of freedom.

Alienation could also mean to be alienated from God , to be entangled in the physical and sensual and thus to show the state of human existence in principle in need of salvation . For Martin Luther (1545) and later Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1841) the life of the heathen in “far from God”, “ unbelief ”, “ignorance” and “delusion” is the alienated life. In the Bible , in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (4.18) it says:

"Their minds are darkened, and they are alienated from the life that is of God, through the ignorance that is in them and the hardening of their hearts."

In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal describes humans as cosmically alienated in the infinite universe. He stands in the middle between nothing and all, between infinite extremes that are united in God. Since one cannot get to one of these extremes, one should remain in the middle and think about these abysses. Like Augustine long before and later Søren Kierkegaard , Blaise Pascal pleaded for a Christian life in order to best meet the condition of an alienated world established by original sin .

Jean-Jacques Rousseau also uses the term “alienation” in its original legal and economic sense . The human individual passed from the natural state of solitary freedom into the freedom of self-imposed laws. This social relationship now distorted the natural and organic relationships of man to his nature, to external nature and to his fellow men. According to Rousseau, this process was inevitable and irreversible.

At the end of the 18th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt developed a different approach: Man was in a conflict “through the claim of his inner being to create the content of the concept of humanity in person”, and through his nature, “by himself to pass to the objects other than himself ”. It is now important “that he does not lose himself in this alienation” ( Reinhart Maurer, 1973 ). Everything not-I, the alien, is always only the material and instruments that humans use to develop, with which they seek to fulfill the infinite task of making the world habitable. Man has infinite freedom in a finite, experience-infinite world in which he as a free subject can never and nowhere be completely at home.

The concept of alienation is also central to the literary work of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), who in it, in order to escape from it, yearns for merging and reunification.

For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel around 1800, alienation is self-alienation, just as knowledge is self-knowledge - a process in which the self understands its reality as having become its own activity and this appropriates its reality. So it is a higher consciousness of oneself, the spirit becomes an object of itself in human consciousness. The subject as self-awareness and the object as the external world come apart. Alienation is the movement of the subject giving itself reality, that is, self-alienation. This leads to a progressively higher developing penetration of subject and object.

The abolition of alienation Hegel in the "truly religious reconciliation with the reality that understands the philosophy [...] in faith, escaping from, rich but not the present. '"

“What the mind wants is to achieve its own concept (the place where it is theoretically and practically in harmony with the whole); but he hides it himself, is proud and full of pleasure in this alienation from himself. "

- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel : Reason in History, quoted here from: Reinhart Maurer 1973

The romantic Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling in 1827 sees alienation in a similar way - only in a Christian way: "that which man is self-conscious and has come to." But with Schelling it is above all the alienation from God. This again points to the state of the world in need of reconciliation after the completion of creation . Schelling sees a cosmologically catastrophic event in the world through human consciousness . With Schelling there is a romantic-historical link between the doctrine of creation , the philosophy of consciousness and the theological philosophy of history .

For Ludwig Feuerbach , religion is only the projection of the human being onto an external, alien being. So God is the alienated being of man. Feuerbach's aim was to break up theology into anthropology . Because religion is a mere compensation for the alienation from the other side.

Karl Marx finally uses the term in a very “secular” way: the worker who sells his labor does not only produce for himself and, according to the division of labor, is only one link in the production chain. The work product is alienated from him, and so he is also alienated from his fellow men. Money shows the alienated nature of existence that rules people and that, to make matters worse, they also worshiped. For Marx there is an exit from this situation only under changed ownership and production conditions. This usage according to Marx has largely gained acceptance. Not to be neglected, however, is the painful feeling, also referred to by Marx, of a lack of self-realization that arises from alienated work .

The “existential experience of not having found a final home yet” ( Peter Ehlen, 1976 ) goes further in ideological terms . This is a psychological state of dissociation , the other reference point of which appears to be a state of familiarity, homeliness, harmony and love. The term alienation has also existed as a medical- psychiatric term for mental illnesses - or for a (partial) symptom of the same - since the 19th century .

The concept of alienation found expression of two movements in the 20th century through the French poets and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus . Both establish a feeling of alienation caused by the absurdity of human life. For them this absurdity arises from the contradiction between the intended meaningful action and the inaccessibility of this goal. This can be overcome by revolting against the absurdity of the world and life and by consciously accepting the absurdity. While Sartre strives for a social revolution in the sense of Marxism, Camus starts with the individual, who can only achieve the possibility of self-knowledge and self-realization in the sense of an enlightened humanism through their own internal revolt .

The central theme in the considerations of the philosopher André Gorz is always the question of the fair distribution of work , which enables participation. Self-determined, meaningful and fulfilling activities would counteract alienation.

In sociology

For the French sociologist Émile Durkheim , alienation comes from the loss of social and religious traditions. For many European sociologists at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, alienation was a dominant issue: the alienation of humans from primary social ties (e.g. family) through individualization , the alienation from nature through urbanization , the alienation from work through mechanization and rationalization . In 1887, Ferdinand Tönnies analyzed in “ Community and Society ” that modern society is distinguished from the social form of community in society by alienated functional relationships (“You go into society as if you were abroad”). Georg Simmel analyzed and criticized modern relationships in his " Philosophy of Money " in 1900 .

The concept of community has also been referred to as romantic . For the philosopher Martin Heidegger it is the oblivion of being . He sees technical humanism as the cause of alienation; this is the self-alienated part of human essential forces, born from the “will to power”. The technically and institutionally interwoven civilization, in which everything is clearly connected with everything and barred from the influence of the individual, is what Heidegger summarizes in the term “frame”.

The social mechanisms and dependencies are worked out very precisely by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer . The authors provide z. B. jointly in the dialectic of the Enlightenment the thesis that the power over nature gained in civilization can only be had at the price of alienation from nature. Overcoming alienation is therefore not possible. Society and culture presuppose, and need, alienation. The individual can escape alienation to a limited extent by withdrawing from society, concentrating on the spirit and art , and staying away from gainful employment. In general, Horkheimer and Adorno describe the consequences of the alienation processes:

  1. Loss of the autonomous relationship to the alienated (alienation)
  2. Impossibility of the direct experience of the alienated (experience of totality)
  3. Giving up a knowledge that really affects the matter (appearance, delusion)
  4. Repression and denial of the alienated. The latter applies in particular to the alienation of humans from their inner nature (renunciation of instincts).

Like Erich Fromm , Adorno and Horkheimer say that the masses are not only alienated by their working conditions, they are also alienated in their free time. In terms of alienation, there is no longer any separation between work and leisure. Leisure is indolence, pleasure, consumption, entertainment, diversion, and the like. The keyword here is the culture industry .

"On the one hand, the culture industry is capable of subjecting culture, art to industry and exploitation, and on the other hand, with precisely this industrialized culture, it can keep individuals alienated, to the applause of the public."

- Achim Trebeß

In Adorno's aesthetic theory, the idea is developed that without alienation there would be no art and that without art there would be total alienation. Art is a product of alienation and a place of liberation from it at the same time. The general impotence of art was shown most clearly in fascism and is still evident in the universality of commodity production, which is the result and cause of alienation through work and money. Art is powerless because it frees itself from empiricism and thus has no power over it, rather it allows empiricism to dominate. The less art confronts society and the more it allows itself to be integrated, the more affirmative it is, the more likely it is that art will drive alienation even further. Art is subject to an aporia according to which it degenerates into an affirmation when it opens up to society, but remains harmless and without influence when it withdraws from society and closes it off. So nothing can be further stated than that society and art each go into their own catastrophe with alienation. Art must either do away with itself, be abolished, or "desperately continue".

So art cannot be power against alienation, but can be "the consciousness of the other, his self- reified reality congealed into a product." ( Trebeß 2001, p. 162 ) It can represent a blueprint for a life without alienation, without being in the realm in practice. Art represents the suffering from alienation and enables individual and natural realization. The realization of individuals and also that of nature is suppressed in society, art protests against this and is thus a blueprint for the better, of happiness, truth, of the useless. Art is enduring alienation.

For the sociologist and philosopher Arnold Gehlen , modern art compensates for the burdens that are placed on people in a modern, bureaucratic society. However, not every art is capable of relieving the burden, only art that does not consist in expressing mere emotional affect . The Expressionism therefore judged Gehlen negative.

Enduring and resisting alienation through the subject, as Adorno describes, is for Jean Baudrillard the only way to still be a subject and to preserve one's identity. That means the other way around : “Subjectivity needs alienation” ( Trebeß 2001, p. 192 ). So it comes about that Baudrillard laments a loss of alienation in favor of fractality , fragmentation and the extinction of the individual. If the alienation provoked another suffering in her, posed the problem of human existence, then this suffering and existence disappear in the all-encompassing networking through communication . What is satisfied, however, is that there is ultimately a feeling of alienation.

Around 1968, the idea of ​​the Situationists who wanted to counter alienation by abolishing the separation between art and life began to spread. Your concept of alienation encompasses all areas of life that are subject to a "rule of the commodity ": not only the alienation of the worker from his product as in Marx, but also and mainly the alienation and separation of subjects from one another in everyday life (see also: Sales psychology ) is crucial in a time that society sees as a rational set of cybernetic (economic) cycles. Such ideas also stand for the 1968 movement as a whole , which in the rationalized life of modernity did not establish prosperity and an open society, but rather a “ technocracy ” with a system of “repressive tolerance” ( Herbert Marcuse ).

In the further development of critical theory, the concept of alienation was subjected to fundamental criticism, similar to the concept of "totality" and "reification" (Sölter 1996).

In psychopathology

Alienation phenomena are central to various mental disorders. For example, the alienation of a child from a parent can be diagnosed as parent-child alienation , the alienated perception of oneself as depersonalization and the alienated perception of reality as derealization .

Exaggerated instinctual renunciation can be the trigger for a mental disorder as alienation from one's own physical and emotional basic needs.

Criticism of the theoretical construct of "alienation"

The term and concept of alienation have been criticized many times, more recently by Karl-Heinz Ott , who argued that the term is often based on the misrepresentation of history or an idealization and romanticization of past conditions: “[...] in the moment when we By establishing a concept of alienation, we nurture the belief that there is real, good and healthy on the one hand, and false, sick and decadent on the other. You build an ideal image against which, when measured against, very pleasant conditions look rotten. We have known since the 20th century at the latest what happens if you want to implement the ideal by force. "

See also


  • Theodor W. Adorno , Max Horkheimer : Dialectics of the Enlightenment . Frankfurt am Main 2000.
  • Peter Ehlen, in: Philosophical Dictionary. Edited by Walter Brugger. Freiburg im Breisgau 1976.
  • Arnold Gehlen : Zeitbilder. Frankfurt am Main, Bonn 1965.
  • Arnold Gehlen: About the birth of freedom from alienation. Complete edition, Volume 4. Frankfurt am Main 1983.
  • André Gorz : Farewell to the proletariat. 1980 (Ü. Heinz Abosch ).
  • Christoph Henning: Theories of Alienation as an introduction. Junius, Hamburg 2015.
  • Joachim Israel : The term alienation. Hamburg 1972.
  • Rahel Jaeggi : Alienation. On the topicality of a socio-philosophical problem. With a new foreword Berlin 2016 (first Frankfurt am Main 2005).
  • Georg Lukács : History and Class Consciousness. Studies on Marxist Dialectics. 8th edition. Luchterhand, Darmstadt, Neuwied 1983.
  • Reinhard Maurer, in: Handbook of basic philosophical concepts. Volume I. Munich 1973.
  • István Mészáros : The concept of alienation in Marx. Munich 1973.
  • Metzler Literature Lexicon: Terms and Definitions. Edited by Günther Schweikle, Irmgard Schweikle. 2. revised Edition. Metzler, Stuttgart 1990.
  • Charles Wright Mills : White Collar-The American Middleclasses. Oxford University Press, London 1951.
  • Henning Ottmann , Hans Günther Ulrich: Alienation I. Philosophical II. Theological-ethical. In: Theological Real Encyclopedia . 9, 1982, pp. 657-680.
  • Alfred Oppolzer: Alienation. In: Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism . Volume 3. Argument, Hamburg, 1997, Col. 460-469.
  • Hartmut Rosa : Acceleration and Alienation. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2013.
  • Friedrich Tomberg: The concept of alienation in the "Grundrisse" of Karl Marx. In: Friedrich Tomberg: Base and superstructure. Social Philosophical Studies. Neuwied, Berlin 1969, pp. 131-181.
  • Achim Trebeß: Alienation and Aesthetics. Stuttgart 2001.
  • Dieter Wolf : On the direct and mediated social character of work. In: The dialectical contradiction in capital. A contribution to Marx's theory of value. Hamburg 2002, p. 436 ff ( PDF )
  • Arpad A. Sölter: Modernism and cultural criticism. Jürgen Habermas and the legacy of critical theory. Bouvier Verlag Bonn 1996, ISBN 3-416-02545-8 . [Diss. Univ. Cologne 1993.].
  • Wollenhaupt, Jonas: The alienation of the subject. On the critical theory of the subject according to Pierre Bourdieu and Alfred Lorenzer. Transcript [social theory]. ISBN 978-3-8376-4552-1 Bielefeld 2018.

Web links

Wiktionary: Alienation  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Article “Alienation”. In: Georg Klaus, Manfred Buhr (Hrsg.): Philosophical dictionary. 11th edition, Leipzig 1975.
  2. Article “Alienation”. In: Kosing, A .: Marxist dictionary of philosophy. -Verlag am Park, Berlin. - 2015
  3. a b Wollenhaupt, Jonas: The alienation of the subject: on the critical theory of the subject according to Pierre Bourdieu and Alfred Lorenzer . Bielefeld 2018, ISBN 978-3-8376-4552-1 , p. 326 .
  4. a b Wollenhaupt, Jonas: The alienation of the subject: on the critical theory of the subject according to Pierre Bourdieu and Alfred Lorenzer . Transcript, Bielefeld 2018, ISBN 978-3-8376-4552-1 , p. 13-26 .
  5. a b Hölderlin is annoying, isn't it? In: The time . No. 13 , March 19, 2020, p. 53 (interview with Karl-Heinz Ott ).
  6. “Radical Vergesellschaftung means radical alienation.” Adorno / Horkheimer 2000, p. 58.
  7. 2001, p. 150
  8. ^ Zeitbilder , Frankfurt a. M., Bonn 1965, p. 222f.