Reconstructing alienation: A challenge to social critique?

Book review of: Rahel Jaeggi (2014) Alienation. New York:  Columbia University Press, 272, pages.

In the paper ‘From Fordism to Post-Fordism’, Emmanuel Renault argues that it is not clear that ‘the categories of democracy, social justice and the good life are capable of bringing about the political effects that may be expected today from the concept of alienation.’ (2007: 206). In line with this view, Axel Honneth states in the foreword of Alienation that we ‘inevitably find ourselves falling back on the concept of alienation’ in cases where we want to criticize social conditions that do not primarily violate principles of justice (viii).

At the same time, ever since post-structural critiques and the recognition of the ‘fact of pluralism’, the reintroduction of a concept like alienation requires at least some critical side-notes. For just as inevitably we may need to seek salvation in the concept of alienation, so the idea of alienation is confronted with the question of what the subject is actually alienated from, easily evoking an essentialist account of the human being. Moreover, alienation critique suggests that we can objectively identify the good life as the authentic, non-alienated life. Rahel Jaeggi, professor in philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin, does not give us ‘some’ critical side-notes. Instead, she intertwines an extensive discussion of these issues within her conceptualisation and elaboration of the phenomenon of alienation today. It is for Jaeggi’s original and thorough discussion of these fundamental questions about the self and human freedom that we should value her project the most. However, her reconstruction of the concept of alienation also seems to be at the expense of the potential of the concept for social critique.

Alienation as appropriation

Jaeggi embraces the existentialist and Marxist insights of her theoretical predecessors in accepting that our acting and thinking is entangled with, and affected by, the social and material world around us, further suggesting that there can be something wrong with this relatedness to ourselves and to the world. That there is nevertheless a need to reconstruct the concept of alienation, she argues by showing how former ideas of alienation always presuppose that there is something that is essentially “one’s own” from which we can be estranged. This is particularly evident in Marx’ notion of a species-being with ‘essential human powers’ that are (ideally) externalized and objectified through labour-activity. In this respect, Jaeggi paraphrases Althusser that ‘the critique of essentialism has become part of philosophical “common sense”’ (28). Moreover, Jaeggi argues that a reconstruction of the concept of alienation is demanded in order to address the question that arises from the perspective of liberal theory, namely ‘whether there can be objective evidence of pathology that contradicts individuals’ subjective assessments or preferences’ (29). Exemplary here is Marcuse’s analysis of the subject who is ‘swallowed up by his alienated existence.’ If the alienated subjects do not themselves experience their situation as problematic, so Jaeggi argues, the ‘theory of alienation appears to have made itself immune to critique’ (29).

Jaeggi thus takes up the project of rethinking alienation without thick notions of the self or the good life. A crucial theoretical starting point for this she finds in the notion of psychological health as formulated by the contemporary German philosopher Ernst Tugendhat. One of Tugendhat’s aims is to find a modern conception of the good life on the basis of which we could tell whether a person’s life is going well or badly, independently of that person’s actual desires and preferences. He finds this in a ‘formal conception of psychological health’ specified as the functional capacity of willing. To have the functional capacity of willing implies that ‘one has oneself at one’s command’. What is important for Tugendhat (and Jaeggi), is that simply willing something is not enough to count as having the functional capacity of willing: one also needs to identify oneself with this will and thereby hold a positive, endorsing relation to that volition. If this positive relation is absent, the functional capacity of willing is impaired. It is this impairment – not having oneself at one’s command – that Jaeggi takes to be at the heart of the phenomenon of alienation.

By understanding alienation as a deficiency in willing one’s will, the problem of alienation becomes essentially a problem of freedom. Although this focus on willing may appear as a problem of exercising Kantian autonomy, Jaeggi repeatedly emphasises that we should not confuse alienation with heteronomy. For the lack of freedom in cases of alienation is not due to an external force or obstacle that frustrates the exercise of our will, it is rather due to a more ‘internal’ affair, namely, that – somehow – a person cannot appropriate one’s actions, desires or thoughts. It is through this idea of appropriation that Jaeggi shows herself to be a truly Hegelian thinker, taking positive freedom as her central object of concern. According to this view, being free requires that a person appropriates one’s will and actions, identifies with them and incorporates them into one’s life, thereby constituting and realizing oneself through what one wants and does. We thus see that speaking of an ‘internal affair’ is at the same time misleading: willing and acting take place within, and are affected by, a material and social environment. Due to this strong relation between the self and the world, Jaeggi takes a deficient appropriative relation to oneself as both a matter of self-alienation and of alienation of the world.

Tugendhat’s conception of willing one’s will offers Jaeggi a way to overcome the liberal challenge with which the concept of alienation is confronted. The idea of appropriating one’s will enables us to conceptualize alienation without invoking substantive claims about true, natural or good preferences (what Tugendhat calls ‘the What of willing’), but allows only formal claims about the (relational) process of willing. Alienation critique can as such do without an objective conception of the good life: it criticizes forms of life to the extent that they are not appropriated by the persons living them, not to the extent that they lack particular goals or values.

Understanding alienation as impeded appropriation of one’s will also helps to avoid appealing to an essentialist view of the self. Jaeggi only assumes that people have this capacity to appropriate the life they lead as their own, not that there is something inside us that can or should be ‘re-appropriated’. So, besides from rejecting the idea of a human essence as a basis of the good life, Jaeggi gives a thorough critique of the ‘container model’ of the self, according to which the self is conceived as a ‘closed-off inner-space’. Instead, leading a life implies that we act in a world, change that world, and thereby make this world our own. At the same time, our acting in the world does not leave ourselves unaffected: we appropriate our acting and willing and through this, we are ‘selves in the making’ (166). Moreover, Jaeggi does not think the self as having a pre-given substantive content that determines the outcome of our actions. Although she assumes the self as having the functional capacity of willing and appropriating these volitions, this appropriation is not, in a way that Harry Frankfurt suggests, determined by a ‘volitional unity’. The problem with such a volitional unity, according to Jaeggi, is that it presupposes an underlying coherent will that determines the hierarchy among different volitions. She points out that this cannot account for the fact that volitions can be incoherent and ambivalent. At the same time, Jaeggi rejects the post-modern idea of multiple identities, since this would ignore the intuitive idea that there is a bearer of experiences and processes of appropriation. Jaeggi thus conceives the self as ‘Doing’ rather than a ‘Being’: a fluid process that relates both to itself and to the world, and that can form meaningful, integrating narratives about all the ambivalences and changes in values and preferences that constitute this very ‘self’.

Immanent critique

Jaeggi thus convincingly strips off the concept of alienation from outdated associations with human nature or universal conceptions of the good life. As she herself points out, the implication of this is that the scope of alienation critique is limited. Since alienation is understood as a failure to appropriate one’s life as one’s own, a person’s condition of relating to herself and the world can only be judged by its form, not by its content. There are no objective criteria to which an analysis of alienation could appeal. Alienation critique, so Jaeggi argues, should thus be understood as immanent critique: a critique that cannot rely on standards or ideals that transcend those that are already endorsed by the alienated agents. Such transcending ideals would lack authority within a liberal paradigm: immanent critique is therefore limited to a specific shared form of life.

Jaeggi then identifies two forms that an immanent critique of alienation can take. On the one hand, alienation to the world can be diagnosed by pointing out tensions between prevailing ideals of freedom and their actual realization; e.g. a gap may exist between the modern ideal of living a sovereign life, and the degree in which agents ‘actually’ have their life at their command by making their social and material world their own. On the other hand, self-alienation can be analysed by indicating the discrepancies between features and qualities we attribute to subjects by regarding them as responsible agents, and the fact that subjects do not identify with their own actions and are for that reason obstructed in their capacity to act responsibly. Jaeggi suggests that although alienation critique is limited to a shared form of life, the scope of that shared form of life may extend as far as the value of autonomy is endorsed: ‘Alienation critique would then be an element of the critical, evaluative self-interpretation of a modern culture that has made freedom and self-determination its core-values’ (41).

Alienation as social critique

But there is another sense in which Jaeggi’s reconstruction of the concept of alienation seems to be limited, in so far as alienation critique is understood as a promise for critical theory, the Frankfurter Schule tradition in which Jaeggi can be situated. As mentioned above, understanding alienation as a crucial concept for critical theory is hinted at by Axel Honneth and Emanuel Renault. But also Jaeggi herself states that the concept of alienation ‘makes it possible to arrive at standards for diagnosing social pathologies’ (xxiii). However, it is questionable to what extent Jaeggi’s alienation critique can indeed point out pathologies that are ‘social’ in the sense of having both a social source and solution.    As Raymond Geuss argues in The Idea of Critical Theory, what makes theories ‘critical’ is that they offer on the one hand a form of knowledge, and have, on the other, a ‘special standing as guides for human action’ (Geuss, 1). This holds for both psychoanalytic theories and for social-critical theories. Both aim to enlighten the agent to whom the theory or analysis is directed. Providing the agent insight into the ‘falseness’ of his or her beliefs would have an emancipating effect on the agent, in the sense that it could help to free the agent. But as Geuss also points out, there is an important difference between psychoanalysis and critical theory of society: in the case of psychological deficits, such as a neurosis, the repression of the agent (its ‘false consciousness’) is often self-imposed. To free yourself from it is indeed possible in most cases by means of self-reflection and going into therapy. As Geuss puts it: ‘the struggle to overcome it, is a struggle with oneself, not with an external – physical or social – reality, and success consists not so much in accomplishing changes in the world as in finding a satisfactory reorganisation of attitudes, habits, feelings and desires.’ (Geuss, 74).

To talk about false beliefs of a social class or social group generally leans on the notion of ‘ideological coercion’: ‘Ideological coercion is self-imposed – by acting in the way they do, agents constitute it – but the “objective power” it has over them is not just a power which will be automatically dissolved by critical reflection. In acting in their deluded way, the agents have produced a complex of social institutions which cannot now be abolished merely by changes in the agents’ beliefs (…) To abolish an established social institution (…) will in general require more than a change in the form of consciousness of the oppressed; it will require a long course of political action.’ (Geuss 74-75).
It seems to me that Jaeggi’s understanding of alienation cannot be thought of as a question of ideological coercion. The phenomenological discussion in the middle of the book of the individual cases of alienation reinforce this: even though these persons are conceptualised as deeply intertwined with their social and physical environment, it seems that in the end their alienated condition can only be overcome by a change of the subject’s thoughts and dispositions. In order to show how little there can be done about alienation in terms of institutional reforms, I’ll discuss each of these cases briefly. 


The first case – a young scientist – represents alienation as the experience of powerlessness towards one’s own actions. This mathematician used to live a city life based on fast food, in devotion to his work. But then for tax-reasons he and his girlfriend decide to marry. She becomes pregnant and they move to a suburban house, starting a happy family life. Although the turn of his life-course is consciously chosen, the scientist experiences it as if an alien power is at work in his life. This story shows us that even if we act in accordance with our will, we can still fail to experience the choices that we have made as our own. Referring to Tugendhat, Jaeggi explains this alienation by pointing to the degree in which one considers one’s life as a matter of ‘practical questions’, such as ‘What is to be done?’, but also more fundamental questions such as ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ Such practical questions are masked if a person’s life-course presents itself as taking a dynamic of its own. According to Jaeggi, to prevent or overcome this form of alienation there should be an awareness of the possibility of alternatives. Now, the question is: is it a responsibility of our scientist to unmask the practical questions, or could it be that the situation was constituted in such a way that it could not appear as a choice? Jaeggi answers that it can be both. On the one hand, the young father is not sensitive enough to his own living situation and therefore fails to takes alternatives into consideration. At the same time, to understand things as practical questions is also a matter of the opening up ‘of the horizon of possibility that is given within a particular life situation or in a particular form of life.’ (67). So, the external factor Jaeggi identifies as a source of alienation is the existence of a particular form of life. Conventions can indeed narrow the scope of possibilities for agents and determine the thinkable alternatives. But whether the particular form of life common in a society actually does result in alienation depends in the end on the extent to which the subject is conscious of his own thoughts and feelings, and can as such enable himself to perceive his position as open for change.

Loss of authenticity

The second case of alienation is that of alienation as loss of authenticity in social role-playing. The ambitious junior editor is taken as exemplary: being a bit overdressed, imitating the gestures of his boss, and having an articulated opinion about everything, we tend to regard him as inauthentic or insincere. Jaeggi does not consider social roles as such as alienating, for we cannot do without them, and they often, or so she argues, enable our self-realization. Jaeggi nevertheless identifies several ways in which alienation in role behaviour can take place. The central point for her is that such alienation occurs because the subject does not appropriate his role as something that is constitutive for his personal identity. To prevent alienation remains a matter of what she calls “manoeuvring” between the pre-existing role and the task for the individual to realize it in its own way. Also here it is social convention, namely concerning social roles, that might indeed partially cause the alienation by imposing demands and rules of behaviour upon the agent. Yet as Jaeggi herself states, social roles are not impossible to appropriate per se. Alienation through social role implies a ‘mismatch’ between the agent and the role, but it seems to be up to the former to appropriate the latter.

Internal division

The interesting character that is discussed as a third case – alienation by internal division – is H. ‘the giggling feminist’. To her own frustration, this feminist woman often falls back into kinds of behaviour she rejects as ‘unemancipated’, such as giggling. H. is not just superficially holding emancipatory opinions, but has deeply internalized feminist convictions. She therefore experiences a real discrepancy between her impulses to behave ‘sweet and harmless’ and her emancipated beliefs. According to Jaeggi, the problem in the case of inner division is not that one fails to behave according to one’s true will, for this would presume that we can discern our true will from desires that are manipulated by our social environment. Rather, inner division is what happens when one does not ‘participate’ in what one does. Although will-formation always happens under the influence of a social environment, alienation as internal division implies that a person experiences tensions between her multiple desires and beliefs. Resolving this kind of alienation thus requires the individual’s capacity to recognize and respond to such inner inconsistencies.


A last form of alienation – self-alienation as indifference – is represented by the protagonist from the novel Perlmanns Schweigen. Perlmann is a professor in linguistics who has lost the belief in the importance of academic work. Lecturing and visiting conferences, once conceived by him as meaningful activities, appear now to him ‘as if through a wall of glass’. Jaeggi explains this as a loss of identification: Perlmann is unable to take up his academic activities as constitutive for his identity or self-understanding. According to Jaeggi, alienation as indifference results from a distorted relation between the self and the external world. In this last form of alienation it becomes perhaps most obvious why there is reason to question the role of institutions in overcoming alienation: a subject needs the world to realize herself, yet the external world cannot prevent the subject from becoming indifferent.

The phenomenological richness of Jaeggi’s discussion of these individual examples is of great value for understanding the subjectivities of alienation today. But if this is the best we can make of the phenomenon of alienation it seems unlikely that specific social institutions can be identified as having ‘objective power’ by alienating agents. The only objective alienating force at stake in these modern manifestations of alienation are the particular forms of life in which agents attempt to realize themselves, and institutions such as marriage and social roles. Especially within today’s liberal and pluralist societies, these forms of life and social institutions do not present themselves as objective or external obstructions per se. Whether forms of life are alienating thus differs from person to person.

To come back to the hopes expressed by Emanuel Renault and Axel Honneth for the promising potential of the revival of alienation critique: it remains questionable to what extent this reconstructed concept of alienation could sort out any political effects, or address structural social conditions. It is not said that this is impossible, but Jaeggi’s project as presented in Alienation does not yet make clear how to conceive of alienation as also a diagnosis of social pathologies, rather than as an indicator of a lack of individual psychological health. Fortunately, there is something to look out for, for the ‘corresponding analysis and evaluation – of how institutions are constituted – remains to be carried out’ (220). And according to the translator Frederick Neuhouser, Jaeggi’s new book Kritik von Lebensformen is promising in this respect. For those who cannot read German, it is waiting for its translation; meanwhile keep on trying to have oneself at one’s command. And in case of failure: visit a shrink.