Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Further Considerations of Alienation

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Further Considerations of Alienation

Article excerpt

This essay will attempt to add to and expand upon a recent publication entitled "Merleau-Ponty and a Reconsideration of Alienation."' While this earlier essay lays out Merleau-Ponty's alternative to the modernist view of the subject as a rational interior in full possession of itself and a pre-formed rational world, as well as to the postmodernist view that the subject along with the subject's world is primarily a construction of language, it did not go far enough in emphasizing Merleau-Ponty's treatment of the abstract reasoning of modernism as a form of alienation (at the level of epistemology/ ontology, as well as at the level of self/subject and politics). Merleau-Ponty spent much of his professional career criticizing both empiricist and rationalist forms of modernism, primarily for treating the subject and the world as already conceptually and abstractly formed, and the later part of his professional life criticizing both capitalism and communism for their acceptance of a politics based on a pre-established rationality. All modernism as the abstract construction of reality, as well as all contemporary forms of instrumentalism or operationalism as the attempt to construct reality according to a few abstract indices, are alienated forms of experience, since they do not capture the richness of the world as it is originally lived through by embodied subjects engaged in the world together. They attempt to derive or construct experience from conceptual abstractions. Rather, we should begin with experience as it is really lived through by embodied experiences. Reason, then, comes out of this patterned and shared experience.

Reason is, or should be, an agreement of perspectives/profiles, of mine within me as I actively open upon a stable world and of mine with those of others as we open upon the world together. Moreover, all modernist politics as isolated rational individuals in an already rationally determined ethical world or as the rational unfolding of history and the liberation of the proletariat are alienated forms of politics, since they do not account for the embodied subject's openness upon an imprecise public world and the uncertainty of human history. Moreover, history must be regarded as a structure in the making, establishing a probable, not certain, sequence of future events. In the sense that Merleau-Ponty is critical of modernism's use of an abstract, alienated reason he joins the company of Lukács, Habermas, and Heidegger, as well as Marx-all of whom make similar claims. The present essay will briefly consider this line of argument in this company of authors and will then proceed to briefly consider Merleau-Ponty's contribution to it, especially in his later works. It will also briefly consider their implications for postmodernism.


Let us first turn to Karl Marx. Marx's theory of alienation can be summarized as follows: workers in capitalist societies are alienated from Self, i.e., from their own free will, since their labor is directed by the capitalist not by their own choice, thus negating any genuine experience of self-actualization; from the Product of their labor, since there is no personal identification with the object produced according to the plan and command of others; from Others, since the worker's labor is no longer organic, i.e., no longer consists of the workers collaborating among themselves to choose and design their product and the process by which it is produced; and from their very Human Nature, since human nature is the ability to direct one's own actions according to one's own will, in collaboration with others, within context, and under certain limiting conditions, of course.2


Georg Lukács updates and refines Marx's theory of alienation in his History and Class Consciousness,3 most specifically in the chapter entitled "Reification and Consciousness of the Proletariat." Extending Marx's characterization of alienation and Weber's notion of rationalization, Lukács states the following: "If we follow the path taken by labor in its development from the handicrafts via cooperation and manufacture to machine industry we can see a continuous trend towards greater rationalization, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker" (HCC 88; see also Habermas4). …

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