Jaeggi, Rahel. Alienation

By Neuhouser, Frederick | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Jaeggi, Rahel. Alienation


Neuhouser, Frederick, The Review of Metaphysics


JAEGGI, Rahel. Alienation. Translated by Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. xxv + 274 pp.--This book is a translation of Rahel Jaeggi's Entfremdung, which generated much excitement in Germany among philosophers and the public media when first published in 2005. Alienation has two strengths rarely found in a single book: it provides an enlightening analysis of an important but recently neglected philosophical concept (alienation), and it illuminates fundamental ideas of one of the most difficult figures in the history of philosophy, G. W. F. Hegel (even though Hegel is rarely mentioned by name). According to Jaeggi, renewed attention to the concept of alienation is necessary because prevailing ethical theories provide little help in understanding a variety of contemporary phenomena best understood as forms of self-estrangement: meaninglessness, indifference, an inability to identify with one's own desires and actions. Moreover, previous accounts of alienation have generally depended on essentialist pictures of human nature that are no longer compelling. Jaeggi's project is to reconstruct the concept of alienation such that it is freed from its essentialist underpinnings and to show how such a reconstruction brings into view ethically significant phenomena that go undetected by more familiar theories.

Part one sketches a history of theories of alienation that includes illuminating discussions of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. The result of this survey is an initial formulation of what for Jaeggi constitutes alienation's core: "a relation of relationlessness," marked not by the absence of a relation to self and world, but by a deficient relation--a lack of proper connection--to both. More precisely, alienation is said to consist in a distorted relation to self and world resulting from a failure to appropriate oneself or the world, to make oneself or the world "one's own." Consequences of such failure include a sense of meaninglessness or estrangement, loss of power in relation to self and world, and subjugation to the products of one's own activity. The ways in which these effects amount to constraints on one's will point toward the ethical significance of alienation, which for Jaeggi resides in its connection to freedom: "only a world that I can identify with (by appropriating it) is a world in which I can act in a self-determined manner." It is the centrality of appropriation to Jaeggi's conception of alienation that accounts for its essentially Hegelian character. For both philosophers, human subjectivity is an activity or process in which a subject confronts what initially presents itself as "other" and then endeavors to "make it its own," to strip its object of its foreign character. …

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