Alienation Graphics courtesy of HBUOpens in new window

Alienation is typically experienced as unpleasant, but in extreme cases, such as under the condition that alienation persists over time, an individual’s emotional reaction to being alienated may be apathy or indifference.

Alienation refers to an individual’s psychological isolation (estrangement) from society and from other people in general. The term is also used to describe the feelings that occur along with being estranged.

Existential philosophers KierkegaardOpens in new window and HeideggerOpens in new window spoke of emotionsOpens in new window that humans experienced when faced with existential problems such as freedom of choice or the question of the meaning of existence.

A common emotional reaction is angst—generalized anxiety and turmoil. As part of feeling angstOpens in new window, an individual experiences alienation, a feeling of being separated and isolated from others and even, according to Heidegger, from the universe.

The 19th-century German philosopher and social theorist Karl MarxOpens in new window used the term alienation in several related ways and wrote that alienation occurred as a result of capitalism.

In capital societies, individuals do not own their own labor. Individuals produce labor that becomes the property of the capitalists. Although individuals’ labor may benefit the whole though contributing to collective wealth, the individual has little control over her labor. She is a cog in the machine, an object, an instrument, and has little opportunity to become a self-made, actualized, fulfilled human being. This circumstance leads to several types of alienation (Marx, 2007). The individual becomes alienated from

  1. her essence as a human being—she is more like a machine serving a purpose;
  2. other workers because labor is a commodity to be traded and social relationships are deemphasized;
  3. the product because the worker works on an aspect of the product and does not have an intimate connection to the whole product; and
  4. the act of production because the work itself becomes meaningless, perceived as having no intrinsic value.
See also:
  1. Meszaros, I. (2006). Marx’s theory of alienation. London: Merlin Press.
  2. Marx, K. (2007). Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1844).