THE PROBLEM OF ALIENATION IN G.W.F. HEGEL’S PHILOSOPHY

By Sujit Debnath


The term alienation has been used differently by different thinkers. In psychology the term alienation usually means ‘deviation from normality’, in contemporary psychology and sociology, the term is used to mean an individual’s feeling of alienness from society, nature, other people or himself. For many philosophers it means ‘self alienation’. But all these different usages of such a concept has a common meaning of its own, in common it refers to the act or process of separation or estrangement of somebody or something from something else. The dictionary meaning of the term ‘alienation’ is ‘estrangement’. It also carries some other meanings, like powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, cultural estrangement etc.

 In the present study, I shall deal with how G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) has discusses the concept of alienation in his philosophy. Hegel has used the concept alienation in the sense of estrangement of spirit. Krishna Roy writes, Hegel’s tendency to understand alienation as the spirit’s estrangement from itself had a subjectivist overtone; alienation was depicted as an affair confined within the realm of mind. (Krishna Roy and Chhanda Gupta, 1989).

In Hegel’s philosophy, concept of alienation plays an important role in bringing consciousness to the shape of itself called absolute knowing. Alienation is crucial to this process because, according to Hegel consciousness cannot easily know itself with certainty. Consciousness has to develop its self-understanding to fully understand itself. Initially consciousness is alienated from itself. That means it cannot understand its own true nature. In the phenomenological development of consciousness it comes to know its own true nature and then it overcomes its self alienation. Therefore, alienation is the key in Hegel’s phenomenological development of consciousness. According to Gavin Rae,  … alienation is key to Hegel’s  phenomenological development of consciousness because: (1) alienation is a fundamental aspect of every shape of consciousness prior to Absolute Knowing; and (2) it is the experience of alienation that drives consciousness to alter its understanding of itself and its object until it overcomes its alienation in Absolute Knowing. Hegel’s lesson is that while consciousness’s journey to full self-understanding is a struggle, it is a struggle that defines consciousness. While alienation is an undesirable aspect of consciousness’s existence, the experience of alienation is a necessary one if consciousness is to fully understand itself. (Gavin, 2012.)

According to G.W.F. Hegel consciousness has two aspects of its own. Consciousness is on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself. Hegel says, Consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself; consciousness of what for it is the True, and consciousness of its knowledge of the truth. (G.W.F.Hegel, 1998). Because according to Hegel, it is an essential character of finite mind to relates itself to an object. It always objectifies itself in physical things. Hegel argues that, “ It is an essential characteristic of finite mind to produce things, to express itself in objects, to objectify in physical things, social institutions and cultural projects.” (Amal Krishna 2006).

In this way Hegel tries to show that, consciousness is intentional. It always relates itself to an independent object. Hegel points out that consciousness is dependent on this relation. As consciousness is depended on its intentional, independent object, Hegel thinks that consciousness’s independent object is an aspect of its ontological structure. But consciousness initially cannot realise that it’s independent, intentional object is, in actuality, an aspect of its ontological structure, rather consciousness understand itself to be distinct from its intentional object and therefore initially consciousness is alienated from what it actually is. Gavin Rae says, Thus consciousness is intentional; it always relates to an independent object. But crucially, Hegel holds that, because consciousness’s existence depends on its intentional relation to an independent object, its independent, intentional object is an aspect of its ontological structure. This, however, does not mean that Hegel collapses the object into the subject. Rather, because consciousness’s ontological structure always encompasses a relation to an independent object, Hegel holds that consciousness is dependent on this relation. Because of its dependency on its intentional relation to an independent object, Hegel holds that consciousness’s independent object is an aspect of its ontological structure. But, because consciousness does not, initially, realise that it’s independent, intentional object is, in actuality, an aspect of its ontological structure, consciousness understands itself to be in some way distinct from its intentional object and so is , initially, alienated from what it truly is.(Gavin, 2012).

The distinction between the object as it appears for consciousness and the object as it is-in-itself results from consciousness’s failure to understand itself; This failure of consciousness also contains the means which will enable consciousness to judge for itself when it will fully understand both itself and its object. And it is because both the object as it appears for consciousness and the object as it is-in-itself belong to the same consciousness. Consciousness itself is able to identify whether its knowledge of the object corresponds to the object or not. And consciousness does this by comparing whether the way the object appears for consciousness corresponds to the way the object is in itself. This is why Gavin Ray says, Consciousness’s initial failure to understand that its intentional object is an aspect of its ontological structure leads Hegel to insist that there is, initially, a distinction between the object as it appears for-consciousness and the object as it is in-itself. While this distinction results from consciousness’s failure to understand itself, it also contains the means that will allow consciousness to judge for itself when it has fully understood both itself and its object. Because the object as it appears for-consciousness and the object as it is in-itself belong to the same consciousness, consciousness itself is able to determine ‘whether its knowledge of the object corresponds to the object or not’. It does this by comparing whether the way the object appears for-consciousness corresponds to the way the object is in-itself. (Gavin, 2012).

In Hegel’s philosophy determinate negation (G.W.F. Hegel 1998) is a process through which consciousness develops itself. This ‘determinate negation’ enables consciousness to have a better understanding of its independent object. It has been already discussed that, consciousness initially fails to understand that its intentional object is an aspect of its ontological structure. Subsequently ‘experience’ provides consciousness the actual knowledge about itself, which is the mediating aspect that enables consciousness to determine whether the two aspects (the object as it appears for consciousness and the object as it is-in-itself.) of each shape of itself do actually correspond. Hegel says, in as much as the new true object issues from it, this dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience [Erfahrung].  (G.W.F. Hegel 1998).

Through experience consciousness gradually obtain a better understanding of its object. In the process each later stage are more concrete and richer. Each later stage presupposes the characters of the preceding stages and then develops them further. And gradually through the positive knowledge which consciousness gains from experience and through the negative knowledge that is when the shape of consciousness that do not provide consciousness positive knowledge of its object as it actually is, consciousness learn more about its own true nature. Gavin Rae writes, while negation simply involves consciousness negating its object so that while it once was it no longer is, determinate negation is more complex. It describes the process whereby consciousness negates, preserves, and builds on the truth of its past experiences. This allows consciousness to gain a better understanding of its independent object. Because consciousness’s previous experience of its object teaches it that the way it understood its object failed to allow it to fully understand its object, and because consciousness learns from its past misunderstanding, it is subsequently able to build on the knowledge that its previous experiences provide it with. (Gavin, 2012).

Gavin Rae further argues that, If consciousness is logical, it does not repeat the mistakes of its past by re-adopting shapes of itself that its experience has taught it do not allow it to fully understand itself; its experience allows it to gradually obtain a better understanding  of its object. It is only by passing through numerous shapes of itself that do not allow it to fully understand itself that consciousness will fully understand itself and its object. The knowledge gained from its experience of a particular shape of itself can be positive knowledge, in the form of knowledge that allows consciousness to better understand itself and its object immediately. Alternatively, it can be negative knowledge, in so far as while the shape of consciousness did not provide consciousness with positive knowledge of its object as it actually is, consciousness now knows that what it and its object truly are is not disclosed by that shape’s self-understanding. While each failure of consciousness may not immediately lead it to fully understand itself, each failure does allow consciousness to learn something about itself.  (Gavin, 2012).

According to Hegel this gradual development twords the absolute knowledge is not infinite’ rather it has an end. It is a stage where knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself . Hegel holds that, at that stage Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion. Hegel writes, But the goal is as necessarily fixed for knowledge as the serial progression; it is the point where knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself, where knowledge finds itself, where Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion. (G.W.F. Hegel 1998).

Finally consciousness’s failed experiences brings it in such a stage where consciousness’s independent object appears to it correspond to the object is it-itself. Gavin Rae writes, Logically, consciousness’s failed experiences will lead it to develop in such a way that it finally adopts a shape wherein its experience shows that the way its independent object appears to it corresponds to the way that the object is in-itself. In other words, thought and being will correspond to each other while preserving their independence.  (Gavin 2012).

Thus at the end of its developmental process consciousness comes to realize that its intentional object is, in fact, an aspect of its ontological structure. In this way when consciousness reaches at the stage of itself called absolute knowledge than it clearly comes to know that it is a differentiated spiritual unity of subjectivity and objectivity. Thus consciousness overcomes its initial alienation. This is why Hegel says, The experience of itself which consciousness goes through can, in accordance with its Notion, comprehend nothing less than the entire system of consciousness, or the entire realm of the truth of spirit. For this reason, the moments of this truth are exhibited in their own proper determinateness, viz. as being not abstract moments, but as they are for consciousness, or as consciousness itself stands forth in its relation to them. Thus the moments of the whole are patterns of consciousness. In pressing forward to its true existence, consciousness will arrive at a point at which it gets rid of its semblance of being burdened with something alien, with what is only for it, and some sort of ‘other’, at a point where appearance becomes identical with essence, so that its exposition will coincide at just this point with the authentic Science of Spirit, and finally, when consciousness itself grasps this its own essence, it will signify the nature of absolute knowledge itself. (G.W.F. Hegel 1998).

References:
  • Krishna Roy and Chhanda Gupta. Essays in Social and Political Philosophy. New Delhi, Indian Council of Philosophical Research. In association with Allied Publishers. (1989). PP. 168-69.
  • Gavin Rae (2012). Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness. England. Routledge. International Journal of Philosophical Studies: P. 24.
  • G. W. F. Hegel.  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans., A. V. Miller. Delhi.  Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. (1998), P. 54.
  • Amal Krishna Guha. Types of Alienation A Marxist Approach. Calcutta. Calcutta School of Philosophical Research. (2006) P. 18.
  • Gavin Rae (2012). Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness. England. Routledge. International Journal of Philosophical Studies: P.25.
  • Ibid.
  • G. W. F. Hegel.  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans., A. V. Miller. Delhi.  Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. (1998), P. 51.
  • Ibid, P. 55.
  • Gavin Rae (2012). Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness. England. Routledge. International Journal of Philosophical Studies: P.26.
  • Ibid, PP. 26-27.
  • G. W. F. Hegel.  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans., A. V. Miller. Delhi.  Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. (1998), P. 51.
  • Gavin Rae (2012). Hegel, Alienation, and the Phenomenological Development of Consciousness. England. Routledge. International Journal of Philosophical Studies: P.27.
  • G. W. F. Hegel.  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans., A. V. Miller. Delhi.  Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. (1998), PP. 56-57.

About the Author: The author, Mr. Sujit Debnath is a Research Scholar, Department of Philosophy. Tripura University (A central University) Tripura, India. He also qualified NET, SET, ICPR JRF etc. The author has published some other articles in some other Journal and seminar proceeding. [Read More]

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