International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 157 4th November 2010


I. 'Sartre and the Soviet Union' by John Ramirez

II. 'On Alienation and Its Overcoming: The Legacy From Hegel to Sartre' by Pallavi Sharma

III. 'Socrates, Plato, and Science' by D.R. Khashaba



The predominant theme of this issue could be described, slightly misleadingly, as the clash, and partial reconciliation, between the philosophies of Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre. Both philosophers speak of 'alienation' and its overcoming; both philosophers offer eschatologies of liberation.

With Marx and Sartre, also, there is a significant gap between their early and later views: Marx's philosophical account of alienation in his early 1844 Manuscripts makes way for the science of dialectical materialism and the materialist theory of history and economics in Das Kapital. Sartre produced two mature philosophies, the latter seeking a rapprochement between existentialism and marxism.

Two first articles, by John Ramirez and Pallavi Sharma, focus in different ways on the debate between existentialism and marxism. Ramirez looks at Sartre's critique of marxism in the Soviet Union, while Sharma traces the history of the concept of alienation from Hegel, through Kierkegaard to Marx,Heidegger and Sartre.

The third article, by D.R. Khashaba may seem at first the odd one out. Khashaba seeks to rescue the account which Socrates offers of the nature of philosophy in Plato's dialogue Phaedo from scholarly interpretations which fail to recognize the radical nature of the split between science and philosophy which Plato was proposing. I think, however, that there is a lesson to be learned here for students of Marx and Sartre.

Geoffrey Klempner




This paper concerns a hypothesis introduced by the distinguished French philosopher Sartre in 1960 regarding the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and it's satellites. Sartre called for a remedy for the then stagnant state of Marxism (as interpreted by the Soviets); ironic that after the cold war there are those who call for such a remedy concerning capitalism.

Taking also into account that in the last ten years several nations in the western hemisphere have turn to Marxism as their choice for a socio-economic structure, while others are finding themselves in the midst of civil disturbance if not all out war (Socialist Honduras and Columbia respectively), I think it would be appropriate to share the paper I wrote a year ago concerning Sartre's attempts to revive (as he puts it) the stagnant Soviet block. This is worth considering especially in hindsight of Sartre prophetic opening remarks in his published work Search For A Method (SFM). In SFM Sartre commends the socialist experiment to failure due to it's disregard towards philosophy or 'theoria'; everything that breathed life into the socialist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.


The thesis of this paper is to examine Jean Paul Sartre's philosophical prescription to Marxism as it was practiced in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. The remedy entails a practical application of existentialism (practical meaning a liberal investigation of existentialism) along with public consumption of its doctrines.

The first question that comes to mind is, 'Why does Marxism need a remedy, and if it did, would Existentialism be the correct solution?' These questions emerged as critics aimed their arrows at two of Sartre's post-World War 2 essays, Search For A Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason (CDR). Both essays were published simultaneously in 1960. SFM looks at Soviet-era socialist society and the stagnation which had bloomed in its bureaucratic 'garden.' The 'method' Sartre is in search of is a way to rejuvenate the system and save it from itself. CDR is a critique of materialist dialectics and the cult of materialist orthodoxy in intellectual circles. In both works, Sartre introduces the Marxist and Existentialist fusion he proposed as the Method for an 'ideal socialist society.'

The scope of the paper will exclusively deal with three issues -- what is Marxism, what is Sartrean Existentialism, and how can Existentialism help Marxist societies. The paper will not try to answer the more commonly-posed question of consistency in the Sartrean Universe (philosophical system) after his migration to socialist circles after the Second World War, but rather will try to present an informative outline of Marxist theory, Existentialist thought and the 'method' of combining both philosophies as prescribed by Sartre in SFM and CDR.

The following section will present a foundation for the main point of examination, the Marxist Existentialist method. It will consist of explanatory notes on Marxism and Existentialism.

Even in today's post-Cold War world, where the Iron Curtain has been demolished and capitalism has gained ground, Social Democratic institutions are still being sponsored in industrialized and developing nations. Marxist Leninist governments still exist, and Marxist revolutions have successfully occurred in the last six years in the western hemisphere(Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras). With the obvious interest in economic and political theory in contemporary global society, it is of tremendous value to examine a highly-contested view of Marxism, Soviet-era intellectualism and a possible avenue for those who agree with Marx's materialism but refuse to dismiss existentialist 'truths.'

Marxist and Existentialist Thought

This section will introduce the basic principles of Marxism and Existentialism for the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with either philosophy.


What the average person calls Marxism is in fact only a small part of Karl Marx's philosophical system. In reality Marxism is a wider set of works and principles authored by Karl Marx with several volumes being co-authored by Friedrich Engels.

For the purpose of this paper only the following set of Marxist theories will be examined: Historical Materialism or the materialist conception of history, Super Structures, the Proletarian Revolution and Dialectical Materialism. Entire volumes have been written on each of the topics, but I will only briefly introduce each topic for the benefit of those readers who are unfamiliar with the subject matter. It is important to discuss these theories as they are crucial to anyone trying to understand Sartre's thesis of the need for Existentialism in Soviet-era Europe.

Historical Materialism and Super Structures

Marx introduced a theory of 'Historical Materialism' in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In the preface, Marx explains that society could be understood from a purely materialist point of view. Marx explained that history could be viewed as a series of 'modes,' with each one succeeding the other. 'Modes' referred to the methods of production, production being the task of gathering the essential materials for human survival. Marx outlined the more important modes of production of European civilization as follows: pre-historic hunting groups, agricultural communities, imperialist society, feudal society, capitalist society, and, during his lifetime, industrialist society.

Marx proposed that the modes of history (production) changed as new methods for gathering essential materials were created (technology). The change of method caused changes in society and social order. Marx's view of social order was based on his theory that society could be viewed as structures that inter-connect, creating a super structure (so-called totalization). In this model, the super structure would be society.

The base structure is the relationship between man and nature, or the so-called struggle between man and nature. On the base rest different structures: government, religious and educational. The various structures are dependent on the method of production at any giving time in history since the method of production is what creates stability at the base (the need to gather the essentials for life).

Marx introduced two theories based on his view of history and society. In the historical context he introduced Materialist Dialectics, and in the social context the Proletarian Revolution. The Materialist Dialectic theory pertains to historical dynamism and the Proletarian Revolution to class distinction in society.

The Materialist Dialectic

Marx's three laws of material Dialectic are: the Law of Opposites, the Law of Negativity, and the Law of Transformation. These laws are the basis for his materialist conception of history. Marx was able to illustrate his view of history with its 'modes of production' by applying his three materialist laws.

Marx based his three laws on Hegel's dialectic but with a major change. Hegel based his dialectical system (dialectics defined as motion) on ancient Greek philosophy (Heraclitus in particular) and on the schools of Stoic and Epicurean ideology. Hegel used dialectic to develop a theory of a History of Philosophy to illustrate the principle of 'change and evolution in science or truth.' In Hegel's History of Philosophy, the catalyst is Geist or the spirit of time.

Marx took Hegel's History of Philosophy and its dialectical system and turned it on its head (as the saying goes). He claimed that material fact was the catalyst of the dialectic, not spiritual phenomena. All changes that occur in history or all movement form one social mode to the next were based on material fact, not spiritual/ conscious transcendence or intuition.

Marx was able to prove his theories on class struggle and modes of production by applying his three laws of dialectics. The obstacle Marx had to overcome was to show that material fact (matter), not theory, was the true catalyst of social and historical change. The issue of theory versus application of theory (action or production of material fact) is the crux of the Marxist Existentialist argument that Sartre proposed. This essay will discuss Sartre's argument later in this section, but first, let look at the Proletarian Revolution.

Proletarian Revolution

The Proletarian, or worker, is a class assignment Marx gave to the labor force of the 19th century. The Proletarian Revolution refers to the 'the final conflict' between the working class and the factory owners (Bourgeoisie). The conflict, a result from society's class struggle, should (if Marx's dialectics are correct) result in a new society. The conflict and resolution between the Proletarian and Bourgeoisie are examples of Marx's Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis from his materialist dialectics.

The society created after the revolution is of importance to Sartre's thesis as this new society, whose government is a Proletarian dictatorship as prescribed by Marx, was the society (USSR, China, South East Asia, Cuba, Guyana and Eastern Europe) in actuality at the time of the publication of his thesis.

Marx used his three laws of Materialist Dialectic to map the eventual outcome of the class struggle of the 19th century. Marx's application of the Laws of Negativity, Opposites and Transformation showed that the struggle between the workers and factory owners (opposites) were heading to an eventual collision. The stress from this 'meeting' of opposites would cause the structures of society (educational, religious, etc.) to collapse, allowing the worker (a prisoner of these Bourgeoisie institutions) to break free from class identification. The final outcome of society's structural collapse and freedom from class identification is the synthesis of a new Superstructure or Society.

Sartre's Marxist Existentialist thesis is concerned with this new superstructure and its need to transcend its limitations. The next topic will deal Sartre's Existentialism and his thesis on the need for Existentialist transcendence in Marx's materialist society.


Existentialism, the philosophy of existence as viewed through the prism of phenomenology, is an ontological thesis of the 20th century. Existentialism could be viewed as the 'Antithesis' of Marxist theory since Marxism is a Materialist-based system while Existentialism is a system based on the power of the human consciousness, the imagination in particular. This section will deal with Sartre's Existentialist system. The widely-accepted view of Sartre's Existentialist philosophy divides Sartre's work into two parts, pre and post World War 2.

Sartre's pre-WW2 work is considered 'Classic Existentialist Theory', and his major work associated with this period is Being and Nothingness. Post-WW2 Sartre's work became Marxist and developed an Existentialist theory calling for a rejuvenation of socialism; the major work associated with this period is a two-part publication from 1960, Search for a Method, and, Critique of Dialectical Reason. What follows is a brief review of both eras.

Pre-World War 2 Sartre

Sartre's philosophical system is an ontological study which attempts to identify and categorize a series of 'Essentialist' phenomena. Sartre introduces his ontological thesis in Being and Nothingness (BN). In BN, Sartre explores the human consciousness, defining and categorizing phenomena associated with the mind. Sartre's view of the human consciousness is marked by a radical freedom dominated by the imagination. It is imagination that allows the individual to 'transcend' particular circumstance (material fact such as being in a crowded room) or identification with external entities (social classes, schools, law enforcement, peers).

The consciousness' ability to transcend is unlimited, but Sartre warns of the pitfalls of self-deception, a byproduct of the imagination. Self-deception, or 'Bad Faith' as Sartre refers to it, is marked by the creation of unauthentic or unrealistic options or goals. Bad Faith only leads to failure or frustration.

The radical freedom coupled with realistic or authentic goals give birth to 'The Project.' The Project, or Project Man, can be compared to Freud's Super Ego. the Project Man is a thought or an identity created by the mind (imagination) that the individual 'works' to maintain or achieve. The success or failure of an individual's project depends on several variables, but ultimately the success is based on 'Authenticity.'

Marxist Existentialism

Sartre's post-WW2 writings are associated with two works simultaneously published in 1960 -- Search For A Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason. SFM introduces Sartre's claim of the 'death of Marxism' and the need for a new method or system within Marxist society. CDR is a critique of Marxist materialist dialectical orthodoxy. Both SFM and CDR attempt to illustrate the problems of a purely materialistic view of history and dialectic. Sartre does not try to discredit Marxism but rather attempts to point to issues revolving around intellectual freedom and bureaucratic oppression.

Sartre introduces the idea of Praxis in SFM to illustrate his point concerning transcendence. The Praxis, which is 'theory in action in itself,' or thought as action, is what in reality allows for 'movement' in history or individuals. Praxis is also a basis for his critique of Materialist Dialectic, which to Sartre does not take into consideration the human element in history.

In general, Marxist Existentialism is simply Existentialism in a Marxist society; the added theory of Praxis creates a bridge that allows for the validity of consciousness transcending in a materialistic world. Sartre's use of the Praxis allows him to illustrate that theory or matter alone are not responsible for change; Praxis is what creates movement in history.

The following section will explore in detail Sartre's fusion of Materialism and Existentialism as explained in SFM and in CDR.

Sartre's Search for a Method

As mentioned in the preceding section, Sartre published two essays simultaneously -- Search for a Method, and, Critique of Dialectical Reason. The essays present a challenge to Marxist materialist dialectic but not whole Marxist ideology per se.

In SFM, Sartre claimed that Marxism has grown stale and has ceased to be, largely due to bureaucratic stress on the social structure and disregard of the individual. Sartre proposed a search for a way or method and recommended Marxist Existentialism as a remedy to the dilemma. Translator Hazel E. Barnes explains,[1] 'It is the search for a method by which the Existentialist Marxist may hope to understand both individual persons and history.'

This section will look closely at Sartre's issues with Marxist materialist orthodoxy and how Existentialism could help with those issues.

Marxist Materialist Orthodoxy

Barnes states Sartre's position in her introduction to SFM clearly[2], 'Today's Marxists, [Sartre] says, have indeed tried to maintain a dialectic without men, and this is precisely what has caused Marxism to stagnate and turned it into a paranoiac dream.' It is obvious that Sartre was unsatisfied with the Marxist view of men and, in particular, of the individual; yet, Sartre did not reject Marxism (Socialism). In fact, at the time SFM's publication, Sartre believed Marxism to be the present example of[3] 'a philosophy which is a totalization of knowledge, method, regulative idea, and community of language... this particular conception of a man or a group of men become the culture and sometimes the nature of a whole class.'

Sartre claimed there were three such periods and designated them as follows: Descartes and Locke, Kant and Hegel, and that of Marx.

Sartre, in SFM put forth the proposition that Marxism was not a philosophy but rather the totalization of society, stating clearly that[4] 'thus Marxism as a philosophy which had become the world wrenched us away from the defunct culture of a bourgeoisie which was barely subsisting on its past.' Sartre, in the context of Marxism as social reality, created his case for the need of a dialectic which addresses the individual in history. A Materialist orthodoxy has created a state of alienation for the individual in Marxist society, creating the 'stagnation' of Marxism itself as Sartre stated. Sartre considers the state of production as being one of the causes of alienation in the worker.[5] 'Now, in the present phase of our history, productive forces have entered into conflict with relations of production. Creative work is alienated; man does not recognize himself in his own product, and his exhausting labor appears to him as a hostile force since alienation comes about as the result of this conflict.' Sartre's hypothesis on the conflict is simple. If man is not part of history (society), how can he participate freely (finding satisfaction) in it?

Sartre's position regarding the need for a philosophy for the individual and Materialist dialectic was also clearly stated in SFM,[6] 'We were convinced at one and the same time that historical Materialism furnished the only valid interpretation of history and that Existentialism remained the only concrete approach to reality.' That being the case, how can one bridge a Materialist dialectic with an Existentialist one? The following section will introduce a principle that, according to Sartre, is such a bridge.


Praxis was one of the three actions Aristotle thought men capable of. Praxis, or action, was of vital importance to the 20th century Marxist theorist, Sartre included. In SFM, Sartre stressed the importance of understanding the Praxis, since in his view an individual with the ability to transcend is, in fact, 'going to action.' The idea of action (group or individual) is vital both to Sartre and Marx, for both see it as the ends to either of their dialectics. In fact, Marxism was described as a philosophy of Praxis by 19th-century thinker Antonio Labriola. How, then, can Praxis bridge the transcendence of the consciousness with the absolute rigor of materialist synthesis?

Sartre points to Marx's own words to illustrate his thesis of the need to have a dialectic that addresses not just the Materialist reality. In Marx's 'Theses on Feuerbach,' Marx is quoted as stating, 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.' Sartre asks how philosophers can change the world without Theoria (idea). Sartre writes (SFM),[7] 'Marxism, after drawing us to it as the moon draws the tides, after transforming all our ideas, after liquidating the categories of our bourgeois thought, abruptly left us stranded. It did not satisfy our need to understand; He continues,[8] 'Concrete thought must be born from the Praxis,' and without Theoria there can be no Praxis. The disregard for Theoria is the basis for Sartre's proclamation of the stagnant state of Marxism.

Is Sartre therefore rejecting Marxism? Is Marxism, as he proclaims in SFM, too stagnant and ceasing to be? Quite the contrary; in the same essay, Sartre points out,[9] 'This sclerosis does not correspond to a normal aging. It is produced by a world-wide combination of circumstances of a particular type. Far from being exhausted, Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time.' It now becomes clear that Sartre's rejection of the Materialist orthodoxy and the stagnant state of Marxism are attempts on Sartre's part to rejuvenate Marxism, to bring Theoria and Praxis back into the fold, not just material production.

Sartre's solution to the need of Theoria and Praxis is the inclusion of a Theoria of the individual. Sartre makes his case for Existentialism,[10] 'Existentialism, like Marxism, addresses itself to experience in order to discover concrete syntheses; it can conceive of these syntheses only within a moving, dialectical totalization which is nothing else but history or -- from the strictly cultural point of view which we adopted here -- philosophy-becoming-the-world.'

It is more than clear that Sartre is concerned with the need for philosophy and Theoria in Marxist society. Sartre points to the Praxis and the need for thought for it to come into being. In Sartre's view, 20th-century Marxist society with its Materialist orthodoxy refuses to allow for the truth in the form Theoria to continue. As Sartre points out in SFM,[11] 'Marxism stopped precisely because this philosophy wants to change the world, because its aim is 'philosophy-becoming-the-world,' because it is and wants to be practical, there arose within it a veritable schism which rejected theory on one side and praxis on the other.'


Sartre's Marxist Existentialist thesis, presented in both Search For A Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason, upholds the value of Marx's historical Materialist method but not his Materialist Dialectics. Sartre sought in SFM to provide a foundation for his proposal of Existentialism as Theoria (philosophy) in Marxist society (of the Soviet era). Sartre's rationale for the proposal was to save Marxism from 'stagnation' and 'death' brought on by the Materialist orthodoxy's disregard for the individual (and individual thought) in society.

Sartre illustrated how Marxism itself was a product of Praxis and as such depends on Praxis to exist, but Sartre asks how a society can have Praxis without Theoria. Sartre explains how Marxism ceased to be Theoria (philosophy) and became actuality or Reality (Praxis), but in becoming reality it has grown stagnant with a Materialist doctrine that does not allow the individual to have a place in history or allow for change. Sartre goes forth to first explain Marxism as philosophy, which has 'flourished' into social reality, and is now in need of what itself once was; namely Theoria or philosophy as truth.

Sartre chose Existentialism as the truth in philosophy that could end Marxism's stagnation. Sartre points out that Existentialism, a philosophy (as Marxism was) born from the Hegelian dialectic, allows the individual in the Marxist state to find his or her place in society, giving the individual value. The Materialist Dialectic does not allow an individual to see value in him- or herself since the only real value exists in production, not in the individual producer. The disregard for the individual in Marxist society is what has brought about the stagnation, for an individual without value falls prey to alienation.

Alienation and other social ills creating the stagnation in Marxist society could be easily addressed with Existentialism, the philosophy which seeks to explain (find truths) reality by examining the individual's consciousness. Sartre held the view that Existentialism could reintroduce the Praxis in Marxist society by allowing the individual to transcend the present moment and seek his or her place in the future. The Existentialist transcendence would be the 'hummus' for action or Praxis. The reintroduction of Praxis would rejuvenate Marxism, allowing individuals to see themselves in society and in history.

Sartre encountered bitter criticism for his Critique of Marx's Dialectics and his Existentialist prescription for the bureaucratic leviathan that the then Soviet-era socialist states had become. Ultimately Sartre's Marxist essays fell by the wayside and have been disregarded as intellectual curiosities.

With the current capitalist backlash in post-Cold War society and with the further virtualization and fusion of economies, socialism and, in particular, Marxism is experiencing resurgence (in particular in the Southern Americas). It would be of tremendous value to reexamine Sartre's thesis on a possible fusion of Materialist and Existential truths.

Work Cited

Flynn,Thomas R. Sartre and Marxist Existentialism Chicago & London The University of Chicago Press 1984

Sartre, Jean-Paul, (Translation from French) Barnes, Hazel E. Search for a Method New York Alfred A. Knopf 1963

Vasquez, Adolfo Sanchez, (translation for Spanish) Gonzalez, Mike The Philosophy of Praxis London Merlin Press 1977

Marx, Karl, (editor) Engels, Fredrick (translation from German) Lough, W Theses On Feuerbach Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR, 1969

Onof, Christian J The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Existentialism, Sartre http:---

Heter, Storm The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Political Science, Sartre http:---

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations Chicago, London The University of Chicago Press Fifth edition, 1987


1. Search for a Method pg.ix

2. Search for a Method pg.xiii

3. Search for a Method pg.6-7

4. Search for a Method pg.20

5. Search for a Method pg.12

6. Search for a Method pg.21

7. Search for a Method pg.20

8. Search for a Method pg.22

9.Search for a Method pg.30

10.Search for a Method pg.30

11. Search for a Method pg.21-22

(c) John Ramirez 2010




Alienation is more considered to be an issue primarily dealt with by sociologists and economists through the Marxist interpretation. But it is found that alienation is also a major issue in the existentialist writings, which get less focused on in the academic sphere. Going against this trend, here the attempt is made to draw the legacy of the concept from Hegel to Sartre, unfolding a few other existentialist philosophers' views found significant for understanding of the concept. Touching the important points of the Marxist theory of alienation an attempt is made here to highlight the similarities and differences among the different views put forward by these philosophers. Finally the main objective of the discussion is to open a frame to show the peculiarity of the Sartrean concept of alienation beyond all the different views placed on the same issue.

Alienation: the concept

Being surrounded by an incredible degree of confusion the concept of alienation does not pertain to a clearheaded definition and treated in varied ways in different branches of thought. The dictionary meaning of the term 'Alienation' is 'estrangement'. It is defined to be a process whereby someone or something is constrained to become 'other' than that which it properly is in its being (Birt; 1986; 293). Briefly, alienation stands as an umbrella concept incorporating many other dimensions as powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, cultural estrangement and self alienation.

The concept has a long and distinguished history. Its origin can be traced back to the Judeo-Christian tradition that laid stress on salvation of man to free himself from alienation appearing in the form of dehumanization in the world (Sinari; 1970; 123). However, the concept got prominence in the 18th century after the Industrial Revolution as material demands overtook all other necessities of man. In such an environment alienation came to prominence as a state of experience of an individual or a group facing material conflict with the rest of the society.

The legacy of the concept

Though any discussion on alienation primarily refers to Marxism, it is to be kept in mind that serious discussion on the problem of alienation was initiated in German philosophy, through the philosophy of Hegel in the late 18th century. The concept is known to be an important legacy of the Hegelian school of social philosophy that later got widely treated in Marxism and Existentialism. Through the dialectical development of the self Hegel expounded an idealistic position on alienation and its overcoming. He used the term 'Entausserung' (externalization) in different senses to refer to different kinds of alienation or estrangement. Hegel's concept of alienation mainly touches the psychological and spiritual aspect of the human being. Since reality is essentially spiritual for Hegel the estrangement is therefore primarily related to the mind. Unfreedom or alienation is a moment when an individual confines himself into the periphery of his own ideals, norms and decision without recognizing himself as a member of the greater community. So, overcoming alienation in his view lies in recognizing that to be an individual means to belong to a community. Hegel pointed out that being one also means being with and for the other in one's community. This concept of 'Being-with-other' again finds reflection in the later philosophy of Sartre when he talks about collective authenticity.

The basic idea of Hegel's philosophy is that, in the last analysis, whatever exists is Absolute idea or the Absolute Mind, which is not a fixed thing or property but a dynamic Self, engaged in circular process of alienation and dealienation. Nature is only a self-alienated form of the Absolute, and Man is the Absolute in the process of dealienation.

Marx on alienation

Following the dialectic of Hegel, Marx introduced the concept of alienation in a proper theoretical way. While Hegelian interpretation of alienation was centrally confined to the idealist standpoint, Marx's treatment was in terms of alienation of the labour or the working class. He developed his philosophy in a rather secular mode. Accepting all earlier interpretations he applied the concept in the production system introducing it as a distinct theory in the field of both economics and sociology. His ground was more a socio-economic one, related to production relation in a capitalist society. According to his theory the social arrangement of the modernized and capitalist society is such that it is unable to provide the opportunities to decide on the type of work the worker performs. The capitalists have increased the workers' ability to work harder, faster and for a longer period of time, but they have deprived the workers from the personal wealth which comes from the product they produce. This situation has deprived the working class of a meaningful and creative existence. They inevitably lose control over their lives and selves and can never become autonomous and self-realized human beings. Their freedom gets arrested in the hands of the bourgeois. Meszaros (2006) mentions four types of alienation in labour under capitalism as pointed out by Marx:

• Alienation of the worker from his or her 'species essence' i.e. from himself;

• alienation between workers, from the fellowmen since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship;

• alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker's control;

• alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions.

Distinctly, according to Marx alienation is caused by capitalist relations. As such overcoming these relations will remove alienation itself. Going beyond the metaphysical and humanist dilemma of philosophy, Marx insisted upon a social scientific resolution to the problem. Marx opined about proletariat society as the solution to overcome alienation in production relations.

Thus from Hegel to Marx the concept underwent a transition towards 'alienation of productivity' from 'alienation of creativity'. Materialism took the place of the idealistic interpretation of Hegel. With this new interpretation alienation shifted from being a property of the man of reason, to be a condition belonging to a specific class of men in the factory, making them deprived of their own reason by this condition of life (Horowitz, 1966; 231).

But the problem is not such that its essence can be understood remaining only in the periphery of the spiritual ideals or materialistic socio-economic structure. It is argued that neither Hegel nor Marx could touch the root of the problem. Since alienation primarily relates to the human beings living amidst different existential problems along with practical social issues, it needs a deeper understanding of the existential issues which remained unattended by the earlier thinkers. To fill up this gap Existentialism appeared in the field discussing the problem of alienation in a deeper level and thereby promising some way out.

Existentialists' view on alienation

As William Barrett (1990) writes, 'Alienation and estrangement constitute the whole problematic of existentialism.' Existentialism follows Hegel and Marx assigning to philosophy the task of curing people from the sense of alienation. Where Marxism treats alienation in a socio-economic level, existentialism mainly uses the concept in a more ontological and spiritual manner.

The first existential interpretation of the concept is found in Kierkegaard. Though he does not use the term alienation directly, he speaks somewhat in Hegelian line. His concept is also a transit to the spiritual nature of the self. Uninterested in the world outside and the existence of man as a being in the world, he is mainly found talking about self alienation. According to him Alienation is the individual's estrangement from themself. The external world is not considered as a necessary existence for the growth and development of individuality, rather it is experienced as hostile to subjectivity and individuality. According to him, self alienation is an internal process based on one's attitude towards oneself. In this sense Kierkegaard reflects a psychological stand of self estrangement which is found in the form of anxiety and despair within oneself. In such a situation the individual is found neglecting his own eternal and spiritual nature.

Now the question is how to overcome this inauthentic situation? Kierkegaard finds the solution in 'becoming again oneself before God' and coins the term 'repetition' to mean this stage. He thus identifies authentic selfhood with true Christianity. Against Hegel's universalism he went for particularism and individualism. For him dealienation demands salvation, not socialization as Hegel says. But of course he did not detail any methodological step for achieving such a stage.

Again, according to Heidegger normal social life is no guarantee of escaping estrangement or becoming authentic. In our everyday social existence we remain alienated from ourselves and hence inauthentic. According to him we are 'dispersed' in our involvements, lost in the world being dominated by the 'they' or the other. Hence, authenticity is not possible in the societal level. Thus for Kierkegaard and Heidegger authenticity is possible only in individual level. Here the individual has to detach herself from the 'they', and make contact with the authentic individual self. The present age, for them is an alienating era.

Sartre: two interpretations

Coming next to Sartre we see that his concept of alienation is intertwined with the concept of the 'other'. According to him alienation is 'unsurpassable otherness'. His concept of alienation is signified as a deeper and critical analysis of Marxian concepts. Throughout his long engagement with man and freedom Sartre is found to hold two interpretations of the concept of alienation. One is ontological and the other is historical, which can also be interpreted as his early and later philosophy respectively. The ontological feature of his philosophy is found in his momentous literary work Being and Nothingness and the historical materialistic account appears in Critique of Dialectical Reason. While in his early writings he depicts an idealistic position, his later philosophy is found to be a synthesis of sociology and philosophy, hence a step beyond Marxism (Lichtheim, 224). Though Sartre does not view the later theory as the continuation of the former, he considers both at least as compatible.

Early view

In Being and Nothingness Sartre discusses alienation as an ontological possibility rather than a surpassable historical condition, unlike Hegel. Alienation, according to him entails the condition of 'otherness' and it is rooted in human existence, in our relation with the other. The discussion in this book is more of psychoanalysis as he mainly concentrates on individual consciousness in the form of nothingness. By the term 'nothingness' Sartre tries to represent what man is not. He is not the 'being-in-itself' (thinglike passive existence), but a 'being-for-itself'. 'Being-for-itself' (pour-soi) stands for that consciousness which pleas to go beyond the given identity to the individual. In this sense the individual is always alienated from its being. The aspect of history was considered to be alien in these writings.

     All that Sartre says about man in Being and Nothingness
     -- his structure, his condition, his freedom and spontaneity,
     his relation to other man and the world -- is conceived in
     non-historical terms, as man's fixed and eternal fate. Man
     is portrayed as perpetually transcending himself and any
     given content and state; his very being is in flux, unable
     to attain a stable identity, and only by activity and
     development can he assume some discernible characteristics
     or 'essence'. (Yovel; 1979; 482)
Sartre particularly uses the term 'look' to mean the alienating condition of the individual in terms of the existence of the 'other'. The other, by his 'look' gives us the sense of being objectified or alienated from our authentic living. In his early writings Sartre denies historical situation at any level of fundamental ontology.

Later view

But towards his later philosophy Sartre comes to the reconciliation of history and ontology and holds that alienation is both a historical and ontological possibility. It is said to be a consequence of exploitation and oppression in historical situation, a human phenomenon created through history. Here Sartre emphasizes Praxis. The pour-soi (being-for-itself) or 'project' of Being and Nothingnessis termed as human Praxis in Critique of Dialectical Reason, which is actualized through the materialistic world. Historical alienation occurs in man's relation to others through the materiality of things. In the comprehensive historicity, the negativity, or the opposition between the 'in-itself' and the 'for-itself' in Being and Nothingness is now conceived through need and work. It is now referred to as historical alienation.

As in Marx, while referring to alienation in concrete history Sartre talks about exploitation in concrete production relations. According to him in the process of his historicity man makes himself an 'instrument' by objectifying himself in action upon materiality. But the factor which Sartre emphasizes more than exploitation is scarcity. Most of Sartre's later work emphasizes that all human affairs are conducted under conditions of relative scarcity for which man always confront each other as potential competitors. And this is what Sartre holds to be that structure of our socio-economic human history. He regards this relative scarcity as the prevalent condition of human alienation for all time which results in the problems of poverty and deprivation.

Sartre distinctly seems to merge into Marxism, when he holds that alienation, appearing in the form of exploitation or deprivation can be overcome through socialistic means. But it can be marked as a hesitating conversion as he puts some shade of a priori nature to the problem of alienation. Overcoming of deprivation in certain societies, according to Sartre is historically possible. But it is not possible to totally reduce it. Sartre treats scarcity as a fundamental relation of our history. According to him in the modernized materialistic society the realization of human purposes heads through materialistic structures like car, house, machines etc. which are again intertwined with the tendency of placing further material demands subverting all other real human purposes. Following the way of life prescribed by the material conditions man craves for accumulating more and more and gets lost in it. In that sense scarcity is a fundamental relation of human existence. Sartre seems to delve into a deeper level of existential issues of man in the modern materialistic society. He states that with the disappearance of Scarcity 'our quality as men' would disappear. Relative scarcity is so intrinsic to human existence today that overcoming this primitive alienating tendency is not possible though social institutions or through the Marxian way. It is reflected in the Critique of Dialectical Reason that the attempt to overcome the constraints of the 'practico-inert' through social means itself leads to the fall of the social institutions into practico-inert.

Here we see that though Sartre talks about historical alienation, his emphasis is more on the deeper level of alienation, i.e. the alienation rooted in human existence itself. It is the 'a priori possibility' of human praxis on which the historical alienation is found in a concrete historical situation. The consequences of our actions and choices mostly end up escaping us. It goes beyond our capacity to anticipate. Even being a transcending being beyond all determinations, alienation or objectification occurs in man as a structural passion.

Concluding remarks

We can now summarily discuss how the concept of alienation has developed since the time of Hegel, criticizing or following his notions. Here it is to be pointed out that different philosophers talking on alienation are not mutually contradictory, but form a part of the same series. But in spite of few similarities they differ in some significant issues. What distinguishes the different schools is the question of the causes and conditions of alienation.

The dialectic of being and consciousness is the common property of Hegel, Marx and Sartre. But the Marxists and Existentialists stood to be powerful critics of Hegel on the point of the conditions of alienation and dealienation. While Hegel offered an idealistic and spiritual solution to the alienating condition of man Marx and Sartre tried to offer a realistic solution to the problem.

Starting from Hegel and Kierkegaard we see that they show a seemingly different trend in their respective views on alienation. While Kierkegaard considers it as an affect of the modernized society, Hegel offers superiority to the society and refers to it as a measure of dealienation. According to Kierkegaard, individuals destroy their singularity in the leveling process of modern society. Man falls into despair facing the misappropriation in the relation of the self to itself. Refuting Hegel's universalism Kierkegaard advocates particularism and stands for the individual against the community or the state. Contrarily, according to Hegel 'the State 'has the supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the State... for the right of the world spirit is above all special privileges.'

Marx criticises the Hegelian notion of spirit and placed his notion of alienation on a materialistic ground. Kierkegaard also criticises Hegel regarding the issue of overcoming alienation. According to the Existentialists alienation can never be completely overcome in social way, rather it is inherent in human existence itself.

Sartre appears with both the ontological and historical themes in his philosophy of alienation. In Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre criticises traditional Marxism and reaffirms Existentialism. Though in his later philosophy Sartre comes to reconciliation considering alienation as both historical and ontological category, he is confident on the matter that existential alienation is an immutable condition of human existence and it is the very foundation of historical alienation. Without withdrawing his original stand on alienation as an ontological category, Sartre came to agreement with the Marxian view that Historical and social alienation need not necessarily have an ontological status. But at the same time he denies the Marxian stand that socio-economic and political institutions are the sources of all alienation. However Sartre insists that there is some alienation that is caused by the domination of man by man, but objectification as a characteristic of alienation is not outright rejected.

Incorporating all these ideas existentialism appears to be the foundation of Marxism itself. As it is said the postwar enthronement of Sartre led the concept of alienation to reside firmly within the concept of 'existence.' Existentialism is said to be the primary doctrine upon which the Marxian social philosophy is based (Yovel; 1979). Thus it is seen that the Sartrean notion of alienation is furnished with broader views than other philosophers dealing with the issue. While Hegel and Kierkegaard are confined to the idealistic and Marx to the Historical stand, Sartre considers both historical and existential issues and analyses the phenomenon in great detail taking the issue in all ages of human existence, from the infant to the old person. Its periphery is thus greater than the most widely treated views of Marx which primarily deals with the working class but not with the human kind as a whole. In a single statement, quoting Lichtheim (1963) it can be said, 'Sartre's philosophy is an individual synthesis of Hegel, Marx and Heidegger.'


Barrett, William (1990) Irrational Man: a Study in Existential Philosophy; Anchor Books, New York

Birt, Robert E. (1986) Alienation in the Later Philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, in Man and World, Vol. 19, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, Netherlands.

Gouldner, A.W. (1980) Alienation from Hegel to Marx (Chapter 6) in The Two Marxisms; Oxford University Press, New York.

Horowitz, I.L (Dec., 1966) On Alienation and the Social Order, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, International Phenomenological Society, Vol.27, No.2, pp 230-237.



International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences Vol. 1 pp 385-389

Lichtheim, G. (1963) Sartre, Marxism and History, in History and Theory, Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University, Vol.3, No.2, pp 222-246.

Meszaros, Istvan (2006) Marx's theory of Alienation, Aakar Books, New Delhi

Murchland, Bernard (Mar., 1969) Some Comments on Alienation, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; International Phenomenological Society; Vol.29, No.3, pp 432-438.

Overend Tronn (Mar., 1975) Alienation: A Conceptual Analysis, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; International Phenomenological Society; Vol.35, No.3, pp 301-322.

Sartre J.P. (1984) Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press, New work

Sean Sayers: The Concept of Alienation in Existentialism and Marxism, Hegelian Themes in Modern Social Thought; Retrieved online http:--- on 23/09/08

Sinari, Ramakant (Sep., 1970) The Problem of Human Alienation, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, International Phenomenological Society, Vol.31, No.1, pp 123-130.

Wegner, Eldon L. (Apr, 1975) The Concept of Alienation: A Critique and some suggestions for a Context Specific Approach; in The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 18; No. 2; pp 171-193.

Yovel Yarmiahu (Jun., 1979) Existentialism and Historical Dialectic in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, International Phenomenological Society, Vol. 39, No. 4; pp. 480-497.

_____ Alienation in Hegel and Marx; Retrieved online http:--- on 23/09/08

_____ George Novack's Understanding History, Alienation-Part 1; Retrieved online http:--- on 3/9/08

(c) Pallavi Sharma 2010


Pallavi Sharma Research Scholar (Philosophy) Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences IITGuwahati, Assam, India



In an important paper on 'Plato's Ideal of Science', Professor Sigurdarson[1] undertakes to defend Plato against the charge that 'he did more damage to science than good' as many scholars maintain. (Sigurdarson cites in particular B. Farrington and Olaf Pedersen.) The charge finds support in a short passage in Republic 530b6-c1 about the way Plato proposes astronomy should be studied:

     It is by means of problems, then, that we shall proceed in
     astronomy, in the same way as we do in geometry, and we
     shall let the things in the heavens alone if, by doing real
     astronomy, we are to turn from disuse to use that part of
     our soul whose nature it is to be wise (to phusei phronimon
     en tei psuchei
) (tr. Vlastos 1980 as quoted by Sigurdarson).
I have neither competence nor desire to enter into the scholarly fray about Plato's approach to the study of astronomy, nor do I intend to comment on Sigurdarson's main argument which leads up to the conclusion that in Republic 530 b-c Socrates was not 'talking about science as such but only about how some of the sciences can be used as tools to improve our souls and prepare them for the ultimate telos.'

However, for some reason I cannot comprehend, before discussing the Republic passage, Sigurdarson speaks of the 'autobiography' passage of the Phaedo. I have in several of my writings discussed the Phaedo 'autobiography' passage,[2] 95e-101e, as I believe that its most important message has escaped students of philosophy with damaging consequences for philosophy. Now I find Sigurdarson's linkage of the Phaedo passage to the Republic passage strongly illustrative of the failure of mainstream philosophical thinking to absorb that crucial message.

Socrates' decision to take refuge in reasoning to examine there the reality of things that be (eis tous logous kataphugonta en ekeinois skopein ton onton ten aletheian) was not an alternative method of 'inquiry into nature' (peri phuseos historia) as Sigurdarson suggests, even though Socrates' ironical tin' allon tropon autos eikei phuro ('muddle out a haphazard method of my own', Tredennick) may give that impression. Socrates' decision to seek aitiai in the realm of reason (en logois) and not in the world of actual things (en ergois), 100a, amounted to a separation of two modes of thought, a separation more radical and more consistent than Kant's.

Socrates renounced completely all inquiry into the things of the world outside the mind, not as unimportant or uncertain, but as totally unrelated to the questions that concerned him and that concern all philosophy proper, questions that deal with ideals and values 'that do not reside in nature, but only in the mind of man, in the sense that they do not come to us from outside, and can by no means be discovered by any objective approach'. It was not 'a scientific method designed to give us knowledge about the world, but was a method designed to give us the only wisdom accessible to man: understanding of ourselves.'

It is thus misleading and confusing to link the Phaedo 'autobiography' passage to that of the Republic passage where Plato was speaking (albeit through 'Socrates') of 'real astronomy' as distinct from empirical astronomy. These do not pertain the one to philosophical thinking as understood by Socrates and the other to the inquiry into nature renounced by Socrates. These both relate to the 'outer' world, which, according to the Socrates of the 'autobiography', lies outside the sphere of philosophy proper.

Although as a rule I shy away from trespassing into the realm of science, I will venture to suggest that Plato's distinction between the two alternative approaches to the study of astronomy may perhaps be elucidated by comparing the approach of Galileo to that of Newton. Galileo experimented by dropping objects and invented the telescope to watch the planets and the stars. He came up with important empirical results. But it was the mathematician Newton who, proceeding on the lines of Plato's 'real astronomy', created the concept and the theory of gravity. Both approaches were scientific, both related to the 'outer' world and not to the 'inner' world that was the sole concern of Socrates and, in my view, of all philosophy proper; and Newton was wise enough to see clearly that gravity was nothing but an idea, a useful fiction, that enabled us to calculate and to predict the motion of things in the phenomenal world, but did not explain anything as our modern philosophers fondly believe.

I will not hesitate to re-affirm the foolish stance that I have already often maintained, namely, that our failure to acknowledge the radical distinction between philosophical thinking and scientific thinking is doing serious damage to philosophy. It is not in the power of philosophy, and it is not the purpose of philosophy, to give us knowledge about the world, but to give us understanding of ourselves, an understanding of which our ailing humanity stands in dire need.


1. Sigurdarson, Erikur Smari, 'Plato's Ideal of Science' in Essays on Plato's Republic, ed. Erik Nis Ostenfeld, 1998.

2. Khashaba, D. R., "Philosophy as Prophecy" in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009; Plato: An Interpretation, 2005, ch. 1, pp.24-26, and ch. 5, pp. 126-9.

(c) D.R. Khashaba 2010


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