Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and the Future of Self-Alienation

Richard Schacht. The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. Volume 11, Issue 6-8. 1991.

In the 19th century, for thinkers like Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, philosophy ceased to be fundamentally metaphysical and took an anthropological turn, one that was also political, social, and cultural. For them, issues pertaining to the quality of human life became central and could not be considered in abstraction from considerations of a historical nature, taking account of what human beings collectively have become and have to work with and of the ways in which human possibility is conditioned. In this context the notions of self-realization and self-alienation made their appearance in the history of modern philosophy. The question of whether these notions have a future and can still play useful roles in philosophy and critical and normative political, educational, cultural, social, and quality of life theory is examined. It is concluded that the whole idea of self-alienation is a philosophical relic whose time has come and gone and has no place any longer in political philosophy, critical social theory, or elsewhere.

Politics has been defined as “the arty of the possible.” But where possibilities are concerned, choices must be made; and this leads us directly to value theory, as do both educational theory and critical social theory. Indeed, they all lead not only to value theory, but to “quality of life” theory—and this in turn raises what might be called the question of native philosophical anthropology, concerned with the interpretation assessment of human life, not only in its general contours but also in its variability. It too deals with human possibilities; and it might be argued to be concerned with issues that are fundamental to any “critical social theory”—political, cultural or educational.

So something like this transpired in the 19th century, for thinkers Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, when philosophy ceased to be fundamentally metaphysical and took a “anthropological” turn—a turn that was also social and cultural. For them issues pertaining to the quality of human nature became central—issues not so much matters of “what we can know” as of what we can (and can best) become. And for them these issues could not be considered in abstraction from considerations of a historical nature, taking account of what human beings collectively have become and have to work with, and of the ways in which human possibility is conditioned—not only by their biology but also by the institutions and practices of various sorts that are the setting of all human life.

It was in this context that the notions of self-realization and self-alienation made their appearance in the history of modern philosophy. The question I would like to consider is whether these notions have a future, and can still play useful roles in philosophy and critical/normative political, educational, cultural, social and “quality of life” theory, even if we no longer are prepared to embrace the idea of some sort of timeless, Platonic “human essence” a a blueprint somehow fixed beyond all nature and history that would determine in advance what truly human selfhood and life would be. I believe they do and can.

We are living in interesting times, politically a well philosophically, and perhaps even world-historically. Communism supposedly has been relegated to the scrap-heap of history, and Marxism along with it—both having a sordid pat and no future. According to Fukuyama and company, Hegel has won the ideological and philosophical battle, after having seemed to have been down for the count; and lo and behold, he was not only right (basically) about the nature of the “genuine state,” but also about its having made its appearance and taken over on the stage of world history. “The end of history” is purported to be at hand.

In short, we are told that we have more or less made it, just a Hegel thought. It remains only to iron out the wrinkles, and bring the more benighted parts of the world up to our level—”up and up,” as a U.S. Senator once said of Shanghai, in a burst of enthusiasm, “until it is just like Kansas City.” It’s just a matter of time until the Second World holdouts and the remaining Third World states wake up and get with it.

Among other things, this would seem to imply not only no future for revolutionaries and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also no future for the idea of self-alienation, as an analytical-critical concept applying to human life that falls short in important respects of what it can and should be, thwarted in the quest for self-realization. For on the classical Hegelian analysis, self-alienation is finally overcome in the kind of life made possible in the well-ordered state. It may exist here and there, but there is no longer any excuse for it. And the classical Marxian version of self-alienation might be supposed to have been laid to rest too—though in a different way, by the abandonment of Marxian theory and the analysis of labor and life it provides that makes the notion meaningful.

But this obituary notice of self-alienation may be premature, for several reasons. Marxism may not really be a dead dog, and may yet rise again phoenix-like from the ashes of the apparant demise of Marxism-Leninism, Soviet-style. And the Brave New World that seem to be emerging may yet prove to be one in which even the Hegelian version of self-alienation may have a future. Though this may be no cause for celebration, since it might be better for all of us if it did not.

Let us think for a moment about the apparently emerging new world in which dictatorships in the name of the proletariat are giving way to a world community of liberal-democratic states, not only in Europe and the Americas but everywhere: a world made safe for democracy, and in fact made liberal-or social-democratic. This would seem to be a dream come true. Who could ask for anything more?

But suppose that we look at it with Marxian eyes. We may see not the world of Hegelian well-ordered states, but only a world superficially so restructured and beneath the surface, a world made safe instead for multinational or supranational corporate capitalism and oligarchy. It is not too far-fetched to imagine a summit conference ten years from now, attended by representatives of a Germany-led Europe, a Japan-led Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and a Saudi-led oil cartel—perhaps hosted by the bankers of Switzerland—which would give the rest of the world its marching orders. One need not be wedded to a Marxian perspective to have doubts about the emerging world-order, For what might become of the happily ever after of human life answering to Hegel’s conception of full human spiritual self-realization on such a scenario? Would all the well-ordered states in this world be able to ensure that things would go in such a way in their economic, social and political affairs as to ensure such self-realization for their citizens?

In short, we may well be on the threshold of a great new day for a form of neo-capitalism no more satisfactory than Hegelian “civil society,” with results that do not bode well for the quality of human life as even Hegel conceived of it. So self-alienation may have a future after all, in both its Hegelian and Marxian formulations. And it may have a further future in its Nietzschean form as well; for such a world might well turn out to be no sweet dream, but rather Nietzsche’s nightmare of “the last man” come true.

The original home of self-alienation is in the tradition of modern thought that has taken as its fundamental theme the quality of human life. Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche were among the leading contributors to the debate about this topic that raged in the last century, and spilled over into this one, in such developments as Existentialism and the “critical social theory” of the Frankfurt School. It has been much maligned, both in Anglo-American “analytical” and latter-day French and even German philosophical circles. Along with the idea of human nature, the idea of “genuinely/truly/fully human life” has taken quite a beating in these circles. But it may be that both are in for a revival, as we begin to rethink the question of life in the present age and the future that now beckons and looms.

As Nietzsche says, this may call for “new philosophers” who will raise these questions anew and try differently to answer them. Happily, I can say with Nietzsche: “in all seriousness, I see such new philosophers coming up.” And as they “come up,” they may yet find that Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche can be of no little help. For it seems to me that the problems with which they were concerned are still with us, and may be arising again with a vengeance. And some of their favorite concepts, such as self-alienation, may yet prove still to have their uses and important applications.

If the idea of self-alienation is to have a future, it cannot be burdened by metaphysical baggage that is no longer permitted by our philosophical consciences to be carried along with us. Hegel’s Absolute Idealism may be a case in point; indeed, it may be likened more to a millstone than mere baggage, which if draped around the neck of this idea would sink it without a trace. While I do not think that Hegel’s Idealism can be merely dismissed out of hand, as patiently absurd, I will not try to argue for its reprive or revival here; for I do not consider this necessary in order to give a fairly Hegelian conception of self-alienation a new lease on life. The same applies (I would suggest) to Marx’s, which may not only be emancipated from his early Kantian-Hegelian-humanistic anthropology, but also rescued from the flames of the latter-day Althusserian anti-humanism that have been taken by some to consume it. And I would suggest that this also applies in the cases of the notion of self-alienation that may be discerned in Nietzsche, expressed in other terms, independently of his interpretation of life and the world in terms of “will to power” and his adoption of a “Dionysian value-standard for existence.”

Here I will have to be rather brief about all of this; but I hope nontheless to be suggestive of some possibilities worth considering and taking seriously, before it is concluded that the whole idea of self-alienation is a philosophical relic whose time has come and gone, and has no place any more m political philosophy, critical social theory or anywhere else. My intention is to be fairly faithful to the spirit of these thinkers on this matter, if not to the letter of their thought, in order to save what may deserve saving from what deserves to be left to those whose taste runs to historical-philosophical scholarship. I believe that there is more worth saving here than may suspect.

I shall begin boldly, gambling on the possibility of hanging on to a fundamental conceptual point that might well seem very risky to modern ears; for I have no interest in sociologizing and thereby trivializing the idea of self-alienation in order to save it. (The trick will be to give the seemingly outmoded counterpart of this idea, upon which it depends for its significance, a new and reviving twist.) Any substantial and interesting notion of self-alienation, I would not only readily allow but also insist, is conceptually bound up with some idea of self-realization supposed to be worth achieving—and so of some sort of self taken to be worth having, and of some sort of life more worth living and genuinely human than others.

It may be hopeless to try to argue that any such notions of the self and self-realization and genuine humanity can be endowed with the status of essential truth and with timeless, necessary and universal validity. Yet it does not follow that it is therefore bootless to speak of such things. For these concepts can still usefully be employed in the context of a legitimate and even important sort of philosophical inquiry and reflection, a we attempt to sort out and consider different human possibilities and predicaments, the better to position ourselves to chart our future.

Even if, in these matters, we may never be able to know how to go on, and where to go, it may be argued that we still will do better to make up our minds about where we are to try to go, and decide how we will go on, rather than allowing ourselves merely to drift along with whatever tides there be and wherever they may be carrying us. If neither God nor the Weltgeist nor any laws of history or nature dictate what we are to make of ourselves, and the matter is in some real way an “open question,” philosophy may be of some service—not a a discipline that can settle the matter by providing us with any touchstone or method for discovering the real truth of the matter, but rather a a activity of reflecting upon and sizing up the humanly possible. As such, philosophy may be able to do more for political, social, moral, and educational theory than is commonly supposed—especially by those who are all to ready to throw in the towel for philosophy, once its erstwhile pretensions to Absolute knowledge and Categorical Imperatives have been deflated by its critics and renounced by its practitioners.

“Convictions,” Nietzsche observes, “can be prisons.” That is very true. Philosophers above all people can be faulted—a Nietzsche faults them mercilessly—for failing to be aware of this, and to think twice and many times for failing to do what they can to escape them, when they can—and when they should. But convictions are not always prisons. They can also be importantly suggestive, of things we would be remiss to ignore; and we can also be faulted in some situations for failing to have the courage of our convictions, fearing to make claims about things we know very well to be so merely because we realize we cannot come up with knock-down arguments for them. So Nietzsche is also rightly scornful of philosophers who are too timid to venture beyond the solid ground of what may be demonstrated to be entirely certain in the face of the most resolute skeptic.

A case in point, I would suggest, is that there is something to the idea of a distinction between mere human existence and human flourishing, and between human life in general and genuinely human life. We know very well—or at least we ought to be able to agree—that there can and should be more to human life than the sorts of lives may human beings are condemned to live (blacks in South Africa, for example), or even may choose to live (a in the case of the “couch potato”). This conviction need not and should not be dismissed merely because we reject the idea of some absolute, immutable and eternal essence of humanity, or because we must admit that our humanity is a historical, contingent and plastic affair, admitting of great variation under different social conditions.

Our philosophical task here does not consist merely in acknowledging these points, and criticizing conceptions of the truly human and of human self-realization that ignore them. There is more to be done, even though we must take care in doing it, and in framing our claims for what we may come up with. It has to do with the consideration of our human possibilities, beyond what human beings have been and most commonly already are. We can and should seek ways of identifying what we have to work with and may become, drawing upon and extrapolating from human possibilities that have already been realized at various times and places; ways of considering what combinations of human possibilities are possible and mutually interdependent or exclusive; and further, ways of assessing these various possible forms of human life, in relation to each other and to those already attained.

This in effect is to resume and extend consideration of what Aristotle called the “human good,” and of what more recently has come to be called the “quality of life,” guided by the conviction that it makes good and important sense to distinguish between commonplace and perhaps “all too human” forms of human life, on the one hand, and “enhanced” or more fully and truly human, more-than-“merely human” life. And if we are in fact able to get anywhere with this, we may well find that is useful to avail ourselves of the notions of human self-realization and self-alienation—with the latter marking some significant and avoidable deficiency in relation to the former.

The idea of self-alienation therefore can have an interesting and useful future, even in a post-essentialist and post-“death of God philosophical world, despite the acknowledgement that we are dealing with human possibilities, and have no indisputable way of identifying certain of them as absolute and timelessly, necessarily and universally “true.” The identification of any of them as priviledged in relation to others may always be challenged and subject to reconsideration; but our continuing efforts to sort them out and assess them can still serve a well—and can serve us better than merely allowing the human enterprise to blunder blindly onward.

The notion of self-alienation has a future, and a role to play in philosophy and critical social theory, because reflection upon the quality of human life and the human good has a future—beckoning to us and calling for our best philosophical efforts now more than ever, even after “the death of God,” of traditional metaphysics, and of all absolutism and essentialism in our thinking about human nature, value and morality. There may be no way of settling questions about the human good and the quality of life once and for all, by discovering some reasoning that will lead us into the real, ultimate truth about these matters. But even though we may be obliged to recognize that there is no such truth awaiting our discovery of it, and so to abandon the quest for it, we now find that a different challenge confronts us, and a different task appears on the agenda of philosophy. We must chart our course on what Nietzsche calls the “open sea” on which we find ourselves, with ever-receding horizons and no fixed and final port. We must first take stock of what we have become, and of what we have to work with as well as of the boundary conditions we must reckon with—and we then must consider what we are to make of ourselves, and how we might make the most of our human existence in this world.

This will require reflecting upon the different human possibilities that it is within our power to realize, upon the conditions of their possibility, and upon the ways in which they may variously support or exclude each other. It will also require considering how to assess them in relation to each other—for assess them we must, if we are to do more than wander aimlessly along the branching paths with which we will continually be confronted. Nietzsche may have overstated the role and responsibility of his “philosophers of the future” when he called upon them to be “legislators” of humanity’s future; but we can do much to cultivate the “intellectual conscience,” the subtlety and imagination, and the sensibility attuned to qualitative distinctions that will be needed to make the most of this life.

As we seek to develop the “new eyes” with which to find our way, we must acquire the means of bringing alternative human possibilities into focus, the better to distinguish and assess them. They may be likened to candidates proposed for our allegiance and campaigning, both in theory and in practice; and we must be able to mark their differences as we weigh them. The notions of self-realization and self-alienation are available to us, and may well be employed to assist us in discerning the differing contours of different conceptions held out to us, of sorts of self more worth having and lives more worth living than others. They will not spare us the task of determining which of them might answer best to our highest and deepest aspirations, and which of them might serve us best a we undertake (in Nietzsche’s pregnant and suggestive words) to “become those we are.” But they can play a useful role in our education for making such determinations.

The basic question motivating the kind of reflection I have in mind is the question of where we are to go from here—a question we must answer for ourselves if we are to have any meaningful discussion of that other famous question, “What is to be done?” Where we are to go from here, we are now realizing, is a open question—and to repeat a point made earlier, its answer is more to be settled than discovered, although the things we may discover about ourselves will have no little significance for its settling, if our aspirations are not to be absurdly Quixotic.

Where we are to go from here is a question intimately related to but not settled by the question of where we can go from here; for in undertaking to answer it for ourselves, we need to reckon with what is and is not humanly possible. But the field of human possibilities is not fixed once and for all by anything about us a we are already constituted, or by the way things now are in our world, or even by both together. It is a field that has expanded in the course of human history, and that admits of further expansion. This is another respect in which the question of where we are to go from here is an open question, and will always remain one—at least a long as humanity does not sink into a moribund state (or terminate itself altogether), and remains the creative affair it has been ever since culture was invented and superseded the rule of biology in human life.

There is also a third respect in which this question is an open one: it admits of being settled differently even in relation to the same basic field of human possibilities, with no way of singling out only one response as the right one and of pronouncing all others that might be attempted to be wrong. And if Nietzsche is right in insisting that what is humanly possible for some will not be humanly possible for all who happen to be around at the time, it will be desirable a well a conceivable that different answers may appropriately be settled upon by different segments of humanity, who might well orient themselves to the realization of different combinations of what would be generally identifiable as human possibilities.

Philosophy has a important role to play in all of this—but a different role from that to which it has sometimes aspired, of being able to discover some single, necessarily and universally applying answer to the question of what our essential human nature and the human good are. Assuming there to be no such answer to be discovered, it might simply close up shop, or content itself with maintaining the archives of such past overweening pretensions and showing subsequent generations the folly of entertaining them. But it can and arguably should embrace another role, of assisting the effort to deal with the question of where we are to go from here, by engaging in the interpretive and evaluative task of exploring various possible answers to the related questions of what we might make of ourselves, and how we are to think about the various sorts of human life that are humanly possible for some or all of us. It may assist in what might be called the education of our human aspirations, and of our appreciation of the implications for policy on the level of political, social, economic and educational practices of such aspirations.

In short, philosophy may perform a valuable service as we make the adjustment of shifting to the identification and assessment of human possibilities in our grappling with the problems of the human good, the quality of life, and how we are to live our lives, And it is in this context that the ideas of self-realization and self-alienation may yet acquire a new lease on life.

Putting the matter very briefly and schematically, the notion of self-realization may be recast in terms of some configuration of realized human possibilities constituting a form of selfhood proposed a especially worth attaining, owing to the character and quality of human life associated with it. The notion of self-alienation may correspondingly be recast in terms of the failure to attain or sustain it by those who have it in them (by whatever combination of nature and nurture together with the existence of the requisite historically developed conditions) to do so, either because they are prevented from doing so or are seduced away from it, or forfeit the opportunity of their own accord. So conceived, these notions admit of being filled in in different ways, reflecting not only variations in the content of the possibilities actually established or within reach at different at different junctures of human history, but also the different interpretations and evaluations that may be placed upon them.

In the context of the sorts of disputes that I am envisioning, these notions would have a role more akin to a regulative than a constitutive function, to speak with Kant; only they would be employed in the service of a concern not with the advancement of knowledge for its own sake, but rather with something like what Nietzsche called “the enhancement of life,” I am supposing, however, that there is no standard available to us independent of human life itself by reference to which it can be discovered what this might involve or require or consist in. The situation here is rather more akin to politics than to science; for it is basically a contest of aspirations, with alternative visions of the future course and character of human life being developed and proposed, competing for our adoption and enlistment.

Here talk of self-realization and self-alienation would serve to help bring such alternative visions into focus, making more readily available for our consideration competing conceptions of kinds of lives and selves worth going for and not worth settling for. It thus would at once involve and facilitate the ongoing tasks of interpretation and evaluation, as we attempt both to make sense of where things stand and to chart our course, taking account of what we have to work with, trying to figure out how we might make the most of it, and at the same time seeking to resolve for ourselves what “making the most of it” is to mean, The contrasts of realized and unrealized human possibilities these notions may be used to bring out thus would take their place in the context of the sort of fundamental debate and contest that Nietzsche called the “great politics,” and placed high on the agenda of his heralded “philosophy of the future.”

Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche each has much to offer to this “great politics.” Indeed, it seems to me that they may best be thought of a seeking to enter into it with every means at their disposal. In the remainder of my remarks I shall suggest what I take them fundamentally to have been driving at, and to have to offer to it. My representations of their views might perhaps better be styled “neo-Hegelian,” “neo-Marxian” and “neo-Nietzschean,” in the interest of freeing them from the burdens of certain features of their thought and times (not to mention various things done in their names and now often associated with them). I am more concerned with what is living than with what is dead in their thought and heritage—or rather, what remains of vital interest in it, whatever we may finally make of it; and to my mind there is a good deal of that in each case. Few others have come close to equaling their contributions to the “great politics” of which I have been speaking—and not only to its past.

In Schopenhauer a Educator, Nietzsche identifies and distinguishes three types of humanity held out to us for our possible admiration and aspiration. In this spirit, I would suggest that Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche also present us with three such pictures that we would do well to consider in like manner—and, corresponding to them and linked with them, three contrasting types of failed or deficient humanity. We may accordingly consider these to be three paired contrasting images of human possibility, and three conceptions of human self-realization and human self-alienation so construed. Both philosophy and literature may be involved and employed in their elucidation, exploration and assessment.

If one thinks of them in traditional and conventional terms, a Nietzsche does in The Birth of Tragedy, none of these paired conceptions may be accorded the status of essential truth, and each of them is to be deemed to involve a kind of illusion or fiction, in relation to the fundamental truth about ourselves and the world of which we are a part. But Nietzsche learned to think otherwise about matters of this sort—and so, I would suggest, should we.

The task of philosophy, as Nietzsche came to understand it, is not merely to comprehend the basic character of our existence and all that transpires in this world, but also to discern and reckon with various human possibilities, as these have been established in the course of the emergence of the kind of creature we are. On this way of thinking, our aim should be not merely to consider whether any of these pictures is in some ultimate sense true to our essential or primordial nature as human beings—a none of them are—but rather to determine which of them affords us the most attractive way of conceiving of what might constitute and contribute to what Nietzsche calls “the enhancement of life.” In each case the notion of self-alienation has an important role to play, in marking out certain sorts on of cases of unrealized human possibility. Perhaps most obviously, it conveys the suggestion that human lives in which which the possibility in question is unrealized would be better lived if this possibility were realized. It also implies that the possibility in question could be realized by those under consideration, if only conditions were different and/or they made the appropriate choices and efforts. If some people simply do not have it in them to realize it, regardless of any changes of conditions that could be made and anything they themselves might do, the notion could not meaningfully be applied to them; for the possibility in question would not be a real possibility for them, even though it would be for others. Not every human possibility is a possibility for all. Or so Nietzsche would have it—and Hegel too, I believe, though this would not seem to apply for Marx in connection with the sort of thing he has in mind.

Finally: in all three cases, the realization or non-realization of the kinds of human possibility in question is significantly affected by the conditions of life that prevail, and does not depend entirely upon what individuals themselves may do or could be expected to do regardless of what these conditions happen to be. It is this point that establishes the link between these concerns and social, political, economic and educational policy. If certain human possibilities are established a human possibilities, and may be either facilitated or obstructed in their realization by various sorts of concrete social arrangements and practices, then the adjustment of these arrangements and practices becomes of no little importance. And their adjustment in turn must be approached by way of a further reflection upon the “conditions of their possibility.” Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche all are much concerned with questions of these sorts.

Let us first consider what I am calling a neo-Hegelian vision of where we might go from here, building upon what we have come to be and to have to work with in the course of human endeavor, and of what sort of self and society we might go on to realize. Neo-Hegelian human self-realization presupposes but also goes beyond life in which basic human material needs are well satisfied. It embraces and integrates the three general forms of what sort of self and society we might go on to realize. Neo-Hegelian human material needs are well satisfied. It embraces and integrates the three general forms of what Hegel misleadingly (but upon reflection, suggestively and not so unaptly) calls “spiritual life,” and baptizes “subjective,” “objective” and “absolute.” It involves three sorts of things: the development and expression of a personality a a individual; the attainment of a sociocultural identity though participation in the institutions and practices of a linguistic, cultural, social and political community—and with it the kind of rationality on the plane of action that is possible only by entering into rule-goverened activity; and the cultivation and use of one’s intellectual powers in the ways made possible by the various disciplines, thereby achieving the kind of rationality on the plane of thought that is possible only by entering into them and raising oneself to the level of comprehension they afford.

Personality, citizenship and knowledge are thus the three upshots and elements of neo-Hegelian self-realization, integrated in such a way that none eclipses the others, and each has ample place. The expressions of personality are curtailed to the extent necessary to make citizenship and intellectual development possible; and the claims of social participation are restricted to permit both the expression of personality and intellectual development; while intellectual development, though emerging a the highest priority, is not pursued to the exclusion of either personal or social life.

These are considered to be the three fundamental dimensions of self-realization here because they are the realization of human selfhood conceived in terms of our threefold nature as conscious beings having both particular existence and the capacity to function rationally on the levels of both thought and action. Personality is the expression of our developed particularity a distinct individuals. Citizenship is the way in which our capacity for rational conduct on the plane of action is most fully manifested. And knowledge is the issue of our capacity for rationality on the plane of thought, as it develops and finds proper employment. But each of these attainments is possible only in a world in which their expressions are possible, and only through our embracing the means of their attainment, identifying with them and entering into them as (so to speak) the “alters” of our egos.

These means or “alter-egos” are the objectified forms without which our selves are empty and devoid of substantiality. What are they? There can be no realization of our particularity as personality without some sort of property, in which it can be expressed as we may choose to express it and retain our unique relation to it. There can be no realization of our capacity for rationality on the plane of action without participation in rule-governed practices transcending our particularity, which social institutions alone can provide. And there can be no realization of our capacity for rationality on the plane of thought without submission to rule-governed intellectual disciplines transcending both our particularity and practices peculiar to our communities. Personal property, social institutions and intellectual disciplines thus are indispensible mediators of our self-realization, on this neo-Hegelian conception of our nature—or of the sort of self most worth having, and of the sort of life most worth living.

On this way of thinking, self-alienation is fundamentally a matter of missing out on one or more aspects of this complex or dimension of self-realization, when the real-world conditions of their possibility have been established, but the opportunity of attaining them is either denied or passed by. Two sorts of problems may then be contemplated: problems of obstacles, and problems of motivation. Both may conceivably be addressed by adjustments of social policy, but of quite different sorts in the two types of cases. As long a this way of thinking about the kind of human life to be aspired to for ourselves and others strikes a responsive chord—and it surely has much to recommend it—the language of self-realization and self-alienation will be useful in setting it out and considering what is to be done.

Neo-Marxian self-realization, as I conceive it, is a kind of revision of the neo-Hegelian version of what we have it in us and our world to capitalize upon (as it were), and to become. It reflects concerns that I find in Marx both early and late; although I can well imagine argument among those who put forward variations of it that would have a somewhat familiar ring to anyone acquainted with the disputes within Marxist philosophy earlier in this century. The sort of self and life we are invited to consider here do not prominently feature intellectual activity, as the neo-Hegelian picture does—nor even the sort of rationality on the plane of action that finds its fullest expression in the citizenship of participation in a well-structured set of social practices and institutions. The entire emphasis upon the cultivation of our rational powers here gives way—at least as an end, though not in an instrumental sense—to an emphasis upon the cultivation of our expressive powers. This reflects what might be called the “romantic shift” that may indeed already be discerned nascently in Hegel, but that becomes much more pronounced in Marx—although not yet to the degree it attains in Nietzsche.

The twin themes of the neo-Marxian vision of attainable and estimable human selfhood are personality and community, of a sort that should be attainable by all. Priority is assigned to the emancipation of human productive and creative powers from their merely utilitarian employment in the service of both need and greed, to find expression in activity that is more intrinsically satisfying in what might be loosely termed “aesthetic” respects. Here Hegel’s recognition of the worth of the development of particularity into personality through productive activity is conjoined with an echo of the Kantian idea of the dignity associated with autonomy. At the same time, however, account is taken of the Hegelian lesson of the indispensability both of social conditions and of interpersonal recognition and interaction for this individual human possibility to be established, fostered and consolidated; and the inseparability of the “free development of each” from “the free development of all” is stressed.

Such self-realization and genuinely human life are not merely a matter of the obtaining of the “material conditions” of the possibility of the “full development” of our active and creative powers. They are further conceived in terms of the emergence of interpersonal relations of mutual respect, support and reinforcement, in which both indifference and exploitation give way to a more positive sort of community. A useful analog would be that of a community of artists, in which each member’s efforts are at once personally expressive and interpersonally fostered and beneficial. Such a community would be a kind of Kantian Kingdom of Ends brought down to earth and given an artistic turn—but a non-artist one, in which what matters is not the excellence of the works produced, but rather the fulfillment each person may expressively achieve.

To be sure, all of this would here be spelled out in terms of historically developed material conditions and ensembles of social relations, with no appeal to any trans-historical human essence. But all of that would only be the undergirding of a emphasis upon the emergent constellation of human possibilities that have come to permit and promote the realization of the sort of human life I am here describing—if the likewise historically established empediments to its realization can be removed. The notion of self-alienation may be reintroduced in this context, to characterize the failures of the consummation that is here envisioned to be not only possible but preferable to forms of life and selfhood alternative to it.

Nietzsche—or rather, a neo-Nietzschean way of thinking—presents us with an alternative to both the neo-Hegelian and the neo-Marxian conceptions of self-realization and genuinely human life. It carries the “romantic shift” a step further, displacing the emphasis common to both of the latter upon the worth of personality a it may be realized within and by means of either sort of social solidarity. On this neo-Nietzschean view, very briefly put, what matters most within the realm of human possibility is the flourishing and enrichment of human culture. To this end all else—including the expression and development of individual personality —is to be subordinated and revalued.

As in the neo-Marxian case, a high priority is attached to the cultivation and expression of human creative powers. But here the point of their promotion is not the consolidation and emergence of autonomous individual personalities a such, on the broadest possible scale. Rather, it is the contribution of all such cultivation and expression to the ongoing task of contributing to the ever-richer weaving of the fabric of human cultural life, in which excellence does matter. Individual lives find their highest significance in the contributions they may make to this further “enhancement of life,” and to the “higher humanity” it realizes; and its realization is our highest human self-realization, from which our individual possibilities derive their fundamental meaning.

This emphasis upon creativity rather than upon personality and community, taken together with the alleged fact of differences in human capacity, entails the abandonment of egalitarianism, and the embrace of a form of elitism, reflecting the emphasis upon excellence a commitment to cultural enhancement requires. And it has the further consequence of suggesting differing optimal forms of life for different types of human beings; for what Nietzsche calls the “higher humanity” that is potentially and desirably attainable by the fortunate exceptions to the human rule will be beyond the possible reach of the rest, for whom a lesser kind of flourishing will be the most that ca be envisioned and arranged—a kind of flourishing that would have the significance of stultification and self-alienation for the potentially more creative exceptions. (This picture may offend the egalitarian sensibility that has been inculcated in may of us; but a Nietzsche admonishes, we should not be too quick to pass judgment accordingly, for it is by no means unquestionable.)

Now: Let us assume a world of advanced technology, material abundance, a high degree of automation, assured basic well-being, ample leisure, and in which all class, national, ethnic, racial and gender conflicts have been eliminated—a whole world become liberal—and social-democratic, and conflict-free to boot. Would self-alienation then have been abolished or overcome decisively, and self-realization have become assured, a a matter of course? By no means. Latter-day Hegelians, Marxians and Nietzscheans would still have plenty to worry about.

For the neo-Hegelian, nothing in such a world would ensure that say meaningful forms of personal, social or intellectual development would occur. They all might be largely empty of any significant content. Mere consumerism, mindless conformity and a general sense that all is well are poor substitutes for the kinds of activity required to transform particularity into personality, social life into citizenship, and thought into knowledge. Life in such a world could degenerate into a new form of the sort of unindividuated, unreflective immediacy Hegel envisioned in his depiction of not Sittlichkeit but “die Sittliche Welt,” prior to the emergence of true spirituality in any of its three basic dimensions. This might be by default on the part of unmotivated individuals; but such self-alienation might also have a more serious source, in the emergence of social, economic, political and educational institutions that would conspire by a dynamic of their own to discourage any such sorts of activity, in favor of a basically passive manner of existence. For the neo-Hegelian, it would be of crucial importance to establish and maintain institutions and practices of a different sort, that would establish opportunities for—and encourage—active citizenship, intellectual development, and personal self-expression as well, integrated not only within our society but in each of our lives.

For the neo-Marxian, the removal of class-conflict, overt exploitation and material deprivation and misery would not suffice to make genuine personality and community the rule. New forms of stupifaction and dehumanization could well replace the old in such a world. A global economy of mass production, consumption, appetite-creation and satisfaction, and media manipulation—with popular culture a the new opium of the people—could do the same job quite nicely. Our new masters might be our own induced appetites and the workings of the global economy that at once induces and satisfies them, rather than other individuals or classes or an old-fashioned capitalistic economic system; but the results might still warrant characterization in terms of the depersonalization of our personal and interpersonal lives—and so in terms of self-alienation, as the failure to achieve a form of human life of any meaningful degree of self-expressive productive activity and community. The remedy would be nothing like the appropriation of the means of production and the abolition of wage-slavery and private property beyond the level of personal property; but it would require a different sort of social, political and educational reform, to redirect activity toward such forms of self-realization.

For the neo-Nietzschean, such a world would be all too likely to be a world of what Nietzsche called “the last man,” and indeed would be the “last man’s” dream come true. The “green-pasture happiness” of the “herd” would be realized; but the “enhancement of life” through the enhancement of culture would be endangered. A neo-Nietzschean might allow that this would indeed be the best of all possible worlds for the general run of mankind. If potentially higher types were seduced by it, however, the neo-Nietzschean would raise the cry of self-alienation; for these exceptions to the human rule then would not “become those they are,” or have it in them to become, and would not attain their potential “higher humanity.” But the solution would not be to shatter this world. Rather: it would be to erect alongside it the avenues of a “higher culture”—a kind of counter-culture of elitist institutions.

I shall conclude on a non-committal note, among these (and other conceivable such) alternatives: Possibilities unconceived are no real possibilities. Possibilities clearly conceived may not always be real possibilities either; but clearly conceiving them at least opens the way to their exploration, and even to making things come true that otherwise would be neither true nor possible at all. And having a way of framing the kinds of contrast they set up—as the articulation of associated conceptions of self-realization and self-alienation provides—enables them to be conceived more clearly than they otherwise would be.

Reports of the death of these notions, as of philosophy itself, purported to be casualities of the “death of God” and of “Western metaphysics,” thus would seem to be greatly exaggerated. Nor have the philosophical and political events of this century consigned Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche to the archives of the history of philosophy. They turn out to have a good deal of life left in them after all—or rather, they may be appropriated and given new leases on life. And in this way, so recast and employed, they may also help to revitalize and enrich philosophical inquiry, as it reenters the fray of human value debate and critical social theory.