Tag Archives: Alienation

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique (Aarhus: Nordic Summer University Press, 2016)

As concerns the main contents of the new book by prolific Danish philosopher and social scientist Asger Sørensen, they are certainly relevant and urgent, for they constitute an articulate critical reflection upon the grim reality of avoidable human degradation and suffering within the capitalist order, as well as upon their callous and hopeless acceptance therein, all of which are important features of contemporary social life worth thinking about and, possibly, acting against.

Building upon a variety of essays written independently of one another and published individually elsewhere on previous occasions (e.g. the prestigious scholalrly journal Philosophy & Social Criticism), the book is internally diverse, but it is neither contradictory nor overwhelmingly heterogeneous. Rather, the book’s structure is sensibly and comprehensibly open, for it comprises:

(A) An introduction, a presentation and an interlude that, somewhat redundantly but very usefully, lead the reader into the rich intellectual panorama to follow, highlighting above all: (1) the common conceptual threads linking together the two subsequent, admittedly uneven parts; (2) their being the result of a single process of intellectual growth and maturation lasted many years; and (3) their more or less direct impinging upon the Continental school of thought known as Critical Theory, to which the book’s author claims to belong himself.

(B) A first part, entitled “Economy” and focussing on the classic social thinkers Émile Durkheim and Bataille, whose reflections provide a profound and complex theoretical backdrop for the correct understanding of the axiological significance of the emancipatory movements emerged in capitalist countries in our young new century (e.g. the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Indignados of Spain, etc.). Although admired and mined for important insights in existing realities and problems, neither classic social thinker is idealised and extensive criticism of their views, especially Bataille’s, is offered too;

(C) A second part, called “Dialectics”, covering a much wider spectrum of intellectual sources in all senses, i.e. disciplinary, geographical, historical and linguistic. It is also a more complex section, which requires closer attention to detail and serious efforts of synthesis in order to appreciate how the different notions of dialectics explored and explained in its five chapters (i.e. Aristotle’s, Hegel’s, Marx’s, Bataille’s, Tong Shijun’s, Mao’s, and the Frankfurt School’s) can be combined together so as to shed light on contemporary capitalism, its many woes and their possible solutions;

(D) A postscript that expands upon and integrates (A), developing a critique of key-aspects of liberal and neoliberal political economy, especially Ricardo’s doctrine of comparative advantage and the macroeconomic practical manifestations of the Austrian school of economics in pre-2008 developing countries and in post-2008 Europe, under the banner of austerity. Somewhat disconnected from both (A) and (B), it is per se a very interesting piece of intellectual reflection, and one that should appeal to open-minded economists as much as to social scientists at large and philosophers.

Noteworthy and original is the book’s attempt to give a better-contoured and more positive shape to the notion of cultural Marxism, which has been used very loosely in contemporary social discourse and, typically, with an almost taken-for-granted negative connotation. In this manner, the book can be useful both to the friends and to the foes of the broadly humanitarian, democratic and socialist (i.e. not liberal, as the book’s author vehemently states in his postscript) cultural tradition that goes under this name and that the book’s author identifies, investigates, interrogates and invigorates. Whether trying to promote it or to demote it, both sides can benefit from having a conceptually more refined version of it to dissect, debate and disagree upon.

From a scholarly perspective, the book is verily informed and informative. If anything, it is scholarly thorough and thoroughly scholarly. Its main arguments are sensible and sensibly constructed, but a reader unfamiliar with the classics of philosophy and of social thought that are so frequently referred to therein is unlikely to be able to grasp such arguments with ease, if at all. The spectrum of ideas and ideologies presented and toyed with in the book is immense, even if inevitably partial, and what is presented and toyed with is done so in a competent, intelligent and perceptive manner, as well as in an articulate, meticulous and subtle one. The overall style of the book is plainly academic. Positively clear and professionally tailored, no reader will find thrilling passages, stimulating wit or spiritually inspiring prose to ponder upon. Yet, it is unlikely that any reader but an academic one will purchase the book and read it.

Alienation, language and freedom. A note on Bildung in Hegel’s writings

The General Argument

Hegel’s concept of Bildung is often explained with reference to the Introduction and chapter four in the Phenomenology.4 It is thought that for Hegel experience, negation and productive work are the determining elements for the Bildung of the consciousness as conscious being, in German Bewu?t-sein. In contrast to this, I argue that for Hegel Bildung cannot be completed through production. The most elaborate discussion of Bildung in the Phenomenlogy is found in the chapter six on Geist (i.e. spirit), and here it is the alienation and tearing apart of the self that is constitutive for Bildung, not working with some material. Bildung presupposes alienation as something experienced, but also as expressed. Language is thus a necessary component for Bildung. The point is here, that Bildung as a phenomenon is collective (a people and a family), political (about wealth, power and law), and historical (it develops until revolutions). Bildung is something that happens in relation to the spirit, not production. Bildung is therefore not just a matter of concern for an individual consciousness working with some material. This is the idea of Bildung, I will elaborate a little further on in the next section. In the rest of this section I will just complete the general argument.

With this general idea of Bildung as a framework it is obvious that Hegel must put a lot of emphasis on the importance of language and alienation also in the Gymnasium. In his annual speeches as rector he pays homage to traditional Bildung (W4: 307), but he also wants to open the minds of the students for new developments (W4: 314). This opening, however, can according to Hegel be achieved by confronting the students with the classical writings in Greek and Latin (W4: 319). The learning of language requires discipline, and since it is strange, it also breaks with conformity. The content of the classics, however, also give you the instruments to reconcile yourself with reality once again (W4: 320-21). As would be expected from his reputation as the spokesman of the state, Hegel of course emphasizes discipline (W4: 334-35), but he is also very careful to spell out that the youth needs time by themselves to be able to develop the character necessary for grating them freedom and liberty (W4: 351-53).

In his teaching material from the same period Hegel emphasizes that the Bildung should be both theoretical and practical. According to Hegel virtues to be cultivated in relation to science are the recognition of the limits of judgment, the importance of objectivity and disinterestedness (W4: 260). Practical virtues are first of all health, which enable us to fulfill our calling. We should be faithful to our calling, since as part of humanity it expresses something universal and necessary (W4: 262-63). Bildung is to Hegel what Kant would consider duties toward oneself. With these duties fulfilled in relation to ourselves, we are enabled to have duties in relation to others.

Bildung thus requires education, not just working with a material. In relation to Bildung, work can at most create tacit knowledge, whereas Bildung in the full sense presupposes language and culture. As such this account of Bildung in Hegel differs from interpretations in the slipstream of Marxism. The historical subject can never be the working class; the historical subject must have studied Greek and Latin in the Gymnasium.

The interpretation offered, however, also differs from the way the term has recently been understood by Robert Pippin. Bildung is not just a “learning process” (Pippin 2008: 122), neither is it “collective self-cultivation” (2008: 126), since cultivation is an instrumental purposive practice, whereas Bildung relates to the split between individual and collective, it partly happens behind your backs, and it is never completed. It is precisely by the consciousness being torn apart that Bildung is always open to freedom.

Some Details from the Phenomenology

This being the argument, I will just supply a few details to substantiate it a little more. In discussions of Bildung it is as mentioned common to refer to chapter four of the Phenomenology. It is here we get the detailed account of the conceptual logic of work, as it is carried out by the slave. Slavery is to be forced to work for somebody else. The consciousness of a slave in the service of a master is thus characterized by fear. For Hegel desire is characterized by requesting the “pure negation of an object”, which will thus be lost, and in this perspective Hegel can therefore think of work as another kind of negation, namely as “inhibited desire, delayed disappearances” (W3: 153). Crucial to Hegel is that the slave in this formation of the thing “comes to himself” (W3: 153). It is therefore common to link the work on the object to Bildung as such. One is supposed to form oneself, when working and thus forming the thing according to one’s own idea. In giving the thing its shape one externalizes oneself, and one can therefore recognize oneself in the resulting object.

It is normally presumed that Hegel in this figure let an awareness of one self in self-consciousness be created through the working process, and that Bildung therefore will be the result of production. However, Hegel consistently fails to use the word ‘Bildung‘ in this context. Instead when Hegel is writing on the formation of things in this passage, he uses the word ‘Bilden‘, and none of the two words appears in the account of the evolution of consciousness. It is clearly the case that Hegel let the thing be formed according to the idea of man working with the material and also that an awareness is generated through this work. That, however, does not mean that self-consciousness thereby attains Bildung.

The close connection between Bildung and alienation mentioned above is indicated already by a superficial look at chapter six on The Spirit. The combination of both these elements actually constitutes the title of section VI.B., “The world of the spirit, which is alienated for itself; Bildung”. Furthermore subsection VI.B.1 on “The world of the spirit alienated from itself” contains a sub-sub-section VI.B.I.a., which is named “Bildung and its realm in reality”, and this sub-sub-section is one of the longest in the book.

In this realm of Bildung consciousness confronts conflicts, contradictions and divisions, which are developed in relation to objects, in relation to consciousness itself, and even in relation to the contradictions themselves. For Hegel Bildung not only presupposes that consciousness becomes external to itself. It also means that consciousness becomes alienated to itself; actually Hegel goes as far as to say that alienation becomes alien to itself (W3: 366). Basically the problem is from the outset the conflict between the universal, which consciousness strives to express, and the individual or particulars, which appear in reality. Consciousness thinks to have the truth about itself, but again and again it becomes obvious to consciousness itself that what is expressed by consciousness does not have universal validity, and thus for Hegel no reality in the strict sense.

In the realm of Bildung the decisive contradiction is between the political power of the state and wealth (W3: 367). This conflict Hegel describes in various steps, which as a whole reconstructs the logic in the societal development from the feudal society to bourgeois or capitalist society. The decisive moment for Hegel, however, is, when language is introduced in the analysis. For Hegel it is language that really makes alienation and Bildung possible. The language is “the existence of the self as pure self” (W3: 376). Language allows the silent loyalty to be transformed into “heroic flattery” (W3: 378), and on the other hand, it elevates the power to “an existence refined to spirit”, the pure “similarity-in-itself: the monarch “(W3: 378). For Hegel it is language that constitute the absolute sovereignty of the king – l’état, ce moi – and this form of state on the other hand implies the most extreme alienation on the side of the servant.

The result is “laceration”, i.e. being torn apart in such an extreme sense that it must lead to a revolution. To Hegel this means that everything that is universal, everything “that is called law, good and right” (W3: 382) falls apart and is destroyed; “everything equal has dissolved” into “the purest inequality “(W 3: 382). According to Hegel, however, it is in this absolute alienation, we encounter the truth of Bildung. “The language of being lacerated is […] the perfect language and the true existing spirit of this whole world of Bildung.” (W3: 384) Self-consciousness is exalted in this rejection of “the absolute equality-with-itself in the absolute laceration” (W3: 385). The “pure Bildung” is “this absolute and general distortion and alienation of reality and thought” (W3: 385). In this alienated Bildung consciousness transcends both the noble loyalty and the vile meanness of the rebel. Its existence is “the general speech and the lacerating judging” (W3: 386) which, however, expresses what is “true and irrepressible” (W3: 386). This “lacerated consciousness” is “the consciousness of distortion”(W3: 386), which distorts “all concepts and realities “. The” shamelessness to pronounce this deception”, “alternately furious and soothing, urgent and mocking” is however “the greatest truth “(W 3: 387). For Hegel “the laceration of consciousness that is conscious of itself and speaks itself” is a “scornful laughter about life as well as about the whole confusion and itself” (W3: 389).

This description of Bildung in the Phenomenology of Spirit obviously presupposes the development of the culture of modern society, where people linguistically can relate both to themselves, to their surroundings and to the contradictions that arise in relation to themselves as well as between them. Bildung reaches its climax in the clear recognition of the contradictionary character of existence itself. Bildung is what is achieved by the one, who is indeed alienated, that is, not only alienated from himself and his surroundings, but also from the very alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Bildung and alienation are for Hegel thus processes, which clearly take place in the upper strata of society. Bildung presupposes the alienation, which can only be brought by in the formal education, and on its side Bildung creates the enabling conditions for further alienation, fragmentation and freedom of expression. Pushed to the extreme Bildung is simply alienation. Bildung is directed towards an end, which can be determined in advance. As Gadamer says, then Bildung is not a means to shape natural dispositions, which are given (Gadamer 1986: 17). In Bildung man must break with what is merely given and through negation sublate himself to universality.

These remarks apply both to the general concept of Bildung, as it is described in the Phenomenology and to the more pedagogical concept of Bildung that Hegel developed in his Nürnberg-writings. In relation to the classics in Greek and Latin one can develop alienation and laceration, and still it is precisely in these works, in the midst of lacerating despair, that it is possible to find one self again. However, this means that for Hegel there must be some kind of contradiction between being an educated person and having Bildung. For Bildung seems to be so closely associated with alienation, that Bildung can never be a process brought to a close. Bildung is precisely this that consciousness – that is, man’s conscious being – can still be moved by the impressions, which are worth being moved by. With Bildung one becomes able to form still better judgments, but one does not receive a set of final judgments.

Hegel clearly sees that higher administrative officers, as the Gymnasium mainly were to educate, must be able to take responsibility. Bildung as a special kind of spiritual formation thus require the experience of real freedom; Bildung must develop the capacity to make the right judgments in a very complex reality, and therefore it must not imply the feeling that action is concluded, or that that the answer is already given. The laceration means that each and every person must decide concretely for himself in every case. In a gender and class perspective, one can say that the upper-class sons of Hegel’s high school are trained for the freedom, responsibility and sovereignty required by the roles they must fill out in bourgeois society. This also means that for Hegel one of course gets some formation through productive work, but that does not mean that one gets Bildung. Negation is a necessary component of all kinds of consciousness formation, but productive work is not the only kind of negation, and actually it is a rather primitive one. In Bildung it is the experienced strangeness of antiquity, which is the negative component. The necessary break with the given reality happens in the alienation experienced in relation to the classical languages. To get the Bildung necessary for living in freedom and taking responsibility, for Hegel the worker thus has to enter high school.


Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr. (Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 1)

Hegel, G. W. F. (W3). Phänomenologie des Geistes, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W4). Nürnberger und Heidelbergerschriften 1808-1817, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W). Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-71.

Heidegren, C.-G. 1995. Hegels Fenomenologi. En analys och kommentar. Stockholm/Stehag: Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion.

Pippin, R. B. 2008. Hegel’s Practical Philosophy. Rational Agency as Ethical Life, Cambridge University Press.


1 The German term Bildung is very difficult to translate adequately into English. Bildung is a specific kind of formation, and the word can signify both the process of what in the US would be called liberal education, and the normative goal for such an education, namely to acquire Bildung or to end up as an educated person. These difficulties cannot be ignored when dealing with this matter in English, but for now I have restricted myself to a simple technical solution. In what follows I have thus used the German term, whenever there was any possibilities of misunderstandings.


2 The relation between the German Gymnasium and the high school of the English speaking world will not be dealt with here.

3 This note stems from a presentation at the winter session in Nordic Summer University at Turku University in Finland, February 11th 2012. I have given a fuller account of the argument in the original Danish version, ”Hegel. Fremmedgørelse, sprog og frihed”, which will be a chapter in the Norwegian anthology edited by Ingerid Straume, Danningens Filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal).

4 Cf. e.g. Heidegren (1995: 464).