How does Marx’s analysis of alienation respond to Hegel’s account of self consciousness?

Imagine a community that is characterized by what I’ll call “at-home-ness.” For people who are at home in their community, there are ways of doing things that are appropriate, fitting, and right. There are things one doesn’t do under certain circumstances, and things one does.

There’s usually no need to formulate these attitudes as explicit rules because one picks them up as one learns one’s way around the world in passing from childhood to adulthood. So in doing what’s done, one doesn’t see oneself as being constrained, exactly. One identifies with the way things are meant to be done so thoroughly that in doing them one is merely being oneself. In a world of this kind, one has no sense that something is good because it is regarded as good; rather, we regard some things as good because they are good and therefore deserve and require our regard.

When I moved to Paris in the 1980s, I was surprised to be told that there was only one way to slice a zucchini (namely, using the Julienne cut). I mean this literally. It wasn’t that there was my understanding of how to slice a zucchini and another, French understanding; there was simply the way it is to be done, which one either understood or did not.

That is at-home-ness. (If you consider that another way to characterize it might be “provinciality,” you can begin to get an idea of the limits of being at home in the world and the attractions of alienation.)

In a community of people who are at home in their world, the individual identifies with the way of life of the community – its practices, its attitudes, its values. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in such a community is enthusiastically in step with everyone else at all times. An individual’s willingness to do what’s fitting and proper may rise and fall dramatically. But the extent to which you personally want to do what’s proper for you to do has no authority for you; it’s no part of who you really are.

The community I’ve described is a non-alienated community. It’s characterized, in Hegel’s terms, as sittlich – an “ethical” community or, to put it another way, a community unified by an ethos. It’s the way the ancients lived, on his account, at least for a while. Continue reading