Participation or Alienation


I wish to take up one of the problems that lie at the center of the contemporary thought about man. The problem “participation or alienation” lies at the center of thought because it is also located in the center of life: of the existence and coexistence of people, societies, environments, and systems. The very concepts of “participation” and “alienation” carry various connotations. They are linked with the areas of sociology, economics, and politics, and at the same time progress through the sphere of ethics and theology. Both these concepts have a rich philosophical genealogy, which cannot be exhaustively presented here.

“Participation” originates from the philosophy of Plato, thus, it remains linked with his idealism from its beginnings; though later—in Christian philosophy and theology—it finds its new interpretation, namely, a realistic one. By using this concept in this lecture, I accept that interpretation in particular and confer a personalistic sense on the concept of “participation.” For I see a possibility and need to introduce “participation” into the philosophy of the person precisely on account of “alienation,” which also finds its proper application in the philosophy of the person.

The very concept of “alienation” originates from nineteenth-century philosophy. This concept gained specific popularity in contemporary thought through Marxist philosophy. For according to Marx, the entire revolutionary practice is to serve to overcome the manifold alienation of man. Marx considered alienation to be the system of private property, the state holding this system, the work in this system, the social-economic relations shaped by this system, and religion. Marx and Marxists understand alienation as all that by which man deprives himself or is deprived of what is essentially human, what belongs to humanity or to man. In this way the concept of alienation stands at the same time at the very center of Marxist anthropology. This concept is a constant topic of interest for contemporary Marxist and non-Marxist thinkers, among others in Poland. They state that various revolutionary changes within the economic-social or the economic-political systems do not necessarily contribute to the elimination of the phenomenon of alienation; sometimes new variations of alienation appear on that basis.

Precisely these reflections incline us, among other things, to consider the problem of alienation on the basis of philosophical anthropology, and in particular on the basis of the philosophy of the person. For it seems that the very concept of alienation can contribute a great deal to the contemporary understanding of the problem of man. The philosophy of the person manifests the proper dimension of this problem and shows more fully the subjectivity of man, inter-subjective relations, and the relation between the man-subject and the human community.

Precisely on the basis of these relations, I wish to attempt to show the oppositions between alienation and participation (in the personalistic sense of this term) here. Of course, the attempt to address the problem “participation or alienation” also requires one’s own elaboration of both these concepts. I wish to do so by analyzing two types of relations. The first one is the inter-human relation that can be grasped by the “I–the other” formula (I would not identify it immediately with the “I-thou” relation, which undoubtedly is a particular form of the “I–the other” relation). I intend to devote a little more time to the analysis of this relation, also because I have dealt with it more. Besides, I think that the inter-personal relation is perhaps more fundamental—also from the viewpoint of the antinomy that occurs between participation and alienation. From the same viewpoint, I intend to analyze the relation of the “we” type, which indicates the social (and not only the inter-personal) dimension of human existence.

In all these reflections I bear in mind not only an “academic” and abstract problem, but also a problem that truly seems to lie in the very center of the lives of contemporary people—and in different dimensions at that. For it is in different dimensions that man—each and every one—happens to exist and act “together with others.” It is thus first and foremost on this basis that we should seek both what confirms man, what serves his autorealization, and what in any way deprives him of “humanity.”

An enormous and diverse body of literature, not only a philosophical one, corresponds to the problems that I will consider here. In this relatively brief statement, I will only be able to refer to a few authors, namely, to those whose works I personally came in contact with. Although, as  I indicated, I attempt to present the entire problem on the basis of my own reflections, I should underscore that there is also a rich body of literature in the Polish language. My statement will certainly have the most in common both with their reflections and with the situation of the human person in my homeland.

The Form of Participation and Alienation Connected with the Relation of the “I–the Other” Type

What Does It Mean to Participate in the Humanity of Man?

Above all, a question arises as to how we understand man, whom in this relation we describe with the pronoun “I.”

The “I” does not merely denote the content of consciousness but denotes the real subject who, through consciousness, experiences himself (i.e., precisely the “I”) and experiences “the other” outside himself. That which most fully and most penetratingly reveals man as the I—indeed, as the person—is the act. And the moment of self-determination is essential for every act performed consciously by a concrete man.

Self-determination, which in the simplest and full way reveals the freedom of the will and the freedom of man, allows us at the same time to define that by which everyone is his own I.” It allows us in a sense to touch what the concept soi expresses. Here man, the subject of the act, through the moment of self-determination manifested in this act, discovers and confirms himself as one who possesses himself. Not only self-consciousness but above all self-possession belongs to the essence of soi-I.Self-consciousness conditions self-possession, and this is manifested above all in the act. (This is in some sense manifested also when the action of man demonstrates essential deficiencies of self-possession, when man “allows himself to be governed” by affections or passions.) Thus the act introduces us into the very depth of the human “I”-soi. This happens by way of experience.

Who, in That Case, Is “the Other”?

“The other”–autrui is located outside the field of this experience. Self-consciousness and self-possession, as their very names indicate, are untransferable outside this one concrete “I”-soi, which experiences and consequently understands itself in this way. However, the impossibility of experientially transferring outside oneself what constitutes one’s own “I” does not mean the impossibility of understanding that “the otheris constituted in a similar way, that he is also an I.” What will be essential for his constitution is self-possession conditioned by his own self-consciousness. In some measure, understanding this truth defines the relation of the concrete “I” to all people. They are not only “other” in relation to the “I,” but each of them is at the same time “an other ‘I.’” “The other”—autrui is always one of them—an “other ‘I’” remaining in a relation to my own “I,” a relation experienced in some way.

The consciousness that the otheris an other ‘I’” determines a capacity to participate in the very humanity of other people and initiates this participation. Thanks to this, everyone can be a “neighbor” to me. For the otherdoes not only denote the sameness of the being that exists next to me and that even acts together with me in some system of actions. On the basis of this real situation, “the otherdenotes a no less real, though above all subjective, participation in humanity, proceeding from the consciousness that the other man is “an other ‘I,’” that is, “also an I.”

Thus, the reality of “the other” does not result primarily from the categorial cognition alone, from humanity as a conceptualization of the being “man,” but from the even fuller lived-experience, in which a transfer, as it were, occurs of what is given to us as our own I” outside ourselves onto “one of the others” who thereby appears before me as “an other ‘I’”—“a second ‘I’”—a “neighbor.” (This lived-experience could be described perhaps even more accurately as the “reception” of another man as the “other ‘I.’” It seems, however, that this “reception” does not take place without the previous “transfer” of which we spoke above.) The neighbor is another man, not only on the basis of the general sameness of humanity but also, and above all, on the basis of being an other I.

The “I–the Other” Relationship Demands Actualization

Participation in the humanity of other people—of the others, of neighbors—is not foremost shaped by a mere understanding of the being “man,” which by its nature is general and does not sufficiently approach man as a concrete “I.” Participation is shaped by way of the consciousness-related approach that proceeds from the lived-experience of one’s own I. This does not mean that the understanding of the being “man” bears no significance for participation, being alien, or even opposite to it. By no means. The understanding of the being opens a way to participation, but by itself does not yet determine participation. Also, it alone does not shape the “I–the other” (soi-autrui) relationship. This relationship is not yet shaped by the fact that we have a general concept of man, in which we encompass all people without exception. The I–the otherrelationship is not general but always concrete, every time unique and unrepeatable both when we, proceeding from “I,” consider it as a one-directional relationship, and when we consider its reciprocal character, since “the other” is also a distinct “I” for whom I can be precisely “the other.”

It is known that very many people exist and act in the world; all these are conceptually apprehended by everyone who thinks “man.” In this apprehension, however, no one is yet “the other” in relation to “I.” The very concept mandoes not yet create this relationship. Does it only indicate the possibility of this relationship? It seems that it is something more—it is the first potentiality of this relationship, making it fundamentally possible. This concept makes this relationship possible in relation to all people, without exception, that is, in relation to every man. The concept “man” fundamentally opens the path to the lived-experience of “the other ‘I’” in relation to everyone who is included in this concept just as my own Iis included in it—and because this Iis included in it as well. Thus, that which determines the potentiality of the “I–the other” (soi-autrui) relationship is above all the fact of both partners of this relationship being man, a fact that is made conscious by them.

In what way is participation realized? If “the other” (autrui) or the “neighbor” (prochain) appears to me as “the other ‘I’”—and it is only this that we can call participation in concrete humanity—then in my consciousness and lived-experience on the basis of general properties of the other as “man” there must come into being that which also determines my own I, for this determines the relation to the other as to an I.” As we previously stated, that which determines the lived-experience of my own “I” (that is, the lived-experience of man who is me as “myself”) is not only self-consciousness but also and even more so the self-possession conditioned by it. I possess myself not so much through becoming self-conscious as through self-determination. It tells me of full subjectivity and of the objective unity of actions with the being that I am as their subject. Thus it—self-possession—attests to my own “I” as a person. The category of the person objectivizes and expresses in philosophical (and colloquial) language what is given in experience as the “I.”

The actualization of the I–the other” (soi-autrui) relationship proceeds from becoming conscious of the fact of the humanity of a specific man outside me, one of many, but is accomplished in the lived-experience of the other Ias a person. Participation means the fundamental personalization of the relation of man to man. I cannot experience another man as myself, for my own “I” as such is untransferable. When I experience him as a person, I approach in a maximal way what determines his “I” as a unique and unrepeatable realness of man.

Participation as a Task

The analysis thus far leads us to the conviction that, although people exist and act together within different societies, communities, or environments, and although these existence and action are accompanied by the fundamental becoming conscious of the humanity of each of them, the participation itself in humanity is nonetheless not yet actualized in this. The actualization of participation in relation to every man emerges before everyone as a task. It also seems that precisely this is what explains the fundamental need for the commandment contained in the Gospel, the commandment whose fullest rightness, that is, whose key ethical meaning, is largely accepted by people regardless of professed religion or worldview. We should state that what we call the commandment to love in its fundamental, elementary (in a sense still pre-ethical) layer, constitutes a call to experience the other man as the other ‘I’”—that is, a call to participate in his humanity concretized in his person, just like my humanity is concretized in my person.

For, as we said, the “I–the other” relationship is not ready-made but only potential; experience demonstrates a need for a certain impulse to realize it. If this impulse was expressed in the commandment, that does not mean that it could remain only external. It must be born internally. The commandment to love only indicates that every man must, as a task, constantly posit actual participation in the humanity of other people, that is, the lived-experience of the other as “I,” as a person. Thus, the impulse expressed from without by the commandment must every time proceed from within. Is this impulse exclusively emotional, as Max Scheler seems to claim, and does it have a completely spontaneous character?

It is difficult to deny the significance of human spontaneity in the shaping of the relations of man to man, above all the significance of affections, of emotional spontaneity. Certainly, this is an enormous capital distributed in people differently and differently influences the shaping of the “I–the other” relationships. Scheler’s analyses also provide an additional argument for the fact that there is a fundamental disposition to participate in humanity as a value that inheres in man, and thus a disposition to a spontaneous opening toward others; something that seems to be contradicted by Sartre, whose analysis of consciousness leads to a definitive closing of the subject with respect to “others.”

Thus, without at all diminishing the importance of emotions and spontaneity in the shaping of the authentic “I–the other” (soi-autrui) relationship, it is nonetheless difficult not to accept that, since every man faces this relationship as a certain task, then its actualization always fundamentally depends on the will. The lived-experience of man, of one of others, as the other “I,” always contains a discreet choice. First of all, it is a choice of precisely this man among others, which after all is reduced to the fact that precisely this man among others is hic et nunc given or “entrusted as a task” to me. The choice spoken of here consists in the fact that I accept his I,that is, I affirm the person, and in this way, I in a sense choose him in myself,that is, in my I,” for I do not have another access to the other man as an “I” except through my own “I.” Emotional disposition and purely emotional spontaneity can help with this choice, but they can also hinder it.

The expression “emotional spontaneity” was used here on purpose, for we must accept that there additionally exists a spontaneity of the will. The choice spoken of here lies on the plane of that spontaneity. The constituting of the “other ‘I’” in my consciousness and will is not a result of a choice among people, among others. As was said, we are concerned with the man who is hic et nunc given and entrusted as a task to me, and therefore this “choice” is not necessarily experienced as a choice. It is rather a simple identification of one of the othersas the other ‘I’” on the basis of the lived-experience of my own “I”—an identification of the person and the value—and this identification does not require a longer process of the will, an acknowledgment or struggle of motives,  etc.

Nonetheless this does not at all change the fact that we deal here with a certain choice, and that participation in the humanity of the other man is a certain task. This task can and should be posited at the foundations of a strictly ethical order and valuation. Although its own meaning seems to be above all personalistic, to an enormous extent a strictly ethical order of values depends precisely on it. The so-called second categorical imperative, as formulated by Immanuel Kant, may serve as a confirmation of this thesis.

Alienation Is the Opposite of Participation

The statement that the “I–the other” relationship is not something ready-made and completely spontaneous, but a particular task, helps us to interpret the manifold reality of inter-human relations. In short, we can describe them as “I-thou.” In the “I-thou” relation, we discover different forms of the path followed by the soi-autrui (“I–the other”) relationship, if this relationship is to be shaped as the authentic communio personarum. Here it seems that the old analyses of such a master as Aristotle, concentrated on both the axiological and ethical essence of friendship, still tell us very much. All these are “positive” verifications of participation.

However, we should pay more attention to the negative verifications than to the other ones. They speak, perhaps even more, of reality being the participation in the humanity of the other man. With a more penetrating analysis of their subjective complexity, affections or attitudes such as hate, reluctance, aggression, and envy demonstrate that nothing else lies at their bottom but the lived-experience of the other man as the other I”—not of the one whom I encompass in an abstract way by the very concept “man,” but precisely of the one in whom I “choose in my ‘I’” (or “on the basis of my ‘I’”) a certain way. Only this can explain the spiritual onerousness of affections or attitudes such as reluctance, hate, aggression, or envy. The suffering that accompanies this, indicates in any case that man as the other “I” is not indifferent to me. Perhaps even these negative affections or attitudes sharpen even more the elementary reality itself of participating in the humanity of the other and show how I am bound in myself, bound from within, by this humanity.

So, precisely in this place and at this point of our reflections, it seems that we discover an experiential basis for understanding the essence of alienation. It is vividly delineated precisely against the background of the “negative” verification of participation. For alienation denotes nothing else but the denial of participation, an attenuation or outright annihilation of the possibility of experiencing the other man as the other I,’” and thereby a devastation of the I–the otherrelationship. Inasmuch as various “negative” affections or attitudes, in a sense, verify a capacity for participation in the humanity of “the other,” alienation resides outside the field of such verification. Alienation denotes the situation in man, the state, the attitude in which he is not, in a sense, able to experience the other man as “the other ‘I.’” The causes of this can be various and very complicated—we do not intend to inquire about them here. But a closer analysis of this situation, state, or attitude at hand would show us the absence, or rather the suppression, of all the elements through which the I–the otherrelationship is built, the elements of its actualization. We stated that the very concept of man does not yet actualize this relationship. We must receive the other as an “I,” accept him, and choose him in a sense on the basis of our own “I”; we must do this while in a sense crossing the boundary of self-consciousness, so as to experience the reality of self-possession, which determines “the other ‘I’” just as it does our own.

Alienation cancels all that. The concept of man remains in consciousness, but it is, in a sense, impermeable to the lived-experience of “the other ‘I’” in it, estranged from the essential elements of this lived-experience. There exists no shortage of examples. The history of concentration camps, prisons, and tortures provides these examples in our epoch— and in monstrous dimensions at that. A question arises as to whether our entire civilization, especially the Atlantic one with its primacy of business and technology, is not threatened by the danger of alienation. In addition, daily life provides—certainly in less drastic, though often very acute dimensions—examples of such alienation. The estrangement of inter-human relations from the fundamental elements of the lived-experience of the otheras the Iis a wide terrain of the confrontation that we must carry on between participation and alienation. It not only pertains to the sphere of inter-human relations but also reaches human interiority. For every one of us experiences his own humanity in proportion to how capable he is of participating in the humanity of others, of experiencing them as “the other ‘I.’”

The Form of Participation and Alienation Connected with the Relation of the “We”

Between Plurality and Community

Proceeding now to the second part of our reflections, it is fitting to indicate another meaning of participation, its other form. The other meaning and other form of alienation will also be manifested on that basis. For, as was stated above, alienation is the antithesis, the opposite of participation. In order to show this opposite more fully, it is fitting to submit to at least a concise (and, I am afraid, too cursory) analysis of what is concealed in the pronoun “we.” It seems that it indicates the social dimension of human existence, which ought to be distinguished from the inter-personal dimension, which we had before our eyes when analyzing the “I–the other” (in a sense the “I-thou”) relationship. We can say that the relationship of the “I–the other” (“I-thou”) type also indirectly indicates the plurality of persons connected by a relation (one + one); this relationship directly indicates the persons themselves, each of them. The pronoun we,” however, rather seems to indicate the plurality and, indirectly only, the persons belonging to this plurality. “We” above all indicates a collection—of course, this collection consists of people, that is, persons.

This collection, which we can call society, community, a social group, etc., does not in itself possess a substantial but only an accidental being (speaking in the categories of traditional philosophy), for it is based on a system of relations between people. And so, that which results from accident, from the relation between people, moves into the foreground, as it were, providing the basis for predicating primarily of all and only secondarily of each in this collection. The pronoun “we” seems to contain exactly that. And that posits the entire problem of participation in an entirely new way.

At the same time, however, “we” hides in itself a great richness of the reality that is authentically human. We should take into consideration the enormous plasticity and analogousness of this expression. Since it speaks of the plurality of human subjects, each plurality, as it were, can be defined by it: the members of a family, of some social group—and not even necessarily a durable group—can think and call themselves “we.” People who belong to the same nation, citizens of a country, and ultimately all people who feel that they belong to humanity as the great human family can also think and call themselves so.

However, “weindicates not only the plurality of human subjects, but also the fact that they are in some way linked to one another, that they constitute a unity. Therefore, the expression we draws its proper sense from the good (value), which— by uniting many people—deserves the name of the common good. The name “common good” is also interpreted as a call to community, which is to be constituted by people who refer to themselves by the pronoun “we.” Thus, this pronoun contains at least a call to community. This call must proceed through the consciousness and freedom of every “I”-man who feels that he belongs to a certain “we.”

Participation Is Also a Right

It is not my intention, however, to conduct in these reflections a comprehensive analysis of the social or communal reality of human existence. It is sufficient to state—as was already done in the beginning of the analysis of the “I–the other” relation—that every man not only exists and acts among others but also exists and acts “together with others.” This statement is in a sense more original than the objectivization of the very relationships in which this existing and acting “together with others” takes place, than the more proximate definition of the nature of various “we’s,” which are thereby manifested and even, simply speaking, shaped. It is known that not only does the “we” as a distinct social unity of existence cause action “together with others,” but also vice versa: such action at times evokes a unity and community of existence, a “we.” On this social unity we confer various names depending on the relations on which it is based.

However, man always remains the fundamental problem: man who exists and acts together with others. Precisely this action, as well as existence “together with others” within various “we’s,” turns our thought for the second time to the meaning of participation. If man exists and acts “together with others,” this means that he takes part in a whole greater than himself, thus, he participates in it. However, we cannot be content with stating the purely objective or, in a sense, “material,” state of affairs. For the one who in this way “takes part,” that is, “participates,” is a person. Participation cannot be something merely outside him, outside his human subjectivity. It must define or determine his self in a certain—and at that a fundamental—way. In this way, as it seems, we arrive at the personalistic understanding of participation. Participation is in a sense a property of the person acting and existing together with others. It consists in the fact that man fulfills himself by existing and acting in this way.

In this second understanding of participation, we must, in a sense, go beyond the previous meaning, which is proper to the inter-human relations of the “I–the other” (“I-thou”) type. The social community of being and action, which we define in various ways by the pronoun “we,” is formed in reference to a common good. In this case, participation must take into consideration the fundamental fact that both self-determination (as was mentioned previously) and the striving for fulfilling oneself are proper to every man, to every “I” within the given “we.” It is precisely thanks to this that man is a person. No human “we” may suppress or destroy this! Participation is a property of the person, which comes to light precisely when man acts (and exists) together with others. In virtue of this property, man is able to realize the personalistic value of his act while realizing what results from the community of action and being. He is also entitled to this. We take the position of personalism against individualism and totalism, for these two concepts destroy in the human person the possibility and, in a sense, the very capacity for participation. They deprive man of the right to participation.

The Second Meaning of Alienation

Hence a second meaning of alienation arises. By alienation we mean here all that limits and prevents man from fulfilling himself on the basis of acting and existing “together with others” within various “we’s,” within which man in fact exists and acts. When we speak about self-fulfillment, we do not accept the subjectivistic sense of this fulfillment, but rather the objectively legitimized striving of the personal subject. Alienation is everything that deprives man as a person of the potency for self-fulfillment thus understood. As long as participation indicates the structure of the human “we’s” (of groups, societies, nations, or countries)—that is, the order in them, thanks to which each of the persons who exists and acts within these “we’s” can be himself and fulfill himself—alienation is the opposite of this structure and this order.

Rightly then, alienation, in this sense, is linked with a defective social, economic, political, or international system. However, the criterion of mending the system can be neither merely economic, political, nor sociological; it must be personalistic. The way to overcome alienation in this second dimension, which is determined by the necessity of every man’s existing and acting “together with others,” is to find the authentic sense of participation and contribute to its realization.

Only in this way will man not be lost in various systems of his social existence.


As I say this, I remember well the four-year work of the Second Vatican Council, in which I participated. The constitution Gaudium et spes, adopted on December 7, 1965, devotes much attention to the correct proportion of the processes of socialization and personalization in the modern world. Above all, however, I remember the following statement: “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is [and wishes to be—K.W.] at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.”

This transcendental character of the human person still remains the starting point and at the same time the task and arrival point of the inter-personal and social relationships of human existence. According to Marxist philosophy, man is alienated in a sense by his own products: economic and political systems, property, work, and power. Marxist philosophy also includes religion in these products. Hence a conclusion emerges that one can transform the human world on the plane of these products, change economic and political systems, take up the fight with religion—and the age of alienation will cease, and the “kingdom of freedom,” that is, of the full autorealization of each and all, will come.

The need for the transformation of the human world on the plane of the products of man cannot be denied. However, some Marxists, as was mentioned in the beginning, already noted that this direction of transformations causes new forms of alienation, which in turn require to be overcome. Ultimately, a conviction must arise that the entire human world can be thoroughly transformed only on the plane of man himself, thus “by safeguarding the transcendent character of the human person.” This way, the firm conviction arises that it is impossible to exclude the commandment to love contained in the Gospel from any program of transforming the human world. This commandment appears to us on the final horizon of our reflections and determines all perspectives—the more and most distant—of man’s development. Perhaps this analysis devoted to the topics of participation and alienation will help us all to acknowledge this truth, just as it helped the author of these reflections.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from Person and Act and Related Essays courtesy of The Catholic University Press of America, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Featured Image: Masaccio, The Tribute Money, 1425; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Karol Wojtyła

Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) was head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978 to 2005. 

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