Old words for a new thought: preliminary notes for a research on alienation in the tradition of Western thought and in the work of Massimo Fagioli, starting from Death instinct and knowledge


The term alienation is used by the Greeks and Romans to indicate the transfer of a real right, a legal meaning that it still retains. It assumes a theological-philosophical content with Gnosticism. In the Mandaeic writings, reference is made to the “first alien life” (light), which remains beyond this world and is alien to it, but in this world it gets lost, it alienates itself in it. The term is taken up in Hellenistic literature, then by Plotinus and Augustine and finally by Thomas Aquinas. The first modern thinker to make extensive use of it is Hegel (although it is not appropriate to attribute to him a theory of alienation). After Hegel, the discourse on alienation develops in two directions, on the one hand Feuerbach, on the other Marx. Feuerbach speaks of religious alienation: the human being alienates his own essence in a fantastic being (God), which becomes the subject that would have generated him and that dominates him. Marx, whose thought on the subject develops in a line of substantial continuity, transfers the concept of alienation from the philosophical to the socio-economic realm. Alienation is not a mental dimension of the human being, but a consequence of capitalist relations of production, and it will be overcome with the overcoming of capitalism. After Engels’s death, the concept of alienation practically disappeared from Marxist literature, until the publication, in 1923, of History and Class Consciousness. Lukàcs develops the theme of alienation as reification and fetishism, starting from Marx, but with very different outcomes: in particular, he considers the method of natural sciences as the maximum manifestation of alienation, as it would shatter the totality of reality into single partial aspects. An approach that would have influenced the thinking of the Frankfurt School, especially of Adorno and Marcuse.

In the psychiatric field, in the Enlightenment culture, the term “alienation” defines mental illness, as in Pinel. Alienists were called doctors and scholars of mental illness. In Enlightenment thinking, alienation is “alienation of reason”. In nineteenth-century positivism the idea of ​​the hereditary character of traits of “atavism” is structured, which refer to the conception of an incomplete realization of the physical structure of the human species (Lombroso on the “born criminal”, etc.).

Massimo Fagioli makes an end to the concept of “alienation” as an unchangeable state of loss of specifically human mental characteristics and overlapped to the concept of projection. The human being’s ability to put something out of himself that cannot be defined as projection, is linked to “seeing” or “not seeing”, corresponding to the subject’s realization of “being” or “not being”. It is distinguished from the experiences of introjection and projection inherent in the dynamics of the infant’s physical and psychic relationship with the other self. The experiences resulting from these dynamics lead either to the development of a capability of thinking through images and, thereafter, of verbal thought, or, instead, to a more or less serious loss of such capabilities. In Death Instinct and Knowledge, Fagioli starts with the discovery of an unconscious activity of the patient to make non-existent the relationship with the therapist, the affections of such a relationship and the qualities of the object therapist. In doing so, the patient loses his own affective capabilities, the libidinal investment of the object, with the consequence of mental disorder. Fagioli calls “disappearance fantasy” this activity of the unconscious mind. At birth, the disappearance fantasy is, together, both vitality and annulment pulsion. However, the fusion is not complete, the annulment pulsion is stronger than the vitality and therefore “the disappearance fantasy makes the distance in which the rejection of the non-human world is alienation” (Left, 2013, p. 35).

However, to the extent that the annulment pulsion, in the newborn, is directed towards the non-human world, the alienation derives from a deficiency which is physiologically inherent in its reality and will be overcome in psychic development. When, instead, because of the loss of vitality due to the failures of past emotional relationships, annulment pulsion is addressed to the human world, alienation becomes a loss of capability of the mind. The concept of “religious alienation”, in its dynamic aspect proposed by Feuerbach, is reflected in the formulation of the annulment pulsion against projected identification, as a creation of a fantasized metaphysical abstract, placed in the reality outside oneself. “It is the annulment pulsion, separated from the vitality, which is a biological reality, that will lead the mind to believe instead of thinking. Believing that a non-material non-human reality exists outside the human being. In religious alienation we believe in an existence that the human being can never reach “(Left 2013, p. 36).

Finally, in Fagioli there is a third meaning of alienation. Overcoming the neonatal deficiency leads to the development of the capability to imagine, with the creation of an internal non-conscious image of the lived experience: alienation becomes the realization of fantasy. “Alienation outside oneself”: the other, different from oneself, assumes a correspondence, as an image, to unconscious and irrational internal contents.

The great interest of Fagioli’s theoretical elaboration on the concept of alienation lies, in addition to the fundamental clinical-psychotherapeutic scope, in acting as a bridge between the strictly individual and private dimension of the psychic development of the mind and the political-cultural one relating to the idea of human sociality.


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