In the introduction to Arendts book the Human Condition is the following:

In a development Arendt traces to "alienation from the world," modern, automated societies engrossed by ever more efficient production and consumption encourage us to behave and think of ourselves simply as an animal species governed by natural laws.

Being trained as a mathematician and physicist, I'm naturally sympathetic to this view; but I would argue that it is one view amongst others, and not neccesarily the right view to take on many other subjects; arguably, the world here is the natural world of nature, and so the laws of nature and of man being seen as one animal amongst others; but given what Arendt says above, she cannot mean 'world' in this sense.

The other notion of world she uses is in her distinction between labour, work and action.

Labour, for her, refers to the 'biological life' of man as an animal; work, refers to the 'artificial world of objects that human beings build upon the earth', and action which corresponds to our 'plurality as distinct individuals'.

She says 'earth' here and not 'world'; the earth is a part of nature; and this links the artificial world of work to the biological world of labour; and we can rephrase the above by saying the world of work encourages us to merely see ourselves in terms of the world of labour.

Thus neither of this can be the world we are said to be 'alienated' from; this leaves only the third world, the world of action.

Q. Is this the right sense of the world in interpreting the term 'alienation from the world'?

I understand her notion of action to mean meaningful, purposeful, willed action; therefore, an expression of agency; and also, acting together plurally; and I understand this to mean where the individual will is not submerged in a collective and hence dissolves; but where the individual will remains distinct even when acting plurally; this is her notion of solidarity.

To then be alienated from the world is to say that some or all of these aspects do not obtain for the majority or most, and perhaps even a large or distinctive minority.

But this is not precisely what Arendt says; she appears to say only that modern societies encourage us to become alienated from the world and not that we are ontologically so.

Hence for most men or women Arendt is suggesting we are encouraged by the structure and organisation of modern societies to believe in the lack of meaningful action, of the lack of purpose, of the lack of solidarity, of the lack of acting plurally, purposefully and meaningfully and this despite the the political institutions of liberal representative democracies.

Q. Is this the right understanding of alienation, in Arendts sense?

  • 3
    As a comment as I am short of time right now: The definition of world alienation in verbatim can be found on p. 252, fn. 2 (2nd ed. The Human Condition): "The increase in power οf man over the things οf this world springs in either case [i.e. "things οf this world which one may use but not enjoy and those of the world to come which may be enjoyed for their own sake"] from the distance which man puts between himself and the world, that is, from world alienation"
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 19:30
  • A thesis on alienation to include Arendt. tlu.ee/UserFiles/Puusalu-MA.pdf I hope this helps in some way, maybe you have already seen it. Skip towards the end.
    – Gordon
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 15:15
  • @Phillip Klocking: I've looked at my copy, and it is the second ed., but I don't see the quote; thanks for the tip anyway. Commented May 20, 2018 at 10:10

1 Answer 1


World and the related terms 'worldliness' and 'worldlessness' appear a great deal throughout Arendt's The Human Condition. You are are right in that Arendt does not mean the natural world, nature or Earth when she uses the term.

Before explaining further, I think I need to address something in the question. In the question you state:

The other notion of world she uses is in her distinction between labour, work and action. [...] Thus neither of this can be the world we are said to be 'alienated' from; this leaves only the third world, the world of action.

This isn't really accurate. Arendt doesn't talk of the world of labor, world of work or world of action. The closest to world she talks about in this sense are the private and public spheres, which loosely correlate to work and action respectively. When Arendt uses the word world in the passages quoted, I read it as being used in a generic sense, not the specific technical sense she means elsewhere.

When Arendt talks of world in a technical sense, she refers to the world that humans collectively build for themselves to inhabit. This world is built from and within the natural environment, yet is distinct from it. It's constituted from the products of labor, work and action.

So what does Arendt mean by world alienation? In the simplest sense, she means the deprivation of man from his rightful place in the man-made world. However, she mostly uses the term in the context of a critique on capitalism, that sees the ongoing creation of wealth through capitalist processes as only possible if those processes ultimately destroy the world.

In other words, the process of wealth accumulation, as we know it, stimulated by the life process and in turn stimulating human life, is possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed (p256).

And since Arendt says, "World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age" (p254), I think that Arendt is saying that man is being deprived of his rightful place in the man made world, not because he turns is back on the world, but because his economic development has removed the world from him.

  • Arendt, 2018, The Human Condition, 2nd edition.

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