Social Affairs

The alienation of intellect


Taye Negussie (PhD)

Marx’s quite famous theory of the alienation of labor holds in the industrialized capitalist commodity production the laborer is alienated both from the product of his labor as well as the activity of labor itself. In the former, the commodity which labor produces is experienced by the laborer as an alien and independent entity over which he has no power of command at all. While in the latter, by virtue of being a wage laborer his labor itself becomes no longer his own.

In the contemporaneous world, the aspiration to go industrialized looks not limited only to commodity production. It sets to pervade a great deal of human activities embracing as far afield as the intellectual sphere of science.

The “industrialization of science”

If we look back at the history of science, we see that science was borne during the renaissance period in Europe as a consequence of the intellectual struggle against the authority of dogmatic metaphysical principles and theological doctrines.

Thus, questioning dogmatic knowledge was science’s modus operandi from the outset. However, contrary to its original spirit, now science itself seems to have evolved into a new dogmatic field of knowledge, ironically not much less dogmatic than the metaphysical and theological knowledge that it challenged in its initial phase.

Apparently, the success and achievement of industrial production seem to have inspired the belief that the industrial model to be an ideal organizational model worthy of replicating across the board.

In the world of science, the advent of the industrial mode of activity, so to speak, the “industrialization of science” could well be evinced in the operation of tightly structured scientific research method that guides and commands a great deal of current research undertaking.
The “blue-collar” scientist

Subsequent to the industrialization of science, there has also come upon a shift in the task and orientation of once independently thinking scientist. Now, as obedient intellectual laborer of a scientific enterprise, the scientist’s intellectual duty involves largely in laboring with “facts” within a very confined intellectual territory, hence the “blue-collar” scientist.

To be sure, while undertaking his research activity, the “blue-collar” scientist has to unquestionably accept all given assumptions, strictly follow the unrelenting preconceived research steps, and stick to only immediately perceptible “facts”.

The renowned philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls the typical activity of the intellectual laborer a “puzzle-solving” exercise that aimed only at “agreeing” or “disagreeing” with the prevailing intellectual beliefs.

To ensure the enforcement of its dogmatic rules and procedures, the industrialized science has ingeniously conceived a controlling mechanism known as “peer-review”. Despite the claim of neutrality and objective assessment attached to it, however the practical experience well demonstrates that like many other human institutions it is often marred by a good deal of coalition of interest, bickering, prejudices and close-mindedness that arise on disciplinary, professional, personal, ideological, organizational and on many more other grounds.

Obviously, today’s highly exalted industrial mode in doing science might in some way signify a growing trend in distancing science from its original spirit of freewheeling imagination and rational and critical reflection in search of the ultimate truth. As a matter of fact now the preoccupation with many scientists is not so much in explaining why things exist as it is in merely describing how things operate. Of course, such objective can largely be met when science is organized along the industrial line.

It goes without saying that working in the context of industrialized science the intellectual come to experience an alienation both from the activity of his intellect and its outcome. This happens as he wills to surrender his thought to the external authority of conventional scientific dogmas and leaves his mental outcome in a presumed store of “cumulated knowledge”, an alien and independent body over which he has no power of control. Thus, as the ‘alienation of labor’ is to the production industry so is the ‘alienation of intellect’ to the scientific industry.

Demystifying the conventional scientific assumptions

Underlying the organization of scientific research activities along the industrial line are the assumptions that science develops through “objective analysis” of “facts”, instead of “personal opinion”, and that knowledge gained in science accumulates as time goes by, building on work performed earlier.
However, a closer scrutiny of these assumptions will reveal a great deal of unwarranted abstractions particularly as it pertains to the field of conventional social science. Consider the notion of “fact” presumably constituting the initial raw input to be processed by the scientific mill of “objective analysis”. Whether the subject of study be social, economic or psychological, it inevitably concerns, among others, people’s observation, knowledge, opinion, views, attitude, feeling, and impression among others which are clearly manifestations of the illusive human souls that significantly vary under different contexts and circumstances. Therefore, there exists no firm ground to assume these fleeting human characters as constant “facts” amenable to the shallow, quick survey method.

Also witness here the common mistake of considering as “facts” only what currently exists. In doing so, one inexorably commits the mistake of taking “what exists” for “what ought to exist”, “fact” for “truth” or “appearance” for “essence”. Probably, it must be this function of conventional science that has made it too often the best candidate by many totalitarian systems to justify their autocratic rule.

The other problematic assumption in the conventional science concerns the contrast between “objective analysis” vs. “personal opinion”. Historically the term “objective” was used by classical philosophers to signify the attainment of something close to ultimate truth through transcendental contemplation. However, in the present context it largely implies a condition whereby a researcher unconditionally submits himself to some presumed established knowledge, irrespective of its truthfulness; hence, doing otherwise risks the contempt of “personal opinion”.

Thus, in this line of thinking what too often qualifies as “objective analysis” is rather a blind acceptance of some preexisting collective opinion at the expense of working with one’s own mind. In a way, this exemplifies what is here said to be the abdication of one’s mind to external authority that constitutes partially the alienation of intellect.

With regard to the notion of “cumulative knowledge”, Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 controversial book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues that the evolution of scientific theory, contrary to the conventional wisdom, does not necessarily emerge from straightforward accumulation of knowledge. He reasoned that in the history of science a greater proportion of worthy scientific discoveries were in fact the results of revolutionary thinking– revolutionary science – that contested and reversed the view of established knowledge. Witness the advent of Copernican Theory that revealed the rotation of the earth around the sun by turning upside down the preceding long-held Ptolemaic Theory which held the earth to be the center of universe.

As recently as 2013, Professor Robert Langer of MIT, in a piece to Project Syndicate, Going Against Conventional Wisdom, counted the personal ordeal and pain he and his colleagues had undergone in the course of undertaking medical researches which latter on led to the discovery of treatment for millions of people with different forms of cancer. In his account, not only their innovative ideas were rejected all along by the best scientists in their field but also claimed for the time their dearly held academic careers. This comes as no surprise; history well attests that innovative scientists have had to battle conventional wisdom; while some gave their life to their cause, some other lucky ones received highly esteemed rewards such as Nobel Prize years afterward, ironically for the same previously rejected research work.

The cause behind these dire conditions and paradoxes, to a degree, could well be attributed to the distressing state whereby those presumed to be critical thinking scientists otherwise surrender their intellect to the increasingly dogmatic conventional science. One possible consequence of this is evident in today’s shift of creativity from the university premise to the private firm.

For Marx, the alienation of laborer from his activity exemplifies an expropriation that touches the very essence of man. He argues that labor in its true form is a medium for man’s true self-fulfillment and full development of his potentialities. However, in the objectified form of production instead of developing his free physical and mental energies, the worker “mortifies his body” and “ruins his mind”.

Even assuming Marx’s account of such grave consequences arising from the simple alienation of labor is remotely true, I just wonder what would it amount to when a person is alienated from his soul – the intellect.


Ed’s note: The writer can be reached at

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