In this article I ask how fruitful the concept of alienation can be for thinking critically about the nature and causes of the contemporary environmental crisis. The concept of alienation enables us to claim that modern human beings have become alienated or estranged from nature and need to become reconciled with it. Yet reconciliation has often been understood—notably by Hegel and Marx—as the state of being ‘at-home-with-oneself-in-the-world’, in the name of which we are entitled, perhaps even obliged, to overcome anything in nature that is alien to the human mind. This approach to alienation derives ultimately from the German Idealist philosopher J. G. Fichte. I explore an alternative conception of alienation and reconciliation to be found in the work of the Early German Romantics, especially Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis.
The Romantics think of reconciliation as including a dimension of alienation, in the form of an awareness that nature is greater than and exceeds the understanding of human beings, insofar as we are merely limited parts of the all-encompassing whole that is nature. I argue that this is a more fruitful approach to alienation and reconciliation than that pursued by Fichte, Hegel, and Marx.