Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Industrial Revolution and Its Consequences: New Ideas about the Self

The Industrial Revolution - which had already begun in the 18th century and then spread and accelerated in the last quarter of the 19th century - changed the way of life fundamentally for large parts of the population in Europe. The machine started to become the controlling factor in people's lives: in fact, it seemed that people were starting to become 'Slaves of the Machine' at that time - as they would later also become Slaves of the [big machineries of the rapidly growing] Corporations. 

Since labor was cheap, those who found work in the factories were exploited to their physical and psychological limits and beyond. Adults and children alike were not only forced to spend long hours performing repetitive, mindless tasks (the invention of the light bulb made it now possible to extend work hours into the evening year round), they also lost their former connectedness with the natural world by being forced to live in overcrowded cities with awful living conditions. 

What these living and work conditions looked like, becomes very clear in the following documentary that gives the children of the revolution a voice: 

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

The Industrial Revolution did not only tear people away from their rural communities - and in most cases even from their families - but also put a sudden end to their formerly cyclical lifestyle that had been in harmony with the seasons and natural body rhythms for activity, rest, and sleep. Instead of living healthy natural lives, children and adults alike were now also subjected to what George Woodcock called "the Tyranny of the Clock." The permanent physical exhaustion caused by 14-hour long work-shifts,  the feeling of social uprootedness, and the constant struggle for the means necessary for basic survival - as well as the new alienated work experience - led to bewilderment and disintegration of all former truths, traditions, and values, as well as to a loss of the experience of a meaningful life. 

In a world where machines reigned and degraded humans to subservient particles of some unknown power that controlled everything, nothing made sense any more and nobody could be trusted. Life in such a world became void of any meaning other than sheer survival of the strongest and fittest. Education and other "leisurely" activities, such as reading, writing, music, sports, or arts, were only possible for people who happened to belong to the higher classes.

Philosophers, scientists, writers, and artists of that time - even if they were not part of the working class themselves - saw and felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution everywhere. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels analyzed the situation in The Capital and tried to encourage the working class to take control over the means of production and thus regain a certain amount of independence. Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin came up with their ideas of the "survival of the fittest" and Friedrich Nietzsche concluded "God is dead." 

When the power of machines was added to traditional warfare techniques, the escalation of violence, destruction, brutality, and horror in the two World Wars (WW1: 1914 to 1918; WW2: 1939-1945) was more than most people could handle psychologically and led to a fundamental distrust not only in a benevolent, meaningful universe but also in civilization itself. 

Not only philosophers but artists as well were looking for new values and new forms of thinking that might be better able to express the new life: Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism - and, of course, ultimately Modernism - are some attempts to answer the crisis.

Here some of the names of some of the important philosophers and other thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century:

Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831):
philosopher & cultural critic

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860):
most influential work: The World as Will and Representation

Auguste Compte (1798-1857)

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)
philosopher and anthropologist
most influential work: The Essence of Christianity

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882):
biologist or "Naturalist"
most influential work: On the Origin of Species

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
philosopher and cultural critic
most important contribution: forerunner of Existentialism

Karl Marx (1818-1883):
philosopher and social scientist, economist, and political reformer
most influential work: The Communist Manifesto  and The Capital (in collaboration with Friedrich Engels)

Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900):
philosopher and cultural critic
most influential ideas: dichotomy between Apollo & Dionysus, death of god, will to power

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939):
founding father of psychoanalysis & cultural critic
Influential in particular: his research in the field of the unconscious mind and his theory about dreams

Henri Luis Bergson (1859-1941):
philosopher and writer
key idea: creative revolution

Carl Jung (1875-1961):
founder of analytical psychology & writer & visual artist & philosopher
most important: his work about the collective unconscious & his theory of archetypes

Albert Einstein (1879-1955):
theoretical physicist and philosopher
most important contributions: discovery of the photo-electric effect (with its influence on quantum physics) and the theory of relativity

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
most famous works: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Hollow Men," "The Waste Land," "Four Quartets"

Although only Sigmund Freud is represented on our official course syllabus, it makes sense to understand his ideas in the context of his time, in particular in the context of the ideas that were discussed during his life time. So please keep the other thinkers of his time and their contributions in the back of your mind when you read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontent (which was published  in 1929).

For further information about Freud, please click on the links below:

! Introduction to Freud's Theory of Human Nature  (in Comparison to Marx's Theory):

! Illustrated  Introduction to Freud's Theory about the Id, Ego, and Superego

! Introduction to Freud's Theory of Dreams: 4 parts

Short Introduction to Freud and his Theories about Sexual Development:

Open Yale University Introduction to Freud:

More information about Freud's Contemporaries:

Carl Jung:

Short into to his main ideas:

! Documentary about his theories and work:

Short Clips about Jung's Ideas about Anima, Animus, and Archetypes:

Talk by Jung:

Please post your comments about these 19th and early 20th Century thinkers here!

Thank you,


PS: If a link doesn't work, please copy and paste into your browser. Please feel also free to search for more information yourself! You can either use a regular search engine (such as Google) if you prefer general-interest approaches to the topic or Google Scholar or one of the library catalogues if you prefer more academic information!


  1. In, my opinion Sigmund Freud is a inborn genius, who cracked all the secrets behind the psychological behavior of the human mind. Moreover, he focuses on three concepts: Id,Super-ego, and Ego. Id is like a pleasure principle being very impulsive, and childish, which always looks into the prospect of happiness decreasing pain, Super-ego is very judge-mental, and always pushes you to behave in a appropriate manner making you guilty. (Socially aware)Whereas, Ego is like a mediator; reality principles, which makes Id and Superego fight with each other.

    Freud also talks about the thumb sucking theory, anal theory, and penis- lacking theory. In, which he deeply explains the reasons behind those behavior. As per him thumb licking kids tend to become heavy smokers, alcoholic or get indulge in oral activities in future. Moreover, those kids who have anal personality are more clean or too stingy. Whereas at last he talks about the moms, who lacks penises in reality, thus the female child's attention gradually shifts towards her father from her mom. In, case of boys it is opposite, whereas they are attracted towards their moms.

  2. Gudrun,

    What interests me about this post is how those thinkers that you mention started to think about the human itself and its relations during the century where everything changed.
    With the Industrial Revolution the human was seeing in a different way. Before that the relations and the human perspective were more based in the feelings of friendship, love and natural resources. People used to work and have their own lives, but the self was more centered in the quality of things and relations, with time do to things and a more laid back life style. After the Revolution people's self had to adapted to the new reality, that was the rush of things, to necessity of making money. The machines transformed the value that the human force had and the work became something automated, where even the human was seeing as a "machine" and not anymore as a "self", with content inside. The relations and the life style changed significantly due to the Industrial Revolution and the traumas, the problems in the human relations and the pain felt for humans increased - there the necessity of he thinkers reflecting about our society and our time. The self was practically abolished from the self itself.

    ~ Mariella.

  3. During the 1800s, the industrial revolution spread throughout Britain. The use of steam-powered machines led to a massive increase in the number of factories.
    Previously, I read a novel, Oliver twist, which was written by Charles Dickens. The story is focused on an orphan named Oliver twist. Dickens uses Oliver’s life in the workhouse to point out the flaws in the workhouse system. The children in the book were forced to work long hours and were always left hungry.
    In 1800s, more and more machines were brought in factories and with that, the companies needed cheap labor. In this reason, many factories’ workers were children. Sometimes the children started work as young as four or five years old. Factory owners forced them to work long hours and they got very little money for their work. Working conditions were very unhealthy. Most children worked to help their families' survive.
    When I read “Oliver twist”, I really felt pity for Oliver’s life. He lived in unsatisfied environment, but he didn’t complain about that. He just wants to people who regard him as a family. Now, the children were protected from those situations by laws. I thought that if Oliver lives in nowadays, his life will be full of happiness instead of fears.

  4. Hi Viren, Mariella, and Hyo Jin,

    Thanks for your interesting comments! I appreciate them!


  5. It is sad to see that machine is still the controlling factor in people’s lives nowadays. We can easily claim that we are slaves of the machine, which ultimately makes us slaves to the corporations, which more or less, dominate the way our world is run today.

    It is also the bitter truth that these corporations employ cheap labor, were the employees are still exploited, spending long hours performing these repetitive and mindless tasks. Not only have they lost connectedness with the natural world, but the majority of the people around this part of the world have. Technology is replacing nature, cities are becoming overcrowded, and living conditions are declining in some parts of the world.

    Another interesting point here is the fact about healthy natural lives, and how we have lost harmony with the seasons and natural body rhythms for activity rest and sleep. Instead of living healthy natural lives, we’re so dependent on technologies that we have lost our social skills, and our focus is our portable computers and mobile phones.