Stacks Image 1636

"Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character."

    James Russell Lowell
    Among my Books, 1870

    I discovered the existence of Lars Svendsen thanks to a forum discussion about - of all things - modern apparel industry. One of the comments mentioned in passing his "Fashion: A Philosophy" and the idea of someone writing a philosophical analysis of Fashion intrigued me… so I promptly opened Amazon and checked the book itself.
    In doing this, I discovered that Svendsen was apparently going through a series of concepts (Amazon currently lists Work, Fashion, Boredom, Freedom, Loneliness, Fear, Evil…) analysing each through the lens of Philosophy.
    Of these, Loneliness seemed the most compelling to me, much more than Fashion: while I never really devoted much time to Fashion, I definitely spent most of my life being alone, and while it may be too late for changing this I am always eager to learn something new, or at least to better understand things I know already, so I promptly ordered "A Philosophy of Loneliness".

    A little aside - having more or less neglected Philosophy after high school I had no clear idea of what "Philosophy" is supposed to mean, especially in modern terms. So I am doubly happy about this book: not only it provided valuable insight about the main topic, but it also gave me a clear example of how Practical Philosophy is supposed to work.

    In 138 pages (the rest are devoted to notes and a full index) and 8 chapters the author analyses the concept of "being alone", alternating literary and scientific sources to illuminate a concept which at the same time familiar to everyone, and yet seemingly impossible to define in objective terms.

    What do we really know about "being alone", after all? The author himself clearly states in his introduction that working on the book he discovered that most of what he "knew" about loneliness would prove to be factually incorrect if not completely false.

    Considering that I find the theme very close to my own personal experience I have decided to structure the "review" as follows: for each of the eight chapters I will juxtapose a brief description of the contents (on the left) with what I - personally - found poignant based on my own experience at being "alone".

    1 - The essence of loneliness

    As it is only proper for a Philosopher, Svendsen starts by trying to define what loneliness means.
    Alone, for example, has no predefined positive or negative value, unless you add context. And yet Loneliness is automatically associated with isolation, despair and sadness.
    But "being alone" and "being lonely" are not necessarily the same thing. In fact (the author often refers to specific psychological or sociological studies) the negative part of loneliness seems to be a matter of quality instead of quantity: a person may have a large circle of social contacts, and still feel extremely alone because none of these are providing the desired level of closeness.
    This intangible "quality" of connection seems to be somehow connected to "life meaning": i.e. realizing that no-one else really cares about your existence.
    This can easily result in a psychological conundrum: craving meaningful social contact, and at the same time frantically looking for signals that will prove that the others don't really care.
    The chapters concludes with a categorisation of the three types of Loneliness (Chronic, Situational and Transient) and with the devastating effects that Loneliness can have on health (mental, of course, but also physical).
    The idea of quality trumping quantity (especially when dealing with social contacts) surely resonated with me.
    But at the same time I wonder a bit if there is some (darker) connection with narcissistic traits: maybe people that prefer being alone are somehow considering most other people "below them"?

    The part about how loneliness can severely impair your health is a concern to me, too: sometime I wonder if the preference for being alone could turn in a slippery slope. Having a regular job plus regular training at the dojo ensures that I am never completely severed from interaction with people, but I wonder how things will develop when I am retired (and presumably not being able to train regularly if at all).

    2 - Loneliness as Emotion

    "Loneliness has both an affective and a cognitive side…" - the author then argues that it is primarily the affective part that actually makes Loneliness something different from "just being alone". And yet loneliness as an emotion is rarely considered in works that try to analyse emotions (preferring fear, love or anger).
    Most of the chapter struggles with how to define emotions, and why - according the author - Loneliness qualifies.
    Loneliness is a specific type of sadness which is born when our desire for social connection is not satisfied.
    "I am not a Stoic, but I play one on TV" - therefore I am pretty guarded with emotions in general.
    Ad a consequence, this chapter did not resonate much with me, except for some parts when the author explains how Loneliness in particular can also shape our expectations (mostly for the worst) when approaching an opportunity for social interaction.

    3 - Who are the Lonely?

    How to identify (and then quantify) who are the Lonely? This is no easy task because Loneliness is a completely subjective state (not to mention that it can also fluctuate in time).
    Despite these caveats, the author then makes an effort to actually put some numbers on the table by analysing survey about loneliness (obtained in his native Norway) and trying to correlate these with various other survey data, like gender, income and so on.
    The numbers, despite being obviously not very precise, seem to disprove most preconceptions about what Loneliness is (just as an example: despite media claims to the contrary, Loneliness does not seem to be rising in modern societies).
    This chapter opens with the following quote (by David Foster Wallace):

    “Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”

    I think this sums it up nicely for me.
    In any case, despite my own dabbling in data analysis I am not particularly interested in sociological studies.

    4 - Loneliness and Trust

    Data make a brief appearance at the start of this chapter too - Loneliness and Trust have a fairly strong inverse correlation: the more you trust others, the less lonely you feel, conversely lonely people tend to find social situations threatening and seems unable to trust others to be supportive and reliable.
    This relationship seems an almost general phenomenon (and therefore it also has at least one exception: Japanese citizens show very high level both in Trust and Loneliness).
    Most of the chapter is then devoted in exploring what creates or reinforces Trust in a country.
    This chapter resonated much more with my own experiences (even if it was not very different from the previous one).
    I do not believe to be even remotely paranoid, i.e. I am not expecting everyone else to be out to get me (or even actively trying to get an advantage on me) but I definitely recognised myself in the sentence "unable to trust others to be supportive an reliable" .

    I am not sure if I can be considered a reliable narrator in such matters but I often find myself disappointed at the dependability of others.
    This of course created a feedback loop so that I try to avoid having to depend on others for anything (and - perversely - in the rare case I actually need something from someone else even the tiniest complication will be magnified out of proportion).