Future historians will be able to glean much about the zeitgeist of the new millennium simply by perusing some of the titles of Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen’s books: A Philosophy of Evil, A Philosophy of Fear, A Philosophy of Boredom, and his latest to be translated into English, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Indeed, each book might easily make a chapter in a lengthier study of the early 21st Century.
In some ways A Philosophy of Loneliness is a bit of a departure from Svendsen’s other monographs. He begins, for instance, with a caveat that’s worth quoting in full since it helps to explain why what follows is nothing close to a coherent “philosophy” of loneliness, at least in the more prosaic sense of the word, to wit, a systematic theory.
Almost all I thought I knew about loneliness proved false. I thought more men than women were lonely, and that lonely people were more isolated than others. I assumed that the significant increase in the number of single dwellers would notably impact the number of lonely individuals. I thought social media generated more loneliness by displacing ordinary sociability. I also believed that loneliness, despite being a subjective phenomenon, could be better understood in the context of social surroundings than individual disposition. I believed that the Scandinavian countries had higher degrees of loneliness, and that these numbers were increasing. Furthermore, I assumed that this increase was connected to late modern individualism and that individualistic societies had higher rates of loneliness than collective societies.
He confesses, “Never have I worked with a subject that overturned to such an extent all the assumptions I brought to the table.”
Herein lie both the appeal and frustration of the book. As readers, we search desperately, perhaps naïvely, for a cause and effect formula, for ready facts that will help us to identify the causes and cures for loneliness, and those desires are duly thwarted. This is not a book that will help leaders or managers design public policies that will put an end to loneliness.
On the other hand, as Daniel J. Boorstin points out in his book, Cleopatra’s Nose, just as important as the great philosopher or creator is the “negative discoverer”. “The negative discoverer is the historic dissolver of illusions,” Boorstin says. “The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”
Unlike more traditional philosophy books, Svendsen’s draws from and analyzes numerous empirical studies. He is aware that by doing so some will question whether his book is appropriately titled, but defends his decision to do so by arguing that “the distinction between philosophy and science is rather recent — and this new turn towards empirical sciences can be regarded as a return to a traditional mode of philosophy, rather than a radical departure from philosophy as such.”
Some sections do indeed read like psychology papers. For example, the chapter entitled “Who are the Lonely?” is so replete with numerical schema and explications of various studies that one finds oneself overwhelmed by such contradictory data. Which is precisely the point.
What makes identifying the lonely so problematic is that loneliness is subjective, and therefore any definition of loneliness is tricky. To be alone is not necessarily to be lonely, and solitude can be revitalizing. Svendsen rightly points out that in English it is difficult to determine whether loneliness should be considered a feeling (generally considered physical) or an emotion (generally considered mental). Moods tend to be existential in nature and communicate our sense of being in the world, while emotions tend to be more specifically situational. Moreover, because loneliness may be perceived as a social failure, many will be unwilling to admit to being lonely, perhaps even to themselves. Others, instead, may have relatively rich relationships and still identify themselves as lonely.
Ultimately, Svendsen defines loneliness loosely as “social withdrawal, a feeling of discomfort or pain that informs us that our need for attachment to others is not satisfied.” Which begs the question: Is loneliness an individual problem or a social one?
In one of the most provocative chapters, “Loneliness and Trust”, one is struck by the extent to which many Western societies seem to be structured so as to preclude trust and to foster loneliness. “Countries whose inhabitants exhibit higher degrees of interpersonal trust are consistently those with a relatively low prevalence of loneliness. Similarly, countries with low trust levels are consistently those with high loneliness levels.”
If it is true that “if you learn to trust others, and to interpret their words, expressions and gestures as less threatening, you will also be able to relate more immediately to them, and therefore improve the conditions necessary for forming attachments”, it would appear equally self-evident that Western nations are not in a particularly trusting mood. In the US, Donald Trump was elected on a platform promising a wall along the border with Mexico, and almost immediately after taking office issued a travel ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. In Europe, Brexit must also be considered another compelling example of “withdrawal” and lack of trust.
Of course, citizens of Western nations are also regularly subjected to the terrifying theater of airport security and alarming daily headlines about hacked email accounts, identity theft, sweeping governmental data collection, various financial crises, CCTV, church sex scandals, and mass shootings (particularly in the US, where guns are ubiquitous). So, wherefore trust?
Svendsen does not answer the question, but warns, “mistrust prevents you from reaching outside yourself. By shutting others out, you also shut yourself inside. And loneliness will most likely accompany you there.”
Always conversational in tone, in the last chapter of the book, “Loneliness and Responsibility”, Svendsen is even more intimate than usual, at times addressing the reader directly and making it clear that he is aware that his audience may very well consist of “the lonely” so difficult to empirically identify.
“I cannot tell you why you are lonely, if in fact you are. I have discussed some of the social circumstances and psychological characteristics that increase a person’s chance of experiencing loneliness, but it is up to you to determine the relevance this discussion has for you, in terms of the causes and basis of your particular loneliness. Perhaps some of the material presented in this book can also function as a corrective for your self-understanding.”
In A Philosophy of Loneliness Svendsen does not so much elucidate the topic of loneliness as he complicates it, thereby dispelling the many illusions we may have harbored about our understanding of it. Leafing through my own edition, I find I have highlighted numerous passages that warrant greater reflection. Many of them are in fact positive, such as Svendsen’s assertion that “loneliness creates a space in which we can reflect on our relationship to others, and feel how much we actually need them.” Or this provocative passage about solitude in our era of omnipresent technology and social media: “Solitude is a freedom space, and establishing a private sphere is key to securing such freedom.”
Neither a systematic theory nor a self-help book, A Philosophy of Loneliness is a valuable contribution to the literature of “negative discovery”.