- A Philosophy of Loneliness by Lars Svendsen
This is an entertaining and intelligent book on a subject we often have preconceptions about, which the author takes delight in showing to be false. It is an interesting blend of philosophy and social science, which is not an easy combination to get to work properly. Sometimes when it is not well done the reader gets the impression that a lot of half-digested facts are being thrown at her and a bit of theory is then used to try to vaguely tie it all together. Here the facts work with the theory nicely, the detail of loneliness in different countries and communities gives us some idea of how to explore the notion conceptually, and deepens the account of loneliness as a complex idea. Svendsen is excellent on the links between loneliness and the emotions, especially the link with trust, and on the different varieties of loneliness that can be said to exist. He uses stories well, and, for this reader at least, the use of unfamiliar stories from Norwegian culture was enlightening. According to the book, loneliness is omnipresent and Svendsen outlines the tangled links between loneliness and solitude, and how perhaps modern culture has changed the nature of how we should understand those links.
Svendsen has some blind spots, one of which is the idea that solitude might be good for some things like self-knowledge. This is a much discussed topic in the philosophical canon, the idea being perhaps that the less distraction, the more able one is to contemplate important things. He gives an example on p. 110 of how Kant views the situation, suggesting that social isolation could be considered sublime. There is a long tradition in philosophy and mysticism of regarding being by oneself as very helpful for both intellectual and personal development, since we can concentrate on things without other considerations getting in the way. There are many Asian traditions which privilege isolation and it is also paramount within many varieties of Greek and religious thought in general. The idea is that when we are by ourselves and have no one else to do things with, we are able to think much more authentically about who we are beneath the social veneer.
There is also the idea that when we are feeling lonely we are able to think things out in a useful way, the sort of point we get in a lot of the songs by [End Page 1] Frank Sinatra, for instance. It is very much part of the old Hollywood notion that you go to a bar, smoke a cigarette, have a drink, and think things through by yourself, or perhaps with the help of an anonymous bar tender. Nowadays the movie equivalent is going into some sort of quasi-medical facility where again one is often encouraged to think in isolation about what is going on in your life. It is only by removing oneself from familiar surroundings, including people, that progress can be made, and a feeling of loneliness is then a stage on the route to better understanding. Certainly in religious accounts of experiencing levels of spiritual growth there is often a lonely stage and then you are filled with a consciousness of God. You may well be expected to spend time by yourself as an essential part of the process, and this does not seem unreasonable. That theory may be wrong but it deserves serious treatment and not the cursory dismissal it gets in this book.
Another difficulty I had with the book is the author's determination to link loneliness with friendship and love, which might be regarded as rather strong emotions, and not also with milder relationships which can be important for us. We spend a lot of time talking about those deep emotions we can experience and how they figure in our lives, and they are indeed significant, but there is also a wide range of much milder emotions and relationships, like feeling...