About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The end of solitude

I am intrigued and a bit puzzled by a recent essay penned by William Deresiewicz for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Deresiewicz complains about the fact that the electronic age is killing people’s appreciation for solitude. We are becoming incapable of being alone, and the proof is that everyone has a blog or a FaceBook page (oops, I've got both…). I am not going to dismiss Deresiewicz as yet another technophobe luddite, because his essay is more nuanced than that. Instead, I will comment on choice bits, hoping to engage people in a dialogue on the blessings and dangers of the electronic age.

Deresiewicz starts out with a three-way comparison among Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism (broadly intended as cultural eras), and it’s clear that the current “postmodern” climate isn’t his favorite: “if the property that grounded the self, in romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.” Well, maybe, but this seems much too sweeping a statement, and I for one certainly do not consider myself a postmodernist in any sense of the word! Still, Deresiewicz continues: “Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. … a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month.” Hmm, yes, that teenager does need her parents to restrain her a bit by buying a phone plan with a limited number of text messages allowed each month, but similar obsessive behaviors are easy to find among teenagers of any era, postmodernist or not, and usually these things gradually disappear as they enter into adulthood. I don’t know how much time teenagers of the romantic era spent writing poems to impossible lovers, but that can’t be that good for your health either, if it eats up most of your active time.

The following bit is perhaps the one where I disagree with Deresiewicz the most: “the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few … You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you.” Actually, if you can hear god at all, I suggest you need serious psychiatric treatment, and at any rate, if being alone is a spiritual experience reserved for few elected souls, then we don’t need to worry about the fact that modern technology is making it (allegedly) impossible for the masses.

Deresiewicz’s essay, as I said, is nuanced, and he does appreciate the advantages of modern technology, not just in terms of practical things, but also as far as social and personal psychological welfare are concerned. He mentions with approval the ability of minorities (say, gays) to connect with like minded people, or the ease with which we can keep in touch with friends and family who live thousands of miles away, but he still complains that the goal seems to be to just become known, to turn oneself into a “miniature celebrity” as he puts it. That is certainly one way to understand things, but perhaps what most people want is simply to communicate with others, to reach out to a larger swath of humanity, to feel like someone else is paying attention to them. Hardly the stuff that social commentators and mental health professionals should be worried about.

The really interesting part of the essay comes when Deresiewicz draws a parallel between the solitude-loneliness distinction and what he sees as the analogous idleness-boredom pair. Let’s start with the latter. Idleness is a state in which human beings can find themselves at times, say if they have the luxury of not working, or perhaps -- at the opposite extreme -- because they have been laid off from work. Deresiewicz sees idleness in romantic terms, and considers it a positive thing, a refuge from always having to be doing something. Boredom, by contrast, is a mental state that may overcome someone who is forced to be idle, and has an obviously negative connotation. The point is that idleness does not necessarily entail boredom; it can generate positive or negative emotions, depending on the circumstances and on one’s state of mind. (Full disclosure: I find myself always bored when I am idle, so I avoid the condition as if it were pestilence.)

The situation is analogous, for Deresiewicz, in the case of solitude and loneliness. He thinks that solitude is something that human beings should cherish, and that the modern equating of solitude with loneliness confuses a state of being that can be blissful with a negative emotion that it does not entail. If you spend a lot of time blogging, FaceBook-ing, texting, emailing, and so forth, then, you may be confusing loneliness with solitude, and put yourself in the situation of not being able to enjoy the latter for fear of the former.

This is, I think, a very good point, though it requires some further unpacking. I find myself in solitude for most of my day, for instance, closed in my office on campus or at home, writing papers, grant proposals, essays and books. I like it that way. I emerge during the day mostly to talk to my students and teach classes (and less productively, to go to faculty meetings and similar academic time sinks…). I do not feel lonely in the least, so I agree with Deresiewicz that there is a profound distinction between solitude and loneliness. That said, one of the reasons I don’t feel lonely is precisely because from time to time I can text my wife, skype my daughter, respond to a colleague’s email, or see what my friends in Italy or Tennessee are doing by checking their FaceBook pages. In this sense, then, a moderate use of technology is precisely what allows me to keep that distinction that Deresiewicz fears is getting lost as a result of technology.

Deresiewicz complains that “MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one's sense of self.” Well, yes, but I doubt that’s a bad thing. While I also find MySpace too “loud” and hence prefer FaceBook, these are simply new tools to do precisely what the romantics used to do while writing journals and letters. The difference is that today many more people can do it, and do it in real time. Which means -- if one is inclined toward cultural optimism -- that current technology enables more people to engage in the very introspection that romantics like Deresiewicz keep lamenting as lost. By the way, I can't help noting the delicious irony that I found out about Deresiewicz’s essay because one of my “friends” posted it on FaceBook. So go ahead, blog away, and especially keep reading this blog, I’d like to get a few more hits than I did last week...


  1. Oh my goodness. ATTY should be worth quite a few hits. I'm sure he thought he was saying something relevant to your post.

    It seems that someone is always coming to the defense of solitude, quite unnecessarily, I think. As someone who is, by nature, a fairly solitary person, I've spent many years observing the more normal specimens of the species, and I believe that there is actually very little preference for solitude. Most people can't stand to be alone, and don't know what to do with themselves when they're forced to be alone. Facebook and all the other technological distractions aren't causes, but simply new ways to avoid solitude. Loneliness and solitude are one and the same as far as the average person is concerned. Deresiewicz strikes me as nothing more than the typical academic dinosaur who is so isolated from everyday life that he interprets what he sees as if it is proof of the downfall of civilization, and draws, also typically, his comparisons from an area that most people are ignorant of and that has no relevance to their lives.

  2. I've thought about this before. We are bombarded with a great deal of information these days, and often don't have the time to sit down and think about it, except maybe in bed before falling asleep. Sometimes I do feel the need to get away from it all at least for a bit, to have some solitude, in order to sort things out. Of course, this is contrasted with me being addicted to the computer and the internet.

    Either way, we're living in a great age (as any other?). It just requires a bit more self control.

  3. I do agree that technology is making it less easy to enjoy solitude, but would tweak it to "less easy for social animals to enjoy solitude". Those who prefer solitude are not on the phone, not having conversations with others, and are not publishing their thoughts on the internet.

    I do agree that communication between humans and gods is best done in solitude and do not disagree that psychiatric help may be warranted if abused. Such communication is usually viewed by non-participants as delusional when the human participant is communicating without credentials granted by society.

    The problem as always is the a word's reputation, and I'm afraid 'delusion' has a bad reputation. Let's take a look.

    Wikipedia weighs in with "A delusion is commonly defined as a fixed false belief and is used in everyday language to describe a belief that is either false, fanciful or derived from deception"

    Come again? What exactly is a false belief? No such thing. If I believe we will begin to de-evolve into monkeys commencing Wednesday and ending the following Monday, not only is my belief true, but your disbelief does not make it at all false. The fact that nobody but me is willing to assign this event's probability a value above zero is irrelevant.

    However, I have no problem defining delusion as a fanciful belief. One's fancy is derived from one's imagination, or vision. Sounds like a perfectly sensible sense to me.

    Wikipedia's third type of delusional belief is the product of deception. Wrong. Same reason as the first one. Somebody who lies to me about being my friend does not make my belief in our friendship delusional at all. It means that one of us is more likely to act like a friend to the other than vice versa. This could be viewed as simply an extreme case of any friendship.

    Have you ever dreamed? If so, then you have had videos playing in your head, perhaps you even ad a speaking part. OK, are these things delusional? Did you or did you not experience an alternate form of 'reality'. Were you delusional at the time? I say you were not, and your co-stars certainly did not think so either.

    Perhaps someone back on daytime earth heard you or even saw you waking up with a start. They heard you blather about monkeys for a few seconds. One could expect that person to call you delusional, but you will more likely be asked about your dream.

    We all believe the nonsense we want to believe. We are all right in our beliefs. Philosophers need to stop using words like right and wrong, true, false, good, bad, and whatever one calls these words (absolutes?) and start using phrases 'right for me', 'bad for them' etc...

    It is the interaction of our beliefs that leads to the qualitative. It is what make the EXPRESSION of some beliefs more appropriate than others in social settings, such as a grocery purchase involving a human cashier, conversation in the day room of a mental hospital, whispering to a neighbor in a church pew, or asking for mother's help in the midst of battle.

    Us folks have undergone quite the growth spurt in the last 100 years. It is time to either apply context to these absolutes or discard them.

  4. DaveS,

    "What exactly is a false belief? No such thing."

    You are joking, right? If you believe that the sun goes around the earth you are mistaken, just as much as if you believe that I am African American. Whether you accept that your belief is false or not is, of course, another matter. But it is nonetheless.

  5. I'm not joking.

    I would change your assertion to:

    These days, a high percentage of humans believe that given
    - the current laws of 'science'
    - our current use of 'language'
    the earth revolves around the sun.

    Things change. Some ppl see language as a virus, others see science as a silly religion,
    others see the assertion as subject to the constraints of time. Now it does, now it doesn't

    Gotta keep stuff relative or we fail.

    Hope yer having good weather up there....

  6. Sorry for going off-topic re loneliness v solitude. A great topic to be discussed. back 2 language hee hee, the word 'solitude' has few negative implications, 'loneliness' does - a feeling of longing.

  7. Maybe DaveS was referring to to the same 'relative truth' that Chris Hitchens used in a recent debate - he said "God exists and is totally true, for some people." But then proceeded to explain how unfortunate it was these people had this "truth" implanted in their minds.

    Imagine our multimillion year evolution before we learned the sun doesn't orbit the earth. If the actual (non-relative) truth is unknown to all, then does it exist? Sorry to get off-topic.

    I liked this posting because I've also wondered about the changes to our attention spans as I see children apparently less and less able to entertain themselves or each other and becoming more and more dependent on technology to keep boredom at bay.

  8. Promise not to corrupt any more of yr threads in the future, but this is 2 good 2 pass up.

    not comfortable w/middle sentence in middle para but if i do read it correctly, if "all" is shorthand 4 "all humans", answer is "no, it does not exist". IMHO words like "actual", "true"/"false" r meaningless w/o context, "actual truth" doubly so :) As far as I can tell neither Dawkins, Hitchens et al ever stray off the reservations of science or humanism. Dont know Dawkins, but have chatted w/Hitchens (just midE/Iraq war politics) & get the sense that he is good at knocking things down but not at proposing forward paths.

    In 3rd para, r u substituting "technology" 4 "solitude"? coz theres lots of technology which only makes sense when shared... Pretty much every play brk kids get at school, they r playing w/o technology...1 hopes... on the school's playgrnd. But technology continues 2 bcome so pervasive that shortly (<= 30 yrs???), the tech/nontech dichotomy will prob b 2 fuzzy 2 be useful.


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