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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Strangers in Strange Lands, Part II

by Steve Neumann

We are unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us.

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

[Part I of this post appeared here.]

II. Society and Solitude

How does society affect how we feel about our interminable vacillation between aloneness and loneliness? As the above-mentioned book by Anneli Rufus, Party of One, indicates, those with a predilection for aloneness are in the minority, and are viewed askance by society because of it. This mistrust of the “loner” is fueled largely by network news and popular culture. Both media draw intense attention to the personal lives of psychopaths and mass murderers who all seem to be “loners” of some sort. And where network news outlets malign this aspect of the perpetrators they report on, the entertainment industry amplifies and sensationalizes it even more. To be fair, though, there are some genres in the film industry that are more disposed to glorify the loner-as-hero. I’m thinking specifically of cyberpunk; and Neo from The Matrix Trilogy is a prime example. But even in other cyberpunk movies, the loner-as-hero is oftentimes an anti-hero.

This genre in particular seems to bring into sharp focus the unique challenges to our aloneness that the “cyber” aspect of cyberpunk culture creates. The novels and stories of Philip K. Dick are particularly pertinent in this regard. Even in the movies based on his novels — Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, Minority Report, to name perhaps the most popular ones — the “hero” is often lonely or alone, and frequently endures some type of monkey on his back. And yet we admire or at least root for him nonetheless.

It is also by now a truism that the almost exponential explosion of communications and media technology within the past thirty years alone have irrevocably turned us into Homo socialis as much as Homo machina. Round-the-clock cable news, email, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and the increasingly popular MMOG paradigm have not only altered our sense of reality and time, but have severely trammeled our experience of our private inner lives. This development has not only made the management of our personal lives more difficult by opening up an incessant, diluvial intrusion into them, it seems to have created as many if not more problems than it presumed to solve. Now, we not only have to take into account the fluctuations and intrigues of our social and physical environments in both our personal and work lives, but we have to superintend an additional level of information. I suppose we could label this, in Twitter-speak, #metaproblems.

With the mushrooming of social media like Facebook, and the proliferation of online dating sites such as Match.com and eHarmony, I sometimes wonder how quick and easy it is to go from sociability to solitude, and vice versa. Outside of family, school friends, and community groups, our relationships, whether romantic or platonic, seem to require much less effort to establish; and, likewise, they seem that much easier to terminate. As a result, does our sense of being alone lack a profundity that was present in former times? Or to put it another way: is our aloneness shallow and unproductive, and our loneliness innocuous?

III. Philosopher, Poet and Pariah

Both the philosopher and the creative artist have historically been characterized as loners, primarily because both practice an activity that requires a good deal of inwardness. Those diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), whatever their vocation, have frequently been treated as pariahs; and the nature of their disorder tends to alienate them from their peers.

The idiosyncrasies of ASD include “social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” And it’s just these social aspects, the difficulty in understanding social cues, that elicit the estrangement and attendant isolation. World-renowned evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton, acknowledging his own place along the autism spectrum, differentiated between “people-people” and “things-people”:

...in us things people…there occurs some aberration of a natural sequence that has been evolved for the purpose of bonding person to person. In us this sequence has grown awry somehow and gained untypical intensity directed towards inhuman objects…Yet the same misdirection, which is so often disastrous socially…can be very helpful in the making of [a] scientist, an engineer, or the like. Thus it is probably not wholly maladaptive. I believe it is in essence an aberration of this kind that makes me a successful scientist.

While the hallmark of the autist may be a preoccupation with external things, the artist could be said to be absorbed with inward things. In his famous letters to an aspiring poet, the celebrated poet Rainer Maria Rilke captures the intensity of their focus:

For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself...Think, dear friend, reflect on the world that you carry within yourself...Just be sure that you observe carefully what wells up within you and place that above everything that you notice around you. Your innermost happening is worth all your love.

Although Rilke tended to spurn the herd in pursuit of his vocation as a poet, Denise Levertov was very politically active during her lifetime, even as she claimed Rilke as a mentor. In her essay Rilke as Mentor (1981), Levertov says:

...I saw how Rilke pointed to solitude as necessary for the poet’s inner development for that selfhood which must be in order to experience all the multifold otherness of life.

Though Levertov talks specifically of the poet’s craft, we could just as easily say that solitude is necessary for any person’s development of self. This accords nicely with the Jungian idea of individuation I mentioned in the first part of this post. If one is constantly drawn outward, how can one be formed into a self? If one continually defines or identifies oneself with the characteristics of others, how can they be a singular individual?

But even though Levertov placed a great deal of emphasis on solitude, she herself was just as committed to being active in the community of the many:

With the onset of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s, Levertov’s social consciousness began to more completely inform both her poetry and her private life. With Muriel Rukeyser and several other poets, Levertov founded the Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam. She took part in several anti-war demonstrations in Berkeley, California, and elsewhere, and was briefly jailed on numerous occasions for civil disobedience.

Lastly, when I was twenty-two years old and precocious enough to ask her to take up a correspondence with me, she wrote:

Remember, too, that as Goethe said, in order to do something you have to be someone i.e., the common experience of earning wages & working alongside others & sharing the common human experience is all part of what contributes to a life...
(Personal correspondence, November 1, 1994)

In addition to poets, it’s also interesting to compare the lives of two influential philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Arthur Schopenhauer’s daily life involved living alone

with a succession of pet French poodles (named Atma and Butz), was defined by a deliberate routine: Schopenhauer would awake, wash, read and study during the morning hours, play his flute, lunch at the Englisher Hof — an inn at the city center near the Hauptwache — rest afterwards, read, take an afternoon walk, check the world events as reported in The London Times, sometimes attend concerts in the evenings, and frequently read inspirational texts such as the Upanishads before going to sleep.

Though it was chronic ill health that forced Nietzsche to give up his professorship at the University of Basel early on and travel around frequently to various supposed healthier climes, he recognized in himself — and, by extension, every philosopher and “free spirit” — the need for solitude. Why would a philosopher need solitude?

In addition to the fact, which I stated earlier, that philosophers frequently focus inwardly, there is also the need to protect oneself and others from one’s investigation into and exploration of existence. In the preface to his book The Dawn, Nietzsche wrote:

In this book we find an “underground man” at work: digging, mining, undermining...One easily unlearns how to hold one’s tongue when one has for so long been a mole and all alone like him...Do not think that I will urge you to run the same perilous risk! Or that I will urge you on even to the same solitude! For whoever proceeds on his own path meets no one: this is inherent in “following one’s own path.”  No one comes to help him in his task: he must face everything quite alone — danger, bad luck, malice, foul weather. He goes his own way; and as is only right meets with bitterness and occasional irritation because he pursues his “own way:” for instance, the knowledge that not even his friends can guess who he is and whither he is going and that they ask themselves now and then: “Well, is he really progressing at all? Has he still a path before him?”

The philosopher is a destroyer because he is a creator; a lawbreaker because he is an experimenter. Additionally, as alluded to in the preface above, the philosopher seeks out “everything strange and questionable in existence.” So the activities of the philosopher are such that, not only is a certain above-average amount of solitude inevitable because innovators necessarily blaze untrodden trails, but also because destroyers and lawbreakers unsettle us. We like balance and stability. We don’t like it when the boat rolls and sways. We don’t like it when people are different.

But it seems that, in the end, the respective situations of the pariah, poet and philosopher really aren’t all that different. Whether an artist, autist or philosopher, each has his peculiar or unconventional traits; and to the extent that we’re all unique individuals, there is a bit of the philosopher, poet and pariah in each of us.


  1. There's a story in the news of a study of how replacing personal interaction with social media tends to bring out people's dark side: "people online tend to say things they wouldn’t normally say in real life."

    Maybe in writing (typing text) people let their guards down and are saying what they really believe. Like Twitter is a truth serum?


    1. I would agree with that for the most part. I think human beings are generally much more courageous when there is no threat of imminent conflict. I don't know if we are more truthful behind the cyberveil, but we definitely seem to be more ballsy.

  2. I enjoyed this post.

    'While the hallmark of the autist may be a preoccupation with external things, the artist could be said to be absorbed with inward things.'

    The internal/external dichotomy you pose between artist and autist/scientist is interesting. I had tended to think of the artist as very sensitive to external cues such as facial expressions or the textures of natural settings. Each seems to be sensitive to different categories of external things. Artists, philosophers, autists and scientists all have in common however I think the likelihood of more alone time than the average person.

    1. Thanks.

      I think artists are sensitive to external cues and stimuli - and maybe even more so than the average person - but I also think they internalize or incorporate their experience of them more than most people.

    2. I would agree and would say the same of most scientists. Perhaps it is this higher degree of external/internal integration that often leads one down the less trodden path.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.