Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If solitude dies, does philosophy go with it?

The always provocative William Deresiewicz observes that today's college students, thanks to the omnipresence of technologies that connect them to one another and to the larger world, have "lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude." If true, does this have consequences for those of us attempting to teach philosophy?

We've discussed the challenges of group work often here at ISW, with many emphasizing that the heavily socially networked students of today often gravitate toward collaborative learning. But does philosophical understanding also require an ability to work in solitude — to be alone with one's own thoughts? One worry is that the technologically-induced absence of solitude makes introspection and true engagement with texts impossible. Deresiewicz:

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude. But we no longer believe in the solitary mind.

Deresiewicz wonders if the modern university has too readily fostered this aversion to solitude, to the detriment of the students they claim to serve:

To hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one's way beyond it. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. "The saint and poet seek privacy," Emerson said, "to ends the most public and universal."
So: Have students lost their ability to live in their own minds? And, conceding that the epistemology of philosophy is largely discursive and social, to what extent is that ability needed to get the full value of the philosophical classroom experience? My particular concern is that one of the goals of philosophical education (and liberal education, more generally) is to help students develop self-understanding and an authentic intellectual stance. Might the presence of so much technology and connectivity put these goals out of reach?


  1. Emerson: It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

    So, don't worry about it. Solitude will find those deserving of it.

  2. This is an extremely important question. I wonder if the loss of solitude will kill philosophy, or at least diminish it.

    I also wonder if we can even have real solitude, without that is joining some spiritual order.

    Also interesting is what happens to our notions of the self now that social networks like facebook and myspace - not to mention YouTube - have radically altered the suppossed distinction between the Public and the Private - some might say even abolished it.

  3. I'm not too sure whether there hasn't been too much emphasis on solitude in the past. After all, collaborative thought can be extremely exciting and useful.

    Fair enough, we need to have a balance between the time we spend by ourselves and the time that we spend with others, but we can moderate that ourselves, and the fact that we have so much opportunity to engage with so many other people has to be a good thing.

    I make no disguise of the fact that I think western philosophy has traditionally been dogged by a single minded egocentric individualism that separates people from each other and from the world that they inhabit. Perhaps too much time locked away in one's private cell could have this effect?

  4. Good point Ethics Girl! Dialogue and community are essential to the philosophic process.

    I've always been a bit disturbed by the atomistic image of Descartes all alone in his stove-heated room wondering if anything really exists.

    A bad starting point for a social animal!


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!