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Solitude in Context – Part I: Being and Culture

The first in a series on solitude and solitary activity, this article outlines the personal, interpersonal, and social modes of being before discussing how postmodern culture obscures solitude and attenuates personal being.

A consideration of personal being in the postmodern world.

Solitude is an integral aspect of human experience, hence its eternal relevance. By intention or by circumstance to either positive or negative effect, people experience periods of aloneness to some extent and degree. More fundamentally, a human being is a separate sentient entity prior to his associations with others, no matter the degree to which he is immersed in a social environment. Thus, solitude is an inherent aspect of life whether one cultivates it personally or suppresses it collectively.

Based on my regular practice of solitary activities (which are to be the topic of subsequent articles), this article establishes solitude as an important yet misrepresented aspect of life. After outlining modes of being I then discuss the sociocultural status of solitude in the postmodern world, specifically, the various ways it has been disassociated from its authentic meaning and demoted from its traditional value.

Rather than promote solitude as an ideal or as being superior to sociality, I find it necessary to clarify an essential aspect of life that has been culturally distorted. In a philosophical and critical spirit, the following discussion is aimed at restoring the balance between the solitary and social modes of being, in terms of how the former has been ideologically eclipsed by the latter.

The Three Modes of Being (A Preliminary to Solitude)

In the hi-tech society and extroverted culture of the postmodern world, novel activities have become increasingly common while certain traditional activities are collectively disregarded. The locus of this behavioural revolution is the personal domain, which has been invaded and colonized by new forms of instant communication. ‘Personal’ here refers to activities conducted alone – practically, if not literally – as opposed to those involving constant interaction with one or more person(s). Personal activities can be thought to reflect (basically) one of the three fundamental aspects of personal being: the mind, the spirit, and the body. Significantly, the sociocultural value system has raised Body above Mind while relegating Spirit below both, in terms of the attention and regard conferred upon each, implicitly and explicitly.

Three Interdependent Spheres of Be-ing

‘Being’ comprises three fundamental modes that represent overlapping spheres of an indivisible whole: (human) be-ing. These three distinct yet interdependent modes of being are personal, interpersonal, and social.  I now define the three modes of being as a preliminary to the discussion of solitude.

The Personal Mode of Being

‘Personal’ here denotes a separation of presence and contact between oneself and others, in whatever form and context it may occur. Naturally, the personal mode of being occurs during solitude, meaning a substantial period of aloneness: to be whilst not being in the presence of others (which must now include techno-mediated ‘presence’). Thus, ‘personal being’ essentially means being alone with oneself – that is, one’s ‘self’ – irrespective of context. Typically, one enters the personal mode by choice; sometimes, by necessity; and, in exceptional cases, by force.

The Interpersonal Mode of Being

Distinct from the personal mode of being (where one is alone and not in communication for a period) is a co-presence and/or communication with one or more other people. Most commonly, this is considered the distinction between personal and social experience. However, there is an inherent difference between being with one other person and being with two or more people, in that these two situations condition fundamentally different modes of being. Whereas two people create an experience of being ‘alone together, adding a third person forms a dynamic of togetherness that precludes the interpersonal sense of aloneness—although one may not often be conscious of this difference.

This particular sense of ‘interpersonal’ , then, is a mode of being defined by the shared presence (or direct communication) between two people, that is, without any significant presence or contact from a third person.

The Social Mode of Being

Considered here as the direct opposite of the personal, the social mode of being creates an experience different from the interpersonal by the addition of at least one more person, thus involving at least three people.* As with the personal/interpersonal distinction, the social mode of being fundamentally changes the situational conditions of being. Furthermore, the number of people comprising a social occasion proportionally augments the social mode such to represent subtypes of social being. (For example, a threesome of friends, an intimate family gathering, a large formal party, and a mass public event each generate a distinct social environment.)

*That there is a fundamental difference of experience between an occasion of two people and that of three is indicated in the old proverb ‘two is company, three is a crowd’.

Solitary Activity in Sociocultural Context

The above classification of being is not to imply that one mode is more important than another, but simply to serve a contemporary discussion of solitary activities. Hence, it’s understood that the three modes of being are complementary to each other and the classification is made to distinguish the personal (as the theme of Part I) from the interpersonal and the social modes of being.

That being said, personal being in general has been overshadowed by the interpersonal and social modes, which are, moreover, radically novel in form. Both in the social order and cultural attitude, solitary activity has been devalued and, in some ways, obstructed. The implications for the collective and individual experience of life are great enough that the thematic factors are inextricable from a contemporary understanding of solitude and solitary activity.

The Ideology of Extroversion Behoves the Decline of Personal Being

Historically, the attenuation of personal being became conspicuous in the twentieth century, having been catalyzed by techno-social advents that revolutionized Western society. More salient in the twenty-first century is the rapid intensification of this trend, fostered by the ubiquity and integration of advancing mobile communication technologies.

While accelerating technological advancement has facilitated the decline of personal being, the trend is rooted in ideological influence. In essence, this behavioural shift is represented by the personality typology of introverts and extroverts (introduced into psychoanalytic theory by Carl Jung in 1921). These simplified but useful categories can be used to appropriately distinguish two basic types of individual: the ‘introverted’ as those inclined to deep thought and reflection, in contrast to the ‘extroverted’ as those thriving on external engagement and sensory stimulation.*

Through the prism of this psycho-social dichotomy, the ideological shift can be seen to have occurred by an unofficial philosophy that permeates cultural production and social institutions, whereby extroverted behaviour and mentality are cultivated systemically. Hence, an inevitable effect is that introverts must adapt to extroverted forms of behaviour and lifestyle to participate successfully, both socially and professionally. More than generating a societal imbalance on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, postmodern society instils a psycho-spiritual aversion to introspective being. That this proclivity is characteristic of postmodern life is indicated by the oft-made observations that ‘most people cannot bear silence’ and (more to the point) ‘dread to be alone with their thoughts’.†

*To be clear, the introversion-extroversion spectrum implies that an individual may be characterized by more introverted behaviour than extroverted, or vice versa, as opposed to strictly embodying one to the exclusion of the other. The labels thus (should) serve as a shorthand distinction between basic character types, rather than as a label to define any individual.

†The Institutional Misconception and Misrepresentation of ‘Introvert’ supplements this paragraph (see Appendix).

The Semantic Depreciation of Introversion

The structural promotion of extroversion to the detriment of introversion is most readily evident in the associations commonly attributed to the definitions* and synonyms of those concepts. While often being described as one who is ‘shy’ or ‘reticent’, an ‘introvert’ is lexically associated (more perversely) with a plethora of dysfunctional and uncongenial characteristics, such as ‘unsociable’, ‘inhibited’, ‘withdrawn’, ‘uneasy’, etc.* (The complete synonyms for ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’ are presented as a table in the Appendix).

*Outspoken culture critic Matt Walsh rants on this theme in a segment titled Let Introverts Be Introverts, Dammit. After reporting and commenting on a related news event, he then (at the 4:55 mark) addresses the defining of ‘introvert’ and contrasts his definition (as an introvert) to the way introverts are stereotyped.

Conclusion to Part I: The Psycholinguistic Subversion of Solitude

Ultimately, contemporary society does not merely neglect or devalue but subtly stigmatizes solitary activity by association with dysfunctional traits and negative states of being. Thus, specifically, the status of solitude and its related concepts are undermined principally through linguistics, which can be seen quite plainly. Furthermore, this is despite that the authentic, original meaning of ‘solitude’ is intrinsic to the word itself—as will be shown in Part II, where I examine the linguistic representations of solitude and its related concepts.


The Synonymic Disparity between ‘Introverted’ and ‘Extroverted’

As mentioned above, the behavioural descriptors ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’ have been imbued with ideological evaluations in contrast to each other. These evaluations are embedded by the lexical associations for ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’ as laid bare in the top two online references for synonyms, and Merriam-Webster.

This psycholinguistic influence underlies representations of introversion and extroversion in both professional and cultural contexts, by which all concepts related to introverted behaviour are devalued, pathologized, and ultimately, discouraged. Concomitantly, extroverted behaviour is associated with characteristics that are either inherently or culturally favourable, hence promoting extroversion specifically to the detraction of traits related to introversion.

In the table below I have displayed the synonyms for introverted and extroverted in a comparative view. To highlight the ideological disparity between the associated words, I have UPPERCASED all synonyms that represent characteristics suggestive of weakness or unfriendliness (and in one case, dangerousness!*); whereas the others represent characteristics considered to be positive or conditionally good.

Thesaurus.comIntrospective, RECLUSIVE, soft-spoken, collected, cool, quiet, restrained, SHY, WITHDRAWN, BASHFUL, cautious, CLOSE-MOUTHED, COLD, demure, modest, OFFISH, SECRETIVE, solitary, STANDOFFISH, UNCOMMUNICATIVE.Congenial, gregarious, personable, sociable, cordial, demonstrative, friendly, social, unreserved.
Merriam-Webster.comSHY, WITHDRAWN, DIFFIDENT, BASHFUL, LONE, SHEEPISH, RETIRING, ANTISOCIAL, SELF-EFFACING, RESERVED, demure, RECESSIVE, COY, EMBARRASSED, BACKWARD, UNSOCIABLE, UNASSERTIVE, AWKWARD, modest, UNSOCIAL, UPTIGHT, UNADVENTUROUS, INHIBITED, SELF-CONSCIOUS, UNEASY, LONE-WOLF*, UNENTERPRISING.Outgoing, gregarious, sociable, social, convivial, companionable, animated, expansive, clubby, clubbable, boon, talkative, clubable, vivacious, hospitable, amiable, affable, communicative, spirited, jovial, congenial, friendly, folksy, peppy, perky, gracious, genial, cordial, garrulous, exuberant, cheerful, jolly, lively, agreeable, effervescent, sprightly, neighborly, upbeat, forthcoming, pert, bubbly, buoyant, jaunty, chipper, kindly, gay, high-spirited, sprightful, bright.

The Institutional Misconception and Misrepresentation of ‘Introvert’

With the 2012 book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, writer, introvert, and would-be research psychologist Susan Cain provides a historical narrative and psychocultural analysis of this theme (sub-headed). In harmony with the basis of this article, Quiet exposes and attempts to redress the institutional and cultural bias towards extroversion and the stigmatic misrepresentation of introversion. Cain’s book thereby serves to clarify the essence of these two basic types of personality.

In so doing, Cain points out that ‘There are almost as many definitions of introvert and extrovert as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate. Some think that Jung’s ideas are outdated; others swear that he’s the only one who got it right. Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well.’

To this last point I add that Carl Jung, despite providing much good observation and analysis, had also associated traits inappropriate to what is otherwise a valid concept and useful distinction: the ‘introvert’.


Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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