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Solitude in Context – Part II: Language and Ideology

The second part of Solitude in Context examines the ways in which solitude, solitary activity, and meditative thought are devalued and stigmatized through linguistics, thereby discouraging these practices.

—The Slogans of Newspeak (New Millennium Edition)

In establishing a basis for understanding solitude, Part I considered it as a personal mode of being distinct from, but complementary to, interpersonal and social modes of being. The article then outlined the historical decline of personal being including the practice of solitude, citing the introvert/extrovert dichotomy and, more crucially, the polarized disparity between these two concepts in both professional and cultural contexts. Finally, linguistics was identified as the primary means of this conceptual polarization, illustrated by a comparison between the synonyms assigned to ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’. Part II continues this theme by examining the linguistic associations of words in the representation of concepts directly related to solitude and solitary practices.

Solitude in Essence and Representation

The Cultural Misrepresentation of Solitude

In conceiving this article, it dawned on me that the word ‘solitude’ is itself a testament to its original, authentic meaning, as against its contrary, modern signification. For, culturally, the concept of solitude has come to be represented in a negative sense, such that its practice is discouraged and implicitly stigmatized. The underlying attitude thereby instilled is chiefly imparted by the association of solitudinous behaviour with a state of social deprivation and the feeling of loneliness.

The first point of reference is etymology, wherein the origin of ‘solitude’ is (in general) attributed firstly to the state of ‘loneliness’ and secondly to ‘aloneness’. It thus appears that the meaning of solitude is etymologically confused by the conflation of two different states of being: the first is unequivocally negative whilst the second is technically neutral.

Referring next to its common definition, Merriam-Webster defines solitude as

1. the quality or state of being alone or remote from society : seclusion
2. a lonely place (such as a desert)

Similar to the etymological sources, the dictionary (as representative of most others) associates solitude with seclusion, which (it says) ‘suggests a shutting away or keeping apart from others often connoting deliberate withdrawal from the world or retirement to a quiet life’. This extreme conception of solitude is compounded by an association with loneliness, which is categorically a negative state of being.

Referencing the thesaurus, the linguistic adulteration of solitude is even more pronounced in the synonyms assigned to it: emptiness, isolation, loneliness, seclusion, silence, confinement, desert, detachment, lonesomeness, privacy, quarantine, reclusiveness, retirement, separateness, solitariness, waste, wasteland, wilderness, withdrawal, loneness, peace and quiet. Overwhelmingly, solitude is associated with a host of undesirable states of being, specifically those related to social avoidance, deprivation and loneliness. Needless to say, the concept of solitude should have never been contaminated by negative associations, let alone nullified by them.

By contrast, solitude has been widely described and cited as a highly beneficial and valuable practice, even a vital one, by some of the most notable thinkers and prominent figures throughout history. Consequently, an intuitive conception of solitude denotes an inherently positive state of being; in essence, that by which an individual temporarily takes leave from the stimulations of the social world. More specifically, solitude represents the will to attend to the needs of inner life, for they would otherwise remain suppressed by a continuous succession of activities, influences, and states. This traditional understanding, which has been marginalized in modern culture, will be made clearer by an examination of the word ‘solitude’ and those closely related to it.

The Meaning of ‘Solitude’ in the Semiotics of ‘Sol’

When considering the form of the word itself, the negative associations attached to solitude prove to be counterintuitive further still. ‘Sol’ is a Latin word that, even today, is widely known to mean ‘the sun’; and the sun as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom is recognized even more so. From this association follows ‘light’ – that is, sunlight – metaphored lexically by the words ‘enlightenment’ and ‘illumination’ to signify the discovery of essential knowledge for the development of wisdom,  these usages being familiar to most.

Relatedly, metaphors of light to signify good things, in opposition to dark as signifying things inherently bad (ignorance being most germane here), are used so routinely in public addresses that it presupposes ingrained conditioning to this rhetorical device (the exploitation of an archetypal symbol, in other words). ‘Light’ and its directly related words are employed religiously in public rhetoric to effectively imply – and affectively impart – the inherent goodness and desirableness of particular things. A standard example of this device is politicians’ use of the expression ‘dawn(ing)’ to elicit a collective feeling of hope for ‘a better tomorrow’ is (which must therefore be considered effectual). But, considered logically (i.e. rather than used emotionally), ‘dawn’ also refers to the beginning of understanding or realization, as in ‘it dawned on me that…’* Thus, common metaphorical and literal usage of words related to light reveals the ancient association of enlightenment with the sun, and therefore, with the prefix ‘sol’.

*As it may have just ‘dawned on you’ that I foreshadowed this phrase in the opening paragraph (foreshadowing: essentially, a manipulative literary device that is a staple of movie and television narration).

Additionally, there are several other words prefixed by sol- that denote a positive concept, and in some cases, also a meaning in harmony with that of solitude (for completeness, note that the Latin suffix ‘-tude’ signifies ‘a state, condition, or quality’, such as in ‘attitude’). A solution refers to solving a problem or handling a difficult situation; solace is comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness; solemn is formal and dignified behaviour or characterized by deep sincerity; and soliloquy relates to being in dialogue with oneself whilst alone.

The adjective sole, meaning ‘being the only one’ or ‘not shared with others’, implies individuality when considered with its homophonic noun soul, being the spiritual essence of a person. These three concepts – sole, soul, and individuality – are intimately related to solitude, in that dedicated alone time has been universally recognized as essential to the cultivation of deep personal development.* To these concepts can be added a personification, namely Solon, the sage of ancient Greece. Famously, Solon had been initiated into the sacred mysteries by the priests of Egypt, who were considered to be (during that historical age) the most learned in occult knowledge. That these illumined Egyptians worshipped Ra, the sun god, is notable here, for it returns us to sol.

*The intimate relation between solitude and personal development can be recognized in collected quotations on solitude, which tend to form a far more genuine and direct representation of solitude than is imparted by modern culture.

The misrepresentation of solitude is extended through its kin-word ‘solitary’, which has been thoroughly contaminated by association. Culturally, the most pernicious and obvious example is the assigning of ‘solitary’ to label the punitive method of ‘solitary confinement’, which is effectively a form of torture. The necessary result is to imbue the concept of solitariness with the experience of torturous imprisonment, subconsciously imprinting the concept of solitude with an association to this extremely distressing situation. More directly, ‘solitary’ has been lexically associated with negative synonyms relating to pitiful or unsociable characteristics and states, such as being a hermit, a recluse, lonely, or isolated.*

*More synonyms for ‘solitary’ include antisocial, cloistered, companionless, deserted, desolate, friendless, lonesome, secluded, unsocial, and withdrawn (

The Pathologization of Rumination

An intimate of solitude is rumination, a psychological activity that has been greatly abused by academic and cultural usage. Specifically, a negative meaning (as illustrated below) has been superimposed onto the traditional definition of ‘rumination’, which is ‘to turn over in the mind; to muse, meditate, think again and again’. By its original meaning, it is quite obvious that rumination is fundamental to philosophy (which is, of course, diametrically opposed to ignorance); and, thus understood, the conceptual and practical value of the word is self-evident.

Yet the word rumination, and thereby the practice of rumination, has been inverted professionally, and thereby culturally, to literally represent a psychological pathology: basically, ‘a focusing of attention on negative mental content to the production or exacerbation of emotional distress’. Indeed, the immediate search engine results for ‘rumination’ display the completed subversion of that word through an exclusive context of psychopathology, leaving little trace of its authentic meaning.* Strangely, the evidence of this semantic perversion is well preserved in the very same thesauri that corrupts ‘introverted’ and ‘solitary’ with synonyms for disagreeable traits. For, tellingly, ‘rumination’ remains appropriately associated in most thesauri, its synonyms representing the range of concepts that correspond to its original meaning.† Traditionally, then, rumination is an activity considered to be naturally beneficial and has long been applied in that manner. Recently, however, rumination has been reframed as pathology through the ideological prism of postmodern society.

*For illustration, the article titles of the top ten Google results for ‘rumination’ are listed in the Appendix.
†A table in the Appendix lists the synonyms of ‘rumination’ from and Merriam-Webster.

Not to dwell on ‘rumination’, but rather to highlight its sociolinguistic abuse, the phrase ‘dwell on’ has suitably represented the negative kind of thinking now attributed to rumination, particularly since the word ‘dwell’ originally (i.e. etymologically) relates to detrimental behaviours (e.g. ‘to be led into error, go wrong in belief or judgment; to delay, hesitate’). But since thinking in solitude has been devalued ideologically, rumination has been converted into its negative with the pathological ‘dwell on’ now but a descriptor of it. In this way, the closely related concepts of solitude, introversion, and intellectual meditation are systemically pathologized through both professional and conventional sources of authoritative or expert information (social indoctrination, to be more direct).

The Devaluation of Intellectual Life

The anti-solitude ideology that underlies modern culture – which is characterized by an anti-intellectual* philosophy – is further reinforced by the conventionalization of words that subtly demean the practice of book reading. One such example is the character descriptor ‘bookworm’ and the personality descriptor ‘bookish’, both of which are applied even by book readers to themselves (that is, as acceptable if not proud self-labels). Nonetheless, the idiom ‘bookworm’ implies that one has worm-like traits: an association no mature person would naturally find agreeable. Social convention, however, is not natural but artificial; and its process of inculcation naturalizes degrading terminology, making its usage feel validating and sophisticated.

*Basically, a mindset described as ‘a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.’ –Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)

As to ‘bookish’, the suffix –ish is a signifier of quality applied almost exclusively to undesirable features, such as the common pejoratives amateurish, brutish, childish, foolish, sheepish, as well as impersonals such as hellish. Even the word peckish is made to feel neutral simply by convention; yet ‘peck’ is a direct reference to bird behaviour—which, again, no mature person would desire an association with.

The Degrading of Intelligence by Destructive Communication

Speaking of humans-as-birds, this association has been globally established by the revolutionary medium Twitter, which almost explicitly equates human communication to the twittering of birds. In fact, to a large extent, Twitter reduces the quality of communication to equate the ‘succession of small, tremulous sounds’ denoted by the word, generating the venue of chatter (to ‘talk rapidly in a foolish or purposeless way’) implied by its name. Yet this social debasement is contrasted by the semiotics of the Twitter logo, which consists of a bluebird posed as if in blissfully ascendant flight. Thus, the Twitter logo signifies liberation and transcendence to glorify the activity of ‘tweeting’. More to the point, Twitter has been a major catalyst of the hyper-extroverted, anti-introversion culture that is inextricable from a contemporary discussion of solitude and solitary activity.

Essentially, the Twitterization of society represents the polarizing dialectic of a structural ideology conveying a tacit implication: the introverted (read: antisocial) ‘bookworm’ is beneath the extroverted (read: sociable) Twitter/bird in the social ‘pecking order’. The effect most relevant here is that solitudinous behaviour has been devalued and stigmatized, even to the point of pathologization, in fostering a social environment that engenders rampant superficialism and destructive emotionalism to the suppression of authentic, responsible intelligence.

Note: The above summary of Twitter is not to say that an individual cannot use the platform intelligently, in principle if not in practice. The implication is that the platform and its unintelligent usage are equal manifestations of postmodern ideology; that ideology is generated by elite agendas, not determined by social activity; and that cultural attitudes and social behaviours are preconditioned by technological innovations, that is, despite the purported ‘neutrality’ of technology.

The Uses of Solitude

These discussions on Solitude in Context are intended to preface a series of articles discussing particular solitary activities conducted for self development. Continuing the theme of solitude in contemporary life, my next article in the series features a classification of solitary activities based on those I find most rewarding, accompanied by brief discussions of how and to what purpose I practice them.


The Cultural Inversion of Rumination

The conversion of rumination, as a concept and activity, from an intelligent to a pathological form of mentation can be illustrated by the top ten Google results for ‘rumination’, which (at the time of writing) are as follows:

  1. Rumination is a form of perserverative cognition that focuses on negative content, generally past and present, and results in emotional distress. (National Library of Medicine)
  2. Rumination (psychology) is the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions (Wikipedia)
  3. 10 Tips to Help You Stop Ruminating (Healthline)
  4. Rumination: Definition, Signs, Causes, Effects, and How to Cope (Very Well Mind)
  5. Rumination: When Your Thoughts Don’t Have an Off Button (The Psychology Group)
  6. Rumination: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, Statistics, & Treatment (The Recovery Village)
  7. Rumination – The OCD & Anxiety Center (The OCD and Anxiety Center)
  8. Ruminating thoughts: How to stop them (Medical News Today)
  9. Rumination: The danger of dwelling (BBC News)
  10. New voices: The problem with rumination (The British Psychological Society)

These search results are indicative of how rumination has been conceptually inverted, specifically by the industry of psychiatry and the culture of therapy. And yet, the traditional meaning of rumination is well preserved in the most popular thesauri:

Rumination ( (
Meditation, reflection, anticipation, attention, cerebration, cogitation, cognition, consideration, contemplation, deduction, deliberation, deriving, excogitation, heed, hope, ideation, inducing, introspection, intuition, judging, knowing, logic, musing, rationalization, reasoning, regard, scrutiny, seeing, speculation, study, theorization, thinking, understanding, apprehending, brainwork, concluding, considering, deducing, discerning, inferring, perceiving, rationalizing, realizing.Contemplation, meditation, pondering, cogitation, reflection, introspection, deliberation, thought, consideration, debate, study, indecision, advisement, agonizing, hesitation, account, premeditation.

The significance of the reclassification of ‘rumination’ is not merely semantic but conceptual and ideological; hence, the effects are psychological, behavioural, and sociocultural. In concert with progressive influences that discourage and inhibit solitudinous activities, thoroughness of thought by meditative activity is culturally stigmatized, ensuring that rumination as a natural and common practice is effectively precluded.


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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