What Is Solitude?


So now I am alone in the world . . . But I, detached as I am from them and from the whole world, what am I? This must now be the object of my inquiry.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

To understand a concept, it helps to first define it. Arriving at a satisfactory definition, however, is often tougher than what the dictionary and common sense would have you believe.

To be in solitude is to be alone.


Historians mean something altogether different when they use the word solitude. ‘When solitude was spoken of . . . it rarely meant absolute aloneness’, writes the historian Steven Shapin (The Mind Is Its Own Place).

Instead, solitude has become an umbrella term for a motley collection of concepts. The historian Barbara Taylor lists them: ‘leisure, country life, religious devotion, philosophical contemplation, self-love, covertness, introspection, daydreaming, a melancholy disposition’ (Philosophical Solitude).

The history of solitude is, thus, the study of how this word has meant different things at different times and, confusingly, the changing opinions about this concept whose meaning itself has kept changing.


There are two dimensions to aloneness: physical and social. You are physically alone if you can’t sense—see, hear, or touch—anyone around you; you are socially alone if you are not communicating with anyone. 


But what counts as communication? Does reading a book count? What about watching TV?

All tricky questions. It is easier to answer them from the perspective of solitude: From the perspective of solitude, what counts as communication?

The psychologist Reed Larson provides an answer, where he describes solitude as ‘the severance of immediate exchange of information and affect’ (The Solitary Side of Life). Larson goes on,

Using this criterion a person would not be alone in a solitary house if conversing with someone by phone—because there is an exchange of information. If watching TV or listening to music, however, he or she would be alone because the TV or radio do not observe or respond to the person; they do not directly impose demands, interact, or provide feedback.

In other words, from the perspective of solitude, only two-way and immediate communication counts as communication. Neither reading a book nor watching TV count.


The two dimensions of contact lead to different types of solitude.

Types of Solitude

Pure solitude is the combination of physical and social aloneness. If you went on a solo trek, left your phone behind, and saw no other trekkers along the way, then you would be in this kind of solitude.[1]

Abstracted solitude is the combination of physical contact and social aloneness. If you read a novel in a busy café, then you would be in this kind of solitude.[2] 

Networked solitude is the combination of physical aloneness and social contact. If you were alone in your room but texting your friends, then you would be in this kind of solitude. 

Abstracted-Networked solitude is a combination of physical and social contact. Here the social contact comes not from those around you, but through communication networks—from those who are away. If you were at the dining table with your family but kept texting your friends, then you would be in this kind of solitude. You were not communicating with the people who were physically around you (abstracted solitude) but were communicating, through the internet, with those who were away (networked solitude). 

The opposite of being in solitude is to be in company. It is a combination of physical and social contact. Unlike in abstracted-networked solitude, here the social contact comes from those who are physically present. If you were talking to your lover over coffee, then you would be in company. 

I owe the concepts ‘physical solitude’ (which I call ‘pure solitude’), ‘abstracted solitude’, and ‘networked solitude’ to the historian David Vincent (A History of Solitude).[3]

As an everyday experience, we all happen to find ourselves alone for brief periods. Vincent—quoting the poet Abraham Cowley—calls these periods ‘little intervals of accidental solitude’.[4] Then there are the longer, deliberate periods of solitude.[5] 

At any given moment, you are either in a period of company; in a period of solitude, however little or long; or sleeping.


But what about sleeping alone? Doesn’t that count as a period of solitude?

In my opinion, no.[6] When you are asleep, you have no conscious experiences. Neither is the person sleeping alone in solitude nor is the person sleeping next to someone in company. I think of sleep as a neutral period—separate from periods of solitude and company.

Since everyone needs sleep, a period of solitude cannot go on for weeks or months, much less for years.[7] Even if you lived alone in the middle of nowhere your entire life, your solitude would still be punctuated by neutral periods.


How much time you spend in solitude, in company, and sleeping can be shown on a graph. As you would constantly slip into and out of these different types of periods, such a graph would be difficult to make.

It would be easy to make a simplified version, however, by regarding only the outline of how you spend your time.

Consider a very brief description of a day in the life of Mr Samsa:

At 7 A.M., Mr Samsa wakes up in his flat, where he lives alone.

At 9 A.M., he reaches the shop where he works as a cloth salesman. Except for two moments of accidental solitude, he spends his entire workday talking to his customers.

At 6 P.M., Mr Samsa reaches home. At 8 P.M., he has a short interaction with the person who comes to deliver his dinner.

He goes to bed at 11 P.M.


While solitude is an amorphous concept, periods of solitude are definite. Each such period has a duration and, taken together, they will have a frequency with which they occur. 

Moreover, periods of solitude can quantify your solitariness, or reclusivity. The formula is simple:[8] 

Reclusivity Formula

You can imagine a continuum with perfect sociality on one end and perfect reclusivity on the other. As everybody experiences at least accidental solitude, everybody would have a reclusivity score. It is this score that determines where you fall on the sociality-reclusivity continuum. 

Reclusivity Continuum

The psychologist Jerry Burger was the first to observe that people vary in their ‘preference for solitude’ along a continuum (Individual Differences in Preference for Solitude).

Burger even designed a questionnaire to measure this preference.


If you experience long, frequent periods of solitude, then your reclusivity score would be high. You would be placed towards the ‘perfect reclusivity’ end of the continuum and be called a recluse

The focus of this article is on recluses.

Furthermore, you may be a recluse in some phases of your life, but not in others. A person who has spent his entire adult life as a recluse is rare.[9]

By a ‘phase of life’, I mean a collection of consecutive periods—periods of solitude, periods of company, and neutral periods—where your reclusivity score is, more or less, stable. For example, your years in college might have been such a phase, where there was a particular pattern to your days.

A phase of life where you were a recluse is an overperiod.[10] For example, the months under the lockdown for COVID-19 may have been an overperiod for you.  

An overperiod can be identified using a long-term status graph—like the one for Mr Samsa, only this one would cover years of his life.[11]

I started with the objective reality of whether, at a given moment, you have physical and social contact. Over this foundation, I’ve built several conceptual layers—layers of abstraction.  

There is also the question of volition: Are you a voluntary recluse or an involuntary one? 

You may be forced to become a recluse by unfortunate circumstances. Perhaps, you lived through a long lockdown or you ran away from society, fearing your enemies and creditors. Maybe the penal system placed you in solitary confinement. Such circumstances would make you an involuntary recluse.  

To further refine my focus, I will concentrate on voluntary recluses, i.e., people who have chosen to lead solitary lives. 

Loneliness

The concept of solitude overlaps with that of loneliness.

Are voluntary recluses more lonely than sociable people? I don’t think so. Just like most sociable people, voluntary recluses may experience transient loneliness. They wouldn’t, however, experience persistent (chronic) loneliness. 

Chronic loneliness is the result of either chronically insufficient sociality or chronically poor sociality.

Chronically insufficient sociality is a pattern where you often spend less time in company than you would like. In technical terms—you want your reclusivity score to be less than what it actually is. Insufficient sociality is a problem of quantity.

Chronically poor sociality is a pattern where you are surrounded by unfulfilling relationships. The psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver explain, 

These deficiencies are not only quantitative, such as few friends or infrequent social activities, but are also indicative of poor-quality relationships in which people feel a lack of intimacy and emotional closeness as well as feel unloved, unaccepted, not sufficiently cared for, misunderstood, or unvalidated by a relationship partner. In fact, a person can feel lonely while being in a close relationship with a cool, rejecting, inconsistent, or unavailable partner (The Handbook of Solitude).[12]

Poor sociality is a problem of quality. 


The problems of sociality are subjective: Spending my days meditating in a cave may be insufficient sociality for me, but not for the hermit. Similarly, what I call a loving relationship may be what you call a suffocating one.


A voluntary recluse cannot have chronically insufficient sociality. It is logically inconsistent to say that you choose to be a recluse and, at the same time, routinely desire greater sociality. 

An involuntary recluse, of course, can have chronically insufficient sociality. Still, it isn’t necessarily so—you may find a way to adapt to your forced reclusivity.

Even a sociable person can have chronically insufficient sociality. Your reclusivity score may not be high enough to make you a recluse, but it may still be higher than what you, personally, desire.    

Voluntary and involuntary recluses cannot have chronically poor sociality. As these two groups have scarce sociality to begin with, the question of its quality is inapplicable. You can’t measure the quality of something that isn’t there!

A sociable person can certainly have chronically poor sociality. All you would need is unsatisfactory relationships. 

Sociality-Loneliness

It is clear that for voluntary recluses—the focus of this article— loneliness is not a prominent emotion. 

Introversion

The concept of solitude overlaps with that of introversion too. 

Introversion is a collection of behavioural patterns (facets) that are often found together in an individual.

The definitive list of facets for the extroversion-introversion continuum comes from the psychologists Paul Costa Jr and Robert McCrae. They have identified five facets: warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, and positive emotions. (These facets are defined from the perspective of extroversion—an introvert is expected to display the inverse of them.)

Although it seems intuitive that introverts would prefer solitude, it’s not on the Costa-McCrae list. Other psychologists, however, have identified additional facets. 

The psychologist John Zelenski and his team have reviewed the scientific papers that link solitude to introversion (The Handbook). They conclude, ‘A primary conceptual characteristic of introversion is increased experience of solitude’. 

In other words, reclusivity is, in fact, a facet of introversion.[13] An introvert, therefore, would tend to be reclusive. 

Whenever introversion is discussed, the discussion is always about moderate introversion.[14] Maybe making new friends is an effort for you, while it comes naturally to your sister, for example. 

This article, on the other hand, is about extreme introversion—with the focus exclusively on its facet of reclusivity. 

Into The Wild

I will now put these concepts to use by analysing a famous overperiod. 

Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild tells the story of the solitary misadventure of Christopher McCandless. The author’s note for the book starts with this paragraph: 

In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

McCandless had no physical contact, as he didn’t meet a single person during his time in the Alaskan wilderness. He also had no social contact. (He had books with him, however.) 

The type of solitude he experienced, therefore, was ‘pure solitude’.

Assuming that during the overperiod McCandless slept once a day, for an eight-hour stretch—the duration of his periods of solitude would be sixteen hours. The frequency of his periods of solitude would be ‘once a day’. 

As McCandless spent all of his waking hours in solitude—interrupted only by periods of sleep—his reclusivity score would be a hundred per cent.    

The overperiod lasted for four months. 

McCandless chose, of his own free will, to go into the wilderness. That makes him a voluntary recluse, with a high preference for solitude. 


At some point, however, the wilderness became a prison for McCandless, making him an involuntary recluse. ‘Too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild’, he writes in his diary, according to the book. In another entry, he mentions he is lonely.


Was McCandless an introvert? I think so. In the book, his sister describes him: 

‘Even when we were little,’ says Carine, who was born three years after Chris, ‘he was very to himself. He wasn’t antisocial—he always had friends, and everybody liked him—but he could go off and entertain himself for hours. He didn’t seem to need toys or friends.’

Misconceptions

When it comes to the concept of solitude, misconceptions abound. 

To begin with, alone is an imprecise word. It can mean you are alone as an individual. It can also mean you are alone as a group—’At last, we’re alone together!’[15]

Solitude is a precise word. It means you are alone as an individual.

It follows that a couple living off-grid is not necessarily reclusive. They are, indeed, isolated from mainstream society, but they may well be spending all of their waking time in each other’s company. 

The same applies to a group of monks living together in a monastery. (The question to ask: Does their religious practice emphasise community life within the monastery or solitary prayer in individual cells?)

Additionally, living alone doesn’t necessarily make you a recluse, especially if you spend most of your waking time at the office, interacting with your colleagues. The same goes for being romantically single. 

Finally, when considering solitude, only contact with members of your species counts. Biologists have this handy term that means ‘members of your own species’: conspecifics. The time spent with a pet, therefore, would count as a period of solitude, if there were no conspecifics around.

A dog may relieve your feeling of loneliness, but how you feel makes no difference to the question of solitude. 

Solitude is an objective fact, unrelated to your emotions. In that sense, solitude is fundamentally distinct from loneliness—which is wholly emotional. Loneliness exists inside your head; it’s a state of mind. Solitude exists outside you; you are in solitude.     

Conclusion

‘Solitude is not something that happens, it is a place where different types of experiences may occur’, observe the psychologists James Averill and Louise Sundararajan (The Handbook). 

Solitude, then, is a container. What I have done is analyse it.[16]

Notes

The featured image for this article, which shows when shared on social media, is a photograph of Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The photograph was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and, then, cropped.


1. Experiencing pure solitude indoors is easy. Just sit alone in your room and don’t use your phone to chat or make calls. Experiencing pure solitude outdoors is tough. You would need to find a place outdoors where you won’t even see anyone else (and not use your phone to chat or make calls).^

2. Imagine sitting alone in your room. You aren’t using your phone, yet you hear the bustle of the busy street outside. That would be abstracted solitude.^

3. The definitions of ‘pure solitude’, ‘abstracted solitude’, and ‘networked solitude’—based on the dimensions of contact—are my own.^ 

4. To experience a little interval of accidental solitude, all you would need to do is visit the washroom.^

5. Long periods of solitude may contain little periods of accidental company within them.^

6. My thanks to Larson for sharing his opinion, over email, with me on the classification of sleep as a neutral period.^

7. Some trivia: Wikipedia mentions that Randy Gardner holds the record for staying awake the longest—11 days, 25 minutes.^

8. The same formula can be expressed in a way that shows how the duration and frequency of your periods of solitude determine your reclusivity score.

Reclusivity Score_Alt

^

9. I have four separate points to make here:

First, an infant certainly can’t survive as a recluse.

Second, there have been rare instances of individuals who have spent their early childhoods in perfect reclusivity. The effects of being such a feral child are devastating.

Third, solitude is experienced differently in the various stages of life. These differences are examined in ‘Part II’ of The Handbook of Solitude: ‘Solitude Across the Lifespan’.

Fourth, the focus of my article is on non-elderly adults.^

10. Overperiod is a freshly minted word, which you won’t find in the dictionary.^

11. I understand it would be near impossible for a researcher to make long-term status graphs.^

12. I will refer to The Handbook of Solitude simply as ‘The Handbook’ from now on.^

13. If reclusivity were a facet of introversion, then an individual’s reclusivity would be stable throughout his adult life—either he would be a recluse throughout or never at all. How, then, do you explain the occurrence of overperiods?

Technically, it is your ‘preference for solitude’ that is the facet, not your reclusivity.

Having said that, the difference between these two concepts is slight. While your preference for solitude is—as the name suggests—a preference, your reclusivity is the time you actually spend in solitude. (My thanks to Burger for highlighting this difference.)

The time you actually spend in solitude has as much to do with the practical demands of life as with your preference for solitude. Larson explains,

Within different periods of the life course the data also suggest variations in the amount of time spent alone as a function of people’s lifestyles, living situations, and the demands on their time. Adolescents who have jobs spend less time alone; adults who are married, have young children or hold higher status jobs spend less time alone; and older adults who are widowed, single, or live by themselves spend much more time alone.

Your preference for solitude, therefore, would remain stable throughout your adult life. On the other hand, your reclusivity score would fluctuate—possibly, leading to overperiods.^

14. I have an article on moderate introversion: ‘Why Are Some People Introverts?^

15. The sentence—’At last, we’re alone together!’—is from the Cambridge Dictionary. (I added the exclamation point.) ^

16. What I have neglected to do is analyse the contents that are usually found inside the container of solitude. I have also neglected to answer the question of whether solitude is good or bad for you.^