gallagher on loneliness

Shaun Gallagher

In a new paper Shaun Gallagher takes issue with the very concept of such loneliness as is putatively existential - i.e. an ineliminable, defining, aspect of our being. Against this he pits not only Heidegger's Mitsein but also Trevarthen's primary intersubjectivity. Along the way Frieda Fromm-Reichmann's conception of paper Loneliness receives a psychological critique. Gallagher's principal conclusion seems sound to me, but I'm dissatisfied with some of the steps he took to get there, so thought to write a little about it here.

The high priests of existential loneliness, as far as I know, are Levinas, Jaspers, Booth, Mijuskovic and Moustakas. Jaspers (The Individual and Solitude p. 189) has it thus:

to be an “I” means to be solitary

Levinas (Time & The Other p. 42) makes similar noises:

It is banal to say that we never exist in the singular. We are surrounded by beings and things with which we maintain relationships. Through sight, touch, sympathy and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive: I touch an object, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relationship. One can exchange everything between beings except existing. In this sense, to be is to be isolated by existing. Inasmuch as I am, I am a monad. [I offered a critique of this here]

 Moustakas (Loneliness, p. ix) ramps it up even further:

ultimately, in every fibre of his being, man is alone - terribly, utterly, alone.

Against these authors we may contrast Heidegger who (Being & Time p. 156) writes:

The Other can be missing only in and for a Being- with. Being-alone is a deficient mode of Being-with... 
To be fair, Jaspers, whilst not stressing the ontological priority of Mitsein, also ends up not entirely in the existential loneliness camp since for him (
Philosophy, vol 2, p. 14), solitude and being-with are equiprimordial:
Solitude and communication; neither one of which is objectively what it
can be existentially. Objectively, communication is merely the relationship of interchangeable subjects who understand each other, and solitude merely the isolation of an atomized individual. Objectively there is either one or the other; existentially, both are in one.

Like I said, against the notion of existential loneliness, Gallagher offers us Heidegger's Mitsein and Trevarthen's primary intersubjectivity. But what's his actual argument? It boils down to this:

you cannot have it both ways, i.e. posit both an a priori transcendental condition of being-with, which specifies a deep interpersonal structure to human existence, and a transcendental existential loneliness that specifies the opposite, and treat these as in some way equiprimordial. It seems a theoretical contradiction... At best one could say, as Heidegger does, that one is derivative (or a deficient mode)...

Well, that seems fair enough to me - but where's the actual argument? Well... we don't get one. What we instead get is a description of primary intersubjectivity - i.e. of the fact that, from birth, we are attuned and responsive to the gestures, movements, expressions, intonations etc. of others. But it's surely not too hard to imagine an existential loneliness pundit saying "Yes of course, I know about all that! But surely that's just empirical psychology! I however am trying to give you existentialia!"

As I see it, in order to effect a satisfactory critique of the existential loneliness pundit one first has to understand why he wants to say what he says. This will help one understand what (he thinks) he's getting at, and give one a chance to say what's wrong with the philosophical or psychological motivation underlying the making of the claim. (Gallagher doesn't do this, and it's what makes his paper somewhat unsatisfactory to me.) Why is it, for example, that people are apt to say "You're born alone and die alone" when, well, I'm pretty sure (how about you?) that my mum was there at my birth, and that one of the utterly contingent tragedies of our recent covid-19 lockdown policies was that many people were forced to die alone rather than surrounded by loved ones? Clearly these aren't the kinds of things that the high priests of ontological solitude are agitated by. Instead, I suspect, they are driven by such concerns as:

i) Although primordial intentionality inexorably relates us to a world including to others, we must always, to be brought into relation with others, thereby also be separated off from them. The underlying (and surely correct) hunch here is that identity is not a relation.

ii) There are decisions that must be faced in life which, if you are to retain your human dignity, must be taken alone. Even if you decide to make a decision with someone else, that first decision - to make the second decision together with someone - must itself be taken alone.

iii) If we think of birth and death as a matter of shifting between different states of being, we might also think of this as rather like moving through a door from one room to another within the house of Being. And that journey - the thought is - can only be undertaken alone.

Against these I'd suggest:

i) It is indeed correct that, as we may put it, relationship individuates. But it isn't very helpful - or: it is unhelpfully hyperbolic - to articulate this individuation in terms of loneliness or solitude. Relational individuation is a condition of possibility of being - full stop; loneliness and solitude, as ordinarily understood, are intelligible only as modes of intrinsically relational being.

ii) We make lots of decisions together without deciding to decide thus. Even getting a divorce can be a joint endeavour! It's true that we may sometimes have to step up and be the locus where the buck of responsibility stops. The hero's journey is in particular one of stepping up fully into a silverbackesque form of self-determination. There might (?) be something especially Western about all that. But whilst we can if we wish go all Caspar David Friedrich and stress this solo aspect of our lives, we might equally well stress the virtues of cooperation, mutuality, joint decision-making, dependency, faith, etc. It's ... not necessary ... to engage in such mood-painting; the profundity of the heroic existential journey shouldn't be mistaken for depth of ontological insight.

iii) We could picture life and death as different states of being, and of transitions between them as journeys. But we could also - and might even do better to - picture death as a state of non-being, and so also be happy to drop the journey metaphor. Now the matter of whether we are or aren't accompanied can devolve back to an ontical rather than ontological matter. Well, it can at the end of life; at the beginning it's kinda analytic, at least until we employ artificial wombs, that your mum's there.  

My own (psychological, ad hominemesque) view, for what it's worth, is that existential loneliness pundits were probably rather lonely people who existentialised their personal predicament and foisted it on the rest of us as an existentiale. Well, you can take or leave that! But a psychological matter on which I would like to elaborate - because I think it unfair - is Gallagher's treatment of Fromm-Reichmann.

As Gallagher notes, Fromm-Reichmann doesn't mention existential loneliness. One might think, then, that she's simply no prophet of it. The conclusion appears compelling to me because the deep deep loneliness of which she writes - what I call 'loneliness beyond loneliness' - is seen not as any kind of basic setting of any human life, but instead as the tragic plight of those unfortunate souls who she and (if I recall correctly) her colleague Harry Stack Sullivan called 'the lonely ones'. These inpatients at Chestnut Lodge, note, suffered severe borderline and psychotic illnesses. To this degree they're not to be taken as paradigms of the human condition; they may be 'more simply human than otherwise' but, in their loneliness at least, they're stepping out of a human conversation which many of us happily remain within. But no, Gallagher says that her description of profound loneliness nevertheless 'comes close to how [existential loneliness] is characterised. Specifically, a default incommunicability is part of that description since the experience of existential loneliness is said to involve a non conceptual experience of nothing... An alternative explanation, however, is that silence about loneliness may be due to cultural/normative stigma'. To make this point vivid, Gallagher cites the experience of two depressed individuals who talked of how they experienced stigma and social anxiety regarding talking to others especially about their loneliness. 

In my view, Gallagher has here simply missed the clinical music. It's not that Fromm-Reichmann is writing about 'clinical loneliness' and that 'clinical loneliness' is whatever loneliness is experienced by whosoever becomes a clinician's patient or by whoever is given a clinical diagnosis. Nor, I suspect, did the schizophrenic patients she worked with suffer either from a difficulty of ordinary loneliness except ramped up to a higher degree or from stigma. No, these poor souls instead had so fallen into their loneliness that it had become for them a total condition, rather than a feeling that could be isolated or commented on. They have as it were become icons of loneliness; they've become loneliness itself. It cannot be thought about or consciously felt by them because it's not a trickle of lonely water running through them; instead the crystalline structure of lonely ice has frozen over their entire form. Just as a delusional patient cannot have insight into their delusion unless they begin to relinquish it, so too can a sufferer from loneliness-beyond-loneliness only begin to talk of loneliness when their capacity to think and feel, so disabled by their struggles to tolerate intersubjectivity whilst remaining self-same, have come back online. This is, psychologically speaking, a far deeper concern than that of which Gallagher writes. Even so it's hardly so deep as to characterise Dasein itself! In fact, I'd say, and against the romantic proclamations of psychotic seers, psychotic life is one of Dasein's paradigmatic deficient modes.


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