Is loneliness a contingent state?
You might think that loneliness is a contingent state: people feel lonely for a time or lonely in a place, and some people are constitutionally lonely, but most people are not lonely all the time and human life is not necessarily lonely. Not according to Ben Lazare Mijuskovic. He maintains that all such conditions are symptomatic of a loneliness that is “universal and necessary”. We need not be aware of it all the time, but it is always there, lurking in the background. Human life inevitably takes the form of a struggle against loneliness. We reach out to others in order to avoid sinking into complete isolation. However, although they might provide us with some degree of consolation and felt connection, our loneliness is something that can never be overcome.
The image of human life offered in this book is not an uplifting one: we are all nailed shut in our private coffins, frantically scratching at a corner in order to sustain a faint glimmer of light that will eventually be extinguished, if not by resignation to loneliness in life then by eventual death. What does this necessary loneliness consist of though, and why endorse such a view? According to Mijuskovic, loneliness is not principally about an inability or felt inability to relate to others. One reaches out to others because one is already lonely, only “after one has initially felt, acknowledged and understood the pervasive sense of isolation that haunts the human soul”. Our isolation is the inevitable consequence of a self-awareness that arises prior to and thus independently of intersubjective development. In order to elaborate and support this view, the first four chapters take us on a swift tour through the history of Western philosophy.
However, before this gets going, the first move is to insist that self-awareness is independent of interpersonal and social relations. We are told that infants “achieve self-consciousness before they are aware of the mother as a distinct consciousness”. The only evidence offered is that Harry Harlow’s motherless monkeys were self-conscious, given that they remained able to interact with inanimate objects and to survive. No argument is supplied for the claim that such abilities require self-consciousness, even if it is admitted that these animals were, in some way, “aware” of their surroundings. Mijuskovic states that the “self becomes self-aware of its distinction from a sphere of inanimate objects and only later from the mother as a distinct other self”. Yet it is unclear why one has to be “self-aware”, rather than simply “aware”. How did the “self-” creep in here? I am not sure what it is to be “self-aware” in the relevant sense or why socially-deprived monkeys should be regarded as self-aware in that sense. Although Mijuskovic does return to the topic of child development later in the book, such concerns are not, so far as I can see, satisfactorily addressed.