Some of the sense of impotence no doubt comes from, or is at least exacerbated by, physical and social isolation. These two things are not at all the same. It is an unfortunate habit of language usage that people and the media insist on speaking of “social” isolation or distancing to contain the pandemic, when that is (in fact) the very last thing people need to be practicing right now. People need to be practicing physical distancing, because it is physical contact – not social – whereby the virus is transmitted. Yet for many persons, especially among the elderly, social isolation is, and has been, their norm long before the pandemic erupted. There are numerous health issues associated with this condition – physical, mental, and emotional. I have witnessed this among family and friends, and now that I am of an age I’m seeing it with myself. It is not pretty.
There are obviously many possible overlaps between the physical and the social; so many, in fact, that when the question of self-quarantine and physical distancing came up specifically in response to the pandemic, people automatically conflated physical distancing with social distancing. But in the age of the internet, we ought all to have been smarter than to make such a mistake. For example, a great part of my social proximities revolve around D&D roll-playing games that, at this stage, are all occurring online. (One of them started in person. But – alas! – fate (actually COVID-19) intervened.)
Whitehead has a lot to say about how things become what they are by their relational integration with the world – not a lot to say about people, per se, and even less about psychology. But still, his logical and metaphysical analyses provide a solid foundation for interpreting the empirical facts of both common experience and scientific inquiry, and how the paring away of those relational connections delaminates our very existence. We internalize our relatedness to the world which then concresces as our self as “subject,” simultaneously expressing its-self in return to the world as “superject.” (Both these terms being technical one’s that Whitehead employed.) But when that relatedness gets cut away and limited, it is like a tree getting its tendril roots sliced away by a rototiller: eventually, the tree dies.
A lot has been written of late on the difference between solitude and loneliness, many of these items came out long before the COVID-19 pandemic. (A recent piece can be found HERE.) But with the enforced physical distancing mandated by the virus, the toll from social distancing has become an even greater problem. One aspect of that problem that people are only beginning to consider is, How do we see ourselves through to the other side of this thing? No small part of the degenerative ablation from loneliness is that loneliness NOW shows no signs of abating; it becomes an image of forever. I find that it is all but impossible to visualize the world on the far side of COVID-19, but that it is manifestly impossible to imagine the world will ever be like it once was. It’s like trying to hold your breath underwater, and then realizing you no longer know where the surface is, or if there even is a surface.
It is not seeing the other side that kills people. Loneliness kills because lonely people are convinced – perhaps with good reason – that there is no “other side.” A solitude that is a true solitude is not just reasonably endurable, but a genuine source of energy and enlightenment, because at its core it is a real choice. And even where the purity of choice is not entirely available, where the solitude instead becomes a confrontation with solitariness (not to be conflated with loneliness), this (according to Whitehead) is where we find our connection, if any, to the divine: “Religion,” Whitehead argued, “is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”i Such is not an approach that will appeal to many, for the abuses of religions have been legion and continue, it would seem, unending. This is one reason why Dewey distinguished between the “religious” (what many now call “spirtuality”) and the orthodox practice of institutional religion.
Regardless, having suffered through the great disruption of the First World Warii, even losing (as so many parents had) a son in that cataclysm, Whitehead did not dwell on personal, intellectual, or cultural upheavals, even in his one book (Adventures of Ideas) most singularly devoted to such things. One might, on this account, wonder if Whitehead’s philosophy can be of any service during a time of disruption such as ours. I believe that would be a mistake. Whitehead may not have had a soul that was built for hard times, but the aegis of his genius that he retreated behind still provides us with tools with which we may tackle and understand these upending tsunamis of events for ourselves.
For example, a disruption (such as COVID-19) is not a severing of our relational connectedness to the world. Rather, it is a (variously) radical redefinition of that connectedness. The density of those relations need not be diminished at all; indeed, they may be increased and intensified.iii In solitude – genuine solitude – those relations are also intensified, though the expression of them to the world (our superject) is, for the time at least, narrowed and focused ( which is one of the ways of achieving heightened intensity.)
But in loneliness, that intensification is dissipated, and begins petering out into a form of irrelevance, which is the ultimate form of death. Persons can be alone, yet feel intense and relevant both inward to their selves and outward toward world, perhaps even ruing the absence of company along the way, yet for all of that still solidly centered in their solitude, ultimately not suffering under the lash of loneliness.
So, one last, lonely thought: It is this capacity for application in unexpected contexts that makes Whitehead’s speculative philosophy a topic to be valued and studied.
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iiWhitehead actually lived to see the end of WWII, so he also lived through the disruption of the Great Depression. But by the time that war started, he was no longer writing, while his last major work (Modes of Thought), written during the depression, offers a calm analysis of its stated topic, and offers no meditations on the dismaying economic shocks of the day.
iii“Intensity” is, in fact, a technical Whiteheadian term. Judith Jones has written the definitive work on the subject: Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology, Vanderbilt University Press; 1998.