The historians taught us long ago that the King was never left alone. But, in fact, until the end of the seventeeth century, nobody was ever left alone. The density of social life made isolation virtually impossible, and people who managed to shut themselves up in a room for some time were regarded as exceptional characters: relations between peers, relations between people of the same class but dependent on one another, relations between masters and servants – these everyday relations never left a man by himself.
I originally came across this passage by the historian Philip Aries quoted in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self a few years ago and it’s something my mind has intermittently gone back to. What effect has the possibility of solitude had on the form human interiority takes?
I think it was a necessary though insufficient condition for the widespread development of autonomous reflexivity: monological decision-making with practical criteria about achieving one’s ends. In any particular situation where an individual is alone, their solitude acts as an enablement for the practice of purely internal deliberation. Conversely the omnipresence of others serves to constrain such practice, with the constant possibility of interruption and concomitant attempts to draw the individual into dialogical decision making.
Solitude represents the possibility of escape from social normativity. In its facilitation of purely internal decision-making, it allows possibilities to be voiced which would meet conversational sanction with others and frees the individual from the need to articulate their deliberations in terms which are conversationally and socially acceptable. Lack of solitude doesn’t prevent this process but it makes it much more difficult. Furthermore, the kinds of internal conversations which take place in solitude tend to have different properties to those which don’t. They’re easier to sustain at length without the risk of interruption. Physical aloneness can often lead to an easing of social concerns. Their greater possible duration creates more opportunities for internal discernment and deliberative experimentation. I suspect that until much of the population was having these experiences on a semi-regular basis, it was not possible for autonomous reflexivity to develop in a widespread way. Monological deliberation may have been practiced but it was the exception rather than the rule: both in terms of how often people did it (much less) and what they did it about (practical concerns).
The development of monological deliberation is an iterative process. As progressively more deliberation takes place in a silent and internal way, greater difficulty is faced in the practice of dialogical deliberation. It takes a very real act of translation to articulate inner speech to external others. Our inner speech is more contracted, we use language idiosyncratically, it has non-linguistic components (images, feelings) and draws on tacit understandings which may not be shared. Furthermore, this increases with practice. So the more we practice monological deliberation, the more difficulty we experience in extending our deliberations to include external others. It renders the interface between external and internal speech at least potentially conversationally problematic in all situations.
Once a certain qualitative threshold of monological deliberation has been reached (the individual has begun making rudimentary life choices in a way which is conversationally insulated from the standards of her ‘similars and familiars’) then all situations possibly require an act of translation between the internal and the external: conveying decisions made using internal standards to external others who might not share those standards. This changes the experiential texture of social life and gives the individual’s interiority a feeling of irreducibility which would otherwise be lacking. The interface between the internal and the external comes to the fore and neither is experienced as even potentially dispensable. Once autonomous reflexivity ‘takes hold’ in the internal life of an individual, it largely becomes self-sustaining and permits of no return. The individual might lack the social, culture or personal resources to practice autonomous reflexivity effectively (i.e. their practice is impeded) but this doesn’t entail a return to their pre-autonomous mode. Indeed the stress and uncertainty seems likely only to amplify their internal deliberations both quantitatively and qualitatively. Solitude changes everything.