Thursday, May 24, 2012

Philosophy: Solitude And The New Age of Privacy

I wouldn’t call myself a “morning person” but I do like the way the day has a kind of endless feel when I get up with the sun.  This time of year the world around this little house is alive with the spring song of rushing brook water, birds, and that subtle sound of bloom rubbing against bloom that is quieted in winter.  So, I follow my cat’s lead and stretch into the day in response to the sounds of the outside waking up.  Click on NCPR, draw a dark roast, pour some granola, gather pen and paper, settle into a soft chair and begin.

It was on such a morning recently when a report came over NCPR that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had declared privacy was passé.  “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

And with this new normal now apparently upon me, my mind set to wondering about what this shift (real or imagined) means.  I don’t know about you, but privacy feels to me like one of those sacred spheres where solitude and quietude also reside.  To keep privacy is to preserve a mental perimeter as much as a physical one that holds us in part, apart from community and world.  John Stuart Mill would roll in his grave to hear that such ideas as this have become quaint.  He wrote,

“A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal.  Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.”

Mill was convinced that the preservation of humanity – literally our ability to conduct ourselves humanely – depended on a degree of privacy and solitude.  I happen to agree but I won’t make pleading arguments for a return to antiquity.  Those gestures invariably paint the past with nostalgia thick enough to elide complicated truths.  And in my experience, ghosts and the fantasies that attend them are dangerous subjects.  They are often compelling and seductive for their appearing either flawless, or hovering at a safe enough distance for their shortcomings to be mistaken for charm.

On the other hand without relying on old halcyon tropes of bygone days, sometimes it is right and courageous simply to walk away.  Time is an elusive mistress, but I believe we can reclaim lost space and begin to inhabit the world differently with a quiet mind that fosters a kind of spiritual revival.  Mill meant to say that claiming (or in our 21st century scenario, re-claiming) personal space is restorative, that we are repaired and literally mended back to our best selves in the act of being alone.  In this process the easy posture so blessedly common among the young may become familiar again, as before we were buffeted too long, and endured too much in the absence of privacy.

Photo credit:  Statesmen No. 141: Caricature of Mr. John Stewart Mill, March 29, 1873 from “Vanity Fair” (Courtesy The University of Virginia Library).

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay


I am an environmental philosopher with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry'. My academic background in philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities includes a BA, MA and PhD (ABD) anticipated in 2013.

My dissertation research titled Long Suffering: The Great Experiment for Humanity focuses on a series of related questions beginning with a thesis on the socio-historical and philosophical reasons for the absence of African American communities in the Adirondack Park, followed by a discussion around how this demographic reality might be corrected for the two-fold benefit of excluded communities and regional conservation initiatives.

As a resident Adirondack philosopher working for a college of science and forestry I am naturally devoted to understanding the regional intersections of nature, culture, science and ethics. I approach this work through projects with an interdisciplinary reach in collaboration with institutions and organizations throughout NYS. These projects include teaching philosophy for children in the primary and secondary schools, seminars in a range of topics for college students, workshops for government and non-government professionals in applied ethics, public lectures and symposia open to the general public and seminars in ethics and morality designed for prisoner populations in the Adirondacks.


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One Response

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Marianne,
    I would suggest that privacy and solitude can be had and maintained within a crowd. One could posses even if one were totally naked within a crowd of people fully clothed. It all depends upon your center.
    The question might be: why do you need to keep something private? If you truly posses something, no one can take it away.

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