Koch, Philip. Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter.
Chicago, Open Court, 1994.

Philip Koch writes about solitude as a professor of philosophy, but from heart-felt experience with versions of solitude in his personal life.

The book of nearly four-hundred pages is neatly divided into two parts: 1) the nature of solitude, and 2) evaluating solitude.

Koch applies a vigorous logic to the task of definition, distinction, and description of solitude. He writes for a popular audience as much as a well-read audience, so that he never leaves any angle dry and lifeless. All the disciplines are used -- from sociology to psychology, from literature to the study of cultures -- with generous selections from writers ancient and modern.

The book is an enormous accomplishment welcome to anyone interested in exploring solitude in creative minds and in the logic and behavior of their own personal efforts.

Any quibbles? Perhaps that the classroom teacher shows through the detail of each chapter: some pages are but blocks of two or three paragraphs. Likewise, the author produces example after example long after he has won us over.  Some readers will appreciate the subjective voice inserted throughout the book. Others may find the run from formal philosophers to poets to individuals with a journal not focused enough or see the book as too lengthy and therefore intimidating. Browsing the generous quotations is a pleasure, though, and may be the best way to ease into the complexities Koch addresses.

What follows are the table of contents and a few comments.

  1. Introduction.
    Part I. The Nature of Solitude.
      1. Dimensions.
      2. Near Relations: Loneliness, Isolation, Privacy, Alienation.
      3. Disengagement.
      4. Engaged Disengagement.
      5. The Symmetry of Engagement and Disengagement.
      6. Images of Solitude.
  2. Part II. Evaluating Solitude.
      7. The Virtues of Solitude.
      8. The Completions of Encounter.
      9. The Place of Solitude: The Arguments a priori.
    10. The Place of Solitude: Arguments from Experience.
    11. Objections to Solitude: Some History.
    12. Objections to Solitude: Responses.
    13. Women and Solitude.
    14. A Universal Virtue?


Koch asks the essential question about solitude on behalf of all of us:

Should I, as the days pile into years around me, move ever closer to other people, giving now out of the rich stores of past solitudes? Or should I quietly, unobtrusively, head out westward through the Han-ku pass [like Lao-tzu]?

1. Three conditions are considered necessary to solitude: 1) physical isolation, 2) social disengagement, and 3) reflectiveness. Koch concludes that the second factor is the only essential one. Social disengagement freely chosen is constructed by the person. It is a consciousness of time's passage within a subjective or what Koch calls "attentive" state. From this state, the other characteristics (isolation, or a sense of it, and reflectiveness) grow.

2. This chapter summons philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to make important distinctions. Loneliness is not only an emotion but a "structure of belief and evaluation." Loneliness is perhaps the opposite of solitude, as in Thoreau's statement about Walden: "I never feel lonely here." As one philosopher puts it: "Loneliness is the unpleasant feeling of longing for some kind of human interaction."

Isolation is a physical separation from others. Privacy is the sense that no unwanted observers have access to your rightfully reserved thoughts and actions. Neither constitutes solitude, where disengagement is key.

 Alienation is a rich concept originating in Hegel and extrapolated by Marx and the existentialists. Koch distinguishes alienation from solitude in the former being unpleasant and involving a "consciousness of other" that solitude does not. Finally, then, one can conclude that solitude is "the state in which experience is disengaged from other people."

3. Disengagement, then, is the essence of solitude. Koch offers a story of interrelations between fictional characters plus excerpts of famous poets and novelists to explore disengagement.

4. Three ways in which disengagement is made active and conscious are discussed: 1) common objects as reservoirs for feelings and perceptions, 2) personification of actions into metaphors for human activity, which is what we do in anthropomorphizing and attaching feelings and perceptions to objects, and 3) containment, wherein disengagement has a clear and conscious boundary, such as in a forest or anchorhold.

5. The counterpart to the three elements in chapter 4 are: 1) mirroring, 2) objectification, and 3) autonomy.

6. This brief chapter assembles writings of philosophy and poetry that use images to represent abstract thoughts. The yin-yang circle is an appropriate symbol of solitude and encounter as a fluid harmony of opposites.

7. The virtues of solitude are enumerated: 1) freedom, 2) attunement to self, 3) attunement to nature, 4) a reflective perspective, and 5) creativity. A product of the virtues of solitude is serenity. This is an important chapter with significant observations.

8. This chapter elaborates on the virtues of solitude by identifying the fruit of the virtues as counterpart social virtues or capacities. For example, freedom of disengagement provides defining capacities for engagement, and so forth through the other virtues. We learn how to balance. Says Koch,

Without a certain balancing by free encounters, the freedom of solitude tends to sicken into the free fall of loneliness; without solitude, the self becomes stuck to its personae.

Though Koch does not put it this way, the diminution of the ego so necessary for civil encounter is one of the best fruits of disengagement, while also the best safeguard against loneliness, which in turn is a product of too much ego. This observation is one of the more important to make concerning solitude and its virtue.

9-11. Even before examining the components of solitude, many philosophers and writers are dismissive, as much as is the common person. Most people are uncomfortable with solitude because they judge it as loneliness and alienation, not as disengagement. The capacities of individuals, plus their age, maturity and cultural values are also factors in the popular assessment of solitude.

These chapters explore arguments of definition: metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, logical, psychological, historical.

12. In the style of the scholastic philosophers, Koch presents objections to solitude and refutations of the objections. This presentation is well done, a succinct summary of all the preceding material. The objections are:

  1. Solitude is unnatural, pathological, dangerous.
    Solitude is self-indulgent.
  2. Solitude is escapist.
  3. Solitude is antisocial.
  4. Solitude is evasive of social responsibility.

13. This chapter offers a brief history of the sociology of male dominance of women and a review of "strong" women and famous female recluses. It does not explore the femininity of solitude or what insight a female or yin perspective can offer to solitude. The chapter is an introduction to a topic well worth pursuit.

14. Koch touches on solitude in Native American and Chinese cultures; the latter is very brief and, of course, would merit several books.

To sum up: Among the strengths of Koch's book are his careful inspection of the logic of solitude, his extended discussion of social disengagement, his tackling of common objections to solitude, and the presentation of so many diverse sources in numerous quotations and selections.

For further pursuit, a short bibliography of essential readings and an extended bibliography plus footnotes are offered.