by Julian Stern
Personalism is relational. It is – to a significant degree – a reaction against the non-relational, whether that is the somewhat solipsistic philosophies of Descartes or Wittgenstein, or the pretended neutrality and ‘view from nowhere’ philosophies of rationalism. I am relational too (even if some of my relations may beg to differ), and have worked for many years in education – in schools and universities – trying to understand relationships, dialogue, and community. To be included, and to feel included, in a community is important to educational institutions.
That is why I was surprised when a young child, when asked when he felt most included in school, said that it was when he was left alone, to work on his own.
I spent years, after hearing that remark, trying to understand how a personalist like me – a relational, dialogic, communal philosopher – could explain solitude. I came up with two related answers. One is that, when in solitude, most of us are in relationships. If we are sitting reading a novel, we are in relationships with the characters in the novel; if we are wandering through the Lake District, we are in relationships with nature (daffodils, anyone?); if we are – continuing the Romantic theme – sitting quietly in a graveyard, we are in relationships with dead people, the people we miss, perhaps. And in all of these activities, we may also be thinking about ourselves, in relationship with ourselves.
The second answer is that at some point, in solitude, we may end up in a state where we are not thinking about others, we are not thinking about ourselves, we are just ‘being’, in enstasy. Enstasy is the opposite of ecstasy: enstasy means being comfortable within yourself, whilst ecstasy means transcending yourself. There are forms of yoga described as ‘enstatic’ yoga, but actors and athletes will experience something like this when they get ‘in the zone’ before a big performance, soldiers may experience something like this before battle. Children – yes, I asked children – say they experience enstasy most often after something: the day after their birthday, the moments after they finish a lot of homework.
Without the relational solitude, we forget – and feel cut off – from people who are dead, from nature, from ourselves. Without the enstatic solitude, we forget that we also simply exist, we are, we are of a universe.
Personalism is relational. If it is to involve relationships with the distant, the dead, the far-away, then it needs relational solitude. If it is to involve a sense of existing, then it needs enstatic solitude. So personalism is indeed relational, and therefore needs its solitude. Me too. The alternative, I think, is a form of suffering called ‘loneliness’. When personalism misses solitude, it helps create loneliness, and there are some personalists who – like me – spent so much time talking about relationships, dialogue and community, that they simply missed solitude. That’s what I’ve written about in my chapter in Looking at the Sun.