Consciousness and Loneliness by Ben Mijuskovic

Mijuskovic Consciousness and Loneliness Cover Image

Consciousness and Loneliness: Theoria and Praxis

Series: Value Inquiry Book Series, Volume: 327, Cognitive Science


Loneliness Kindle Edition

Dr. Mijuskovic’s second edition of Loneliness is now available on Kindle at an amazing price of only $3.99. This is a must have for students of philosophy of mind, consciousness studies, 20th century literature and psychology.

See the review by Kerrin A. Jacobs Review of Loneliness on Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, and Benedetta Romano’s Review of Feeling Lonesome for more information about this work that masterfully weaves a tapestry of philosophical, psychological and literary aspects of the fundamental human condition.

Loneliness: In Harm’s Way*

In what follows, I wish to show four things: (a) that all human beings are innately, i.e. universally, necessarily, a priori lonely; (b) why this is so; (c) the consequences of loneliness; and (d) what can be done about it, its remedies.

The twin principles I propose to defend are that all we feel, think, say, and do occurs between two emotional and cognitive poles in human consciousness, between the solipsistic insularity of loneliness and the intentional desire to transcend it by attaining intimate attachments. The two terminals of consciousness constitute the dynamics of repulsion and attraction, which continually guide us through our passions, thoughts, and actions. After the biological drives for air, water, nourishment, sleep—and before sex—are met, the most insistent psychological need and motivational drive in human beings is to secure an intimate relation to other self-conscious creatures, whether animal, human, or divine. In effect, I wish to replace Freud’s principle of libidinal energy with the anxiety of isolation.

The first proof that the fear of loneliness is innate can be demonstrated by citing the writings of Margaret Ribble, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Rene Spitz, Ana Freud, Dorothy Burlingham, Margaret Mahler, and Harry Harlow’s experiments with young monkeys, who collectively show that without sufficient emotional nurturance, infants retreat back toward the womb and even death. Over half of the deaths of institutionalized children under the age of one in England during the First World War died (Ruch, 1953; Mijuskovic, 1991). It was originally called marasmus, hospitalism, or anaclitic depression (Spitz). It would be extremely important to learn precisely which children died—whether it was the ones who were nurtured for an extended period of some months by the mothers; or those who were removed from parental care immediately after birth. This could tell us the relative severity of the emotional damage and possibly a means of predicting later problems for the survivors.

At this early point it is helpful to interject the case of a “feral child” discovered in Florida in 2005. The story begins with a neighbor passing by a house one day and seeing an emaciated child staring blankly out of a window with broken glass, a child with hollow, vacant eyes staring beyond the observing woman unwilling or unable to make any eye contact with her. The concerned woman reported it to Child Protective Services and two police officers investigated and found a six-year-old girl, Danielle or Dani, living with her mother and two much older male siblings. She was extremely thin, seriously undernourished, covered with sores, wearing filthy diapers, and couldn’t speak. She was confined to a single room furnished with only a bed. She was immediately removed by the officers from parental custody, transported to a shelter, and soon thereafter placed for adoption. Two years later, she was adopted. Today, in 2015, she can barely talk, does not relate to people, and only tentatively responds to her adoptive father. The refrigerator has to be locked for otherwise she will eat everything in it. She remains severely emotionally impaired or “flat,” experiences fits of uncontrollable anger, and prefers to relate to objects instead of people (Tampa Bay Times, 2005, 2015).

The second proof is grounded in the consideration that no human being would ever wish to be immortal at the price of being the only self-conscious creature in a lifeless universe, condemned to exist eternally alone in the infinite expanses of space and time.

  Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs, 9:10). To be estranged from God is the ultimate terror.  Consider St. Augustine’s Prayer to the Lord: “Who will give me help so that I may rest in you? Who will give me help… so that I may forget my evils and embrace you, my one good? Have pity on me, so that I may speak. What am I myself to you, that you command me to love you, and grow angry and threaten me with mighty woes unless I do?” (Augustine, 1960). The ultimate woe, of course, is absolute and eternal loneliness, a perpetual estrangement from God.

Kant relates the story of a miserly man whose complete disdain and contempt for humanity earns him a visit from the Angel of Death, who tells him he is condemned to be transported to dwell eternally in the farthest and darkest reaches of the universe alone forever without any human or divine contact (Kant, 2011). It would be like being buried alive except his tomb would be the whole universe. We recall Sophocles’ Antigone, whose sentence is to be entombed alive for disobeying the laws of the State and whose fate is only avoided by her suicide. In my clinical practice, I had an anxiety client, who was brought to the clinic by his spouse, and spent the entire session crumpled in a corner. He described his panic attacks as being buried alive.

In Kierkegaard, Abraham’s fear of estrangement is directly related to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son. Through a leap of paradoxical faith, Abraham makes a religious choice to comply with God’s command. His act is beyond understanding; it defies reason, human compassion, and all comprehension; it must grasp a contradiction, namely that Isaac will be both saved and sacrificed. Now if we compare and contrast Abraham’s “leap of faith,” his religious decision, with Agamemnon’s ethical choice of sacrificing Iphigenia so the Greek fleet could sail to Troy, we see that we can understand Agamemnon; we know his motive; but who can comprehend Abraham? He cannot even tell Sarah what he intends to do; it is beyond human expression and language (Kierkegaard, 1974).

The fear of the Lord and being eternally abandoned is the beginning of human wisdom. In short, “We are lonely from the cradle to the grave and perhaps beyond” (Joseph Conrad, An Outcaste of the Islands). From the day we are born to the day we expire, we struggle to secure intimacy and escape from our lonely condition.

Loneliness intrinsically means a sense of separation. The opposite of separation is a sense of intimacy, belonging, or togetherness with another self-conscious agent beyond our self.

There are five developmental sources of human separation. First, there is the fetus’ biological ejection from the womb (object-object separation; Freud’s initial state of anxiety (Freud, 1960, 48; Mahler, 1975). Initially the “self” experiences something akin to an unbounded immediate “oceanic feeling,” an “undifferentiated oneness” (Freud, 1961a, 12). Similarly, William James in his Principles of Psychology (1950), describes the newborn infant as “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once feeling it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as a difference less, indiscriminate unity, a sensory amalgam of undifferentiated qualities, a fused confusion of kaleidoscopic sights and a mélange of cacophonic sounds. Long before James, however, Hegel had previously characterized the primordial dawn of incipient consciousness, in the Section of Sense-Certainty in the Phenomenology, in similar terms as a non-temporal “pure immediacy,” an indistinguishable unity of infantile awareness, of feelings and sensations devoid of any cognitive discrimination (Hegel, 1977).

The second stage occurs when the conscious subject emotionally and cognitively separates its self from the external world (subject-object separation=self-consciousness). This happens in Kant when the self actively distinguishes itself from a world of objects both transcendentally and empirically in the two Deductions of the categories (Kant, 1958; Mijuskovic, 2010, 2012, 2015). In order to be self-conscious, the self must be able to distinguish its self, separate its self from the world of objects. The subject-object relation is thus mutually constituted in self-consciousness as a synthetic a priori relation (see Chart). Similarly, in Freud, the infant transitions from the unbounded feeling of undifferentiated oneness by relating to his mother’s breast as an inanimate object. For instance, the baby in the crib reaches out to touch the moon only to realize it is not part of its self.


Further reflection tells us that the adult’s egofeeling cannot have been the same from the beginning. It must have gone through a process of development, which cannot, of course, be demonstrated but which admits of being constructed with a fair degree of probability. An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him.  He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time—among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast—and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way, there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object’, in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action (Freud, 1961, page 14).

Here again we may refer with profit to Dani’s—the feral child’s—obsession with certain objects, at the expense of forging human relationships,  as she possessively focuses on food alone. At this stage of a child’s development, loneliness is essentially intra-psychic. The child fears separation from desired objects. It is object-dependent. This may also provide us with a clue in regard to elderly hoarders, who anxiously fear being separated from their valued objects. Their relation is to things as opposed to persons.

Third, however, as the child develops, the loneliness becomes interpersonal. The narcissistic self/ego dialectically separates its self from the mother’s self/ego thus generating conflicts of resistance, assertion, and hostility between its self and an opposing “other self,” (self/ego versus other self/ego separation). Additionally, the breast is something the mother can dynamically offer or withhold at will from the child thus creating interpersonal struggles, generating in the child a vacillation between fear and anger versus security and intimacy. The mother demands compliance and the infant resists and seeks independence. For Hegel–as opposed to Kant–self-consciousness is a relation between two self-consciousnesses; it is a “fight to the death for recognition”; the child struggles for independence, freedom, assertion; it strives to dominate the consciousness of the other self. Powerful feelings of hostility and anxiety are inevitably generated (Hegel, 1977). Hegel is here borrowing from Hobbes’ description of human “life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; “a war of all against all” (Leviathan). This dynamic also serves later as the dialectical ground for Marx’s concept of alienation, for the worker’s sense of separation from nature, from his labor, from his product, and from his fellow man through competition for a living wage. As Marx describes it, man becomes stunted and deformed, dehumanized by machines that enslave him as well as an economic system which exploits him (Kojeve, 1969). Similarly, the desire for dominance is expressed in Nietzsche’s “will to power” principle as well as in Sartre’s phenomenological account of the inherent struggle between selves, each determined to assert his free existence over that of “the other.” In the “The Look” passage in Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes a man spying through a keyhole presumably viewing a lascivious scene in another room when he is suddenly caught from behind and transformed into a “thing,” the observer reducing him to an “unfree object,” the sort of despicable person who spies on others,  a “voyeur.” Hegel’s master-slave relation is central as well in Adler’s conception that each of us is born with an inferiority complex, which we desperately fight to overcome, to transcend throughout our lives.

Fourth, there is the inevitable frightening anticipation of a final separation from the rest of humanity by death. Likewise for Freud, death signals the natural cycle of “separation” and the return of the organic to the inorganic, to the lifeless, to the inanimate.

The fear of death in melancholia [i.e. loneliness] only admits of one explanation… [The ego] sees itself deserted by all protective forces and lets itself die. Here, moreover it is once again the same situation as that which first underlay the great anxiety-state of birth and the infantile anxiety-state of longing [i.e. loneliness] due to separation from the protective mother (Freud, 1960, page 48).

In Freud, the thanatological principle of death is intrinsically tied to aggression and self-destruction and eventually subtly transferred and sublimated into competition through sports. Let us not be misled that competitive sports are merely for physical health. Indeed, if one wishes to understand American society, one only needs to observe the National Football League. There are thirty-one losers and only one winner (Mijuskovic, 1992).

Fifth, psychosis is constituted as the self’s self-alienation from the world and other selves by an internalization of “the other” within so that one can control the loneliness from inside the self. Indeed, Hegel insists that we must first understand madness before we can comprehend sanity.

Man alone has the capacity of grasping himself in this complete abstraction [separation] of the ‘I’. This is why he has, so to speak, the privilege of folly and madness (Hegel, 1971; Berthold-Bond, 1995).

Conclusion: It is these painful separations that we need to address and circumvent in so far as we can in order to secure intimacy.

Most current researchers—materialists, empiricists, behaviorists, and neuroscientists—contend that loneliness is externally caused by environmental, cultural, and situational conditions, and even by chemical imbalances in the brain and therefore temporary, transient, and avoidable. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association christened the 1990’s as “the decade of the brain” ( see Diagram of the Brain). By contrast, I argue that loneliness is internally constituted—not externally caused—within consciousness by the innate activities and structures of (a) Kantian self-consciousness and (b) Husserlian intentionality and therefore it is universal and necessary i.e. a priori, permanent, and unavoidable.

The solitary self emotionally seeks a mutual affective and cognitive unification or attachment with another self-conscious being through intimacy. The self intrinsically desires to overcome its sense of solipsistic separation, isolation, alienation, and estrangement. When this fails, feelings, thoughts, and fantasies of hostility, anxiety and even murder and suicide inevitably follow in varying degrees of intensity. Thus the question becomes how to bridge the chasm between loneliness and intimacy; how to transcend the separation between insularity and attachment; how to establish a conduit between the negative and the positive poles outlined above.

One of the most important and ageless questions in the history of ideas and philosophy revolves around the issue “whether senseless matter can think?” It is grounded in what Plato calls the “Battle of the Gods against the Giants,” between the idealists and rationalists against the materialists and behaviorists (Plato, 1966; Cornford, 1964). It pits Plato against Democritus; Plotinus against Epicurus; Augustine and Aquinas against Skeptics and Atheists; Ficino against Valla; Descartes against Hobbes; Leibniz against Locke; Kant against Hume; Hegel against Marx; Bradley against Mill; Freud against Pavlov; and Husserl and Sartre against Russell and Ryle.

In order to understand the affective and cognitive roots of loneliness, we must first define the cluster of opposing principles between the two warring camps just cited, which consists of theories of reality and paradigms of consciousness. The first group represents materialism; mechanism; empiricism; phenomenalism; determinism; behaviorism; the neurosciences; and indeed the natural sciences in general, which contend that loneliness is caused by physical conditions as they focus on determinate quantitative, measurable factors.

By contrast, the second group includes dualism; idealism; rationalism; phenomenology; and existentialism and represents a humanistic approach to our sense of negative isolation and it argues that it is constituted by the innate activities and structures of consciousness as it unfolds, in contrast to the former set, in qualitative concepts and fluid descriptions.

In what follows, I wish to compare and contrast these two contrasting theoretical perspectives. The first constellation presents loneliness as due to external factors: Materialism assumes that all that exists is reducible to matter plus motion (Hobbes). (But what sense does it make to assert that the sun, moon, and stars would still shine if there were no sentient creatures in the universe?) Mechanism declares that everything can be explained through a chain of unbreakable causes. Determinism holds that everything is either connected by physical causes, psychological motives, or both (Hobbes again); not only is there is no freedom but we are and can be controlled by external forces (Orwell’s 1984). Empiricism argues that all we know is dependent on precedent sensations; that there is nothing in the mind, which is not first given in sensation and experience; the mind is like a blank tablet upon which experience writes (Aristotle, Locke). Phenomenalism, a species of empiricism,  proposes that all “realities,” including “space,” “time,” the “external world,” the “causal maxim,” the “self,” as well as every conscious state are merely appearances in the mind, contingent constructions of atomistic sense data; only mental particulars exist, simple sensations (nominalism). Behaviorism is the doctrine that everything is reducible to stimulus-response configurations, the “mind”=brain is like a computer that is programmed from without by external conditions. Neuroscience maintains that ultimate reality consists of electrons firing in the brain; consciousness is “linear”; the cause or motion is external and directed toward the passive, receptive brain. Therapy and treatment are conducted through “verbal contracts,” operant conditioning, and regimens of psychiatric medication. (Mijuskovic, 2012, 2015a, 2015b).

The result is that the collective doctrines cited above directly lead to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders’ artificial, arbitrary classification of symptoms and diagnoses. This materialist, behaviorist paradigm of “consciousness” is enthusiastically adopted by today’s neo-phrenologists and neuroscientists, researchers John Cacioppo, Paul and Patricia Churchland, et al., who transform and reduce “consciousness” into electrochemical impulses in the brain.

But it is one thing to say that we cannot think without a brain but quite a different matter to claim that the mind is completely reducible to, identical with, and/or explainable by brain motions alone. An electroencephalograph may indicate that the brain is thinking but it cannot tell us what “it” is thinking. Imagine for a moment that I am giving this as a lecture in another room in this building and all you see before you is a graph of my brain spikes and waves projected on a screen. How “meaningful” would that be? Meanings are not identical to sensations; a random collection of sensations is just that and no more; it is not a meaning. Neither are relations reducible to a cluster of fortuitous “associations of ideas” contingently connected by contiguity and resemblance and “causality” being translated by the imagination into a psychological “feeling of anticipation” (Hume).

The conclusion follows that together all these combined principles, models, and theories are unable to provide any meaningful account for (1) a substantial self/ego; (2) the activity of reflexive self-consciousness as actively circular, reflexive, unified; and/or (3) the active intentionality of consciousness as purposive.

The only possible locus of a permanent “self identity” in materialism is the vacuous, sterile concept of an individual’s DNA molecular composition.

Further, actual self-consciousness, in the guise of “introspection,” is not possible; the latter is simply and only a perception of sensations striking the brain; sensations per se, in and of themselves, qua sensations do not constitute (a) meanings or (b) a self. In this context, the doctrine of phenomenalism, namely that all we can “know,” i.e. be conscious of, or cognize, are sense-data, sense qualia, or appearances, leads to the unacceptable doctrine of the “unobserved observer,” the “unscanned scanner” (Hume 1955; Mijuskovic, 1976, 1984, 2015). But as Auguste Comte argues, the instrument of observation and the object of observation cannot be one and the same. The agent and the product must be distinct, separate. It is impossible to make a hammer with only a hammer. If all you have are sensations, then you must have some one to observe the sensations who is not a sensation.

In conclusion, the principles of passive perception (empiricism) versus active self-consciousnes (rationalism) are radically opposed. They are conflicting, irreconcilable paradigms, diametrically opposed concepts, which, by definition cannot be synthesized or combined.  

By contrast, Dualism holds that both inert matter and active minds exist (Plato, Descartes). Idealism maintains that all that exists is mental, mind-dependent, or spiritual (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel). Rationalism postulates innate activities and structures within self-consciousness; it assumes spontaneity, the mind creates and grasps meanings and relations from its own internal resources; some relations are both synthetic and a priori; (see Chart for a definition of synthetic a priori); and there is both an irretrievable subconscious and a retrievable unconscious; Intentionality is the principle that all consciousness is consciousness of or about something other than the “self”; it is grounded in the thesis that consciousness intends meanings and relations beyond, transcendent to the self; consciousness is meaning-intending and purposeful—not mechanical (Brentano, Husserl, Sartre; Mijuskovic, 1978). Therapy is grounded in insight, the reflexive ability of self-consciousness to inspect its own feelings, thoughts, motives, and purposes. Further, Intentionality is actively linear-–as opposed to behaviorism, which is passively linear—and the mind projects itself beyond and toward the “lived world.” Very different from science, humanism argues that the proper study of man is man himself rather than the motions of particles in space.

In the empiricist tradition, there is no real self. The “self” is just a loose, disunified “bundle of fleeting impressions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity”; there are only disunified perceptions (Hume’s criticism of “personal identity” as metaphysical in the Treatise, Hume, 1955). Further, for both Locke and Hume, in deep sleep and swoons the mind ceases to think and therefore to exist. This would entail that we are a different person each time we awake. And according to empiricism, of course, there can be no unconscious thoughts; it would amount to a contradiction in terms.

Interestingly and importantly enough, the single premise that the mind is both immaterial and active results in producing eight distinct conclusions in the history of ideas and philosophy: (1) the immortality of the rational soul; (2) the unity of self-consciousness; (3) continuous personal identity; (4) epistemological idealism; (5) the freedom of self-consciousness; (6) immanent time-consciousness (as opposed to the measure of motions of bodies through space); (7) the intrinsic nature of meanings and relations; and (8) the primacy of qualitative attributes prevailing over quantitative measurements (Mijuskovic, 1974, 1984, 2015).

This brings us to the theory of unconscious memories (Plotinus, Cudworth, and Leibniz) as distinct from subconscious, creative, generative processes. Originally in Plato, the immortality of the soul is connected to its immaterial essence or nature. It is considered to be simple, spatially unextended, and therefore indestructible, since it has no parts. Accordingly, as indicated above, it possesses the intrinsic properties of unity and continuity because it is always thinking: “The soul always thinks” (Plotinus, Enneads, IV. 3. 30. 1-17). Thus, in the rationalist tradition, we discover the unconscious seductively enough as grounded in the immortality, unity, continuity, and identity of the soul as early as Plotinus, Cudworth, and Leibniz (Mijuskovic, 2008-09). Freud’s version of the unconscious is therefore very similar to the one just outlined and it consists of repressed memories.

But German idealism posits a much deeper, subterranean subconscious sphere of irrational, spontaneous, creative volitions in the form of a “will” that is causeless; volitions that are purely unpredictable as they erupt from seemingly nowhere, from the hidden self. These active forces of consciousness go much deeper than the Freudian unconscious as they emanate from a subconscious realm, a sphere of primitive urges, wills, desires, and destructive impulses. This deepest level thus discloses a mysterious portal leading into the darker, sinister aspects of the subconscious mind. Philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche would mutually agree that below Freud’s unconscious, which is retrievable in principle, e. g., the multiple cities of Rome all existing simultaneously (Freud, 1961, page 17), there are unreachable activities that are intrinsically irretrievable, inaccessible. Freud’s unconscious is grounded in forgotten painful memories and his therapeutic measures are predicated on the ability to bring those traumatic experiences into explicit consciousness so they can be rationally dealt with.  But the hidden, occult, shadowy, intangible instinctual desires and forces of an irrational will defy any and all translations into recognizable human “motives” (Mijuskovic, 2015, Chapter Seven, “The Unconscious and the Subconscious”).

In Kant, the creative “productive imagination”—as distinct from the empirical, associative re-productive imagination—spontaneously generates the cognitive unity of self-consciousness but it can only be assumed  “hypothetically” (Critique of Pure Reason, A xvii, A 15=B 29). In other words, there are underlying, generative forces within consciousness itself that are necessary to bind, hold, and synthesize consciousness into a unity but these activities remain inaccessible to the conscious mind. Otherwise our sensations would roll away like tossed marbles on a floor. For how else is it that I know my sensations and thoughts are mine and not yours unless some previous act of which I am not aware has already taken place? How is this unity of consciousness achieved?

But Fichte, although following Kant, breaks new ground by stressing an affective, instinctual role—as opposed to Kant’s cognitive interestsarguing for a subconscious irrational, ungrounded will. In effect, this will, as conceived in idealism, is analogous to God’s creation of the world and each soul ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”

It is this [subconscious] neglected synthetic activity of the mind which constructs a unity from separate contrasts and thus preserves a unity linking both ego and non-ego; it is this alone which makes possible consciousness and above all as a continuous temporal sequence [i.e. for both the unity of self-consciousness and immanent time-consciousness in the two Deductions] (Whyte, 1978).


Fichte opens up a sequence of philosophers: Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, who developed the conception of the [subconscious] mind as a dynamic principle underlying conscious reason. For Fichte the light of consciousness emerges out of the dark of the [subconscious; so Plotinus]. The unconscious processes of the mind had previously been considered by philosophers to be mainly concerned with memory and perception; now they became unmistakably the seat of instinct and will…The apperceptive [self-conscious] faculty of the mind is an activity which contains the ultimate basis of consciousness but never itself comes to consciousness” (ibid.).

Just as Freud’s unconscious Id grounds the continuity of the ego, of personal identity, just so these dark forces of the subconscious constitute the ultimate nucleus of selfhood, of the narcissistic self, as it grounds an identity which is impermeable to rational penetration. Therefore, , within the German idealist tradition, there are (a) subterranean powers that are subconsciously generative not only in regard to cognitive consciousness, as in Kant’s concept of the Categories of the Understanding, but also (b) there are activities producing dark and dangerous emotions, whose ultimate sources are inaccessible, deeply hidden, and unknowable in principle. These affective, emotional, uncontrollable, irrational instincts, urges, and destructive forces can only be indirectly suggested in literature, as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Gide’s The Immoralist, Golding’s Pincher Martin and Lord of the Flies, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, and Jung’s Shadow Self (Mijuskovic, 1979). Their original literary expressions first appear in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, in the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, and in medieval man’s obsessional  conviction that he is a fatefully sinful creature. There are more than sufficient reasons why Judaic, Christian, and Moslem man has struggled against the fear of his own instincts and drives. These secretive and insidious feelings and thoughts persevere in all of us and only much too frequently emerge and erupt during our dreams and nightmares, in dark and violent fantasies, in sports, movies, and more recently video games. We only sense them as vital forces when we try to descend into the labyrinthine depths and caverns of loneliness as we unveil the true nucleus of human existence (Mills, 2002, 2014). The consequences of these considerations are momentous in terms of potential danger and harm to the self as well as to others. Raging fantasies of destruction, cruelty, torture, atrocities, and genocide are engendered as a direct result of narcissistic loneliness both in the individual and in societies. Freud’s thanatological principles of aggression and death lurk inside all of us. There is something inhuman, some lurking desire at the bottom of the human soul that darkly resonates within each of us during intense bouts of loneliness, feelings of separation, rejection, betrayal, and abandonment.

The first article devoted to loneliness as a subject matter in its own right is written by a psychoanalyst, Gregory Zilboorg. He describes how the infant’s narcissistic ego, initially pampered, loved, and admired experiences feelings of omnipotence, delusions of grandeur, entitlement issues, and “megalomania.” But as the self develops and its impetuous desires are thwarted by both mother and society, the ego becomes angry and anxious; it experiences a sense of separation and intense feelings of loneliness. As the child grows into adolescence, and adulthood, if this state of tension becomes unduly prolonged and/or intensified, it can lead to suicide, murder, or both as the synthetic a priori triad of narcissism, loneliness, and hostility forcefully increases and manifests itself (Zilboorg, 1938). It can be a lethal dynamic.

Loneliness is intrinsically related to man’s narcissism and narcissism carries with it more than a seed of malice, of hostility (page 49). Our instincts today are as primitive as they were a hundred thousands of years ago. We are no longer cannibals but somewhere deep in our personality lie cannibalistic drives. And we know things emotionally long before we know them intellectually.

And it all begins in the cradle:

Here is the nucleus of hostility, hatred, impotent aggression of the lonely and abandoned. It is the beginning of that intolerant anger which some day civilization will have to subdue or mental illness discharge into the open. And if we continue from the crib to the nursery and kindergarten, we can observe, scene by scene, the enactment of the story entitled narcissism, loneliness, and megalomania (page 53; Mijuskovic, 1979-80; 1983).

Most instructive is the case of Elliot Rodger, who tried to penetrate a sorority house in order to murder all its residents because he felt rejected by young women in general for not sufficiently appreciating him. His 140-page autobiography is replete with narcissistic fantasies of revenge, hatred, and envy. He experienced powerful feelings of narcissism, which fueled his entitlement issues and delusions of grandeur; he simply could not understand why young women were not enamored of him; he endlessly played video games as substitutes in order to discharge his feelings of jealousy, resentment, and violence when he observed happy couples; he wanted to kill his younger brother because he feared his sibling might achieve a happy life while he felt denied: “If I can’t enjoy this world, I’m not going to let others enjoy it either”; he expected to win the lottery so he could dominate women with his wealth. Failing to breach the sorority residence, he managed to kill six students before committing suicide. For a compelling study in loneliness and hostility see “My Twisted World by Elliot Rodger” (google, PDF; 5/13/2014, 140 pp.).

But even nations can experience the same lonely sense of real or imaginary degradation, humiliation, and vilification at the hands of the world community as the Nazis did in 1933. Already in 1938, Zilboorg anticipates the atrocities and genocides, the concentration camps of Buchenwald, Aufschwitz, and Treblinka; Nazism and Fascism following the aftermath of the First World War. Similarly, Hannah Arendt, a decade later in 1948, echoes the same conviction in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt, 1976). Today, we can only view with horror the advent of ISIS with its genocidal atrocities, tortures, suicide bombers, beheadings, and wanton destruction. What is true of individuals is just as true of groups/gangs, and nations.

The second article dedicated to the sole theme of loneliness is by another psychoanalyst, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Indeed, she connects loneliness with the universal sense of failed communication and she equates loneliness with anxiety (Fromm-Reichmann, 1959).

I have made an attempt in this paper to invite the interest of psychiatrists to the investigation of the psychodynamics of loneliness as a significant universal emotional experience with far-reaching psychological ramifications. I have postulated a significant inter-relatedness between loneliness and anxiety and suggested the need for further conceptual and clinical examination in its own right and in its relation to anxiety (italic mine).

But one cannot experience anxiety without feeling angry as well. Anxiety and hostility are the dual Janus-faces of loneliness. When we are frightened by or of others, we are also angry with them. Erich Fromm echoes her sentiments and in including anxiety to his list he also adds guilt and shame (Fromm, 1970). The addition of shame is important because generally people will not admit they are lonely for fear it makes them seem pathetic, pitiful, and emotional lepers.

Consequently loneliness constitutes an “umbrella concept”; it can be conceived as subsuming  under its extended spokes a cluster of  both negative emotions as well as rich meanings emanating from the nucleus of egoistic narcissism; it includes a myriad of feelings–“megalomania,” anger, rage, anxiety, depression, failed communication, shame, guilt, envy, abandonment, betrayal, revenge, low self-esteem, etc. This is why loneliness is not in the DSM. It is an umbrella concept; it is not a specific diagnosis. It is rather a coherent system of synthetic a priori feelings and meanings.

In any case, loneliness is not a disease, not a “disorder.” It is theexistential” human condition although obviously it has its extreme pathological expressions (Mijuskovic, 1977b; Yalom, 1980).

Whereas Kant argues that there are transcendental, i.e., “formal” cognitive synthetic a priori relations/structures in consciousness, e. g. substance<>accident, cause<>effect, constituting human experience, in Husserl, however, these syntheses are “material,” i.e. both sensuously content-full and a priori, e. g., “All colors (quality) are extended (quantity)”; “All material objects are given perspectivally.” Although they are distinct concepts, they are always found together; they tell us something about the world and human nature independently and “logically” prior to experience. By exploiting Husserl’s method of “free imaginative variation,” we are able to uncover additional essences/meanings within loneliness and test the ones we are examining, e. g., abandonment, betrayal, rejection, resentment, etc. (Husserl, 1966). And just as we are able to connect, relate, synthesize, bind essential meanings together within consciousness, just so we can enlist Husserl’s method of “free imaginative variation” in order to discover unconscious, hidden essencesalthough Husserl would reject in principle any turn to a subconscious or unconscious element in consciousness. The importance of this imaginative tool/method is that when someone tells you they are depressed, whether they realize it or not, loneliness is the underlying dynamic. Or when one admits having low self-esteem, it is in actuality loneliness which underlies it. And unless one confronts the underlying reality of loneliness and its negative implications, one will forever be prevented from overcoming it.

What can be done? What are the possible remedies? Therapeutically the activity of reflexive self-consciousness promotes and supports rational insight, i.e. self-analysis, what Freud describes in general terms as the psychoanalytic method. Self-consciousness is active, reflexive. It is circular. Thought has the peculiarly self-conscious power, energy, or dynamic to think about its self and its motives (rationalism). It knows that it knows and what it knows. And it also has the capacity of realizing that within its deeper self there exist much darker feelings and thoughts that are irrational. How else to account for man’s inhumanity to man; the atrocities and genocides that have continually plagued our past as well as our present and promise to doom us in the future?

The vital aspect of self-consciousness is rational insight; its critical cognitive force lies in its function of synthesizing, unifying, relating, connecting, binding, and structuring the contents and activities of self-awareness. In Kant, it is these formal, synthetic a priori categories or relations unifying self and object, cause and effect, etc. that make human experience possible (the two Deductions, A and B, in the Critique of Pure Reason). The “external world” conforms to the innate, active structures of the mind (Kant’s Copernican Revolution, B xvi; Mijuskovic, 2010).

In Freud, these syntheses are simply superficially and cavalierly attributed to a mythological force: Eros, which discourages further theoretical exploration or even comment.

[T]he main purpose of Eros—that of uniting and binding—in so far as  it helps toward establishing the unity, or tendency to unity… is particularly characteristic of the ego (Freud, 1960, page 35).

But although self-consciousness provides us with insight, it can also entrap, doom, and enervate us in a self-contained, circular brooding depression. Most often loneliness is mistaken for depression. But as we have seen, depression or melancholy is only one element. As Freud correctly speculates, depression can also be viewed as internalized hostility but he failed to plumb deeper into its universal source—loneliness.

The intentionality, the transcendence, the freedom, the spontaneity of consciousness also allows us to escape from the confines of selfhood. As we have seen, phenomenology defines consciousness in terms of the activity of intentionality, the principle that all consciousness is about or of something other than its “self”; its active, radiating, directional arrows target the meaning of an object; a relation; a law; a value, and even the “self” as beyond its “self” (see Diagram of Theories of Consciousness). Analogous to its reflexive counterpart, it is active but in a linear fashion as opposed to a circular one. But unlike its behavioral contrast, although both are linearly-directed, intentionality spontaneously radiates, transcends, and explodes from the interiority of consciousness beyond and transcendent to its reflexive self (Mijuskovic, 1976; 1977, 2015a). As a principle and paradigm of consciousness, it is endorsed by Brentano, Husserl, and Sartre (Mijuskovic, 1978b). But because both reflexive/self-consciousness and the intentionality of consciousness are “spontaneous,” active they can be conceived as assuming mutually supportive roles through their synthetic a priori connections thus providing both (a) an insight into loneliness as well as (b) the power to escape its imprisoning confines. Self-consciousness, although offering the possibility of self-analysis and insight, also presents the danger of restricting the self solipsistically within a self-enclosed, insular sphere of loneliness. It is intentionality that provides us with the key for our escape from enervating loneliness, boredom, and the depression that depletes our energy. To use an analogy: self-consciousness is like throwing a boomerang that returns to the agent; intentionality is like an archer targeting a bulls-eye; it is the difference in thinking about the past and deciding what to do in the future.

In terms of clinical pathology, we can readily observe the dysfunctions expressed in bipolar disorders as patients cycle through alternating episodes of self-conscious depression and intentional mania in their desperate efforts to escape loneliness..

Both theoria (insight) and praxis (action) are necessary to overcome loneliness. Nevertheless, it is the practice of intimacy and empathy that is our salvation. If loneliness is grounded in the threat of constant separations, then intimacy presents the intentional power of the self to transcend itself; for the self to connect beyond its self in purposeful activity. The goal is to reduce and eliminate separations whenever possible. The route from lonely insularity to intimate attachments travels along the path of affective empathy. Empathy is a term first coined by Theodor Lipps. He intended it as an aesthetic concept; an emotional infusion and projection of the self’s feelings of freedom, exuberance, beauty, and expression into the artistic object: a dancer, a statue, a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, a movie, etc. Husserl, in the fifth Cartesian Meditations, following Lipps, interprets it as a cognitive concept, as an intentional meaning signifying a relation of “ap-presentation” with the other self; an “an-alogical” placing of my body and consciousness in the place of the other; a dual “embodiment” (Husserl, 1960). But if so, then Husserl’s concept of empathy is flawed because it violates his own fundamental principle that essences always must be universally, necessarily, and immediately, directly given to consciousness; they cannot be re-presentational; they are essentially unlike contingent or empirical concepts, which are always mediate, indirect, and re-presentational (“The veil of perception”). Thus both Lipps and Husserl mistakenly present empathy as an asymmetrical relation. In other words, the aesthetic object, the statue for example, does not mutually “ascribe” identical feelings and meanings of beauty and expression to me. Further, in Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, there is no guarantee that the other self is simultaneously placing him/herself “in my place in space,” in a shared “lived world” (Mijuskovic, 2015a, Chapter 4, “Loneliness and Phenomenology”). Instead I propose that we consider empathy primarily as affective, as a feeling, an emotion. If we do so, we shall then discover that unlike sympathy and pity, empathy is transcendentally grounded in mutual experiences, simultaneous, symmetrical feelings and meanings that intrinsically relate my self/ego to and with the other ego/self; in sharing the same emotion. If it did not, then the mutually intended purpose of the two selves in both providing and receiving support could not be fulfilled. When we do that, we realize empathy is both a common and an intense experience, much like Maslow’s conception of “peak experiences” shared a deux. It occurs when two parents share their grief over the death of their child; when a loving couple learns that one of them has terminal cancer; when a mother rejoices with her daughter the birth of her first grandchild; or when two soldiers under attack share their mortal terror. Whenever two (or more) participants in an event or situation mutually intensely feel, mean, and experience the same “consciousness,” identical feelings and meanings, then the synthetic a priori relation of affective, empathic attachment has occurred and one is not alone or (as) lonely. In those special moments in time, no one can possibly doubt that s/he is alone in the world. And so, whatever empathy is it presupposes an activity when both selves are mutually engaged in identical feelings and meanings. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, Scout:

First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folk. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it (Lee, 1960).

This is not only a sound ethical principle but a therapeutic one as well.

We may thus conclude that genuine friendship and therapy are both founded in a dialogue that enhances empathic intimacy and the quality of affective attachments thereby avoiding the sense of separation and its concomitant fear of loneliness (Lynch, 1975, 2000). In such situations, loneliness will be (to a certain extent and for a while) transcended. Together loneliness and intimacy once more describe the twin features of man’s existential being; both his punishment and his salvation. And, in this recognition, each of us should acknowledge that the painful travail of Sisyphus also exhibits his eternal self-conscious dignity. Thus intimacy consists in a mutual sharing between two selves of feelings, a constant communication of meanings between them, and an unbreakable continuity of mutual values.

Further, intimacy is also grounded and requires physical proximity; one cannot be intimate at a distance; it is constituted by mutual trust; mutual affection; and mutual age-appropriate respect.

By contrast materialism, empiricism, and behaviorism offer a hollow understanding of loneliness. Ultimately it is the difference between a rich humanism and a materialism and cognitive behaviorism which offers only a sterile pseudo-science that ends by turning humans into machines and computers.

In the preceding, I have tried to show that the fear of loneliness is primary and universal; why this is so; its consequences; and what can be done about it.

And God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

“I’m lonely

I’ll make me a world.”

Then God walked around,

And God looked around,

On all that He had made,

He looked at his sun,

And He looked at his moon,

And He looked at his little stars,

He looked at his world,

With all its living things,

And God said, “I’m lonely still.”

And God thought and thought,

Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man.”

This great God,

Like a mammy bending over her baby,

Kneeled down in the dust,

Toiling over a lump of clay,

Till he shaped it in His own image:

Then into it He blew the breath of life.

And man became a living soul.

The Creation, A Negro Spiritual, J. W. Johnston


*Talk presented by Ben L. Mijuskovic at Brunel University, October 30, 2015

Arendt, H. (1976). The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovic, 475.

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Freud, S. (1961a). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 13-15.

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Ibid., 51-52.

Fromm, E. (1970). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row, 6-7

Fromm-Reichmann, F. (1959). Loneliness, Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 22:1, 1-15.

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Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Sense-Certainty, 58-66.

Ibid., Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage, 111-119.

Hume, D. (1955). A Treatise of Human Nature. Of personal identity, 251-253.

Husserl, E. (1960). Cartesian Meditations. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, Fifth Meditation.

Husserl. E. (1962). Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. New York: Collier, Section 84.

Husserl, E. (1966). Meaning and Judgment. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 383.

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Ibid., 78-79 and passim.

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New Book on Loneliness by Ben Mijuskovic

Loneliness is much more than just feeling sad or isolated. It is the ultimate ground source of unhappiness-the underlying reality of all negative human behavior that manifests as anxiety, depression, envy, guilt, hostility, or shame. It underlies aggression, domestic violence, murder, PTSD, suicide, and other serious issues. This book explains why the drive to avoid loneliness and secure intimacy is the most powerful psychological need in all human beings; documents how human beings gravitate between two motivational poles: loneliness and intimacy; and advocates for an understanding of loneliness through the principles of idealism, rationalism, and insight. Readers will understand the underlying theory of consciousness that explains why people are lonely, thereby becoming better equipped to recognize sources of loneliness in themselves as well as others. Written by a licensed social worker and former mental health therapist, the book documents why whenever individuals or groups feel lonely, alienated, estranged, disenfranchised, or rejected, they will either withdraw within and shut down, or they will attack others with little thought of consequence to either themselves or others. Perhaps most importantly, the work identifies the antidotes to loneliness as achieving a sense of belonging, togetherness, and intimacy through empathic emotional attachments, which come from a mutual sharing of “lived experiences” such as feelings, meanings, and values; constant positive communication; and equal decision making.

Order your copy from Amazon or other major retailers.