What is Loneliness: Three Famous Thinkers

October 11, 2023
5 min read


  • As human beings, we build and assign meaning to the feeling of loneliness over time: one way that we build this meaning is by reading the works of great thinkers.
  • Sartre thinks of loneliness as a feature of our individuality; something that comes hand in hand with the human experience, Durkheim thinks of loneliness as something that emerges due to lack of social structure, and Turkle (a modern thinker) thinks of loneliness as a consequence of our hyper-connected digital world.
  • There is no one way to think about loneliness. By exposing ourselves to different interpretations and meanings of loneliness, we can bring clarity to loneliness in our lives and better navigate it.

At UpBeing, we think a lot about what loneliness really means. 

What we’ve realized through many discussions and links shared in Slack DMs (when we should be working) is that the meaning we assign to loneliness is always changing. 

Sure, you could look up loneliness in the dictionary and find a functional definition. But that’s just a definition; as human beings, we don’t define our emotions in a set-in-stone way. We build and assign meaning to our emotions over time. The way we think about loneliness when we’re young children is almost certainly different than the way we think about loneliness as adolescents which is, in turn, different than the way we think about loneliness as adults. As we experience more, learn more, read more, and think more, the meaning we assign to loneliness changes.

In this series, we’ll introduce the perspectives of three famous thinkers on loneliness: Jean-Paul Sartre, Emile Durkheim, and Sherry Turkle. Their unique viewpoints shed light on the multifaceted nature of loneliness and offer insights into how it shows up in our lives. Of course, it would be impossible to summarize the thinking of Sartre, Durkheim, and Turkle in a single article. Scholars, philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and so many others dedicate their lives to trying to understand and apply their work. 

These are thinkers who deserve so much more than a page or two; so, along the way, we’ll share additional resources, videos, and reading that can help you keep the conversation going. 

Hence, the introduction.

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Existentialist Perspective

Meet Jean-Paul Sartre. 

Jean-Paul Sartre, a renowned French existentialist philosopher, delved into the depths of human existence and the essence of loneliness. For Sartre, loneliness was not merely the absence of company, but a profound sense of estrangement and abandonment that accompanies human existence. He believed that our lives are inherently solitary, and we must grapple with the loneliness that comes with our individuality.

Sartre's existentialist perspective on loneliness can be traced to his famous quote, "Hell is other people." He posited that human beings are condemned to be free, meaning we are responsible for our choices and actions, and this responsibility can lead to feelings of isolation. According to Sartre, when we interact with others, we become objects in their gaze, subject to their judgments and expectations. This "look" of the other, as he called it, can be oppressive and make us feel like we're constantly on display, unable to escape their scrutiny.

In Sartre's view, loneliness is an inescapable consequence of human existence. He argued that even in the presence of others, we remain isolated, locked within our own subjectivity. This isolation can be a source of anguish and despair, as we grapple with the weight of our freedom and the ever-present "look" of others.

Emile Durkheim: Social Integration and Anomie

Reader – Emile Durkheim. Emile Durkheim – reader.

Emile Durkheim, a pioneering French sociologist, took a different approach to understanding loneliness. Durkheim focused on the social aspects of loneliness and how it relates to the cohesion and integration of societies. His work on the concept of anomie is particularly relevant to the discussion of loneliness.

Durkheim believed that a well-integrated society provided a sense of purpose and belonging to its members, reducing the likelihood of loneliness. Anomie, on the other hand, described a state of normlessness and breakdown in social bonds. When social norms and values erode, individuals can feel disconnected and adrift in a sea of loneliness.

Durkheim's ideas on anomie suggest that the structure and functioning of society play a significant role in shaping the experience of loneliness. When societies fail to provide individuals with a sense of belonging, purpose, and moral guidance, loneliness can become widespread. This perspective highlights the importance of social cohesion in preventing and mitigating loneliness on a societal level.

Sherry Turkle: Digital Age Loneliness

Last but not least: reader, let us introduce you to Sherry Turkle. 

In the digital age, the experience of loneliness has taken on new dimensions, a phenomenon well-explored by Sherry Turkle, a contemporary thinker and psychologist. Turkle has examined the ways in which technology, particularly smartphones and social media, has reshaped the landscape of human connection and, paradoxically, contributed to increased loneliness.

Turkle argues that the constant connectivity provided by technology often leads to a shallow form of social interaction. We may have hundreds of "friends" on social media, but these connections are often devoid of the depth and intimacy that genuine human relationships provide. As a result, people can feel increasingly isolated and lonely, despite being constantly connected in the digital world (one of our team members, Andrew, likes to call this sort of connection, interconnection).

One of Turkle's key insights is that technology can become a refuge from the discomfort of face-to-face interactions. When people can retreat into the online world, they may avoid the challenges of real-life relationships, exacerbating their feelings of loneliness. In this way, technology has given rise to what Turkle calls "alone together" - a paradoxical state where we are physically present with others but emotionally disconnected and lonely.

Turkle's work underscores the idea that loneliness is not merely about physical solitude but also about the quality of our connections and the depth of our interactions. In the digital age, it is imperative to consider how technology impacts our sense of loneliness and strive for a balance between our online and offline lives.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness means something different to everyone. It might even mean something different tomorrow than it does today. 

Feelings are complex – especially when feelings are grounded in social connections and relationships (like loneliness is). We never understand feelings. We can only learn more about them through new experiences and connections, by writing about them, by talking about them, and, of course, by reading great thinkers.

These three famous thinkers each offer a unique spin on loneliness. Loneliness is not limited to the absence of physical companionship; it can be a deep sense of estrangement, societal breakdown, and a consequence of our interconnected, yet isolating, digital world. These aren’t just ideas (at least we don’t think so). When we take time to read and introduce ourselves to great thinkers like these, it can help us understand and navigate loneliness in our lives. 

The simple act of thinking, learning, and reflecting on feelings and their connections to the technology we use, cultures we live in, and norms we endorse, can help us build more connected, meaningful lives. Both individually and as a society.

With Gratitude,


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