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The Phenomenon of Loneliness - PHI00088M

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  • Department: Philosophy
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Tom Stoneham
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Nearly everyone has felt lonely at some point in their lives but recently we have seen that extreme or pathological loneliness is a growing phenomenon with significant health implications. This module will address the philosophical understanding of the phenomenon of loneliness with a view to evaluating and informing the theory and practice of those working on loneliness in clinical and policy contexts.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The module aims to introduce students to the merging research area of philosophy of loneliness and the applications in mental health.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module students should be able to:

  1. Articulate the differences and similarities between loneliness, solitude, privacy, and (absence of) companionship
  2. Discuss philosophical issues to do with loneliness
  3. Understand some of the individual differences which may underpin a disposition to loneliness
  4. Understand the impact of loneliness on mental health and give theoretical evaluations of proposed interventions

Module content

Philosophers have – by and large – neglected loneliness. Often philosophical neglect is due to there being no challenges provided by the analysis of the concept in question. While that might superficially seem to be the case, a less superficial examination suggests there are interesting challenges in the analysis which quickly reveal that it is part of a web of emotion concepts with very different valences and preconditions, including solitude, privacy, play and companionship.

Another reason for neglect is that the phenomenon is seen to be unimportant. Some experience of loneliness is near universal but has in the past been seen as a passing emotion which can be avoided easily for most people. However, in recent years we have seen social changes from an ageing population to a major pandemic which have drawn attention to the correlation between loneliness and illness, both mental and physical. This makes it a concept at the heart of many current debates and thereby a suitable subject for philosophical investigation.

This investigation is likely to have practical consequences. Clinically, loneliness is diagnosed by self-report, but that might be unreliable in many ways: we may be bad at identifying emotions and social pressures may also lead to under-reporting. Also ‘treatment’ for loneliness is often based on folk-wisdom or hunches, often from people who have no experience of pathological loneliness themselves and sometimes can be as insulting to the sufferer as telling someone with depression to ‘cheer up’ – we clearly need a much better understanding of the phenomenon if we are to get beyond trial and error here. Finally, the correlation between loneliness and health problems raises important questions about cause and effect: might loneliness cause depression, for example, or depression cause loneliness?

The module will attempt to address these questions but will also address others which emerge from our readings and discussions.

The teaching will consist of a two-hour seminar and a one-hour student presentation session each week (with students presenting on the topic of the week in teams of 2 or 3). There will be an introductory lecture and at least two guest lectures from mental health practitioners and researchers during the course of the term.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay (4000 words)
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative assessment: students will write a 250 word critical summary of one item of secondary reading every week and email it to the tutor in advance of the seminar. Students may write up the guest lectures in their reflective journal for the Research Skills module.

The 4,000-word summative essay is due on Monday, Week 2, Summer Term.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay (4000 words)
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive feedback on summative assessment (and reassessment) 4 weeks after submission.

Indicative reading

Mijuskovic, Ben Lazare (2012 3rd edition). Loneliness in Philosophy, Psychology, and Literature. iUniverse.

Shuster, Martin (2012). Language and Loneliness: Arendt, Cavell, and Modernity. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 20 (4):473-497.

Gerino, Eva ; Rollè, Luca ; Sechi, Cristina & Brustia, Piera (2017). Loneliness, Resilience, Mental Health, and Quality of Life in Old Age: A Structural Equation Model. Frontiers in Psychology 8.

Svendsen, Lars Fr H. (2017). A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books.

Alberti, Fay Bound (2018). This “Modern Epidemic”: Loneliness as an Emotion Cluster and a Neglected Subject in the History of Emotions. Emotion Review 10 (3):242-254.

Donbavand, Steven (forthcoming). A Simmelian theory of structural loneliness. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour.

Bolmsjö, Ingrid ; Tengland, Per-Anders & Rämgård, Margareta (forthcoming). Existential loneliness: An attempt at an analysis of the concept and the phenomenon. Nursing Ethics:096973301774848.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.