Three Kinds of Loneliness

Originally published October 3, 2014

There are two kinds of loneliness that everyone is familiar with. I idiosyncratically call them Camaraderie Loneliness and Romantic Loneliness. Camaraderie Loneliness is not having a close group of friends to butt heads with or to hang out with. You can easily have it even if you talk to a lot of people if the relationships are all superficial. Romantic Loneliness is lacking intimacy with a romantic partner. I haven't said anything unfamiliar yet.

The third kind I call Epistemic Loneliness. This is when you have ideas that, for whatever reason, you can't talk about with anyone. Or a cognitive style that makes you incomprehensible to everyone you know. Or something like that.

An example of epistemic loneliness is Charles Darwin discovering evolution and being unable to convince anyone of it. You can imagine yourself a century before Malthus, trying to convey this brilliant insight to the world. You wouldn't succeed.

This kind of epistemic loneliness is familiar because it gets a lot of exposure. But it's wrong to focus on this kind, for at least two reasons: first because it's exhilarating to make a new discovery. It feels good. Second, because this is not what epistemic loneliness typically looks like.

What epistemic loneliness usually looks like is having an idea, or a vague sense that one should have an idea, and being lost for words to describe it, or being unable to even check whether it makes sense, let alone whether it's correct. This is very common. It is frustrating and terrifying. It seems like people ordinarily suppress their tendency to form random ideas, which is why dreams are so trippy. When the suppression mechanism fails, they're left with these fascinating blobs of idea that possibly no one in the entire world knows how to appreciate.

It's a situation that no one wants to be in, because it's frustrating and terrifying, so when people talk to each other they will tend to round what ideas they do have down to the nearest socially-approved cached thought.

Less Wrong provided a sense of epistemic camaraderie to a lot of people, and that's part of why it got so popular.

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