Philosophical Solitude: Hume VS Rousseau

Our Principal Investigator Barbara Taylor approaches solitude via a study of opposites in the intellectual life of eighteenth-century Europe.

In February 2019 Barbara Taylor delivered her inaugural lecture at Queen Mary University of London on the subject of philosophical solitude. The philosopher meditating alone in his study is a cliché of western culture. But behind the hackneyed image lies a long history of controversy.

Was solitude the ‘palace of learning’ that many learned people, religious and secular, perceived it, or a debilitating state of solipsistic misery and intellectual degeneracy, as its enemies described it? In the mid-eighteenth century the debate became fiercely personal during a public quarrel between two philosophical luminaries: David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the 1760s Rousseau faced persecution from state and church authorities in France and Switzerland. Hume gave him refuge in England. The relationship rapidly turned toxic as the convivial Hume sought to manage his notoriously reclusive charge. Solitude became a casus belli in a war of words that fascinated intellectual Europe. But the fracas was more complex than it appeared.

Who are we with, when we are alone? For Hume, no less than Rousseau, the question proved inescapable, in both his personal career and his philosophy. A closer look at two thinkers who, on the surface, were a study in opposites, reveals much about the vicissitudes of solitude in the life of the creative mind.

Barbara Taylor’s article on this subject in History Workshop Journal can be read here.


Barbara Taylor is Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London and Principal Investigator on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ project.