Scientific Program / 4th July / Plenary Session 09:00 - 10:30

Language: English, with translation into German, Italian and French

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Understanding Loneliness

Prof. Clemens SEDMAK

Main hall theatre / From 9:45 to 10:30


Clemens SEDMAK

Clemens Sedmak is Professor of Social Ethics in the Keough School of Global Affairs. He also is a concurrent professor at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. Before coming to Notre Dame, Sedmak was the FD Maurice Professor for Moral Theology and Social Theology at King’s College London. He has held multiple positions at the University of Salzburg, serving as Director of the Center for Ethics and Poverty Research and Chair for Epistemology and Philosophy of Religion. Sedmak also was President of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Social Ethics in Salzburg. Sedmak holds doctoral degrees in philosophy, theology and social theory. Born in Austria, he has studied at the University of Innsbruck, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), Maryknoll (New York) and the University of Linz. He has been a visiting professor at the Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, the University of Jena in Germany, the Vienna Business University, and the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.



Understanding Loneliness

Donald Winnicott started his famous 1958 paper “The capacity to be alone” with the memorable sentence: “I wish to make an examination of the capacity of the individual to be alone, acting on the assumption that this capacity is one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development.” The paper was a counter statement to the emphasis on relational competence. It pointed out that growth and maturity are not only linked to social skills, but also to the ability to be comfortable without company. 

Since then the capacity to be alone has been recognized as a stress buffer and as a source for creativity, intimacy, and spirituality including imaginative involvement in multiple realities, self transformation and reconstitution of cognitive structures, a result previously explored by Storr in his 1988 monograph ”Solitude.” The capacity to be alone can be developed - psychoanalysis with its emphasis on autonomous decisions about attachment has been seen as an opportunity to develop one's capacity to be alone. Here again, the capacity to be alone is presented as a building block in personal development. 

At the same time loneliness has been identified as a major social challenge. Olivia Laing’s 2016 book “The Lonely City” on the urban experience of loneliness has been praised as a deep insight into challenges of contemporary life style. Loneliness is one of the most important mental health and social health and public health challenges. Loneliness is a complex state (see Weiss’ classic 1973 monograph) posing therapeutic challenges; loneliness has been experienced as deeply painful on a personal level (see Emily White”s moving 2010 memoir); it has been linked to higher mortality risks, higher risk for mental health challenges, reduced stress processing mechanisms. Loneliness has been identified as a major challenge for an ageing population. 

We are confronted with a conundrum: The capacity to be alone seems to carry huge potential for social skills and personal well being and maturity, and at the same time loneliness has been identified as a major Public Health challenge. Justin Worland’s ”Time” article “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue” (18 March 2015) confirms just that. 

We need to find new answers to new problems; and sometimes new answers are “old” answers that can be innovative if set into a new context. 

 The talk offers an “anatomy of loneliness” with special regard to possible responses to the experience of loneliness.