Lisa Guenther in Aeon:
Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?
My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.
Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time(1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.
Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unravelling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation.