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Another question (the meaning of "set off" in context) asks about the following two sentences:

Jaspers even records a dream in which, during a tense conversation with some of Heidegger's critics, his friend suddenly approached and addressed him for the first time with the familiar du. The two then set off together, alone.

This is the last part of the 13th paragraph in this New York Times excerpt.

The original question asks about the meaning of set off (which is depart), but as I read that sentence I wondered how could two people could depart together, alone.

And I figured I might not be the only one to stumble over this combination: I mean: don't alone and together mean opposite things: without anyone (alone) and with someone (together)?

So if the two men set off alone (each by himself), how can they do that together? Or if they set off together, how can they be alone? Or is there something else going on? Perhaps another meaning of either or both words is being used? Perhaps the author has chosen his words poorly? What's going on?

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Jaspers even records a dream in which, during a tense conversation with some of Heidegger's critics, his friend suddenly approached and addressed him for the first time with the familiar du. The two then set off together, alone.

It is quite possible that the use of together and alone next to each other can cause difficulties interpreting this sentence, both to non-native and native speakers. I fall into the second group.

Alone basically means without others or by oneself. As Oxford puts it:

Having no one else present; on one’s own

In fact, as an adjective, alone often means solitary, in the company of one's self.

Whereas together basically means with someone or in another's company. As Oxford puts it:

With or in proximity to another person or people.

The native speaker in me wants to read together in its primary meaning and not, say, as at the same time.

Therefore when one reads this sentence one may very well pause and ask How can two people set off (depart) together (in one another's company), alone (by oneself)? This is the most natural reading of this sentence, yet it seems to defy standard word meaning.

A possibility is that since this occurs in a dream, the normal meanings of words do not apply. Another possibility is that the writer is using irony, saying that the two set off together but were so caught up in their thoughts that they might as well have been alone. (They were philosophers after all!) Another possibility is that the author has chosen his words poorly, that is, his sentence needs improvement. But a fourth possibility seems most likely, and depends on normal, straightforward meanings and even the collocation of alone and together.

Notice that in the dream there are others present in the scene, namely, some of Heidegger's critics.

It is these critics who stayed behind, while Jaspers and Heidegger set off together, alone.

Here alone does not mean by oneself but by themselves. See MacMillan:

used when two people are together and no one else is there

It was forbidden for an unmarried couple to be alone together.

Thus Heidegger and Jaspers depart together (in each other's company, not primarily: 'at the same time' although that is also true), alone (no one else is there, or by themselves).

This interpretation of the sentence would be clearer if the sentence had read

...The two then set off alone together.

Here, its is clear that the two departed alone, apart from the critics, but in each other's company (together).

The author flip flops alone and together and what this does is to stress that the two departed in each other's company and that the critics did not form part of this company. Thus the sentence is well written, the word order well chosen, and the meaning apparent if not upon first glance.

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You might want to know more about the literary device used: oxymoron.

"two words used together that have, or ​seem to have, ​opposite ​meanings"

According to this link, the oxymoron "alone together" (or in your question, "together, alone") is common.

Common oxymoronic expressions include the following: act naturally, random order, original copy, conspicuous absence, found missing, alone together, criminal justice, old news, peace force, even odds, sight unseen, awful good, student teacher, deafening silence, definite possibility, definite maybe, terribly pleased, ill health, turn up missing, fresh-frozen jumbo shrimp, loose tights, small crowd, working vacation, and clearly misunderstood.

Moreover, this essay may give you a better understanding on how the oxymoron is used.

So, we can say that the author simply used this literary device, and did not 'poorly' choose the words.

  • Great answer about a oxymorons, but unless you have a deeper understanding of the sample text provided by the OP, I'm afraid this answer is incorrect. I might be wrong, but I think "alone together" would only really be an oxymoron if used in a sentence like: "They revelled in the sorrow of being alone, together." I do, however, agree with you that the author's words were not poorly chosen, just a little unclear, especially to a English learner. – Numeri says Reinstate Monica Jan 18 '16 at 1:03
  • Most of the "Common oxymoronic expressions" that you quote are not actual oxymorons - they only appear that way. – Mike Brockington Jun 19 at 10:22
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In my view there are three possibilities, with the first two possibilities potentially correct but less commonly used in such a manner.

The first possibility is that they first left the location as a pair, then after exiting the building or said location, they "went their separate ways".

Another possibility would be that "together" implies a temporal proximity as opposed to a spatial proximity. That is "together" they "split up" ie. temporal not spatial proximity.

The third possibility is they went together in the absence of anyone else. This would seem a bit redundant, as, if they "set off together" it implies that they were a pair and temporally and spatially separate from anyone else.

Upon reflection of the context in which the sentence is used, the third possibility is the most likely. It appears the author is implying that they wanted to separate themselves from the rest and leave as a pair, perhaps for further discussion, etc.

We see an interesting twist of the above usage in the song lyrics of "House Of Their Dreams" by Casting Crowns:

"Now they're trapped in their own worlds, in their own wars
With their cell phones and the closed doors
Its funny how quiet and peaceful that it seems
But they're all alone together
In the house of their dreams"...

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You are assuming that both "alone" and "together" are absolute terms, but they are not, which is why they are often used with qualifiers: "completely alone", "nearly together" etc.

In this case, the author is simultaneously highlighting that these two people were seperate/different from the crowd; yet underlining that they were united as a pair.

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