Love, actually

Domesticated concepts

Recently, I was interviewed by the University of Pardubice’s own internal magazine. I am sure they did not know what they were doing when they asked a philosopher really complicated questions. I assume they thought, like journalists often and rightfully do, that one can ask apparently simple questions and get simple answers. But alas, in philosophy, “simple questions” don’t have much of a place. If a question is simple, one knows exactly how to answer it, and thus it is not a philosophical question. There is a sense in which philosophy can be characterized precisely in that way: It’s the field in which the question itself is a question. In most other disciplines, one knows how to go about answering a question. One has established methods and they help one direct one’s attention and investigation in particular ways. But philosophy is not an empirical discipline in that sense (which is not to say that philosophy should abstain from tending to empirical findings). When a question introduces itself as a philosophical question, it is precisely because one does not know how to deal with it. There are no established methods of weighing, calculating or measuring. If one ask a brain specialist what love is, he or she would have scientifically established methods of answering that. It would, for example, be a question of what kinds of processes happen in a person’s brain. As such, the question is very specific – and whatever answer a brain scientist would come up with, the answer must be treated as such. It would be a typically philosophical error to think that a scientific description of what happens in this or that region of the brain is an answer to what the phenomenon in question is: an unwarranted form of reductionism.

 When a question becomes philosophical, it is, one might say, the concept itself that becomes a question. Therefore, various special answers to how that concept might be turned and weighed and measured in a specific field, will come out as a partial and regional answer, that will never have the power to satisfy the philosophical impulse. (And it if does, it is in general only in the form of bad philosophizing.) If one comes to a point where it is evident both what would count as an answer to the philosophical question and how one should go about to find it, that’s a sure sign that the question has lost its character of being philosophical.

So how can one not know what to say about such a common concept such as love? It is, after all, a very familiar concept. But that’s just it! Philosophy very often begins in a certain feeling of being lost in places where everyone else feel at home. It’s the experience of the familiar as unfamiliar.

So, in the interview, I was asked “What is the philosophy of love about?” And this prompted me to go on in this way, thinking out loud, on my feet, as it were, as a reply (a reply that was too long and too complicated to function as an “answer” to a journalist’s frame of mind, and hence it was left out when the whole thing was “abridged”):


Q: What is the philosophy of love about?”

A: To be honest, I feel inclined to say: “Well, not love anyway!” But that’s a somewhat misleading and unnecessarily crude characterization of some of the debates centered on that concept today. But there’s something about how the concept of love often is approached and treated in contemporary philosophy that really troubles me.

Now, there are many ways that love is being brought into philosophy – or, rather, or brought back into it! It was there “originally” in Plato, for example, playing an absolutely central role – that are very, very good and extremely fruitful. And I will get back to those in a minute. But I don’t want to lose track of my instinctive impulse.

So, why did I feel inclined to say that philosophy of love often is not really about love? Well, first of all, love is often approached in a very detached, I am almost inclined to say “puritan,” way. In real life, of course, love is messy, hard to live by. Sometimes it brings people together. At other times, it tears families apart. Love is extremely hard to understand, sometimes difficult to acknowledge, intimately intertwined with sex and deep, very strong, forces (some of which are probably best describes as unconscious and thereby pretty far away from our deliberated intentional attention). In much academic philosophy today, however, particularly of the kind the prides itself with the supposedly honorific label “analytic,” these very complex aspects of love are very rarely mentioned, let alone discussed. At best, there’s a footnote that says that love can mean a lot, but that they need to focus on what they themselves tend to see as the central aspect of it. Now, that central aspect always tends to be something rather pristine, and pure, often modeled on a non-problematic romantic love between a man and a woman (and in 90% of the cases it’s about a man that loves a woman!), or a friendship relation, or upon the relationship that holds between siblings, or upon fatherly and motherly love. I don’t mean to deny that these are forms of love too, and important forms too, but I find it strange that such a complex and vital notion so quickly becomes something ordered and anemic and, well, “cute,” when approached by philosophers.

Oddly enough, even when the notion of love one focuses on is romantic love, it is quickly turned into something very remote from the life-changing experience that love often is. It’s rationalized, drained of content. For example, philosophers often start off by thinking that if one loves somebody, one has to love particular features or properties that that person possess. And then one gets into problems of this kind: “Well, suppose some other person also possess the same properties; ought I love that person too?” or, “Suppose he/she loses some of these properties, does that mean that I ought to stop loving this person?” This way of thinking, so it seems to me, gets things wrong from the start, and it becomes a theory of something very remote from what we normally call love. For starters, it seems to leave out the other in a very peculiar way. I mean, when I think of being in love, I think of the enormous attraction that the other has upon me. The sense of being pulled towards her, of always wanting to find out more, of the sensation that there’s an enormous mystery here that I want to submerge myself in; or something to that effect. But in this kind of analytic philosophy, it seems that the most central feature of love, is my own preferences! It’s all about me, and what I prefer, and so the other is reduced to a container that carries certain properties! It’s sometimes maddening to read such texts. It presents love as perfectly characterized by anemic middle-age academic men on Tinder, listing things they like! Now, I don’t think that’s a good way to start. Of course, we do prefer things. And we may also say things like “I love that you have long legs, blue eyes and a great sense of humor,” etc. But that, so it seems to me, is something that is best captured by the phrase “I love that…” and not “I love you because…” So one has completely obliterated the mystery of love, and turned it into a form of rational calculation.

Then there’s a long discussion about love’s relationship to knowledge, rationality and morality. Now, more often than not, it seems to me that the bulk of the texts written in this subgenre of philosophy are more worried and concerned about defending their own particular views of what knowledge, rationality and morality consist of, than they are curious about what love is and what it really means. So, love tends to come into a problem that they need to face, in order to save their own theoretical outlook. Now, I don’t mean that love isn’t intimately intertwined with both morality, rationality and knowledge. I think it is. Actually, I think love is central to an understanding of these concepts. But, in order to see why that it so, and how that really works, one needs to let love remain a multifarious concept, spanning all sorts of things, and describe the role it plays in very specific contexts. It’s a matter of keeping philosophy ground-bound, in order not to distort the reality one aims to understand.

Finally, a third way in which philosophy has annexed the concept of love, and inserted it into moral philosophy in a way I find deeply problematic, is far more complex and harder to sort out. But I’ll try.

There’s a strong tendency among some philosophers that have discovered the centrality of love, to make it into the most central, perhaps even the only central, concept in philosophy. So one sees all kinds of philosophical and moral and existential problems as rooted in one and the same thing: a failure to love. Now, this again, is to really domesticate the concept, remove it from the real lived concept, and turn it into a “first principle” of all philosophizing. This, so it seems to me, is a horrible move to make. It not only makes philosophers lack nuance and the sensitive ear that all good philosophers must have, by which I mean the ability to hear out nuances and slowly shifting shades in one’s, or rather our, conceptual register. But, furthermore, these kinds of philosophers often pride themselves with having a very broad notion of love (when, in fact, they have just defined it very narrowly, to fit their own philosophical outlook); and they also have a very strong tendency to become extremely moralistic in their writing and lines of argumentation. Love, as they themselves have defined it, becomes a blueprint, the go-to tool, that they use to combat basically all philosophical positions they themselves find problematic. And the core of their accusations tends to be: you are wrong because you are not loving enough (where “loving enough” basically means “as I have defined it”). And that, that is a very poor form of argumentation. Parading as being open-minded and loving, these philosophers quickly become self-obsessed preachers that block communication, and show little, sometimes very little, interest in the other’s positions and points of view. Of course, “love” is so clearly a “good word,” so it’s easy to think you are on the side of the good if you take yourself to be in command of that concept (and feel entitled to accuse others of not being so). Paradoxically, “love philosophers” are very often the philosophers that show the least interest in the other – precisely because they are so convinced that they have goodness on their side! 

That being said, I still think love is an extremely important concept for philosophers to wrestle with, and I myself think that it is intimately intertwined with questions of politics and  morality and knowledge. There are many philosophers that do think about love in very fruitful and complicated ways. I have already mentioned Plato, but I would also like to add philosophers like Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Søren Kierkegaard and even Sigmund Freud. But their discussions of love tend to be so complex and difficult that the way they are included in contemporary debates tends to be minor, and their views often simplified. In the case of Weil and Kierkegaard, one removes God. Which, I think, is a very strange move to make with regard to these thinkers. In the case of Freud and Plato, there’s a strong tendency to remove sexuality and the enormous importance of drives and magnetism. For Plato, Eros is primarily a force that can pull us in all sorts of directions, and many of them do not lead to “the good.” So, it’s very, very hard to stay true to the subject of love – that is, to not present reductionist images of it – when philosophizing about it. Some do it rather well, of course. I am merely pointing out tendencies and dangers. But it is hard. And I myself tend to write rather negatively, merely aiming to complicate the picture, when thinking about love in my texts.


Now, these three very brief reflections upon how the concept of love gets distorted when entering philosophical discussions and debates bring us back to the initial remarks about the unfamiliar in the familiar with which I started this blog post: they all assume either that one has discovered what to look for and “measure,” in answering what love is (a number of properties, for example), or they assume that love can (be easily framed and) take on a guiding methodological role in one’s thinking; it’s a perspective one can adopt and filter all other questions through. So, in a way, when something becomes recognizable as a philosophy of love, or as a “love philosophy,” one should always suspect that these forms of philosophizing lack one specific and necessary curiosity: that of being philosophically perplexed about what love is. And this is a constant danger in philosophy – one that no one is exempted from – that of domesticating our concepts so as to make life and the philosophy of life possible to grasp and quarrel about theoretically. But when domestication takes this form, it is far from innocent. It’s a form of distortion. Hence, not a good place to start; and a horrible place for thinking to end.   

Niklas Forsberg