Monday, 11 March 2019
Love and Philosophy
"What can romantic love teach philosophy?" This was a topic we discussed at at one of our Wednesday night meetings last year. The underlying premise seemed to to be that philosophy is so abstract, so "vague," so left-brain, that it hasn't a clue about romantic love and probably can't learn anything at all about it. We are famously instructed that "the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of" (Blaise Pascal). One of our friends charged that philosophy deals in "frozen" words, whereas love is an "ineffable" experience. Philosophy having thus been put in its place, a remarkable discussion took place in which all the participants used words to characterize the nature of love.
The animosity between the Romantic and the Rational has a long history in Western culture. The dispute has been exaggerated and is mostly futile. Humans need both. Despite the triumph of the rational from the 19th century on, the Romantic lives on in our hearts, our music, our poetry, our novels and movies. Most of us know that the two are capable of co-existing. but when they clash, as they did in the 1960's, it is hard to see how they can get along. Some of us think a final peace will be won by some kind of integration, not by a battle to the death.
Back to our topic. Philosophy isn't a person; it's a type of inquiry, so let's rephrase the question: what can philosophers learn from romantic love?
Philosophers are persons, so most of them will fall in love one or more times in their lives. They will learn from their own encounters with love what it's like, just as everyone else does - from direct experience: the waves of emotion, the ecstasies and torments, the joy of winning the lover, the pain of loss, the inevitable fading of passion - the whole exhilarating, frustrating, possibly indispensable, ultimately unsatisfactory mess. They will use the modes of expression available to them in their culture - girl talk, boy talk, trans-talk, poetry, music, visual art, dance, etc. - to express their experience of love and what it means to them. What they do not themselves experience in their own love affairs they will learn second-hand from others' stories, poetry, literature, drama, and songs. In short, philosophers will learn about love from being in love. So where's the issue in this issue?
As we were profoundly informed at the meeting, love can't be adequately expressed in words, because it's an experience, a feeling or perhaps a whole constellation of feelings, a matter of the heart, not of the conceptual mind. Therefore, a philosophy of love is an oxymoron. The premise of this argument can't support the drama with which it was uttered. Everyone knows it. The difference between a feeling and a description of the feeling is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a minute, so this does not reveal much about what a philosopher can learn from romantic love, and you won't find the theme given a great deal of attention in philosophical works on love.
If a philosopher takes time out from romancing her beloved to think and write about love, she will be working within one or more of three basic perspectives: the phenomenological - thinking about her own personal experience; the cultural perspective - the historical and contemporary views on love in philosophy, psychology, literature, and drama that are available in her culture and perhaps in others; and the scientific - biology, neuroscience, and sociology. All of those have a lot to say about love, and philosophers will take the best information and ideas from all of them to make sense out of "the story of….the glory of love."
Philosophy of love is an interesting pursuit, boasting a long history from ancient times in the West as well as in Hindu, Buddhist, and Persian traditions. For a quick summary of that history and a list of philosophical sources, go to Wikipedia here. Read some philosophy of love - for example, Plato's Symposium, and decide for yourself whether philosophy has anything important to say about love.