Sunday, 8 September 2013

Philosophy and Romantic Love: the Story of an Awkward, Promising Couple

This series is an adaptation of a talk, ‘The Philosophy of Romantic Love’ that I gave at the University of Oxford Socrates Society, May 2013.

Yes that’s right, I want to philosophise about romantic love. Let me relay, though, by way of introduction, a story about an exchange I had while I was preparing this material.

I was reading an especially good book on the topic at hand in the common room of Wycliffe College; there was just me in there and this one girl. She too was reading. But she paused for a moment to ask me what it was I had my head buried in. And I admit, I was happy to be asked. I considered this a stellar opportunity to come across as interesting, thoughtful and generally pretty cool. I replied, “a book on the philosophy of romantic love” and expected this to be the start of an enthralling conversation. “Oh”, she said and returned her attention to the book in her hand. Obviously, as far as I was concerned, she just hadn’t understood quite how exciting my reading project was. So I thought I had to make it more explicit. “It’s just sooo interesting”, I said, “I mean, the philosophy of romantic love.” She, however, still wasn’t taking to the topic. “I can’t think of anything less romantic,” she responded.

I share this story because there is a question mark surrounding the legitimacy of philosophising about love. That girl wasn’t just getting at the fact that a philosophical treatise on love isn’t itself romantic. She was also conveying her sense that analysing love - philosophising about it - does damage to the thing itself. Her sense was that if you’re going to talk about love, you need poetry, metaphor, imagery and the like (she was herself a poet, interestingly). A discourse that resembles philosophy comes across sacrilegious. It’s taking the magic out of something special. 

There are three big questions I want to discuss in this series and the first is this one about whether we should be philosophising about love at all. And, in fact, even if we do decide to, what are we looking for? Even if we gain more knowledge about love, can we gain wisdom to actually be better lovers?

Obviously, I’m writing on the philosophy of love so I must think there are some gains to be had in reflecting philosophically about love. And indeed I do but I am sensitive to this fear that philosophy really isn’t called for here. After all, when you look at what philosophising is like, at least in the contemporary Anglophone tradition, its whole attitude seems starkly opposed to a loving one.

Analysis is the heart of this sort of philosophy. But the love of analytic rationality typical of philosophers is hard to separate from notions of control and self-regulating autonomy. To analyse and comprehend is to break a phenomenon down into its component parts and see how it fits together. We try and achieve full articulacy and clarity about the thing we’re dissecting. This understanding, we hope, potentially allows for the possibility of manipulating the components or regulating our response to them. Such detailed theorising has the attraction of promising that we avoid slipping carelessly into error, leaving us self-possessed and in charge of ourselves.

But love, gloriously, isn’t like that! Love is a position of openness to the beloved where you precisely don’t have full control. You risk yourself - leave yourself vulnerable to the beloved’s response. And the beloved is a person whose response can’t be reduced to calculable formula. Moreover, love defies full articulation. You don’t have reflexive clarity about it precisely because it is so meaningful. The significance of the beloved is too huge to put into words.

When asked about our beloved why we love him/her, the question certainly makes sense. It isn’t that the enquirer has made some sort of category error. And we may spurt out a few things. He’s so kind, she’s so funny, he just has this sparkle in his eye etc. But both we and the other person recognise that we are not giving exhaustive answers. Indeed, the enquirer would be horrified if we specified a few things and said, yup that is precisely and exactly why I’m in love. That would just be evidence that you’re not in love – that whatever you’re experiencing isn’t that profound!  Full articulation is out of reach of those things that matter to us most.

So there are some attitudes of the lover that can create friction with the attitudes of a certain species of philosopher. Those philosophical attitudes, carried over into love, would be disastrous. A lover with those attitudes would be possessive, controlling, disengaged, aloof, uncommitted, uncaring, and comically rigorous in expression. Scarcely a lover at all.

Still, there is a case to be made for philosophising about love. And actually, though I don’t have the space or competence to argue as such here, the analytic ideal doesn’t just butcher love, it actually distorts what philosophy is truly about too! For insights in this direction, check out Loving to Know by Esther Meek. Anyway, what I really want to say is that, yes, certain intellectual attitudes can be destructive but some form of thinking hard and deep about love is important and can help lovers actually be better lovers. This “thinking hard” is all I shall mean by “philosophy.”

Consider this. Lovers, when they truly care about each other and their relationship, take time to reflect on the state of their relationship. Are we spending quality time together? Are we listening to each other? Why do we fight when we do? Do we not spend enough time with our other friends? Not that lovers should exist in a constant state of relationship analysis (that would be one of the destructive attitudes), but periodically, this sort of reflection is appropriate. This sort of vigilance in up-keeping the relationship is part and parcel of caring about it.

What is also part and parcel of the relationship is some rough sense – hopefully shared to a decent degree – about what romantic love is and what it’s about. We all have a certain narrative about how loves goes and what it should be like. Some features of the narrative contain particular, practical notions, like what constitutes a good, romantic date (candle-lit dinner beats out a monster truck show). Other features are more abstract, possibly implicit, and function as “ideals”. For instance, in our culture, you are likely to think that romantic love is “morally pure.” That is, you are likely to think that actions motivated by romantic love are ultimately good and excusing of otherwise inappropriate action (“all’s fair in love and war”). You probably also have certain emotional expectations about what romantic love will feel like (it will be intense, blissful and, if authentic, ever-lasting).[1] These are narratives we “play-out” as we live love. We imitate the story and make it our own. We trust it to guide us into a healthy relationship.

But our narrative is not universal and unquestionable. That’s why it can be hard to forge a strong relationship with someone culturally distant from you. You are not both drawing from the same narrative. You expect the other person to play the role from your story but they are following a different script. Our cultural narrative does, no doubt, contain a good deal of insight but it’s also quite likely, given that it’s a human culture, that it contains a good deal of distortion too.

Given, then, that reflection on how our relationships are doing is called for by our care for these relationships, it makes sense that we should reflect on the narratives that orchestrate and direct these relationships. Maybe the distortions in the narrative are jarring with your own experience of love. You may not be able to articulate it, but you sense something’s “off”. You know, in a fuzzy sort of way, that something isn’t making sense. Reality keeps failing to deliver what the story promises.

Let’s “think hard and deep” about some features of this narrative. If you’re single like me, this can be part of an anticipatory caring for a potential future relationship. Next time, then, we’ll consider the role of emotion in entering and sustaining a romantic relationship. 

[1] Ben-Zeʼev, Aharon, and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. This book was helpful for articulating some of these ideals and for a frank look at how disastrous they can be in certain extreme cases (motivating murder!)

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