DRMacIver's Notebook

Teach me of your human notions of love

Teach me of your human notions of love

From Finding Our Sea-Legs, p 41:

Perhaps it is not the oldest philosophical question in the book, but is one of the most recurrent, at least once puberty has kicked in: "What is this thing called love?"

Well, lets see what the book has to say about it. From Tiffany Watt Smith's The Book of Human Emotions:

Is there anything left to say about love? Reams of poetry and songs, libraries' worth of philosophy, are dedicated to trying to express it, to understand and define it. The very volume of words tells us not only how much there is to say on the subject, but also how little can be said with any certainty.

Thanks Tiffany, that's very helpful.

Buckingham, on page 42, suggests that unlike philosophy (which asks questions like "What is love?"), storytelling tends to ask "What is love like?".

He is quick to point out the flaw in this question (on page 43):

Here, however, we need to be philosophically cautious. The way that this second question is phrased, "What is love like?" risks seducing us into thinking that there is in fact, a single thing, love, towards which this new question will lead us. But the more we ask this kind of question, the more it becomes apparent that love is no more a single thing than is death. What emerges from our storytelling is not Love, but a multiplicity of loves.

This multiplicity of loves is, I think, part of the core of the practical problems of love. In reality, we are not so much interested in the question "What is love like?" any more than we are interested in the question "What is love?". What we want to know tends to be questions more like:

I think we will find that when we ask these questions they will not always mean the the same notion of love.

Love, like most things, doesn't really have a formal definition - you can look it up in a dictionary, but dictionaries describe use rather than providing authoritative definitions, and the dictionary's selection of meanings for love are particularly useless.

Most words used in practice are defined ostensively, meaning that we point to a bunch of examples and hope that you can figure out the general pattern because we sure as hell don't know how explain it to you.

This is particularly tricky for things which are primarily phenomenological - purely or predominantly aspects of our subjective experience. We barely have a coherent vocabulary for talking about pain, and pain is at least relatively easy to reproduce on demand. How is this supposed to work for things like love, which are vastly more complicated, and which you cannot easily point to an example?

Buckingham's answer is to let go of the question and embrace this plurality. I think this concedes too much, because it runs into a substantial problem: We can disagree what love is.

I've talked about Bell Hooks's notion of love as "The will to extend one's self for the purpose of one's own or another's spiritual growth". I think this is a good definition. It's not true, in that I don't think one can meaningfully assign a truth value to the question of whether that is what love is, but I think that it provides a good starting point for reasoning about many of the positive aspects of love.

But it's certainly not a definition that everyone can agree on.

David Chapman talks about nebulosity, the cloudlike nature of things - clouds are ill defined at the boundary. If you ask "What is the weight of a cloud?" you will end up with uncertainty that is in some sense fundamentally ontological (concerned with categories - which bits of matter do you consider "part of the cloud"?) rather than epistemic (concerned with knowledge - trying to pin down facts of empirical reality). Some parts of reality are clearly part of the cloud, some parts of reality are clearly not part of the cloud, but at the boundary there is a region where it's... kinda part of the cloud but it's not really clear, and the answer to your question about the mass of the cloud will depend on how we decide that question of categorisation.

When you ask "Do I love them?" you will experience this nebulosity of love: Some people the answer is obviously no, hopefully some people the answer is obviously yes, but if you are asking the question you are probably in that boundary zone where the answer is the rather frustating "It depends what you mean by love?".

But when you ask "Do they love me?" the question is more complicated yet.

Not everyone has the same notion of love. Some notions of love are different, and some notions of love are better than others (there's no total ordering here - it's very unlikely that there's a single best notion of love). Many notions of love that we see in common use are coercive, abusive, or proprietary. "I would love you more if you changed to be what I want", "I hurt you because I love you", or "I love you, so you are mine".

In those cases the difficulty is still one of ontology. There are still questions about where the boundary of love is, but that boundary is now not merely fuzzy but contested. This is no longer a collaboration where you are trying to pin down an area of uncertainty, but a fight over the correct positioning of that boundary.