The Heart Has Its Reasons

Now that the cards and long-stem roses have been sent, Scott McLemee takes a look at a short, dense book about the meaning of love.

February 15, 2006

Perhaps it’s best to have waited until after Valentine’s Day to think about love. The holiday, after all, has less to do with passion than with sentimentality -- that is, a fixed matrix of sighs and signs, an established and tightly run order of feelings and expressions. That is all pleasant enough. But still, it seems kind of feeble by contrast with the reality of love, which is complicated, and which can mess you up.

The distinction is not semantic. And no, I did not improvise it as some kind of roundabout excuse for forgetting the holiday. (You do not sustain a happy marriage for a dozen years without knowing to pump a few dollars into the sentimental economy in a timely fashion.)

There are times when the usual romantic phrases and symbols prove exactly right for expressing what you mean. The stock of them is, as Roland Barthes puts it in A Lover’s Discourse, like a perpetual calendar. The standard words are clichés, perhaps. But they are meaningful clichés, and nobody has sounded out their overtones with anything like Barthes’s finesse.

Still, the repertoire of romantic discourse has its limits. “The lover speaks in bundles of sentences but does not integrate these sentences on a higher level, into a work,” writes Barthes. “His is a horizontal discourse: no transcendence, no deliverance, no novel (though a great deal of the fictive).”

Well, okay, yes -- that is all true of the early days of a relationship. When you are both horizontal, the discourse between you tends to be, as well. Once you begin to build a life together, however, a certain amount of verticality, if not transcendence, imposes itself; and the nuances of what Barthes called the “lover’s discourse” are not so much lost as transformed. Even the silences are enriched. I try to keep quiet on Sunday while my wife is reading the Times, for example. There can be a kind of intimacy involved in keeping out of the other’s way.

For an account of love in this other sense, I’d recommend Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love, first published by Princeton University Press in 2004 and released in paperback just this year. The front cover announces that Frankfurt, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, is “author of the best-selling On Bullshit.

Like the book that established the Frankfurt brand in the widest cultural marketplace, Reasons is a dry and elegant little treatise – somehow resembling the various “manuals for reflection” from Roman or Renaissance times more than it does most contemporary academic philosophy. It consists of papers originally delivered as the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Lectures at Princeton in 2000, then presented again the following year as the Shearman Lectures at University College London.

The ease and accessibility of Frankfurt’s manner are somewhat misleading. There is actually an enormous amount going on within the book’s hundred pages. Despite its unassuming tone, Reasons is a late installment of Frankfurt’s work on questions of moral philosophy in general, and free will in particular. In a footnote, he points out that precision can be risky, citing a comment attributed to Niels Bohr: “He is said to have cautioned that one should never speak more clearly than one can think.” (With plenty of academic books, of course, the author faces no such danger.)

It is the second of his three lectures (titled “On Love, and Its Reasons”) that seems to me to fill in all the gaps left in Barthes’s account. Frankfurt sets his argument up so that it can apply to love of any kind -- the love of one’s family, homeland, or ideological cause, quite as much as one’s romantic partner. Indeed, the latter kind of love tends to have an admixture of messy and “vividly distracting elements” (as he terms them) that can hinder exact definition of the concept. But if the shoe fits....

For all his lucidity, Frankfurt is very alert to the paradoxical nature of love. It is not really the case that we love something because it possesses a certain quality or value. “The truly essential relationship between love and the value of the beloved,” he notes, “goes in the opposite direction. It is not necessarily as a result of recognizing their value and of being captivated by it that we love things. Rather, what we love necessarily acquires value for us because we love it.”

In that respect, Frankfurt’s understanding of love seems to follow the same lines as the thinking of a philosopher one would otherwise never confuse with him -- namely, Slavoj Žižek. For as Žižek once pointed out, if our regard for another person could be strictly reduced to a list of exactly what we found admirable or valuable about them, then the word “love” wouldn’t really apply to what we feel. And even the faults of the beloved are, for the person in love, not valid objections to feeling love. (They may drive you crazy. But the fact that they do is, in its way, a dimension of love.)

So the value of the beloved, as Frankfurt argues, is an effect of love -- not the cause. And when we love someone, we want the best for that person. In other words, we regard the beloved as an end, not as a means. “The lover desires that his beloved flourish and not be harmed,” writes Frankfurt, “and he does not desire this just for the sake of promoting some other goal.... For the lover, the condition of his beloved is important in itself, apart from any bearing it might have on other matters.”

If this sounds a little bit like the categorical imperative .... well,  that’s about half right, if just barely. Kant tells us that ethical conduct requires treating other people as ends, not as means. But that imperative is universal -- and as Frankfurt says, the feeling of love is inescapably specific. “The significance to the lover of what he loves,” he writes, “is not generic; it is ineluctably particular.”

This is where things get complicated. We don’t have a lot of say or sway in regard to love. It is not that love is blind, or that passion is irrational. Sure, that too. But while the capacity to love belongs, as Frankfurt puts it, “to our most intimate and most fundamental nature,” the demands it places on each person is not subject to personal decision making.

“We cannot help it that the direction of our personal reasoning is in fact governed by the specific final ends that our love has defined for us,” writes Frankfurt. “... Whether it would be better for us to love differently is a question that we are unable to take seriously. For us, as a practical matter, the issue cannot effectively arise.”

What makes this philosophically interesting, I take it, is that love blurs the distinction between selfishness and selflessness – between treating the beloved as an end in itself, on the one hand, and the fact that the beloved is my beloved, in particular, on the other.

Quite a bit of ink has been spilled, over time, regarding the question of whether or not it is possible, or desirable, to establish universal principles that could be applied without reference to the local or personal interests of moral agents. “The ambition to provide an exhaustively rational warrant for the way we conduct our lives is misconceived,” says Frankfurt. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative to “the pan-rationalist fantasy” is imagining human beings to be totally capricious, completely self-inventing, or intractably self-absorbed.

Nor does it mean that, like the song says, “All you need is love.” Love simplifies nothing. At the same time, it makes life interesting -- and possible.

“The fact that we cannot help loving,” as Frankfurt puts it, “and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course.”

Okay, so Harry Frankfurt is not the most lyrical of philosophers. Still, he has his moments. Roland Barthes wrote that the lover’s discourse consists of stray sentences -- never adding up to a coherent work, let alone anything with a structure, like a novel. But when Frankfurt says that love ensures that “we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course,” it does seem to gesture toward a story.

A recognizable story. A familiar story. (One that includes the line, “Before we met...”) A story I am living, as perhaps you are, too.


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