Of Love

A distinguished philosopher sums up his thoughts on love. The more you give....

February 25, 2009

For most of us, any effort to philosophize about love would be an invitation to embarrassment. And not simply because of any limitations in our conceptual apparatus, or the considerable difficulty in avoiding cliches. Here, speculation soon runs to confession. The autobiographical strata of our thoughts do not stay buried for long. Much wisdom in this arena is, after all, the product of mistakes, if not necessarily of disillusionment.

This is true even if you are happy in love -- maybe especially then. It means the regrets have been sublated; you’ve made something out of them, which is no small feat. I won’t get any more memoiristic here than that ... except to say that luck has a lot to do with it.

At the other extreme from our episodic private fumblings towards meaning in such matters, we have the work of Irving Singer, a professor of philosophy at MIT. In 1966 he published The Nature of Love: From Plato to Luther -- the first volume of what became a trilogy covering thinking on its subject through the 20th century. Singer is thorough. Also unrelenting: since completing the trilogy in 1987, he devoted more books and papers to the subject. The MIT Press has just published his Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing-Up -- a short, swift book that serves as a kind of portico to the Irving Singer Library, a series that will reprint his collected works (including the trilogy) in a uniform edition.

My own previous exposure to Singer’s work had been limited to The Pursuit of Love (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). But even from this narrow sampling, it was obvious that the durability of his concern reflects, in part, the scope of the subject, which is deep and broad. Once in love, you don’t get back out easily, or maybe ever. This is true of intellection about it, as well as the experience itself.

And while the new book is a scholarly rather than an intimate self-portrait, Singer makes clear that his interest in the history of philosophical efforts to think about love had a personal dimension. “I was motivated,” he writes, “by anxieties, confusions, unresolved ambivalences within myself as a human being and not merely as a thinker.... I felt that I could overcome the dilemmas in my own affective life by a careful, albeit plodding, analysis of what matters to everyone.”

We are spared the details, though that seems just as well. Philosophy of Love is intellectual autobiography in a casual register, but it does not offer false intimacy. Its approach takes for granted that the reader will share Singer’s concerns by virtue of a common share in the human condition.

That may sound presumptuous. Who’s to say there is a common human condition, anyway? There is some basis for this reservation: Singer’s literary and philosophical references are exclusively Western, nearly all of the figures he cites are male, and his conception of sexuality tends to be (as a clumsy word has it) heteronormative. I do not point this out in a spirit of political correctness. I point it out in the spirit of being an adult -- one who has lived long enough (and among enough sorts of people) to have lost the illusion that he can undertand very much about how other people experience the world. So isn’t Singer in danger of thinking on the basis of too narrow a set of references?

The short answer here is that yes, he is -- but he knows it, and remains open to argument and emendation. For the thrust of Singer’s reflection is always towards showing that the nature of love is far more complex than any of the available notions for understanding it would make it seem. He is an empiricist of the heart.

“I don’t think,” Singer writes, “that large-scale terms like love, happiness, meaning of life, meaning in life, sex, beauty, and such, are able to have any one definition. These phenomena are so enormous within our human nature – and the same is true of what we even mean by human nature – that we cannot justifiably constrict them within a single, fixed, and all-embracing definition....There will always be realities of feeling and experience that do not fit.”

What this leaves for the philosopher to do, then, is a more or less open-ended process of analyzing the inherited ideas about love (from Plato, Shakespeare, Freud, Sartre, etc.) in a way that is not simply a form of intellectual history – for the ideas are woven into our experience in ways that are terrifically subtle and tenacious.

A case in point is the doctrine that love is a desire for merger between two people. It is embodied in the myth recounted by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”; aspects of it can be found in Freudian theory. “There is a kind of romanticism that predicates a basic hunger in everyone for some such fusion,” says Singer. “Without denying the frequency of this aspiration, I see little reason to think that it is characteristic of all forms of romantic attachment, and I’m sure it is not fulfilled in any actual cases of love.”

We are, after all, ineluctably distinct: “The most that can happen is that because you think you’re merging, you end up falsifying ingredients in the reality of your relationship.” Some people figure this out; others never do. Either way, the power of the desire is not lessened by millennia of metaphysical speculation, not to mention half the popular songs ever written. It feeds “the overwhelming and quasi-religious emotionality that men and women may get from love, particularly sexual love” – but without recognizing another dimension of it, which is much more complex.

This Singer calls “bestowal” – one of his few terminological innovations, resting on a contrast with “appraisal” that becomes all the richer as he pursues it. Appraisal he defines as “the ability to discover value, in oneself or in other people.” This may or may not be passionate; for that matter, it can be quite self-interested and even utilitarian. The very term, with its mercantile overtones, suggests as much: “At the level of mere appraisal, we are all commodities for each other.”

By contrast, what Singer calls bestowal involves “an engendering of value by means of the relationship we have established, by means of one’s appreciative attitude toward the person, thing, or ideal to which we attend. It’s a kind of projection. It’s a creating of affective value, both in oneself and in the other....”

Appraisal identifies a value. Bestowal surpasses existing values, generating something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a gift – one that you receive in the act of giving. And being in the nature of creativity itself, bestowal is open-ended, with no fixed rules for its possible forms. This is a vast idea, bigger than romantic love. Happy is the person who finds both together.


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