What is love? Thousands of years on and we're still asking the same question

We haven't found the answer - but are now looking to Google to find out

Edward Harcourt
Tuesday 16 December 2014 15:54 GMT
(Getty Creative)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


A disadvantage philosophers face when they take taxi rides or go to drinks parties is that answering the question ‘What do you do?’ generally brings the conversation screeching to a halt. One way to get things moving again is to mention a buzz word like ‘neuroscience’ or ‘psychotherapy’ or, of course, ‘love’. Not surprising, perhaps, given that love is the third most searched-for ‘what is’question on Google’s list for 2014.

So what do philosophers talk about when they talk about love? One long-standing question which needs to be cleared up early on – much as the kitchen needs to be cleared up before you start cooking lunch – is whether love is one or many. For if it’s many - if ‘love’ stands for lots of different things, not just one - then asking what it is won’t get us very far.

Plato's Symposium explains the origins of love by means of a fable: once upon a time all human beings were spherical, and since we’ve split we have always been looking for our ‘other half’. 2,400 years ago, have philosophers got any further on the subject of love?

Philosophical discussions often distinguish between three types of love: eros (sexual love), agape (the love of God for man and man for God, the ‘charity’ of I Corinthians 13), and philia, which rolls up care and companionship and disinterested concern – among other things. But are there really as many as even these three?

The nature of God’s love for man is a theological not a philosophical question, and even if philosophers were competent to pronounce upon it, surely the nature of God’s love can have little to teach us about the psychology of imperfect humans, so let’s set agape on one side. That leaves eros and philia.

Freud was suspicious of the distinction: he thought that not only a couple’s love for one another, but the parent’s love for the child and the child’s for the parent were basically of the same kind, because ‘really’ sexual. But to make this come out true, he expanded the notion of the sexual so broadly as to empty it of any meaning. Nonetheless he was on to something. How can a little girl and her mother be rivals for the father’s love if there isn’t one thing – plain love – that they’re competing for?

To be sure, in one case this love will express itself in sexual behaviour and in the other not, but this is a relatively superficial difference. Look at lions mating, and then look at a lioness with her new-born cubs – there’s very little behaviourally the two have in common. But look at two adult lovers, and then look at mother and baby clinging to each other, staring adoringly into each other’s eyes, not wanting to be out of each other’s company (one of Aristotle’s marks of philia). Sexual behaviour in human beings is a specialized expression of a much more fundamental phenomenon: attachment. And it’s attachment that lies at the root of love, whether ‘romantic’ or familial.

What developmental psychologists call the attachment system is part of the biological endowment which human beings, as a species, possess as a result of natural selection. We have all heard of the unignorable pitch of a baby’s screams, but don't forget the unignorable charm of a baby’s smile: via their attachment to a very small number of special others, vulnerable human infants enlist those others’ care, and this helps them to survive to maturity. (It kicks in later in human than in primate young, perhaps because – historically – human mothers were more likely to die in childbirth, so attachment to that special other at too young an age was a bad bet.)

The rootedness of human love in the biology of attachment helps to solve some other puzzles about love which trouble philosophers. One is the relationship between love and reasons. Lovers are expected to have something to say in answer to the question ‘Why do you love me?’. But even when we believe the answers fully as we say them - which we don't always: ‘the most beautiful baby in the world’ – the answers we provide (‘your sense of humour’, ‘your sparkling brown eyes’) are often highly generic, features shared by countless other people. And yet we wouldn't swap our loved ones for anyone else. (At this point philosophers often say ‘not even for an exact replica’, but surely losing a loved one and getting a replica would make things a whole lot worse.)

Attachment theory helps to explain why the reasons we give for our loves are so unhelpfully general compared to the absolute non-substitutability of our loved ones: before reason even gets a look in, nature does the work, via our attachment system, of hooking us up with just that person, and only a few times over in any human life.

Attachment also helps to dig the philosophy of love out of one more hole. This is the question whether love by definition involves respect, or care, or constancy, or intimacy, or various other good things. It looks like it might, until we remember lovers (and loved ones) who are overpowering, or possessive, or dependent, or neglectful – the list of the ways love can trap or diminish lives as well as fulfil them goes on and on. But didn't Shakespeare himself say ‘Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds’? He did, but that isn’t Shakespeare’s attempt at a definition of love – why would a poet be in the business of giving definitions? – but his expression of an ideal of love, something love lives up to when it’s at its best.

Now according to attachment theory, our primitive disposition to form attachments comes in different styles – secure (warm and accepting of the other’s independence), insecure-avoidant (respectful but remote), and so on. So it helps to explain how the variously imperfect forms taken by human love – respectful of differences or not, caring or neglectful, cool or warm or clingy - can nonetheless be elaborations of a single basic phenomenon. Could ‘attachment’ be a top ten search term in 2015?

Edward Harcourt, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, and Keble College, Oxford University

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