Love as a Core Philosophical Issue, Part 1
Soren Kierkegaard, who was well attuned to the nuances of words, decided to call his important religious treatise on love Works of Love. This decision demands attention: Why works of love? What does he mean by works and what is the difference between love and works of love?These are good questions, interesting questions; frankly, they are very important questions. But, there is something about love itself, which raises another question: Why is it that issues regarding love - the more in depth considerations regarding the place of love - seem today to have become most often a matter of religion rather than philosophy?
In the case of Kierkegaard's Works of Love, it is easy to see why it would be described as a "religious treatise" rather than a philosophical one. After all, Kierkegaard has countless references to God and Christ, frequently cites New Testament passages, and even includes in the subtitle to this work the description "Christian Reflections".
According to Kierkegaard, the form of exposition which he calls reflections
... do not presuppose the qualifying concepts as given and understood; therefore, they must not so much move, mollify, reassure, persuade as awaken and provoke men and sharpen thought ... [In contrast to reflections,] An edifying discourse about love presupposes that men know essentially what love is and seeks to win them to it, to move them. But this is in fact not the case. Therefore the "reflections" must first fetch them up out of the cellar, call to them, turn their comfortable way of thinking topsy-turvy with the dialectic of truth. 2Of course, as an expository form, such reflections are precisely what is to be expected of philosophy, but, by his own reckoning and description, Kierkegaard undertakes Christian reflections - a "religious treatise" - and not a more generic philosophical consideration.
Maybe he does this because he has in mind, for whatever reason, a (culturally) Christian intended audience. Then again, maybe he does this because the language, the terminology made available to him from his Christian inheritance seems the language and tradition best suited for talk about love.
It is the possibility that Christian language might be what is best suited for discussion about love, its nature, and its importance that brings to the fore the sense that love is - if not philosophically irrelevant, then - philosophically insignificant and inconceivable as a core philosophical issue.
This is not to say that love has never been a philosophical topic. After all, there is discussion, for example, about eros and philia (which are commonly and properly regarded as types of love) at least as early Plato's Lysis and Symposium 3, which attained standing as the "traditional philosophical notion of love" 4 wherein
love results from the imperfection and privation of that which loves. One loves, in other words, what one does not possess ... Accordingly, that which is imperfect loves that which is perfect, and, that which is perfect ... neither loves nor desires.Subsequently, Aristotle "likewise claimed that that which is less perfect (e.g., slaves, children, wives and ruled) should have more love for that which is more perfect (e.g., freeborn, parents, husbands, and rulers) than vice versa. The First Cause, then, is loved but does not love."
This association of love with imperfection was still very much prevalent towards the end of the Middle Ages when two Jewish philosophers, first Hasdai Crescas and then about one century later, Judah Abrabanel, asserted very much the opposite notion.
Crescas's work puts forth a God who "is primarily Goodness and Love" with that love "directed on the world, not Himself." Rejecting what he saw as the excessive intellectualism of philosophy, Crescas insisted that the "highest goal of man is not intellectual self-perfection but the love of God" and that "the deepest purpose of the revealed Law" was to effect just such a love. 5 Similarly, in his Dialoghi d'amore (“Dialogues of Love”), Abrabanel (or Abravanel, also known as Leone Ebreo) puts forth God as creating in love and man returning to God by love. 6
Whether or not Abrabanel's treatise was at all philosophically influential, that work was apparently very popular and widely read -- by non-Jews in particular. For their part, some Jews faulted Abrabanel for "rationalizing kabbalistic principles" and "for spending too much time on linguistic matters, such as riddles and eloquence", all apparently amounting to a "lack of ... esotericism". 7
Crescas's work, on the other hand, is reported to have influenced Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno as well as Spinoza, and, yet, it is anything but apparent that the shift away from the association of love with imperfection to the association with perfection has made love any more important as a topic for philosophical consideration. This could be a consequence of the association of love with perfection having been made in a context of religious thought, but love hardly seems to have developed as a core philosophical topic even in the philosophy of religion (although talk of love - at least frequent use of, or reference to, the term love - is common among more than just a few of the religious faithful).
One reason why an emphasis on love might not have developed in philosophy of religion is because the "rationalizing" identified with philosophy seems incapable of avoiding ending up as having discussed something other than love as it is experienced. For instance, Jean-Luc Marion has said that "We live with love as if we knew what it was about. But as soon as we try to define it, or at least approach it with concepts, it draws away from us." 8
Such a "draw[ing] away" could well explain the objections to philosophical "rationalizing" as inadequate - if not outright inappropriate - for considerations about love and its nature, and Marion's assertion about love ultimately having a "lack of definition" could well provide an explanation for why it is that not just philosophy in general but also philosophy of religion have, at best, kept love at the periphery of philosophical investigations. Philosophy seeks the definite and, so, tends to conduct itself in terms of the definite.
But, even if philosophy has become predominantly a process of analysis with a preference (actually probably more like a habit) for dealing with - or seeking out - only those matters which are readily definable or reducibly describable, even if philosophy is limited in how well it can deal with indefinite issues such as love, and even if philosophy has always been this way, that does not mean that there is not great value to be had by investigating love by means of philosophy. (In fact, it is probably only by making such a matter as love a core issue that philosophy can be rescued from the position of irrelevance in which it apparently has come to be held by most people.)
What is it that actually "draws away from us" when love is discussed or conceptualized?
Surely, it is not love itself. More likely, it is a particular feeling. After all, the most common, the most immediate experience usually referred to as "love" is an intense feeling, usually a feeling imbued with a passionate personal preference -- which itself might indicate a type of admiration, whether for beauty, talent, character, what have you. Of course, the fact of the matter is that it is only very occasionally that we experience that intense feeling which is usually taken as justifying our ascribing that feeling to love.
There is no doubt that were we to engage in a philosophical analysis of love during a time that we are intensely experiencing that feeling called "love", the feeling would surely dissipate. But, if there is any substance to love beyond that intense feeling, if love is anything other than just an occasional emotional intensity, then the only thing that actually "draws away from us" when we "approach [love] with concepts" would be our certainty that "we knew what love was about", our certainty that we know all there is to know about love and its importance.
It is very likely the case that most people think of love as pertaining predominantly (if not exclusively) to some person found to be exceptionally beloved, such as occurs in both erotic or romantic love and in friendship. It is certainly in such relationships that personal preference and personal passion are most acutely experienced. But, can love as nothing more than a personal preference - no matter how unusually intense - even conceivably be associated with notions about perfection?
Kierkegaard says that praise for love when love is considered as nothing more than personal preference - as nothing other than romantic love and friendship - belongs to the domain of "the poet" 9, and he notes that "[a]s the poet understands them, love and friendship contain no ethical task." 10 If this indeed is the case, then the love which is associated with the returning to God, with Godliness and goodness, or simply with the notion of perfection in general - with or without God - would have to be either a love entirely other than personal preferential love, or it would have to be a love which has aspects in addition to - it would have to be a love which goes beyond - the love reflective of personal preference.
Kierkegaard says that:
According to the secular or purely human point of view many different kinds of love are discernible ... With Christianity the opposite is the case. It recognizes only one kind of love, spiritual love ... 11In her article, Krishek notes that for Kierkegaard,
The deepest layer and the ultimate origin of all love is God's love, which obviously transcends us but is also ... within us. Kierkegaard says little about the metaphysical character of this interesting aspect of love ... but it is clear that he takes love to be a fundamental entity (as it were): not a mere feeling ...
"There is a place in a person's innermost being; from this place flows the life of love" ... I suggest that we take ... the love "within us" [to be] first and foremost an elemental "power" (i.e., something essential to our human nature that drives us to act) ... Kierkegaard does not wish to elaborate on this power, on this hidden mystery. He says specifically: "in this little work we are continually dealing only with the works of love, and therefore not with God's love but with human love". Thus, while the first layer of love is God's love, which in its abiding power within us constitutes the second layer of love ... the third layer is the human works of love ... the way in which love becomes manifested in the world. Each work enacts love and gives it shape: the hidden, primordial 'power of love' is actualized through the work of love. 12
If it is possible for love to be a core philosophical issue, as distinguished from an exclusively religious or philosophy of religion issue, it is precisely the works of love, the manner in which love is to be best made manifest in the world which should be the philosophical concern.
Can this be accomplished? This is what I hope to investigate in forthcoming blog entries.
1 Sharon Krishek, "The Enactment of Love by Faith: On Kierkegaard's Distinction Between Love and its Works", Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 2010, pp. 3-21.
2 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 12.
3 see http://plato.stanfor...ato-friendship/
4 see http://plato.stanfor.../abrabanel/#Lov
5 see http://www.radicalac...sh3.htm#crescas
6 see http://www.radicalac...3.htm#Abravanel
7 see http://plato.stanfor...anel/#RecHisInf
8 see http://en.wikipedia....onality_of_Love
9 Kierkegaard, p. 58.
10 Ibid., p. 64.
11 Ibid., p. 144.
12 Krishek, pp. 5-6.
13 Ibid., p. 4.