(This post is dedicated to Eric and Sarit, who are getting married this weekend, and to my husband and myself, who are celebrating 10 years of marriage today!)
This past week, Ronald de Sousa (Toronto) was delivering a series of lectures on the philosophy of love at Leiden University. The material presented corresponds to the building blocks of the monograph on love he is currently working on. As is well known, Ronnie has made decisive contributions to the philosophy of emotions, in particular in his books The Rationality of Emotions (1987, MIT) and Emotional Truth (2011, OUP). He is now focusing specifically on romantic love – that many-splendored thing – combining elements from philosophy, literature and the neuroscience of love; so there are many reasons to look forward to the end-result, given that this plural, integrative perspective seems to be exactly what is required to make sense of such a rich and complex topic.
Due to other commitments, I could only attend one of the four lectures he delivered; but as many of the points he raised connect nicely with some of my previous posts here at NewAPPS, I figured I might as well write a post on the lecture. The overall thesis of the lecture is that most of our mainstream conceptions of love are ultimately ideologies of the pernicious kind. Ronnie started with the mother of all love ideologies: Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium. According to the myth, human beings used to be somewhat round creatures with eight limbs and two faces, and came in three kinds: male, female and androgynous (which allows the myth to offer an account of sexual orientation as well). They were then chopped in two by a furious Zeus, and thus started to wander around the Earth missing ‘the other half’ of themselves. Aristophanes claims that when two people who were separated from each other find each other again, they never want to be separated and feel ‘whole’ again (192c).
It is indeed quite surprising how much under the spell of Aristophanes’ myth we still are: for every person, there is someone else ‘out there’ who is his/her perfect match – the missing half. The only challenge is to find this person, but once this is accomplished, endless happiness will ensue: each half will feel whole again and will live happily ever after, effortlessly. Moreover, presumably one is immediately capable of recognizing her/his other half, hence the ideology of ‘love at first sight’. This conception of love permeates much of our collective imaginary, and is perpetuated through powerful means such as fairy tales and other literary and artistic forms. (I am reminded here of a piece by Alain de Botton where he argues that all he read in novels never prepared him for what was going to happen after he found ‘the one’, i.e. how to do love maintenance: ‘Why books do not prepare you for real love’.) Needless to say, this ideology is the source of much sorrow and pain.
The best answer to this myth is a conception of love based on the concept of historicity, which de Sousa borrows from Amélie O. Rorty: the good fit between two people is a product of the history they share together and the constant process of mutual shaping (which can, and often does, eventually lead to a situation of mis-match and the end of love).
Another myth discussed by Ronnie in the lecture is the Platonic myth that one can love only one person at a time: to fall in love with a new person necessarily entails falling out of love with one’s previous love interest. This is one of the most widely held beliefs about love, and yet one wonders what the basis for it might be: we have multiple friends, and are perfectly able to love passionately multiple offspring. Why not feel romantic love for more than one person at the same time? At this point, Ronnie referred to the body of research on the neuroscience of love (see here for a TED talk by Helen Fischer) suggesting that love (which for him is best seen as a syndrome rather than as an emotion) comes in different kinds. There is in particular the important distinction between limerence and attachment, typically viewed as the distinction between ‘being in love’ with someone and ‘loving’ someone as a result of a long-term attachment (the historicity conception). Ronnie did endorse the claim that limerence, unlike other forms of love, involves exclusivity: presumably, one cannot be in a state of limerence with two different people at the same time (which seems to me to be a bit of a problematic idea, and in any case it is largely an empirical claim anyway). But the neuroscience results suggest that it is perfectly possible to feel a strong and healthy romantic attachment to someone (or even more than one person) and experience limerence for someone else at the same time.
This is indeed the core of the concept of polyamory: falling in love with a new person does not necessarily mean no longer loving the ‘old’ one. Ronnie de Sousa is himself an advocate of polyamory as the most sensible approach to love. Incidentally, this is a topic which came up before in an NewAPPS interview (here and here) with Carrie Jenkins and Jonathan Ichikawa on open relationships – but notice that not all couples who are not sexually exclusive practice polyamory, which entails not being emotionally exclusive either. (For a sample of the variety in open relationships, see this recent article in The Guardian; and here is another philosophical post on open relationships at Philosophy etc.)
But one might ask: now, isn’t this just another ideology of love being imposed on us? Just as the concept of monogamy and the myth of ‘the missing half’ are ideological constructs, why should it be any different with the concept of polyamory? As we’ve learned from critical theory, the deconstruction of an ideology typically ends up making room for the establishment of yet another ideology.
Prompted by questions from the audience, at the end of the lecture Ronnie gave what I personally think is the best response to such worries: ultimately, it is a matter of temperament. Some people thrive in monogamous romantic relationships, but some people don’t. The new challenge now is to figure out what works best for you, and to find a partner who is a good match for you in other respects but who also shares your vision of love. It does not make things any easier, but who said life can or should be easy anyway? At any rate, the take-home message seems to be a general principle of tolerance: let anyone find for themselves the lifestyle (‘ideology’) which suits them best when it comes to love and relationships. (And notice that, contrary to what is sometimes thought, open relationships typically involve a high level of ethical commitment, as described in the classic The Ethical Slut.)