Just in case the title didn’t give away the game: this is not a romantic essay about love. I assure you that I don’t intend this in an anti-Valentine’s Day spirit; to the contrary, I want to make any cards you receive in the next few days more meaningful. I think that the best way to do that is to talk about reptiles first (1).
Before I say anything else, answer this question: if I point to a parrot and say, “that reptile has beautiful plumage,” have I said anything mistaken? Keep your answer in mind.
I spend my days (and nights, and mornings, and various other measures of time) working on the “species problem,” which is a debate in philosophy of biology over whether or not the groups into which we organize living things actually correspond to real divisions in nature. One question comes up quite often in the literature: what is a reptile? Darwin suggested that the only way to objectively distinguish between animal groups is to divide them according to common evolutionary descent. By this standard, reptiles are different from (say) mammals because reptiles are all descended from one ancestral animal group and mammals are descended from another (2). But reptiles present an additional problem.
Everyone acknowledges that animals like snakes and lizards and crocodiles and dinosaurs are reptiles. Almost everyone acknowledges that birds descended from dinosaurs. Logically: since birds are descended from dinosaurs, then any ancestor of dinosaurs is an ancestor of birds; if reptiles are all animals descended from the common ancestor of snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and dinosaurs, then birds must be reptiles.
What was your answer to my initial question? The odds favor your thinking that it’s mistaken to call a bird a reptile. Our most familiar concept of reptiles doesn’t include anything with feathers. That’s fine; it just means that our most familiar concept of reptiles doesn’t form a natural kind, because it doesn’t correspond to any objective division in nature (3). We therefore have two options. One: we can maintain that all our normal beliefs about reptiles are correct, in which case we have to admit that the term “reptile” isn’t objectively defined. Two: we can maintain that the group is objectively defined, in which case we have to admit that some of our normal beliefs about it are incorrect.
Now, on to love. In what way is “love” like “reptile” (4)? Consider the diversity inherent in our familiar concept of love. People claim to love their significant others, their parents, their pets, their jobs, Apple products, the Beatles, chocolate, the idea of getting more sleep, the act of hating, the sounds of their own voices, even-numbered Star Trek sequels, and New York. Obviously, the word “love” is not being used in the same way in all cases. That’s a good thing, too, for a variety of moral, legal, and biological reasons. But the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything in common to all those uses (5) suggests that there isn’t just one kind of thing that we call “love.” Does that mean that our concept of love doesn’t form a natural kind?
Here’s one reason to think not: first-person reports of love are supposed to be indefeasible. In other words, when I assert that I love “Jurassic Park,” it can only be that I’m correct or I’m lying. Compare this with, say, the claim that I wrote “Jurassic Park”: in this case, I can be correct, I can be lying, or I can be mistaken. The bottom line is that if I intend to make a truthful report about the things I love, I shouldn’t be able to get it wrong. But if love is a natural kind, then at least some of the examples of love mentioned above should be wrong, since there is no one thing that all of those examples have in common.
It’s for this reason that the ancient Greeks didn’t believe that there is a single thing called “love.” Even today, Greek language uses a number of different words to capture the various kinds of love expressed in the examples above. Philia denotes affection such as that between friends and family; éros denotes sensual attraction; agápe denotes deep, enduring love. We tend not to draw these fine distinctions in English for two reasons. First, the three Greek concepts are vague and tend to overlap; second, our current, inclusive concept of love was influenced by the spread of early Christian philosophy, whose content was best summarized by The Troggs in 1967.
Philosophers have a long, proud tradition of saying ridiculous things about love. Even Socrates, the man judged wisest among his peers specifically because he only claimed to know that he knew nothing, bragged that he knew the “art of love” better than his disputants (6). Consider also the example of John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (that’s not a typo), instructor of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore (7), who defined love as an infinitely recursive relation of mutual perception. To wit: Jim loves Pam when Jim perceives Pam, and Pam perceives Jim, and Jim perceives Pam perceiving Jim, and Pam perceives Jim perceiving Pam, and Jim perceives Pam perceiving Jim perceiving Pam, et cetera. McTaggart also believed that the universe is made up entirely of souls, and that love is therefore the fundamental force that yokes all of existence together.
To be clear: McTaggart was a brilliant man, as evidenced by his influencing two of the greatest philosophers of the past century. His philosophy, strange as it may seem, was an elaboration on one formulated by Einstein’s nominee for the smartest human being in pre-sliced-bread history. How could someone who was otherwise so rational and reasonable develop an account that seems so irrational and unreasonable?
It seems to me that the reason we find philosophers’ descriptions of love so weird at times is that many of us cling to that familiar concept whereby it’s equally valid to love people and ideas and foodstuffs and municipalities, no matter how logically or biologically disparate those kinds of love may be. Any account that limits what love can be is intuitively false and perhaps even offensive. No one can gainsay (for example) my love for specimen FR 5027; McTaggart can’t possibly be right, because he says that I’m wrong!
Here’s where it’s important to recognize how “love” is like “reptile.” Yes, we can buy the indefeasibility of love claims, but that purchase comes at the price of “love” meaning anything. If we’re never wrong when we claim to love something, then “love” can’t be defined. It would just be too multifarious. If “love” (the concept, not the feeling itself) is to be meaningful, then we have to accept that we can be wrong about it sometimes. Just as we have to change the way we think about reptiles in order to say true things about them, we also have to revise the way we think about love for claims about love to be significant.
That’s just what philosophers who say ridiculous things about love are trying to do. Defining “love” in such a way as to make it a natural kind makes true claims about love meaningful, but it also means that some claims about love are going to be false. This shouldn’t seem too strange. After all, we have a concept of “true love” as distinct from just “love.” Look at it this way: if love isn’t true love, then what is it? Logic isn’t going to leave you very many options. All that those crazy philosophers are trying to do is call attention to this fact.
So: what is love (8)? I don’t know. As I tell my students when it comes time to grade exams: maybe there aren’t any right answers. But there sure are wrong ones, and that’s why I own a red pen.
(1) You, dear reader, can decide what this says about my priorities in life.
(2) Of course, both mammals and reptiles are both descended from an even earlier ancestral group, and so we all form a big dysfunctional family (well, technically a class) called the amniotes.
(3) Of course, there are plenty of biologists, taxonomists, and philosophers who don’t think biological groups should be defined in this way, but they didn’t write this essay (although I suspect that they may write some comments).
(4) I beg of you: don’t raise this question over Valentine’s Day dinner. The experience will not go well. Trust me.
(5) To everyone who’s currently scrambling to name the neurochemical associated with feelings of love: alas, there are several, and none of them seem to be associated with all expressed feelings of love. Take that, scientism!
(6) This might explain why Mrs. Socrates put up with a man deemed intolerable by most other Athenians.
(7) Also: winner of the Department of Redundancy Department’s award for lifetime achievement in the field of naming.
(8) I know what just popped into your head. Go here to get it out of your system.