What Is Love?

A person making a heart with her hands in front of a sunsetIn honor of Valentine’s Day, we invited Graduate Center philosophy doctoral students Ian Olasov and Arina Pismenny to weigh in on the question: What is love?
Olasov is an organizer of the Night of Philosophy at the Brooklyn Public Library and regularly addresses the philosophical queries of passersby at the Ask-a-Philosopher booth in Union Square. Pismenny has become something of an expert on romantic love as she has prepared her doctoral dissertation, “The Syndrome of Romantic Love.”
Here’s what they told us.
Olasov: “Love — the type of love adults celebrate on Valentine's Day, anyway — is a cluster of emotional dispositions evolved to encourage successful pair-bonding, shaped by culture and individual development to support other sorts of intimate caring relationships. To me, a more interesting question is: When does it make sense for two people to love each other? The question is ambiguous, though. It might mean: when do the costs of love outweigh the benefits? It might also mean: when does love truthfully represent things, and when does it deceive us? If love is what I think it is, I love accurately if I and my beloved really are up for the sort of relationship love is designed to support.

Another interesting question: how do we know that we are in love? Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge is excellent: “[K]nowledge of love is not a state or function of the solitary person at all, but a complex way of feeling, and interacting with another person. To know one’s own love is to trust it, to allow oneself to be exposed. It is, above all, to trust the other person, suspending Proustian doubts. Such knowledge is not independent of evidence. Typically it is built upon a good deal of attention over time, attention that delivers a lot of evidence about the other person, about oneself, about patterns of interaction between the two. Nor is it independent of powerful feelings that have real evidential value. But it goes beyond the evidence, and it ventures outside of the inner world.”

Pismenny:  Romantic love is a syndrome — a pattern of mental states and behaviors that tend to co-occur. It is not just one emotion but rather a complex phenomenon that manifests itself in beliefs, emotions, desires, and actions. They are its symptoms. These symptoms have biological underpinnings but are significantly shaped by culture. The way we love says a lot about who we are — our values and our conception of love. While we tend to rationalize why we love whom we love, praising and idealizing various qualities of our beloveds and our relationships with them, these qualities cannot successfully justify our loves. Although we do not love for reasons, we can guide our loves by reason, by examining the ways in which our love symptoms succeed or fail to embody our love ideal.

Submitted on: FEB 14, 2018

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