Thursday 23 February 2017

What Love Is

Today's post is by Carrie Jenkins, Canada Research Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, where she is heading up a multi-year interdisciplinary research project on the Metaphysics of Romantic Love. She lives in Vancouver, and she is @carriejenkins on Twitter. Her new book is What Love Is And What It Could Be (2017, Basic Books).

The book takes off from a dilemma facing anyone who wants to know what romantic love is. One promising approach treats love as a biological phenomenon: a bundle, perhaps, of evolved neurochemical responses (chapter 1). Another promising approach locates it as a social construct: a creature of norms, institutions, and practices (chapter 2). These approaches appear inconsistent—evolved neurochemistry is not a social construct—yet choosing one to the exclusion of the other feels like discarding half our hard-won wisdom.

After a brief detour through some “canonical” (and often deeply problematic) philosophers of love (chapter 3), I propose a new approach. Drawing on broadly functionalist traditions in other areas of philosophy, I sketch a “dual-nature” theory of romantic love as ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role (chapter 4). It is at the interface between love’s twin natures that I identify many of the most pressing philosophical questions about love, and I use these as a way to understand more deeply the reasons why love changes over time (chapter 5) and in what ways love is currently broken and in need of change (chapter 6).

The final sections look towards the future, exploring among other things the prospects for medical interventions into love’s biology, which I contextualize by way of their ancient history and ideological underpinnings (chapter 7). I outline some of the social, personal, and political choices we currently face concerning what love could become in the future, emphasizing our collective responsibility to face these choices with awareness (coda).

One of the book’s overarching goals is to push back against what I call the romantic mystique (named after its counterpart, the feminine mystique): a disempowering ideology that seeks to mystify love, celebrates ignorance of its true nature, and promotes passive acquiescence in the status quo. The romantic mystique serves the interests of those who benefit the most from the way romantic love is here and now. By understanding and resisting its operation, we empower ourselves to create something better.

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