Tag Archives: analytic philosophy

The love of a philosopher

Katherine Angel is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Centre of the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she works on the history of sexuality and psychiatry. She is the author of Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell (Penguin, Farrar Straus & Giroux), and is currently writing a book on female sexual dysfunction and post-feminism.

In this post, written for both the History of Emotions and Cultural History of Philosophy blogs, Katherine reviews one of the most recent additions to Oxford University Press’s series of Very Short Introductions, this one on the subject of love, by the philosopher of emotions Ronald de Sousa.

Love VSI coverWhy do we love a person we love? Is this the kind of thing we can know? These are recurring questions in Ronald de Sousa’s Love: A Very Short Introduction. Perhaps more accurately, the question is whether we in fact love for reasons at all. We enlist reasons for our love – he’s so playful, so accomplished – but it’s the location of qualities in someone’s particular personhood, with all its embodied wholeness, that enables love for them. What’s more, de Sousa notes, ‘an outside observer may detect causes of love that will always remain obscure to the lover’ (p. 57). These causes might include early attachment experiences, or strategies unconsciously deployed to keep particular anxieties – of abandonment, of rejection – at bay. And Freud’s psychoanalysis developed significantly from the insight that we can be wrong not just about why we love a person, but also about the fact that it is them we love: transference is precisely the direction of intense feelings (whether of love or hate) onto another target. There is always the possibility that a ghostly, unrecognised object of love is hovering behind the one we are apparently fixated on.

Much of de Sousa’s book is in a tone of accessible, chatty musing on some of the main questions about love. Why are some forms of love taboo? Is it a problem that love is subjective? Is love blind? Does love free or bind one? What is the relationship between love and sex? It also, rather self-consciously, introduces several pieces of philosophical terminology (‘explaining the significance of these two facts is going to be a little intricate, and will require me to introduce some philosophical jargon….if you bear with me, we should be able to gain some clarity’, p. 58) in a bid to make useful distinctions and gain purchase on a potentially unwieldy subject. (The terminology includes ‘intentional states’, ‘propositional object’, ‘focal property’.)

What quickly becomes clear, in particular in the insistence on the question of reasons versus causes of love, is the extent to which the book is framed by the conventions of a broadly analytic Anglo-American philosophy. The concerns of the book feel primarily determined by prior debates internal to the practice of that discipline. The question of whether we love for reasons, while an interesting one, begins to feel, as the book progresses, like a case study the author is using in order to articulate a particular position on a conventionally invoked debate about the distinction between reasons and causes. As such, the book feels less like an introduction to Love, or to thought on love, than an introduction to analytic philosophy’s commitment to an ahistorical, free-floating, unmoored conceptual analysis unencumbered by complicating details such as particularities of time and place.  There’s nothing wrong with writing a book from within the conventions of one’s discipline. But here, the somewhat narrow and skewed take on the supposedly most universal concern of all turns this into a book curiously distorted by the techniques, language and methodology of a very particular and contingent way of conceiving of philosophy.

One of the problems with this way of doing philosophy is an unreflected-upon tendency to see the question of what philosophy might be as having already been resolved – and to reduce substantial questions about the discipline and its history to a vision of itself as a quasi-technical application of a method; a method which amounts more or less to a kind of sophisticated cleverness, an ability to see distinctions where others fail to, the application of intelligence and rigour. The roots of the much-discussed division between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy in differing responses to positivism, modernism and post-structuralism have been much written about. The point I want to make here is that the vision of inquiry that can emerge from a disciplinary commitment to philosophy as a thoughtful, common-sense, distinction-wielding clarity has substantial consequences.

In his chapter on desire, de Sousa digs into some interesting questions and dilemmas. What does the lover want? Can love be satisfied? Is love altruistic? Do we love for reasons? The question of whether love is altruistic naturally encounters problems – the ‘altruists’ dilemma’ – ‘if each wants only to do the other’s will, there is nothing either of them can do’; ‘even for sensibly imperfect altruists, the lover’s concern for the beloved can be hemmed in with small print’; provisos such as ‘I want your happiness above all things – providing only that I am the one to provide it’ (pp. 42-43).

Problems like the ‘altruists’ dilemma’ strike me as arising from a commitment to exploring a theme in a particular, disciplinary-bounded way; from trying to find a model that suits a phenomenon, rather than from starting with a fine-grained account of the phenomenon. (There are many models outlined in the book – those of the interlocutors in Plato’s Symposium; the puritan model; the Lawrentian model; the pansexual model). If you start by wondering if love is altruistic, you are going to encounter a lot of counter-evidence, and you are going to be left scratching your head, or adding provisos, qualifiers, and clauses to your model. But why the commitment in the first place to a model for love? Starting from a position which is rendered complicated by exceptions to a model is a prior intellectual and disciplinary decision that would usefully be let into the analysis.

Philosophy conceived of as a sort of chatty, insightful cleverness also inadvertently gives itself an additional burden: that of not sounding like a bore leaning against a pub bar. De Sousa avoids that, but his chattiness can become problematically gestural. Writing about jealousy, he claims that ‘someone who worked in a Scottish women’s prison related that when she heard inmates talking about love of their men, it transpired that the criterion appealed to was that a man loves you only if he beats you’ (p. 14) If you’re going to discuss something this thorny, then hovering vaguely in a non-committal space between citing research and reporting on a conversation had over a pint is intellectually and ethically lazy, to say the least.

Hoch Coquette

It’s also notable that while de Sousa has some insightful things to say about constricting gender roles, he cites overwhelmingly male sources for his edifying citations on love. His citations are rather well-worn, too – Shakespeare, as usual, carries much of the burden. Moreover, women figure in the book as, variously, prisoners embracing the violent jealousy of their partners; creatures more concerned with their breast size than their IQ; as those ‘known to win a rape conviction when the wrong twin took advantage of dim light’ (p. 63); the muse of poets (Cyrano by Rostand); as ‘some feminists’ who have, for example, ‘disparaged love as a cruel hoax’ (p. 69); or as the anorexic or suicidal object of love whose own desires a lover should perhaps not encourage. The figuring of men as the proponents of theories of love, and women as love’s problematic objects, is, I’m sure, unintentional and unconscious – but it’s striking, and it reveals a kind of inattention to the wider contextual and structural questions around not simply love, but about the writing of philosophy. What sources and voices do we turn to when writing about such a large theme, and why?

De Sousa’s chapter on science is intriguingly ambivalent. He starts out discussing controversies about turning to science to answer questions about love – the allegation that scientific understanding of love (amongst other things) will disenchant the world for us, and ‘show our most cherished values to be illusions’ (p. 77). De Sousa counters this ‘bogey of reductionism’ by suggesting that understanding a phenomenon doesn’t necessarily mean ’the magic is gone’ (ibid.). But he doesn’t question the assumption that what passes for scientific understanding or explanation of love amounts to knowledge, rather than risking being a mere redescription. Veering rather close here to an epistemological reductionism, he then notes that we might be wrong in thinking that ‘one approach can capture everything we think or want to know’ (p. 78), and invokes the need not only for knowledge of biological processes, but for understanding of why such mechanisms exist in the first place and what role they play: the disciplines of evolutionary theory, anthropology, psychology, sociology.

De Sousa states, with apparent modesty on behalf of the scientific approach, that ‘no good scientist would be rash enough to claim that we can fully explain every nuance of feeling and experience in terms of the underlying state of our brains. At least not yet.’ (p. 78) The possibility of a complete scientific understanding of love, through the revered brain, is postponed rather than denied by de Sousa, and he toys with the idea that knowing more about ‘how love is implemented in the brain might help us to manage our love lives’ (ibid.). (It’s not quite clear how.) De Sousa’s flirtation with a scientific approach to love, however, is set aside as he sets out to unmask various spurious claims on his subject made in the name of science. Of the idea that both male and female jealousy can be explained by evolutionary psychology (men fear for their paternity, while women fear loss of parental cooperation), de Sousa notes that even if it is true that men are more distressed by a woman’s sexual infidelity, ‘that could be an effect of the stereotype rather than its justification’. Self-reports ‘that seem to confirm the hypothesis of the evolutionary psychologists rest on the spurious theory that is wheeled in to explain them’ (p. 95).

Pygmalion 1939

De Sousa’s last chapter, ‘Utopia’, is his most successful to my mind. He is at his best when he frees himself from the constraints of analytic philosophy and lets his observations and his prose operate more elegantly. ‘Nature is indifferent to us and to our happiness’, he writes. But ‘from the point of view of an individual human being, of course, the manner in which it is attained is everything’ (p. 96). Discussing questions of fidelity, lust, and polyamory, his writing feels like it originates more organically in a curiosity about the subjects at hand, rather than structured by prior philosophical conventions and debates applied to that subject. On the subject of erotic nonconformists such as the Marquis de Sade and the Earl of Rochester, de Sousa notes, wisely I think, that ‘not all the rebels of sex and love are immoralists. On the contrary, modern champions of “free love”… can moralize as tediously as popes’ (p. 101). And his discussion of the concerns at the root of polyamory feel sensitively attuned to the genuine philosophical, ethical and political questions that inevitably arise in partnerships with others. How do we love while accepting and embracing the autonomy of the other? Is loving someone giving them their freedom? This last chapter also conveys a sensibility cognizant of the authoritarian impulses always hovering near questions of love, marriage and gender. Writing of the expansion of possibilities in regards to these could, he writes, ‘lead to a flowering of modes of sexuality, love and relation – providing they exist in a political framework friendly to a multiculturalism of love’ – but at worst ‘we might be led not to a paradise of diversity but to a nightmare “brave new world” in which everyone is suitably programmed for the subjective satisfaction of a restricted range of desires determined by some arbitrary conception of what might be politically expedient – in other words, pretty much a variant of the present system’ (p. 112).

Aspects of this book may be somewhat hemmed in by formulaic philosophical conventions, but it’s in de Sousa’s alertness to the contemporary political quandaries of love, and in his scepticism about the impulse to rigidity and fixity underlying even the most liberatory rhetoric, that his sensibility feels most refreshing. As he puts it, ‘a world that leaves nothing to be desired would be a grim one; even in a utopia there must be desire’ (p. 112).

Follow Katherine Angel on Twitter: @KayEngels

Follow the History of Emotions Blog on Twitter: @EmotionsHistory

Read Chapter 1 of Ronald de Sousa’s Love: A Very Short Introduction
(via the Oxford University Press website)

Why philosophy needs cultural history

Thomas AkehurstDr Thomas Akehurst teaches history and politics at the University of Sussex and the Open University. He is the author of The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe

In this blog post, he makes the case for the value of approaching philosophy through cultural history.

One of the problems facing academic philosophy in the 20th century was that it became, well, more and more academic – specialised, cut off from the interests of the rest of humanity, and it seems not able, or not willing to address our concerns.

This disconnect between academic philosophy and human life, called the “existential gap” has been seen as a particular feature of analytic philosophy – the dominant tradition in British and American universities.[1] Philosophers’ attitudes to this gap have varied tremendously. In the 1950s, many of those practising the discipline in its then powerhouse, Oxford, seemed to revel in its abstruse irrelevance. The philosopher G. J. Warnock reflects back on the period:

I did not believe that it was likely to contribute to the solution of the problems of the post war world; I did not believe it would contribute, certainly or necessarily, to the solution of any philosophical problem. But it was enormously enjoyable; it was not easy, it exercised the wits; and those who think it can never be valuably instructive have simply never tried, or perhaps are no good at it.[2]

And perhaps many academic philosophers and aspiring academic philosophers continue to share something like this view. It’s enjoyable, it pays the bills. There are excellent opportunities to travel. However the 21st century has also seen the revival of attempts to reconnect analytic philosophy with the rest of us. Popular philosophy, applied philosophy, now practical philosophy and philosophy therapy have all become swelling areas of output. Texts in these genres now dominate the two shelves reserved for philosophy books in some larger branches of Waterstones. This desire to speak to a wider audience can only be a good thing if we believe that life, on balance, is worth thinking about.

Unfortunately, this desire for outward-looking communication on the part of philosophers, hasn’t yet been equalled by the willingness for inward looking disciplinary self-scrutiny. Philosophy arises from its culture and context. It carries the assumptions of its time and place and of its historical development. Sometimes this baggage is in plain sight, more commonly it’s hidden from philosopher and reader alike: contraband at the bottom of a suitcase the philosophers didn’t pack themselves.

Contemporary British analytic philosophy has shown very little interest in examining the cultural and political ideas and attitudes it has been moulded and formed by over the years. And this is why the cultural history of philosophy is such an important field. The history of philosophy is shaped by many factors. Philosophical arguments, for sure, have an impact on the direction of the discipline. But a much broader range of issues also help shape and form apparently abstract philosophical positions and developments. And it’s here that cultural-political histories, as well as institutional histories, become very important if we want to understand the philosophical thought that’s presented for our edification.

Cultural history of philosophy is not (yet) the thriving cottage industry it might be. Yet some work has been done. John McCumber has explored how McCarthyism in the US put powerful external pressure on philosophers to abandon certain fields of study, or tailor their conclusions in a safe political direction. Those who did not could expect stymied or terminated careers. George Reisch explores a similar dynamic in the philosophy of science. [3]

Cultural politics coverMy own work points to the way that British philosophers drew conclusions about the wars against Germany in the first half of the twentieth century – and how these conclusions fed through into their philosophical work.[4] They identified a tradition of German philosophy they believed resulted in German aggression, and ultimately in National Socialism. These attitudes and assumptions on the part of the British were poorly defended in their written work, but nevertheless contributed to a purging of the canon of philosophy after 1945. A swathe of European philosophy from Hegel onwards was subject to dismissal and mockery followed by an “active process of forgetting and exclusion”.[5] This exclusionary process marks a crucial moment in the creation of the rift between analytic and continental philosophy that continues to dominate European and American thought.[6]

In the mid-century, British philosophers emphasised the warts of the German/European tradition – Nietzsche was a megalomaniac, Hegel a deceptive state-serving nationalist, Rousseau a sort of evil seductive genius.[7] Even as they condemned German (and allied) thought for its fascist tendencies, the British philosophers held up their own tradition as one of congenital liberality – pointing to a virtuous canon of British thinkers going back to John Locke. These British philosophers were portrayed as liberal in politics, rigorous in philosophy and noble in character. They were carefully airbrushed to remove the stains of historical indiscretion: such as the sanction Locke gave to the expropriation of native American lands, or John Stuart Mill’s paternalist racism, much less the anti-Semitism of Bertrand Russell, the 20th-century hero of British analytic philosophy.[8]

Once philosophy is allied to a national cause, you get nationalist philosophies, with the virtues of “our boys” relentlessly juxtaposed to the vices of the enemy. The German philosophers of the 19th century were no more Nazis than the British philosophers of previous ages were saints. But philosophy mobilized for war resembles the nation-state mobilized for war. Nationalist philosophy is distorting, and homogenizing.

That, at times of existential threat, philosophers respond like many other people and get defensive and jingoistic is perhaps not very surprising and not especially condemnable. And there’s no doubt that for the philosophers I’ve studied, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, R.M. Hare, amongst others, the Second World War was such a threat. Perhaps the realization that philosophers were ready to draw simple nationalist distinctions and assassinate the characters of fellow philosophers might give us reason to doubt some of the more grandiose claims about philosophy’s ability to cultivate calm rationality in its practitioners. But the Nazis were a terrifying threat – and there but for the grace of God go we all.

The problem is not that these men drew hasty conclusions. The trouble is that analytic philosophy has so solidly refused to countenance the possibility of any influence beyond the narrow scope of “strictly philosophical” questions that these hasty judgements and nationalist prejudices have been left unexplored and unchallenged by contemporary analytic philosophy. Not only have these attitudes gone underground and helped to to cement the foundations of the an unhelpful rift between analytic and continental philosophy, but at times they resurface in all their mid-century glory – in the analytic philosophers’ last words on Jacques Derrida, for example.[9]

Many analytic philosophers now want to be heard. But still very few seem to want to make a serious exploration of their past and its baggage. All the time this is the case, the discipline and what it offers to the public remain weighed down by unchecked cultural assumptions, political assumptions, and uncodified traditions. This short article has explored just some of these. Much remains to be explored. Analytic philosophy needs the cultural history of philosophy to sort through this historical accretion, assess it, and hopefully discard what is no longer needed. As a result, analytic philosophy may walk a little lighter and may find itself with new and surprising things to say to the public it wishes to cultivate.


[1]          Preston, Aaron Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (Continuum, 2007) 25

[2]            Warnock, G.J. Essays on J.L. Austin (Clarendon Press, 1973) 59.

[3]            McCumber, John Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the Mccarthy Era (Northwestern University Press, 2001). Reisch, George A. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. (CUP, 2005).

[4]            Akehurst, Thomas L. The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe  (Continuum 2010)

[5]            West, David  “The Contribution of Continental Philosophy,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, Blackwell Companions to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Blackwell, 1995), 39.

[6]                   Simons, Peter. “Whose Fault? The Origins and Evitability of the Analytic Continental Rift”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9, no. 3 (August 2001).

[7]            Berlin, Isaiah Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Edited by H. Hardy. (Chatto and Windus, 2002). 43.  Russell, Bertrand History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin, 1946). 794.

[8]            Bracken, Harry  “Essence, Accident and Race,” Hermathena, no. 116 (1973). Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, 1859, Moorhead, Caroline Bertrand Russell: a Life (1993 Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd.).

[9]            Blackburn, Simon “Derrida May Deserve Some Credit for Trying, but Less for Succeeding,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1666 (12 November 2004).