Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kierkegaardian love

Kierkegaardian view of romantic love makes love not be based on a quality of the beloved such as her generosity, beauty, intelligence, chastity, plenitude of jewelry or knobbiness of knee. A love grounded on these kinds of qualities would not really do justice to the irreplaceability of the beloved, the mysterious incommunicability of the beloved.

But what does Kierkegaard put in the place of such qualities? It is a choice by the lover, a choice to love. But then on Kierkegaard's view, romantic love is, after all, based on a quality, a quality even more fickle than beauty or plenitude of jewelry: the lover's choice. And this, surely, is even more problematic, shifting as it does the focus from the beloved to the lover.

I think this whole business of finding reasons for love is silly. For we always have decisive reason to love another person... just because the other is a person. The question is not of what reasons we have for loving, but of what reasons we have for loving in a particular way (friendly, filial, romantic, etc.) And this question is both less momentous and easier.


Adam Omelianchuk said...

Have you read Harry G. Frankfurt's book on love? He argues that love creates reasons to love (I think), and that seems to be quite right. What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think Frankfurt is completely mistaken. :-) One reason is a Christian one: there is always a reason to love, because love for all is a duty.

Another reason is that Frankfurt towards the end is forced to have a footnote on which he says that he may have to countenance one exception to his system: perhaps it is good for us to care about something, even if we do not yet care about anything. I think he does have to countenance that exception--it is clear that the person who cares about something (or at least something good) is better off than the one who cares about nothing. But this exception is incompatible with his arguments for his main position. Therefore, the arguments for his main position fail.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another problem with Frankfurt's position is that we can ask: Is it loving at t that creates a reason to love at t, or is it that having loved prior to t that creates a reason to love at t. If the former, then the reason is useless. But I don't think the latter fits well with his general outlook. I could be wrong about that.

Ron said...


If, "finding reasons for love is silly" which I agree, then why would you say that having reasons for loving a particular way is less silly? Are you thinking in terms of the misunderstood chasms between agape, eros, philia and storge?

What role would you say that our feelings have or don't have?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think love needs to adjust to the realities of the situation.

If one has eros for someone, and one finds out that she is one's long-list sister, then one has very good reason to change the form of love into fraternal love. And one has good reason for having fraternal love for her--namely, she is one's sister.

The form that love takes should be sensitive to the other person and one's relationship with that person.

I don't know exactly what role feelings play. I don't generally think feelings are something one should worry much about.

Ron said...

I don't know. What you say sounds right... but it doesn't fit my mold for how I have understood love. You said, "I think love needs to adjust to the realities of the situation" then you backed it up with a good example but then I instinctively ascribe God as love and have to ask, does He adjust to the realities of situations? I don't think that most orthodox believers would say so therefore I must be missing something.

Traditionally I think that we Christians are trained to try and function as much as possible in agape love but we incorrectly interpret that to by default mean that we must reject the other forms of love that necessitate reciprocity because they are a lower form. I think that this rejection is wrong.

Nacisse said...

how can it be a duty to love all people? most people will have existed before or will exist after me - it seems impossible for me to love those I don't even know exist. the duty to love all seems impossible for a finite person - I don't have the energy or time ( most of the people I pass by on an average day I can barely give a thought too). so even though all persons are worthy of love just because they are persons wouldn't my choosing to love this particular person rather than another that I treat as a stranger be the determining factor in who or why I love?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do not think agape is a form of love. Agape is, simply, love. Agape comes in different forms: erotic, filial, fraternal, friendly, fellow-humanly, etc. This is both a substantive and a linguistic claim. On the linguistic side, in the Greek Scriptures, the word "agape" is used for the whole variety of loves: love between parents and children, love between spouses, love between Samaritan and needy stranger, etc. In the Septuagint translation of the Song of Songs, for instance, the clearly erotic love is designated "agape". It is a myth that in biblical Greek "agape" designates some special form of love. The word has all the range of the English "love" and maybe even more.

Moreover, I deny that there is any kind of love that does not seek reciprocity. Every kind of love seeks union with the beloved, and seeks reciprocity. Consider God's love for us. It is precisely manifested by his sending his Son to die for our sins in order to reconcile us to himself. What does it mean to reconcile us to himself? Surely--to unite us to himself in love. God's love is exhibited in large part giving us the grace to love him back. Thus, God's love is exhibited in large part in his seeking to have us reciprocate his love.

The way God does good people out of his love is always suited to them. This does not entail a change in God.

A love that does not seek reciprocity is not genuine interpersonal love. It is the kind of love that is suited to a non-personal object of love (we do not want ice cream to love us back--it would be too creepy to eat it if it did!). Such a "love" would be a high-handed benevolence that does not make the lover vulnerable to rejection by the beloved.

I take it we do not disagree.


Two alternative answers:

Answer 1: Some people one loves specifically as Tom, Dick and Harry. Some people one loves under a more general description: human being. One can love every human being simply for being a human being. One can seek union with every human being by praying for them, trying to further their salvation, working to improve the lot of humankind, etc. But perhaps only in heaven will we be able to love every human being in the more specific way.

Answer 2: The duty, perhaps, is only to love all people that we come in some kind of physical or cognitive contact with.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that the stuff about love changing may only refer to lovers who are in time, whose knowledge of the beloved changes. God's love comes to us from outside time and embraces all our reality spread out through time (this of course requires eternalism), and hence does not need to change.

Anonymous said...

You are taking an anthropomorphizing metaphor "God's love" literally, and then reasoning based on that literal interpretation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think the term "God's love" is metaphorical. It would be more correct to say that the term "human love" is metaphorical.

Anonymous said...

"It would be more correct to say that the term "human love" is metaphorical."

In a linguistic sense, there's no way you can make such a claim, unless you are saying that we have an innate sense of the love of God which we then project onto people.

Anonymous said...

"I was referring here to Aquinas' doctrine of analogy, on which the focal meaning of a concept is the divine case. Maybe we need to distinguish between language and concept here."

Yes, I think so. In that case, I wouldn't use the term "metaphor". And you need to be separating out what you are all talking about from the everyday use of the term "love" or any other everyday use of any term in any language. What you are all talking about is something quite different.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I had to fix something with the comment I posted. Here is the fixed version:


I was referring here to Aquinas' doctrine of analogy, on which the focal meaning of a concept is the divine case. Maybe we need to distinguish between language and concept here.