Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Harry G. Frankfurt: The Reasons of Love

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy.

Harry G. Frankfurt
The Reasons of Love
Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2004
ISBN0691126241 (pb), pp. 135.

This slim and elegantly written volume should be of obvious interest to anyone interested in the application of philosophy to sorting out the problems of life. After all, the first of its three chapters is actually titled, ’The Question: “How Should We Live?”’ More precisely, the book discusses how people should organise their desires, interests, and loves in the light of Frankfurt’s celebrated two-tiered model of human volition. The model could be crudely described as: human beings are motivated by immediate, first-order desires to have and do things in the world, as well as by reflexive second-order desires to possess specific first-order desires. Frankfurt’s main message is that in order to be healthy, effective, and happy human beings, it is necessary for there to be things and/or people whom we love in a wholehearted way. Surprisingly, self-love ends up having an essential role to play in the achievement of this volitional wholeness.

Frankfurt begins by distinguishing caring about something from merely desiring or preferring something, and even from ‘taking something to be intrinsically valuable’ (p. 12). Mobilising his model of volition, Frankfurt explains that we care about something when we both desire it and also have an enduring second level desire to continue desiring it. Such caring infuses our world with meaning, but the ultimate objects of our care are not themselves determined by further rational considerations or ulterior motives: ‘Formulating a criterion of importance presupposes possession of the very criterion that is to be formulated. The circularity is both inescapable and fatal’ (p. 26).

The next chapter investigates a concept very close to that of caring, i.e., ‘love’. The love Frankfurt is talking about can arise from an appreciation of the beloved’s special virtues or as the result of a natural psychological tendency, as in parental love. However, those are just contingent facts about the psychological impetus of love. We do not directly control our love or select its objects; rather our love for those objects is itself that which ultimately grounds and shapes our dispositions and conduct. The object of love is loved not merely for its valuable characteristics (if it does have any) or as a means for attaining some other thing of importance; it is cherished for its own sake and cannot be substituted. When we love a person, we identify with him or her. If we do not love at all we risk profound and debilitating boredom. When we do love we can overcome the ’inhibitions and hesitancies of self-doubt’ (p. 65) and become free to pursue an active life devoted to the objects of our love.

The final chapter develops Frankfurt’s most surprising thesis, that is, that self love is the conceptually purist and most important form of love. It is pure because it so clearly fits the criteria of love (i.e. we care about ourselves for our own sake, we identify with ourselves, etc.). It is important because Frankfurt does not understand self-love to be an expression of crass egocentrism. When I love someone else, I identify with them and care about them and thus love what they love. Similarly, self-love demands love of that which the self loves. What is this further object which the self loves? Through a somewhat suspicious dialectical move, Frankfurt tries to show that it cannot simply be the self all over again; it must be an external object. He claims that it is my self-love which drives me to ‘get a life’ (to borrow a colloquial expression) and this requires, according to Frankfurt, that I learn to love things and people besides myself. The remainder of the chapter treats the pathologies of will which occur when we cannot manage to identify with ourselves (an essential element of self-love), that is, when we fail to successfully reconcile conflicts between our loves for different objects. It is only when we can love objects outside ourselves wholeheartedly that we can genuinely love ourselves; it is our self-love which motivates us to seek wholehearted love of objects outside ourselves.

While by any account The Reasons of Love is well worth reading, I would like to mention three aspects of the book which might draw criticism. First of all, Frankfurt repeatedly downplays the importance of moral values in our lives. He is concerned with the wholeheartedness of our care, love, and action and is not very interested in whether the things we care about and the deeds we perform are morally commendable. Secondly, he is very wary of romantic love and would much rather talk about parental love for children. Thirdly, the ‘suspicious dialectical move’ mentioned above is suspicious. The god of Aristotle got along fine just thinking about his own thinking (at least in book 12 of the Metaphysics). Why can’t self-love be satisfied by loving the object of the self’s own self-love? In other words: why wouldn’t someone be able to infuse his life with meaning by becoming the sole member of a mutual admiration society?

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel,

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