Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong

John Armstrong, Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy (Penguin; London, 2003)

“‘What is it to love another person?’ This is to raise one of the deepest, and most puzzling, questions we can put to ourselves.” (p1)

I’ve been wading through the difficulties of defining love for what seems like a lifetime but in reality is only a few months of PhD work.  How does one write sensibly about love when love is so uncontainable by words?  It is a problem preoccupying scholarship of various kinds in the present era and no less importantly a dilemma of the everyday that we all come across: how many times can I say to my children ‘I love you’ before it loses all meaning to them?  But how else do I communicate the ache in my chest which throbs with the urge to wrap them in my arms and squeeze them till they squeal?

John Armstrong is a British philosopher, who resides in Melbourne and is currently Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of Melbourne.  His books are a delicious gourmet meal, though easily digestible, on topics of life, love, art, beauty and wisdom.  You can taste the delights of his writing on his website, where there are various articles written for a broad audience:

Twenty-two succinct chapters in this short book – each a morsel of goodness in and of itself – describe the nature and experience of intimate connection.  Love is a human experience which defies empirical definition, yet we all seem to know what we mean when we use those four letters strung together into a single word.  Armstrong invokes Wittgenstein to explain how this is not anything to be concerned about, as far as language is concerned, and I’m going to post about Wittgenstein’s word-game solution shortly, so stay tuned.  (It was exciting, gratifying and most of all a great relief, to discover the solution that I’d come up on my own is the one Armstrong suggests!)

Despite the difficulty of empirical definition when it comes to love, we can identify themes or key characteristics which we seem to assume when we use the word.  What we are referring to with the word ‘love’ is sometimes a feeling, sometimes an action, sometimes a moral principle.  Always though, there will be a seeking of positive human connection that can be described as ‘good’.

When we understand something about the ‘conditions’ under which love is produced, we discover we need not be parallelised by this defining frustration.  There are things that can be said about love.  For example, we grasp something of the nature of love through the (persuasive) evolutionary perspective about the development of love as a driver in the human species reproduction and improvement.  However, biology can’t tell us everything, as we can also observe that the human experience of love changes over time and place depending on the cultural context – expectations and judgements produce a morality within which the experience of love is shaped and shaded.  Furthermore, the individual human’s personal psychology, particularly the foundations of love laid in childhood and the creative capacity of imagination, will direct the particular manifestation of love in their experience.

There is much more in Armstrong’s book than what I pick up here.  I suspect each reader will take away some insight unique for themselves as they luxuriate in this beautiful piece of wisdom.  Apart from the book’s academic usefulness, I came away feeling encouraged in regard to my own humanity: I could see afresh my own capacity for love and the goodness of a life lived with love as its main pursuit.

Because I have enjoyed the style as much as the content of conditions of love, I’ll let Armstrong present you with his own conclusion:

“In this book I have tried to argue two things – each argument runs through the book as a whole.  Firstly, the need to love and to be loved is deeply placed in human nature.  It springs from certain inherited evolutionary characteristics but it is also bound up with much more recent developments of self-consciousness: we long to be understood, to be close to another person, to matter in another’s life.  These concerns may have had some rudimentary presence in the lives of our remotest ancestors, but they have been massively increased, and brought to the foreground of experience, only in recorded history.  And because they are aspects of culture, they vary to some degree from society to society – as these needs are variously interpreted.  It is, however, precisely the same factors – the factors which draw us into love – that constitute the roots of love’s difficulties.  We long to be understood, but it is often awkward to have another see too much of one’s inner troubles.  We try to be charitable, but we are susceptible to boredom and impatience.  Above all, we do not go through life with a strictly coherent set of desires, and anyone who charms us in one frame of mind may be annoying in another.

Secondly, love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough.  But although it is a creation and an achievement it is not something which can be forced simply by effort.  You can’t just sit down and decide to love someone and, through doing this, find that you do really love them.  This is unsurprising if we reflect that love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability.  And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being.  Each requires patient cultivation: we have to take whatever fragile presence each has in our lives and build upon that.  If this is true of loving it is also true of being loveable.  Being loveable cannot really be separated from being a good person in general.  There seem to be counter-instances in which physical attractiveness or glamour make individuals the target of love.  But it is obvious that these characteristics play a much smaller role in generating a love that lasts – one which can weather the inevitable periods of disenchantment and dissatisfaction on both sides.  In our culture have become rather disinclined to pay attention to individual responsibility in loving.  We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give loge – even when things are difficult.”

Interview with Gillian Rose by Vincent Lloyd

I came across this great piece yesterday, which is available on-line through the author’s website.

Gillian Rose

Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University NY  who has spent quite a bit of (scholarly) time with Gillian Rose, one of my reddresstheology favourites.  Lloyd introduces this 1995 interview with Andy O’Mahony for RTE Radio with a very accessible introduction to Rose’s work.  He chooses the six key phrases which display Rose’s pre-occupations and offers a brief explanation.  For Rose…

‘Philosophy must start in the middle’

‘Ethical life is risky, there are no guarantees – we are all victims and perpetrators’

‘Ethics is politics is metaphysical’

‘Modernity is characterized by dualistic splits which postmodernity continues’

‘Ontology is a false substitute for metaphysics’

‘Love involves risk and vulnerability’

The interview itself betrays Rose as a much lighter character than her writing sometimes suggests and certainly confirmed my liking of her: if you’ve been intrigued by my work on love I recommend you go and read the whole interview, which took place just one month before her premature death.

Here are a few of my favourite grabs:

AO’M: You mentioned the disappearance of eros, meaning a desire or hunger.
GR:  Eros ranges from sexual desire to intellectual curiosity.  It’s just a hunger, I think that’s a good way to put it, because a hunger acknowledges a lack, but knows also that it can be filled.  If you just say, as some people do, that Platonic eros is lack, you’ve only got half of it.

                – – –

AO’M:  Point to those philosophers, those thinkers, who see eros  in more full-blooded, more positive terms…
GR:  I don’t think there are any now.  I think that is what’s missing from philosophy at the moment and that is what I’m trying to restore in my own work.  In the tradition, I think it’s in Rousseau, Hobbes, Marx – I even see it in Marx – Freud.  I think it’s in all the great thinkers, but not in deconstruction or other French thinking.*

AO’M:  ‘If I knew who I was’, says you, ‘I wouldn’t write.’
GR:  I don’t like it when people say, ‘I’m writing this book as a woman, as a Jew, as a Catholic, as a black.’  Those are things that need to be explored in order to know what they are.  We write in order to explore what they might mean.  To put them there as fixatives is fascist.  They are not fixed things, to be a woman, to be a Jew, to be a black, to be a Catholic.  They’re highly mobile, volatile things.  If you’re growing, you don’t even know what they are from one minute to the next.  So you can’t start your book by saying, ‘This is where I write from.’  You’ve got to find where you write from by questioning where you start from.

                  – – –

AO’M:  You say at one point in Love’s Work, ‘I’m highly qualified in unhappy love affairs.’
GR:  Perhaps some people have over-construed that.  I do say at the end of the book that I have had two very successful long-term relationships.  I don’t want to appear as simply a waif of love.  Nevertheless, that statement was introduced strategically and realistically because I wanted to explore what it is to be love-able and what it is to be non-love-able – I mean loveable and capable of love at the same time – and that’s why I introduced it in that dramatic way.  It is true, of course, because I have had a lot of unhappy experiences – otherwise I wouldn’t grow, would I?

AO’M:  Did you see any pattern?
GR:  Certainly I did.  One tends to think, first of all, that things are happening to you.  What you have to discover from unhappy love affairs in your own agency and your own ambivalence.  I think some forms of feminism detract from women being able to do that.  They teach women that they’re oppressed, and they don’t encourage women to see their own active involvement in situations where they may indeed be unequal.  But you need to see your own involvement in that, commitment in that, in order to move beyond it.

AO’M: You talk about the rage that some women feel towards other men in their lives that often masks an even greater rage expressed in terms of choosing an incompetent partner.
GR:  There’s a syndrome, which I discovered in myself, and which I see in other women, whereby you’ve very angry with men, maybe your father, and therefore you choose a partner who it’ easy to be contemptuous of.  I think that’s a syndrome that needs to be recognized more.  I would put that generally: we don’t talk enough about the power of women, we talk much too much about the powerlessness of women.

AO’M:  The power residing in what?
GR:  In being a mother, in being a lover … that women are not always on the weaker side of things, they’re often on the stronger side of things, but nevertheless representing themselves to themselves as weaker.  Therefore they don’t understand their own agency in their choice of love object.

               – – –

AO’M: You say that to spend the whole night with someone is agape.  We normally make a distinction between agape and eros, that agape has something to do with relating to God, eros to our fellow humans.
GR:  It’s more that eros is about desire and apage is about care.  If you don’t simply make love with someone and then leave, but spend the night holding them, it’s much nearer care than desire, or it’s the beautiful mix of the two.

AO’M:  But how absolute a distinction is it?
GR:  I don’t agree with Nygren who makes an absolute distinction between agape and eros.  I think eros fulfilled always becomes agapic.#

AO’M:  Where is friendship, then, in that mix?
GR:  Friendship is also a very beautiful and important thing.  it could all be seen under the sign of friendship.

Go to Vincent Lloyd’s webpage to read the whole interview here.


* Remember that Rose is commenting almost twenty years ago – if she were alive today I think she would agree the situation has changed somewhat, and I think that she would very much like Jean-Luc Marion’s recent book The Erotic Phenomenon.
#  I cheered out loud at this point when I first read the interview!  Absolutely!!  Can’t agree more!!!  It’s captured masterfully in this piece by ‘soul scape’ artist Louis Parsons

Eros and Agape