Much more than a feeling, love explains how we understand our world and each other.
Over the past generation or so, with astonishing rapidity, widespread social opposition to same-sex marriage has evaporated in many parts of the world. Reliable and effective birth control has become increasingly available to individuals around the globe. Millions of women, in the past century, have gained the ability to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy at will. New reproductive technologies, along with new kinship formations, make the propagation of life and the raising of children seem less and less the result of sexual reproduction.
At the same time, in many places, we are living through one of the most profound social transformations in human history: the erosion of a gender-based division of labor. The tidal waves of political and philosophical feminism, and the critiques to which entrenched institutions of sexual domination are subjected, are being felt throughout society. Behind this lies the expanded social authority of lovemaking and “love-based” commitments, in our laws governing everything from marriage and domestic economic life, to the adoption of children, to our schools and medical practices. Virtually no social, civic or political institution is being left untouched by these vast changes.
The sheer pace of social change often outstrips our explanations for it.
In the face of ongoing violence, naked prejudice, social crisis, regressive politics and institutionalized oppression around the world—much of which arises in response to the developments just mentioned—we may hesitate to trumpet this list of achievements too loudly. Nevertheless, the immense social transformations just mentioned are real and vast.
In light of all this, we may start to suspect that what is going on is—at bottom—nothing more than a kind of power-based tug-of-war, undertaken over generations and across cultures—a struggle for control for the social agenda and nothing more. That is, we may begin to suspect that social transformations resemble a game of musical chairs, in virtue of which who gets to be “in” is the result (socially as well as psychically) of some exclusion of others—but without any account of why any particular round of the game is being played in the first place.
Part of the problem is that the sheer pace of social change often outstrips our explanations for it. After all, what would even count as an explanation for such immense social transformations?
Love As Human Freedom, however, argues that the large-scale historical transformations just mentioned are not only explicable as rational, even historically necessary in some sense; I also argue that we can explain the origins of patriarchy and sexual domination themselves, without reducing them to the result of a mere power grab or a contingent social foundation.
In this spirit, Love As Human Freedom turns to “love” as an explanatory practice—rather than as something that itself needs defining. While love can seem a perennial topic for poets, philosophers or theologians, the large social changes just mentioned belie any ahistorical visions of love. Indeed, they compel us to think anew about love as a historical practice, comprised of concrete ways of treating one another that change over time.
My central claim is that love amounts to a fundamental activity through which we make sense of our world and each other. Our ways of loving one another do not just presuppose or reenact ways in which we already understand ourselves and our world. Love is itself an enacted attempt at understanding, a practical form of self-education—one that is communally shared, undertaken with others in ways that change deeply over time.
Love amounts to a fundamental activity through which we make sense of our world and each other.
Some may understandably wonder why love is said here to be a form of sense-making—rather than something more akin to a “natural affection” or warmth that exists among family and kin, in all kinds of social animals. Admittedly, it may seem reductive or “cold” to speak of love as a form of sense-making or “self-education.” Yet, I think, this impression is a symptom of how much we may have over-intellectualized our understanding of what sense-making is, or how humans and animals go about it. Too often, we tend to regard sense-making as something that happens “in the mind,” or in hypotheses and formulas, not in a lover’s words or a warm touch. I propose that the heat of passionate life, and our messy ways of loving one another, are also ways we make sense of the world and one another over time.
What, then, does love explain, and make sense of?
Love can account for lots of things, including the enormous social changes just mentioned. It is not that love is the cause of these changes—rather, love is a self-correcting practice through which these changes were to some extent realized, and through which they might be better explained. Ultimately, love is also one way we teach ourselves that we are free and rational—capable of leading lives for which we are at least provisionally answerable and whose possibilities we open for ourselves, while taking on board all the accidents and misfortunes of life in the world.
Most basically, then, love is a deeply felt historical practice. It develops in response to what we (or our ancestors) have taken to be the most profound threats to the sense we make of anything whatsoever, including the erosion of time. Love is a concrete, practical attempt to grapple with the inevitability of death and the propagation of life; to make sense of one another in light of the constancy of temporal change—realities and experiences that, if left unintelligible, would threaten our ability to sustain any human way of life.