Seeing Through Love: A Philosopher’s Vision

By Dylan J. MontanariNovember 2, 2012

    Seeing Through Love: A Philosopher’s Vision

    Love's Vision by Troy Jollimore. Princeton University Press. 220 pages.

    HOW MANY TODAY BELIEVE in “true” love? In exclusive love? In lifelong commitment? In love as the “ever-fixed mark” of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116”? Contra the Bard, one suspects most feel that love is precisely that — “Time’s fool.” In a time in which politicians’ scandals and fictional depictions of sadomasochism can boast the attention of millions, there would seem, to the cynically minded, little sense in trying to revive a topic that survives only in novels from centuries past and their cinematic adaptations. After the death of God in the nineteenth century, the death of beauty in the twentieth century (what Arthur Danto has called “kalliphobia”), are we ready, now, for the death of love, too?

    The French have been relatively less prudish on the topic (readers will insert their own joke here). In the twentieth century, the phenomenological tradition, in particular, yielded extensive reflection on the topic by the likes of Levinas, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Derrida. Another important current in modern French intellectual thought, psychoanalysis, inspired influential writings by Barthes, Lacan, Irigaray, and Cixous. More recently, contemporary French philosophers such as Badiou, Marion, and Onfray have also ensured that love, too, would have its place in the front windows of Parisian bookstores.

    However, the Anglo-Saxon tradition also has much to be proud of. Work by Iris Murdoch, Irving Singer, Robert Solomon, and Martha Nussbaum, to name a few, has made it such that love is no longer a taboo in philosophical environments wherein, by some lights, disciplinary norms enforce excessive strictures. By now, someone looking to work on love in an “analytic” setting has at her disposal an intimidating bibliography of recent writing on intention, commitment, autonomy, reasons, and the emotions.

    In the postscript to his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco cheekily defined “the postmodern attitude” as that of a man who cannot directly tell his partner “I love you madly,” because they are both aware that those words were written by Barbara Cartland. The best he can do is to say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” Though the name “Barbara Cartland” is likely to leave many scratching their heads and heading off to Wikipedia, the point Eco makes is still intelligible to us nowadays. Love in postmodern times, Eco suggests, is just another act of citation, the genuineness of which rests on the acknowledgment of its lack of originality.

    What we find in Troy Jollimore’s Love’s Vision is a thoroughly untimely reflection upon a time-honored (and time-honed) topic that holds out hope against such an attitude, encouraging instead a view of love that leaves room for morality, rationality, and truth, while largely conceding the fraught nature of each one of these terms.


    Plato would not know what to do with Troy Jollimore. Not only is he both a philosopher and a poet (whose striking debut Tom Thomson in Purgatory won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006), he is also the author of a new theory of love that presents serious challenges to, among others, the one Plato so beautifully presented in his Symposium almost two and a half millennia ago. To be clear, Jollimore’s love is not the amor platonicus given its paradigmatic shape by Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth century Renaissance philosopher, in his work on “Platonic theology.” Rather, he is interested in analyzing modern romance, along with its attendant commitments and complications. For Jollimore, the experience of love changes the way one sees the world, making it suddenly constituted by, or otherwise revolving around, one’s lover. Most importantly, however, his project is to argue that love is a way of seeing, a way of structuring the world and one’s place in it.

    Jollimore counters much of the traditional thinking on love, which sees it as a form of “divine madness,” in Socrates’s words from Phaedrus, by treating it as a largely (though not entirely) rational phenomenon. Much of the book, from the start, is devoted to acknowledging some of the threats love seems to pose for rationality, including but not limited to its seemingly immoral aspects and its potential for fostering illusion.

    Ultimately, he argues that, insofar as love is a way of seeing, there is much to be learned about humans and their relations with their beloveds by analyzing it as a form of perspective that grounds the way we think about things and see the world.

    “Why Don’t You Love Me?”

    To be a rationalist about love, according to Jollimore, involves thinking that “there can be justifying reasons for loving a person;” that loving someone is something one does (or ought to do) for a particular reason or set of reasons. Those who claim that love cannot be thought of in this way, the antirationalists,  often cite the so-called “incompleteness thesis,” which consists of the claim that no sum of reasons can ever suffice to rationally obligate someone to love someone else. There are many other ways to consider how love is not rational that may strike some readers as trivial, but which represent serious thorns in the philosopher’s side. For example, the notion that, if I love someone for a set of attributes, then if another person possesses exactly those same attributes I am obligated to love them, too; the notion that if someone had not only the exact same set of laudable attributes as my beloved, but to a greater degree also, then I would be rationally obligated to “trade up,” as it were; the notion that if I love someone for a set of laudable attributes I recognize in them, were they to ever lose some or all of those attributes, I would be justified in no longer loving them.

    Jollimore himself does not simply want to overturn antirationalism; rather, he thinks that what is needed is “an account that makes love rational in just the right ways while allowing it to be arational, perhaps even to some degree irrational, where that is appropriate.” He contends there is a difference between having no reasons for loving someone, and having reasons to love someone that function less as reasons and more as “enablers.” Enablers are not themselves reasons, but nonetheless make reasons possible. As the sixteenth century Frenchman of letters Michel de Montaigne once said about his friendship with poet Étienne de la Boétie, “we loved each other because it was he, because it was I.” The mere fact that Étienne was Étienne and Michel was Michel does not sound like a reason, strictly speaking, why they should love each other. But one has, in any loving relationship, friendship or otherwise, the sense that if one or the other were not “just so,” all those things that do function as reasons would have no firm foundation.

    The antirationalist, then, is wrong to separate “on the one hand, the value of the object of love and, on the other, the reasonableness or justifiability of love.” It is not the case that one simply loves something and then, consequently, sees the thing in question as bearing some kind of value. For Jollimore, it is simply a matter of common sense that there are things eminently worth loving more than others, and that one is, in turn, eminently more justified in loving them than in loving others instead. Montaigne could not have loved Étienne just because, one day, he decided to fix his loving feelings upon the poet’s person; it is important to Montaigne’s loving Étienne that Étienne was Étienne and not any other person, animal, or object upon which one could project love.

    Here, as in elsewhere, Jollimore wants us to focus on the “in-between-ness” of love, which has to do with its residing between clarity and illusion, between morality and immorality, and between rationality and arationality/irrationality. Love is a way of seeing, and not only of seeing the beloved and of seeing the world, but also of seeing the world as the beloved or otherwise taking into account, in one’s own seeing, the beloved’s seeing. And, insofar as it is all of these things, it will also be a way of not seeing certain things — about the beloved, about the world, about the world as seen by the beloved, about the beloved’s seeing, and about one’s own.

    Jollimore presents a list of eight theses he undertakes to defend about the nature of love:

    1) To love is to respond to the beloved’s virtues and valuable attributes in an ongoing, appreciative way that sees the beloved as occupying the center of the world, that is, “the center of the lover’s field of vision,”

    2) To love is to have one’s eyes opened in a way that introduces a new way of seeing and, conversely, of not-seeing into one’s life and world,

    3) To love is to respond to attributes of the beloved by virtue of which that beloved is found attractive or otherwise desirable, and those attributes are to be understood more generally as universalizable features,

    4) To love is to respond to those attributes pertaining to thesis (3), but it is also to respond to an attribute of the beloved’s that cannot be universalized or assessed, namely the beloved’s very being, the fact of the beloved’s existence in the world; to love is to appreciate this attribute and, thus, to identify with one’s beloved such that one strives to make oneself closer to the beloved’s inner life by aligning one’s perspective on the world with that of the beloved’s,

    5) To love is to respond to the beloved in a way that is reasonable, that is, appropriate to the nature of the beloved (what the beloved is taken to be),

    6) To love is to respond to the beloved in a way that is as much about the beloved as it is about the lover — it is not the mere fact that one does see one’s beloved in a particular way that constitutes loving, but that one, in doing so, commits oneself to seeing one’s beloved in a particular way,

    7) To love is to express and constitute one’s own identity in a free way, unbound by the rational requirement of holding some values — say, kindness — to be superior to other values, and thus having to love exclusively those who embody those values in a superlative way,

    8) To love is to engage in an activity — the details of which are specified in theses (17) — that is moral in kind (as opposed to amoral, since there is always the danger that it may fall into immorality) insofar as it is the attempt to appreciate, care for, and recognize a person as a whole.

    Jollimore concedes that no rational consideration can fully account for the phenomenon of love, nor fully bind one to it. At the same time, he seeks to fend off the most prominent objections to treating love as answerable to rationality.

    When Love Is Blind

    It’s all well and good to think about love in this kind of rationalist way. But what of “blind,” romantic love?

    Romantic love makes a person hone in on one feature of the world, namely, the beloved and his/her attributes, over and above the virtually infinite other features of which the world is composed. Love seems to necessarily involve, for Jollimore, a turning-away. This turning-away, however, should not be taken to consist in an irresponsible ignorance of the many things in the world that do not pertain to one’s beloved. Rather, it is a consequence of the fact that a person’s beloved comes to define “the shape of the situation,” as Jollimore puts it. The circumstances need not be extraordinary. In the case of the beloved’s merely walking into a room, this, too, counts as shaping the situation, and may even be the only “situation” of which to speak. The beloved’s entrance will not be just any other entrance but a situation-defining one, categorically different from anyone else’s.

    When Jay Gatsby, in Fitzgerald’s novel, meets Daisy again and shows her around his house, Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, writes that Gatsby “revalued everything in the house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes,” adding that “sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real.” Gatsby quite literally sees his surroundings differently once Daisy is in his midst. The house itself is reinvented as an extension of her gaze, radiating outward and giving the objects it fixes upon a value they never before had, or otherwise stripping them of the value they once boasted.

    One consequence of the turning-away Jollimore has in mind is that love makes a person “blind” to seemingly objective features, like “ugliness,” say, thus leading one to have a less objective view of the world overall. Jollimore draws a distinction between an outright false view of the other person and of the relationship, which involves an inadequate or otherwise lacking knowledge of the facts, on the one hand, and charity, which involves the best possible interpretation of the facts at hand. Love may cloud or obscure the facts in such a way that they are interpreted waywardly, but it does not spin facts out of thin air, at least not necessarily so, and certainly not in the best of cases.

    At what point do these charitable interpretations amount to a wholesale invention or reinvention of the values the other person is thought to possess? This is a threat of which Jollimore is well aware, one that can be referred to as “epistemic bias.”

    Epistemic bias is clearly a part, even an important part, of love, he concedes, one that engenders a partiality that “can on occasion go too far and end up posing an epistemic danger,” that of skewing one’s understanding of a situation. But is partiality objectionable? Idealization is a perfectly normal feature of the human psyche, he thinks, and is hardly so powerful as to obliterate the possibility of one’s being able to grasp the facts of the situation at hand, at least not in anything other than the most extraordinary circumstances. One may be able to overlook one’s beloved’s messiness, say, chalking it up to reasons and considerations that excuse the behavior, but one will be less likely to do so in extreme cases such as that of piles of trash being left strewn about the house.

    Partiality is an important part of life, Jollimore argues, not just because it means favoring one’s partner, but also in terms of one’s openness toward the sorts of experiences that require it as a condition of their appreciation, namely, aesthetic experiences, which typically contain a normative evaluation not just of a given aesthetic object but of aesthetic objects in general. Anticipating the charge that cases of moral bias (such as being inclined to be more forgiving of certain kinds of people rather than others) are more egregious than ones of aesthetic bias, Jollimore shifts gears and extends this line of thinking into the moral realm, rejecting disinterestedness as the gold standard of epistemic evaluation. Of course there are cases in which one’s allegiances, romantic or otherwise, will lead one significantly astray from the correct or otherwise preferable assessment of an action or a situation — for example, being unable to come to terms with the fact that a partner or a family member is systematically deceitful. But this sort of bias is not peculiar to love or friendship; after all, it is not just “being too generous” that can lead to problems of this sort, but also “failing to be generous enough.”

    Commitments, Values, and Frameworks

    Jollimore writes that love “is simply not the sort of response that can be rationally required.” This is an important reminder that he favors the “minimal” rationality of love while insisting upon the fact that love is an experience that also engenders its own stripe of blindness — namely, to the sorts of considerations (say, the potentially “superior” beauty of someone that isn’t one’s partner) that are not taken into account, not because those considerations don’t count, but because they do not rise to the level of cognizable evidential cases at all. For Jollimore, “practical life is largely a matter of selecting and committing oneself to values” that contribute to the formation of identity. These values give one’s life coherence. All of these activities, no matter how constructive, inevitably involve acts of exclusion, statements of preference.

    Jollimore invites one to think something like the following: while it is perfectly clear to me that the Hope Diamond, say, is of extraordinary value and beauty and is, indeed, quite something to behold, no matter the biases or expectations one actually brings to the encounter, it fails to register as anything that is valuable to me because of the more general fact that jewelry fails to register as something of particular value. In valuing the Hope Diamond, I could, as it were, put myself in another’s shoes, the shoes of someone else who does appreciate jewelry and, from that point of view, can sustain the perspective long enough to recognize what is extraordinary and culturally significant about the diamond, but not in such a way requiring me to personally hold it to be of extraordinary value to myself, because it is not and, in a stronger sense, could not be.

    The possibility of the Hope Diamond’s being valuable to me in the way it would be to someone else is, in Jollimore’s vernacular, “silenced” to me. It’s not that it is rejected; it simply fails to register as being worthy of the kind of consideration that could result in my acceptance or rejection of it. It seems this is akin to what Jollimore has in mind when he speaks of the relative value of one’s beloved, say, compared to various others eligible for consideration. It’s not that I couldn’t recognize another person (someone other than my beloved) as being exceedingly good-looking, or exceedingly humorous, or exceedingly intelligent, but that the recognition of this fact (something like, “so-and-so — who is not my beloved — is beautiful”) is inadmissible as the sort of consideration relevant to my beloved’s beauty, because, insofar as she is my beloved, she is beautiful in a way that does not admit of comparison to others. Loving someone is not to “make someone important by loving her” but to “[make] her important” for oneself by loving her.

    Jollimore commits himself to the view that if looked at “correctly,” anyone possesses attributes that make them lovable, a fact that strikes this reviewer as true enough, though it certainly does not belong to everyone’s phenomenological self-conception. To love someone consists, accordingly, in seeing him or her as the object of one’s love, or, to put it differently, in seeing in him or her the object of one’s love reflected. Fundamentally, however, such seeing is very hard to achieve.

    One distinction Jollimore introduces is between, on the one hand, love understood as being directed to a person as a whole and, on the other, love understood as being directed to a person in terms of that person’s qualities or properties. This distinction can be roughly construed as the one between treating someone as a subject or as an object; as one might imagine, given Jollimore’s (positive) tendency to seek a middle way between extreme positions, and to accommodate as many such positions as his own, qualified perspective allows, he thinks that both are possible.

    With regard to the kind of valuing that goes on in loving, Jollimore writes, “when the valuing is of the right sort, we are appreciated and loved as precisely what we are: persons with properties, that is, objects that are also subjects,” and, since that is how we would like to be loved, we also, in an ideal case, love and appreciate others this way, too.

    Ultimately, the view upholds a rather common, commonsensical notion about love’s relation to properties or qualities of the beloved: namely, that there exist properties and qualities on which our love is based, or at which it may be said to be directed, and that our love may very well survive the alteration of these properties or their outright disappearance, either due to attachment to more essential ones, or to some commitment to the variability of the lovable features in the first place.

    The more complicated issues of infidelity or “open relationships,” in this regard, receive relatively little attention in Jollimore’s book. His attitude on the matter seems to be laissez-faire; it will be up to each couple to determine for themselves what will or will not count as a rupture in their loving relationship. Different relationships can and will withstand different scenarios. While this may be a perfectly reasonable position to hold, it does not make for very exciting reading. Given how incisive many of Jollimore’s observations are, one wishes he hadn’t stopped short at points like these. He has much to say about “persons with properties;” less so about “persons with proclivities.”

    Love and Consequences

    At the end of the book, Jollimore endeavors, once more, to capture love’s “in-between-ness.” While reasonably conceding that experiencing love may very well color one’s moral orientation to quite destructive, unhelpful degrees, skewing and compromising one’s capacity to justly deploy moral judgments, Jollimore is nonetheless keen to hold onto the sense that not only does love not lead to conclusions as dire as these in any necessary sense, but that, moreover, it encourages and contributes, in most cases, to a heightened sensitivity to distinctly moral features of the beloved — say, his compassion, his kindness, and his fairness. Loving someone, one comes to know and experience various aspects of that person that one otherwise wouldn’t; thus, one comes to appreciate, for example, morally praiseworthy aspects of a person (perhaps aspects one does not possess oneself) that one otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to notice and reflect upon. Love can sharpen, it seems, one’s capacity for moral appraisal and appreciation.

    In loving, we become aware of things we hadn’t noticed before, not because they weren’t there, but because we weren’t attuned to seeing them. Chief among these, Jollimore says, we become aware of the fullness of another person’s existence, that is, an existence that is not our own and yet no less full as a result, indeed, just as full as ours. This awareness, as he writes, “calls the agent out of herself” in such a way as to make her attentive to the demands and desires of another, which tempers her self-directed attention for her own demands and desires. The further claim is that loving relationships, ideally, engender impartiality within the relationship — “the demands of we tends to silence the demands of I.”

    Jollimore does not want to go so far as someone who thinks that a proper moral attitude toward reality is constituted by directing a just and loving gaze upon it; that true love, if successfully achieved, entails a moral achievement. He deeply sympathizes with the notion that love is a genuine and profound way of “responding to the value of human individuals” and, as he puts it, to “the value and significance of humanity itself.” One may find oneself looking for a bit more justification on this score; Jollimore seems content too often merely to show that something can happen, without seeming to feel much pressure to show that it can happen reliably. Jollimore’s foes have launched and continue to launch persuasive accounts regarding love’s moral and epistemic shortcomings, so the task of putting a crack in those antagonistic arguments is not an easy one, nor is it a negligible achievement.

    Jollimore’s book is, in short, a paean to partiality. Clearly love does not leave reality untouched, given the reprioritization that one’s vision of the world undergoes when coming under the “appropriate” sway of romantic feelings and loving commitments.

    For Jollimore, it is a mistake to assume that thinking and acting morally must be to think and act impartially, for one’s moral commitments just are an exercise of partiality. Every embracing of one ideal over another represents casting a light upon the world, as it were, to attend to certain of its features while necessarily leaving any number of other features shrouded in darkness. Hence the theme of vision that lends itself to the title of Jollimore’s book and pervades its every page; loving is something like the spotlighting of the beloved, the haloing of their existence. In so doing, it is part and parcel of how we lead our lives, pursuing some paths over others, thus allowing certain possibilities to be actualized and “illuminated,” leaving others to be forever potential.


    In 2000, philosopher Alexander Nehamas announced “the return of the beautiful,” responding to books by Elaine Scarry and Dave Hickey, among others; in the following years, other notable books on beauty would emerge, including ones by Wendy Steiner and, more recently, Nehamas himself.

    Are we, or will we be witnessing, “the return of love”? This reviewer won’t be holding his breath. At the very least, however, maybe we’ll no longer have to say, “As Barbara Cartland” — or whoever else — “would put it, I love you madly.” Instead, we might try saying, Jollimore in mind, “I love you madly — well, as far as I can tell.”


    LARB Contributor

    Dylan J. Montanari currently works in academic publishing.


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