Amo, Ergo Cogito: A Philosopher on Love as a Way of Seeing
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Among all the irrational forces that overwhelm the human, none seems as powerful and capricious as love. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and gale-force winds are “out there,” but love stirs inside us to shake us, twist us, and leave us quite turned about. Our pop stars and cultural prophets complain about this force and how it promises everything while delivering nothing; love seems suffused with illusion, to be little more than the fluff of sentimentality or the veil of lust.
What is love? No less a poet than Shakespeare, in the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presents it as a kind of magic-induced madness so powerfully deceptive that it will lead a beautiful woman to fall for a man with the head of an ass. Love seems to be a matter of losing your wits, of falling prey to illusion. It seems to be all sheen and no substance.
It is at this juncture, however, that phenomenology — broadly defined as the experience of experience — says something strange. Martin Heidegger has said, “We are in the habit of saying that ‘love is blind.’ Here, love is regarded as an urge and so is replaced by an entirely different phenomenon. For love really gives sight.” It is the biological urge or the selfish sentiment that blinds us; love, by contrast, constitutes a fundamental openness to the beloved. Love lets us see what is there to be seen; it lets us succumb to the very being of the beloved. Phenomenology is the thoroughgoing enactment of the radical insight that love lets us receive things as they are.
Indeed, John Paul II quite perceptively characterizes phenomenology as “an attitude of intellectual charity.” It opens us up to the truth of things and the truth of others. What we don’t care about we won’t take the trouble to experience deeply. We’ll instead rest content with superficial opinions and prejudices. Phenomenology lets us discover the truth of love. In doing so it frees us to uncover the truth of things.
We can miss what’s happening in love when we think about it as a relation between two things: the lover and the beloved. Love is in fact a way of taking in the whole world, that is, the whole world as seen through the eyes of the beloved. Heidegger notes that the joy we experience in the presence of others is a joy we feel in the way the world is manifest to them: “Another possibility of such manifestation is concealed in our joy in the presence of the human existence — and not simply the person — of a human being whom we love.” We love the affectivity of our loved ones, not only their looks but also the way the world looks to them. Their look enhances our appreciation and understanding of things. The world bathed in the light of their love is a world washed of stultifying obviousness and freshly revealed in its charm.
Consider, in this regard, the renewal of life that comes from having children. “In the household where a new child is born, all objects change their sense, they begin to anticipate from this child some still indeterminate treatment,” the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observes. “Someone new and someone additional is there, a new history, whether it be brief or long, has just been established, and a new register is open.”
The child’s wonder before the world is contagious. It is not just the child that is a delight but also the new interest in the world, as a new understanding slowly dawns. We rediscover the living waters that swirl about below the ice whenever we speak and think about things, for children must figure out how to break into speech and come to understand things, and in minding their efforts we are brought to realize how strange it is that speaking happens or that inklings of illumination about things can occur and be shared.
Nietzsche suggests that love collapses in on itself, finding satisfaction not in the beloved but instead in its rapturous feeling: “In the end one loves one’s desire and not what is desired.” Phenomenology replies that love draws one out of oneself, prompting one to find joy in sharing the beloved’s world with the beloved. As one continues to learn to see the world through the beloved’s eyes, one acquires new modes of insight. One doesn’t just take note of something; one develops a way of thinking about it, evaluating it, enjoying it.
Amo, Ergo Cogito
The most famous line in all of philosophy is Descartes’s signature phrase, Cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. While phenomenology cherishes the radicalness with which Descartes approaches philosophy, it constitutes a thoroughgoing critique of his starting point, beginning with the question of the cogito, or I think. The philosopher Max Scheler expresses the critique powerfully: “Man, before he is an ens cogitans or an ens volens, is an ens amans.” To be a being that loves is to be a being open to the things of the world, things that can subsequently be known or chosen.“Love is always what awakens both knowledge and volition,” he writes. “Indeed, it is the mother of spirit and reason itself.”
Love orients us in the world and allows for some things to be interesting and some things not. The whole shows up to love in a variegated way, colored by it. The specific complexion of the whole is called the ordo amoris, or order of love. We can describe what someone loves, what one takes an interest in, but we can also contrast that description with what one does well to love and take an interest in. Various kinds of illusions threaten.
First, there is the possibility of loving something of relative value as if it were of absolute value. Here we have the hoarder who cherishes bottle caps as if they were the best things there are. This is idolatrous love. Second, there is the possibility of loving something of lesser worth over something of higher worth. Here we can think of the executive who prizes monetary gain over patriotism, shuttering a profitable local factory to make even more money overseas. This is inverted love. Third, there is the possibility of loving something with an intensity that falls short of its worth. Here we can think of the merely abstract appreciation that many have toward high culture, toward science, poetry, philosophy, and the liberal arts. This is inadequate love.
The ordo amoris, then, is not only descriptive but also prescriptive. One of the marks of thoughtfulness is to ask not only “What do I love?” but “What (really) is lovable?” and to take cues from exemplary people to challenge the horizon of love within which I see, think, and choose. The witness of the hero or the saint reveals to us new horizons of love. There is Henry David Thoreau challenging enthralled Americans to simplify their desires and draw inspiration from the quiet beauty of natural rhythms. There is Mother Teresa, her diminutive figure barely visible behind the UN podium in New York, audaciously bearing witness before the nations of the world to a love of those who are marginalized and powerless. Confronting a Thoreau or a Mother Teresa is so terrifying because their love threatens to transform our own secure but inadequate, inverted, or idolatrous loves.
When we think about the order of love, it is natural for us to think of love as love of others. Love is essentially altruism, so it is said, a concern for others over and above ourselves. Insofar as all human action requires a motive, we even doubt whether love is possible, for, as we tell ourselves, lovers always receive some satisfaction in loving or they wouldn’t love at all. The paradigmatic case of a fellow in a foxhole throwing himself on a grenade to save his friends seems somehow tainted; after all, he must have felt that that was the noble action and thereby have had the subjective satisfaction of dying nobly.
But phenomenologists reject altruism out of hand as the expression of vice, not virtue. It is arbitrary to prefer another to yourself for no other reason than that the other is not you; it is the flipside of egoism, which arbitrarily prefers yourself. Scheler writes, “If I myself am not worthy of love, why should the ‘other’ be? As if he were not also an ‘I’ — for himself, and I ‘another’ — for him!” To prefer the other for being other is to express an aversion to oneself. But love of another is not based on aversion. Therefore, altruism is not love. It instead expresses a kind of pathology, which leads us to busy ourselves with the affairs of others in order to avoid our own unwelcome selves. Or as Scheler succinctly puts it: altruism is “a nihilistic demand which destroys all vitality and indeed decomposes any structure of being!”
How can we distinguish higher and lower objects of love? The distinction arises in the field of experience. Lower goods are goods that leave us empty when sought as though they were higher goods; higher goods are goods that leave us full when sought as though they were higher goods. When we prize physical pleasure above all, for example, we are left more and more desperate. Or as Scheler writes:
The sensualist is struck by the way the pleasure he gets from the objects of his enjoyment gives him less and less satisfaction while his driving impulse stays the same or itself increases as he flies more and more rapidly from one object to the next. For this water makes one thirstier, the more one drinks.
Consider the sort of emptiness that comes from binge-watching shows or internet indulgences. Now consider the sort of fulfillment that comes from getting a job done right, such as installing wiring for a ceiling fan, or that comes in making a savory dish for a friend. Lower goods leave one restless; higher goods open new depths of satisfaction.
Alienation and Shame
Jean-Luc Marion argues that at bottom the only question that truly concerns us is the question, “Does anybody love me?” And it is such a question for us because we are so routinely buffeted by (unloving) assaults on our person — by betrayals, indifference, and hostility. Consider if you will the typical grade school experience of mortifying shame when the teacher intercepts and reads to the class a note in which some disclosure is made, either an unkind remark or the avowal of some crush. The sharing of one’s own thoughts or pictures to a public greedy to consume them as objects of curiosity, gossip, and ridicule is an all too frequent experience in an electronic age. What is at work in today’s vigilance over privacy and outrage over accidental public disclosures? We want to be known, do we not? Why worry about personal things being known beyond our own intimates? What is so hateful about the experience that we can become destroyed by shame?
Jean-Paul Sartre says shame amounts to the experience of being objectified by others in such a way that their points of view threaten my own. I am a subject that views you as an object; conversely, you are a subject that views me as an object. The attempt at reciprocal objectification engenders a fruitless dialectical tension, a kind of mutual assured destruction of subjectivity and with it a loss of freedom and dignity, or as Sartre writes in “Being and Nothingness”: “My original fall is the existence of the Other.” In shame, those indifferent to our being relate to us not as fellow subjects but as specimens or cases for comment and criticism. Sartre gives the famous example of looking in a keyhole to spy on someone and then, at the sound of footsteps, of shrinking in shame at having been caught doing something so unseemly; the objectifying voyeur becomes objectified! If love allows us to see the beloved as a point of view on the whole, shame shackles the shamed to being nothing more than an (unsightly) part of the whole.
Other phenomenologists, such as Scheler, note that shame can have a silver lining. In doing so, they are speaking not about guilt or shame felt in the eyes of others as a result of doing something shameful — Sartre’s voyeur — but about the experience of being wrongly objectified — the voyeur’s object of intrigue. The experience is negative, but its very negativity testifies to a truth of the human person, namely, that we are the sort of thing that should not be objectified; there’s more to us than meets the objectifying eye. Shame is the “‘anxiety’ of the individual over falling prey to a general notoriety,” writes Scheler, “and over the individual’s higher value being pulled down by lower values.” Shame protects us from public objectification, and, in this way, it is allied with privacy. We are rightly known by intimates in love, not by those who do not have our interests at heart.
The experience of shame also captures a tension written into our very character as flesh, that is, as one that receives the world of experience while simultaneously being a part of that world. This twofold character opens the possibility of our being reduced in the eyes of another to the mere anonymity of bodily parts. Shame, however, reveals that our bodies are not analogous to slabs of meat. Instead, as Merleau-Ponty describes in “Phenomenology of Perception,” they are the outward face of our inward selves and are charged with personal significance. The sexual feeling of shame arises due to the fact that love directs us toward the individual person but desire directs us toward bodily enjoyment. This difference between seeking the person and seeking bodily enjoyment makes it necessary to hide one’s most intimate flesh before lust and reveal it only for love. The idea of spousal love is that the lover not only desires but loves the beloved, and consequently enjoyment does not undermine the twofold character of flesh; in the name of love, shame can therefore disappear.
Another negative experience with a positive meaning is solitude. While standing in line, at a party, or even in one’s own room, one can keenly feel alone. This need not have anything to do with feeling lonely, which is an experience of solitude marked by unrest; feeling alone can instead be perfectly peaceful. In that experience of solitude, one experiences one’s own selfhood and its orientation to others. Such solitude is not something negative; it is a profoundly positive experience that lies at the basis of all communion with others. In solitude we experience ourselves as selves by ourselves; in communion we experience ourselves as selves together with others. Communion cancels the absence characteristic of solitude by bringing about the presence of others. Only one who can be alone without being lonely can love another no longer incidentally — as an antidote to loneliness — but specifically as a welcome presence.
Loneliness turns to others as a distraction from self; authentic solitude enters into communion with others as a complement to oneself.
Participation and Dialogue
The look of a stranger not only threatens; it also beckons, welcomes, acknowledges. Sartre fails to see the positive possibility of love, and he thus sees the presence of others as dangerous. The only possibility of encounter is alienation in which other people snatch my world from me by construing it relative to their own points of view. Other phenomenologists, more attentive to the modalities of human experience, underscore the positive possibilities of human encounter. These modes of love include not only familial, spousal, and friendly love, but also solidarity; these are modes of participation, modes of sharing the world together. We experience the meaningfulness of being part of a whole.
Love begins in perceiving the value of the beloved. It comes to fruition in making a thoughtful gift of ourselves to promote the beloved’s good. This happens through a sharing of not only thoughts, labors, and time, but also our flesh, including our animal inclinations. One of the most characteristic acts of friends is to share a meal together, satisfying simultaneously not only their need to eat and metabolize but also their desire for fellowship and conversation about life. It takes effort to hear, to follow the thoughts of another, but this is done gladly for one’s friend, whose world has become an addition to one’s own. Heidegger even speaks mysteriously but truly about how we carry the voice of our friends around with us, ever ready to listen to what they have to say whenever they are present to us. To educate children is to tutor them in the works of love, the ability, among other things, to make good conversation over a meal or to pitch in constantly and without prompting in the works of love that contribute to the life of the family. Friends and family members share life, the life of our bodily needs and wants and the life of our highest aspirations for truth and goodness.
The Polish phenomenologist Karol Wojtyła develops a rich account of participation in the treatise “The Acting Person,” which he wrote while suffering from the stultifying impersonal forces of communism. To participate, he says, is to take part with other persons in joint activity as persons. Participation stands in the sharpest contrast with every view of the human as an anonymous cog in a wheel, every view that regards the human as a “resource” rather than a contributor, every view that reduces the person to a mere mechanical function, such as a paper pusher in a bureaucracy. Participants experience themselves as meaningful parts of the whole. They take delight in working for the good of the whole and thereby experience solidarity.
Wojtyła notes that a participant might also sometimes need to voice opposition to the whole as the expression of an allegiance to the common good; precisely because I too belong to the whole, my thoughtful aversion to the dominant mindset needs to be shared. The whistleblower who exposes a culture of corruption will cause distress no doubt, but such opposition will prove to be the highest contribution to the good of the corporation and those whose needs it is supposed to serve. The interplay of solidarity and opposition promotes the sort of healthy dialogue necessary for social and political life. Such authentic attitudes stand in contrast to conformism and avoidance, which shun confrontation and with it the possibility that truth might become shared. When Wojtyła later became Pope John Paul II, he made a historic 1979 return trip to Poland in which he eschewed the inauthentic attitudes of conformism and avoidance and instead opposed the atheism of the communist regime: Religion, he bore witness, belongs in the public discourse of Poland. He thereby energized the Polish Solidarity movement that undermined the communist hold on the country.
Such witness is not just important for views other than our own. Only a year earlier, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been in exile in the United States for speaking out against communist oppression in his homeland of Russia, used the occasion of a 1978 speech at Harvard University to challenge the contemporary ethos of America. He boldly claimed that Americans had lost courage to confront dangers and had traded in the quest for higher goods for a comfortable but ultimately unsatisfying quest to consume as much as possible. Was he being simply cantankerous and ungrateful to his hosts? Or was he offering as repayment for America’s hospitality the highest good he could, namely, testimony to the greater goods of the human spirit?
Phenomenology constitutes a timely reminder in an increasingly sectarian media environment of radically polarized rhetoric: that genuine dialogue, marked by openness to truth, is necessary for the good of all of us. In participation, I contribute myself to the good of the whole so that I don’t allow the truth I see to be drowned out or hidden. Instead, I must propose it to others and welcome the claims of truth of others, especially when they contradict my own. Only by listening to the witness of others can we experience what they experience and turn, jointly, to the truth of the matter. Each of us might be wrong, but we cannot determine who that might be unless we mutually submit to the truth of the thing in question. Genuine participation is participation as persons, as perceivers of truth, in a shared conversation about the good of our various communities. Public discourse requires openness to truth in order to avoid devolving into the strident us-versus-them rhetoric of power and intimidation that aims at social conformism. Phenomenology invites us to see our political life together as susceptible to truth, which can be shared thanks to a dialogue concerning competing senses of what is truly lovable and good.
Love perceives the goodness of life and motivates the works that sustain, enrich, and celebrate it. In doing so, it joins our worlds one to another and forges a whole, protecting us from the alienating forces of objectification. It affords the context for truth, even challenging truths, to be shared, so that, conversing one with another, we might gradually grow in knowledge of the things that are. This sort of labor, the life lived together in the ambit of truth, requires courage and patience. It requires dedication and focus. It requires us to resist the anesthetizing allure of the superficial so that we might challenge each other to plumb the depths of experience in order to arrive at the truth of the matter.
Chad Engelland is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Dallas. He is the author of several books, including “Heidegger’s Shadow: Kant, Husserl, and the Transcendental Turn“; “The Way of Philosophy: An Introduction“; “Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind“; and “Phenomenology,” from which this article is adapted.