Love and Sensibility

by Dwight Furrow

Abstract artIn matters of love we have a Euthyphro problem (so-called because an early version of the problem is raised by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro). Do I love my wife because I think she's beautiful or do I think she's beautiful because I love her? Replace beauty with any other virtue and the question remains. If I think my wife is beautiful (or kind or smart) because I love her, then what explains my loving her? It can't be her beauty, kindness, or intelligence because my belief that she possesses these virtues is antecedent to the love, not a prior judgment. It is peculiar to think there is no reason why we love what we love. However the second horn of the dilemma is no more promising. If I love my wife for her beauty, kindness, or intelligence, it would seem that I should love someone else who is equally virtuous. But, of course, I don't. Those particular general qualities seem inadequate as explanations for love since there are any number of people possessing them that I do not love.

Philosophers have come down on either side of the dilemma. Luminaries such as Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hume, and Kant have tried to argue without much success that beauty or sexual attraction are the precursors of love. But we can surely love things that are not beautiful or sexually attractive; in fact we often love what is ugly. More recently, Harry Frankfurt has argued that love is a kind of brute fact. We love things for no reason—it's just a fact that we do so and bestow value then on the things we love. For Frankfurt, things have value because we care about them and thus their value cannot be a justification of why we care on pain of circularity.

Frankfurt might be right that reasons do not explain why we love something. Falling in love, whether the beloved is another person, object, or activity, does not seem to be a deliberative process or one that involves a rational procedure. But if reasons are not the sort of thing that induce love, emotions as a source of love also seem to get the relationship backward. Emotions are based on love; they are not the source of love. If I am sad at the loss of someone it is because I already love them. If I'm angry at an offense it is because I already care about the offended. But the failure of reason or emotion to explain does not entail there is no explanation at all. Frankfurt's view appears to be an unwarranted leap. But that just raises the question—what then is the explanation?

A short blog post cannot untie all the knots about love's sources. But I want to sketch an alternative to reason and emotion. The precursors of love lie in our sensibility. By sensibility I mean our basic openness to the world, our susceptibility to sensory stimuli, the receptive side of perception supplying the raw materials out of which perceptions are in part built. Until recently, sensibility has received little discussion in philosophy although it was central to Kant's epistemology. However, the work of Heidegger and Merleau Ponty in European philosophy and the focus on perceptual capacities and the “extended mind” in analytic, anglophone philosophy have opened up a robust discussion of sensibility in contemporary thought. The basic idea of this new interest in sensibility is that prior to our conceptualizing reality as a collection of clearly delineated objects to which our words refer and can be taken up in the logical relationships of language, meaning has already begun to develop as an aesthetic response to our embodied activity. It is through the primordial experience of bodily movement that we begin to make sense of the world and this bodily sense-making is never abandoned as we develop language and concepts. If meaning in general arises as such it is plausible to think perhaps love, a very particular kind of meaning, might also have such an origin.

Love is a response to the perception of value and so the first step in the argument is to acknowledge certain value commitments that inhere in sensibility. Sensibility tracks changes in the environment related to skillful coping. Vision, audition, touch, smell and taste attend to what is salient with regard to our ability to safely and productively move about in the world. Yet, there is more going on in sensibility than merely tracking environmental change. Because sensibility is intrinsically related to action, it is inherently normative. Everyday perception is infused with implicit normative judgments that are related to expectations. I don't simply see the bus hurtling down the street, but judge its trajectory as benign or threatening, as normal or abnormal. In fact, at every moment in every situation, we assume a background normalcy or not, a satisfaction with things as they are or a motivation to change. These are implicit value judgments that seem as closely tied to perception as the perception of a color or shape.

The ur-skill, the skill that makes all this possible is complex pattern recognition, especially the recognition of potentially new patterns and the development of one's sensibility to cope with these new patterns. The more patterns we can recognize, assess, and react to appropriately, the higher our level of skill. Skillful coping is the telos of sensibility and assessing the potential of newly-encountered patterns is an essential part of it.

What sort of patterns must we recognize in order to make these aforementioned value judgments? I call them telic norms. We see objects and situations as having dispositions or causal powers—a tendency to change in one direction or another according to their nature and depending on the situation. A ball is disposed to roll down hill if indeed it is on a hill; a glass is disposed to break if dropped on the floor. These dispositional properties are often hidden. A glass bowl is disposed to break even when sitting comfortably on a shelf. But its disposition to break begins to reveal itself when the shelf tilts; the telic norms associated with the glass bowl shift significantly towards breakage when the bowl is balanced precariously on the edge.

This normativity tied to skillful coping is forward looking because it is oriented toward action—what we will do next. Thus, the patterns we recognize are by necessity incomplete, partial patterns that are filled in by expectation. The glass bowl on the shelf that dangerously begins to tilt has not yet fallen, but sensibility projects the pattern forward motivating me to reach out and stop its trajectory. Part of sensibility is recognizing the potential of a situation and this can be nothing more than a pervasive feeling of rightness or wrongness. All action is motivated by the sense that an anticipated situation is better than the current situation. John Dewey in some of his later work introduced the concept of “pervasive quality” to capture this phenomenon. Dewey's aim in his essay “Qualitative Thought” is to explain “the meaning of regulation by an underlying and pervasive quality” (Later Works 5:246). I suspect that what Dewey had in mind is this overall normative cast that emerges from the activity of sensibility tracking telic norms.

What does all this have to do with love? I want to suggest that the initial affinities that ultimately become love emerge from this pervasive quality that things have as we encounter them in experience. The example above of a generic bowl sitting on a generic shelf was of a simple object with a limited set of dispositions that issue in narrowly circumscribed telic norms. But many persons, objects, or practices that we encounter have deep and diverse potential based on the recognition of unfolding but incomplete telic norms that our actions can help complete. We see in them, the potential for further involvement, not as a plan or policy but as a felt richness when they seem tailor-made for our engagement. Importantly, these dispositional properties are not general characteristics like beauty, kindness, or charm. They can have quite individualized trajectories depending on the vagaries of circumstance. Just as a particular bowl sitting on a particular shelf can break in a myriad of different ways, a person, object or practice will have dispositional properties that are individualized by circumstance and have their beginnings in idiosyncratic personal histories that are not well described by general terms such as beauty or kindness.

This is the real meaning of “quality”—a set of dispositional properties that promise more than superficial engagement because they have great variety, intensity or provide a deep contrast with static, familiar, completed patterns. This felt potential for patterning is a natural lure, an attractant, or perpetual “ought” that demands coping at a higher level. Everything we encounter in experience is an opportunity for a continuing transaction, whether that be via attraction or repulsion. The things we love—our children, romantic partners, friends, activities or objects such as music, sports, books, etc.—have an initial grip on us because they are redolent with possibilities that are somehow sensed. The “somehow” is important. This amounts to positing a holistic, agential quality to sensation. Proto desires—the restless inchoate energy of curiosity and random seeking-behavior, commandeers our sensory mechanisms and pleasure/pain responses employing them as sensory probes seeking intensity, qualitative contrast, and potential patterns to be completed by further actions. The value judgments we make about them begin as this affective “standing out” against a background of normalcy.

The precondition of love then is this recognition of quality. We sense that some objects, persons, or practices are pregnant with potential because they afford us opportunities for engagement. Of course whether we fall in love or not depends on how that engagement proceeds, but the initial impetus toward love is aesthetic and seems akin to a sculptor seeing potential in a block of stone or a musician thinking a particular chord progression seems “just right”.

The metaphor of “falling” when applied to love captures only part of the phenomenon. Love is more like being caught in an undertow, a difficult-to-resist force that drags us toward an indeterminate end.

Dwight ponders the love of food and wine at Edible Arts.