Love’s Knowledge

 

I’ve often found serendipity and instinct better guidelines for conducting research than methodical persistence, and in that spirit have been dipping in and out of any number of theoretical books lately, looking for inspiration. One of the writers who really makes me think, time and again, is Martha Nussbaum and it was in Love’s Knowledge, in the chapter of the same name that I came upon this paragraph:

 

‘We deceive ourselves about love – about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the conditions of the heart are reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions. We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth?’

 

Now there’s a good question. How do we know that we love, and how do we know that we are loved? The knowledge of the emotions is intense but fragile, its lightning strikes leave us blazing with a passion that compels and convicts….until it cools. Love’s knowledge looks like the Holy Grail and the scientific theory of everything rolled into one, but it rarely stands the test of time. Can a truth be open to mutation and transformation and still remain in some ways true? And there’s another paradox about it too – the knowledge of love can make us feel superhumanly lucid, but it can also cloud our vision with powerfully insistent fears and anxieties. To love is to be supremely vulnerable, and so for all the fine emotions love awakens within us, there are many pitiful and defensive ones too. It’s intriguing how often blindness is invoked in relation to passion; we talk about ‘blind devotion’ and about being ‘blinded by lust’, and there’s nothing like love for putting you into a ‘blind panic’. Love is often considered to be a compelling force or drive, divorced from doubt or hesitation, and yet it’s not just Proust who knows that love is also attended by obsessive interpretation and analysis. Are love and knowledge the perfect bedfellows or are they more like oil and water? Is love just too unstable a frame for judgement, and is judgement too heterogeneous a framework for considering love?

 

Nussbaum points out that for centuries, love and the intellect have been kept philosophically separate. Love and desire were considered to ‘bewitch’ the intellect and thus distort and compromise it. Objectivity, contemplation, cool rationality were the privileged terms in constructing schemes of knowledge, and love was viewed as the enemy within, undoing the good work of logic with its partisan appeals. And yet one only has to think of the way that loving someone alters, enhances, deepens the knowledge one has of them, to recognise that emotional intelligence should not be neglected and excluded from the intellectual arsenal. And equally, to have knowledge of our passions is a level of civilisation that it is surely imperative to reach.

 

I suppose that I think there are two distinct levels of knowledge, one created by the intellect and one by the emotions, and that they cannot be compared because they are radically different. They are equally both correct, and if you could, as it were, produce spectacles with one lens adjusted for reason, and one for emotion, you might end up looking at the world with twenty twenty vision. But in the absence of such technology, an oscillating, uncertain hesitant appropriation of the truth is all we can hope for. So, to know whether or not we are loved would require a shuttling movement between the impact of our emotions and the analysis of our logical reasoning; our sudden plummets into uncertainty and abandonment being balanced by an intellectual assessment of the situation, our exhilarating convictions tempered by a little rational restraint. And yet, I wonder; is this really an inclusive compromise, or does it simply spoil the best of either world?

 

Nussbaum explores the conflict between love and reason through an analogy with the conflict between literature and philosophy. In each case the understanding of self-knowledge and the criterion for measuring its truth value are wildly different, but the very project of self-knowledge lies at the heart of both. ‘Self-knowledge, even if vaguely specified, is a goal with real content and real importance, capable of organising further inquiry’ Nussbaum considers. ‘In this way it resembles the ancient Greek concept eudaimonia (“human flourishing” “the good life”), concerning the further specification of which there was little agreement, but which, as a concept, still served to organize ethical debate for centuries.’ However difficult it may be to understand our emotions, however troublesome to harness their primal power to the cargo of reason, the good life cannot be lived without our cautious, persistent and gentle enquiry into their possibilities and their effects. For there can be few greater joys than to love and to know we are loved, in full possession of our rational faculties.

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12 thoughts on “Love’s Knowledge

  1. [intellectual knowledge and emotional knowledge] are equally both correct, and if you could, as it were, produce spectacles with one lens adjusted for reason, and one for emotion, you might end up looking at the world with twenty twenty vision.

    I don’t want this to be true, at least not as you’ve framed it here; while I agree that intellectual arguments should be tempered by emotional reasoning, I have trouble valuing subjective emotional knowledge as highly as more objective reasoned conclusions. Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there, and all that.

    (My more general problem with any discussion of love is that too much gets conflated into the single word. There are few ways of describing the points between “I like you” and “I love you”, and that causes no end of trouble.)

  2. And yet surely what you feel cannot be so simply dismissed? It may not belong to the same frame of understanding as rational intelligence, which you privilege, and yet important information is still contained within emotions. I agree that the difficulty implicit in a word like ‘love’ is that one single public word must stand for a particular private experience, but my thesaurus contains several hundred alternatives for ‘like’ and ‘love’ so it can’t be beyond the powers of expression to distinguish some degrees. Of course, trying to gauge where one’s own emotions lie on the wide spectrum from like to love is probably another matter entirely…

  3. Where to start? Really interesting idea, the more so for me as it applies to the novel I just finished reading, which hinges on this idea of distilling some objective truth from reports that are obviously coloured and/or blinded by love.

    I agree with Niall that ‘just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.’ But, it means *something* is there, though maybe not what you thought.

    I like to think it’s (it = love’s knowledge) the effect of the intellect working in overdrive — you feel the conclusion, but the process was too fast for you to see how you got there.

    The problem as I see it, and why we will always privilege intellectual knowledge, is that as soon as we recognize love or whatever emotion, try to understand it, use it, apply it, label it, it becomes an intellectual process. Emotion is a state of being — to be able to even recognize it you have to subsume it.

  4. Wow Litlove,
    It amazed me at first that there were so few comments on this one. But then I thought it through and I realised why. People are afraid of the reality you are throwing out there and I think even more, they are terrified of the other possibilities.

    We are so afraid that we are driven by nothing more than emotion unrecognised and unrestrained. But yet we make such a point of our reason making us Human.

    Personally I fear I am more of a pessimist on the balance that can be achieved between love and reason. Perhaps because the world shows so little balance between reason and emotion in general I fear that reason is an insufficient brake on the excesses of emotion love, hate or otherwise!

    On the other hand I much prefer you vision and I am happy to subscribe to.

    A truly wonderful post Litlove and one that will be pondered for days to come!
    Eoin

  5. Isabella, I am very taken with the notion of emotion being instantly transformed into reason as soon as it is considered – I think that’s very wise and perceptive. And Eoin, you’re spot on when you say that ‘the world shows so little balance between reason and emotion in general’ that it’s easy to fear that we are creatures of impulse first and intellect second. That’s another fascinating perspective that I hadn’t considered.

  6. “I suppose that I think there are two distinct levels of knowledge, one created by the intellect and one by the emotions, and that they cannot be compared because they are radically different. They are equally both correct, and if you could, as it were, produce spectacles with one lens adjusted for reason, and one for emotion, you might end up looking at the world with twenty twenty vision.”

    Utterly brilliant. I have been struggling with these same ideas, albeit in a different context, in my own blog for months, and you say it in two sentences. The idea that “cool rationality” trumps feeling is something that demons us (or me at least) every day. How can you have a rational argument about feelings? someone asks. Well, the answer should be, why should you even try?

  7. Very interesting things here, litlove, and I’m happy to hear about Nussbaum’s book, since I’ve got it on my TBR shelf and am looking forward to it (whenever I have the time and energy to tackle something a bit challenging). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I need to learn to trust the “knowledge” (or whatever it is) that emotion offers. I love your sentence: “However difficult it may be to understand our emotions, however troublesome to harness their primal power to the cargo of reason, the good life cannot be lived without our cautious, persistent and gentle enquiry into their possibilities and their effects.” — I like the idea of a “gentle enquiry” into emotion and what it can teach, staying in tune with feelings and learning to listen to them. I’ve written and thought about emotions a lot, but I’m not always good at understanding and responding to my own.

  8. Your question — How do we know that we love and how do we know that we are loved is a question I cannot articulate an answer to, and one I rarely think about. It reminds me of the who is god type of question, because it has in common with that inquiry the difficulty of finding words to capture what we feel and know. I’m glad you asked it though — it makes me want to write a novel around the question of how we know we love and are loved — it would be interesting to have a character who wants to know this, and who sets out to discover the answer. You’re so inspiring, dear litlove. xo, BL

  9. Bikeprof – I quite agree – fear is a good case in point. Of course some fears are perfectly reasonable, but quite a lot completely illogical and no amount of ‘cool reason’ will make them go away. Dorothy – well, I’m just the same – like to think I know something about emotion but often completely misrecognise my own. And Bloglily, I am first in the queue for that novel! I’ll bet you could write something stunning on that topic.

  10. Brilliant and thought-provoking. Brought to mind for me both the book and the play THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, in which it’s suggested that in order to truly, purely love, one might need to not have all of one’s mental (reasoning) faculties in tact.

    Also made me think about how all the world’s major religions stress love and the need for humans not to isolate themselves from others. It seems to me, if we had natural tendencies in this direction, we wouldn’t have to be “taught” to do so. I think our natural tendencies lean far more towards reasoning and the rational and coming up with explanations for everything rather than just accepting mystery, including the mystery of love, from parental love to platonic love to romantic love. (We need Greek here!)

  11. I tend to think love is not something that happens to us, it is something we choose. We have become so drenched in the ideas of romance, that would be a reality few in western civilization would face.

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