Guest Post by Thomas Oord: Explaining Love to an Alien

Our third guest blogger is Thomas Oord. Guest post submissions are closing today, but this first experimental open period has been a success, so watch this space for more submission opportunities in the future! There are a couple more submissions from this round still in the works; they will be appearing here soon.

Suppose an alien from Planet X leaned over the counter at Starbucks and asked, “What is this ‘love’ I hear spoken of on your planet?”

If you’re a relatively young person, the first thoughts racing across your mind may be Haddaway’s lyrics, “What is love? (Baby don’t hurt me!)” If you’re from a previous generation, Foreigner’s lyrics may come to mind, “I wanna know what  love is. And I want you to show me.”

Unfortunately, of course, those lyrics don’t help much when it comes to defining love. They simply ask the question. Your alien inquirer needs something more if she’s to understand love.

And let’s suppose she has plenty of coffee and time to listen to your answer.


Love is a Many “SPLINTERED” Thing

To begin, let’s admit that our language is unlikely to capture fully what we mean by love. Although useful, language has its limits. But we rely upon language to communicate. And despite its limits, it seems at least somewhat helpful. So let’s talk with our alien inquirer.

One option for defining love is simply to describe what people may mean each time they use the word. Take these examples:

“I love the Seattle Mariners.”
“I love my puppy.”
“I love God.”
“I love a man in uniform.”
“I love peperoni pizza.”

Our alien inquirer will quickly see the problem with this approach, however. We use “love” to describe our responses to so many things. Listing all of the instances may take a lifetime!

Besides, we mean something different when we say, “I love my impoverished neighbor” and “I love that girl’s emerald green eyes.” This “love is whatever it seems to mean, given the circumstances” approach fails to inform our alien inquirer.

A similar but more scholarly approach is to describe the history of how the word “love” has been used. Philosopher Irving Singer’s multi-volume work, The Nature of Love, is perhaps the most comprehensive in this approach. Irving traces major philosophers, cultural shifts, understandings of romance and marriage, and more. Noticeably absent in Irving’s work, however, is much mention of love as a religious or theological category.

Irving’s work, although a fascinating work of descriptive analytic philosophy, will likely leave our alien inquirer unsatisfied. History can be interesting. But as we read how “love” has been used, we naturally wonder what might unite these diverse notions of love. Love may be a many splendored thing, but its meanings are splintered in various ways!

If love is more than arbitrary word, we owe it to our alien inquirer to do more than mention every instance in which humans have used the word “love.” 


The Archetypes of Love

A more common approach to understanding love is to seek general love categories. Love takes many forms, and these forms seem to fall under several archetypes.

Philosopher Alan Soble specifies what he and most scholars consider the three primary love archetypes. Soble refers to the ancient Greek words: agape, eros, philia. Nicholas Wolterstorff also identifies three forms of love, and they roughly correspond to the meaning of the three Greek words Soble mentions: love as benevolence, love as attraction, and love as attachment. Literary scholar C. S. Lewis works from these same categories, referring to “gift-love” (agape), “need-love” (eros), friendship love (philia). He adds a fourth: affection (storge).

The attempt to place love into several major categories is laudable. And our alien inquirer may start to gain clarity. But the work to categorize love into archetypes suggests that something unites the archetypal categories. It may be that philosopher John Armstrong is right when he says, “love doesn’t have an essence we can uncover.” But just after claiming love has no essence, Armstrong says, “it has, rather, a set of themes that interact differently in different instances of love.”

So... how do we know when we encounter an “instance of love,” to use Armstrong’s phrase? Doesn’t this suggest we presuppose some uniting essence or core notion?


Toward A Normative Definition of Love

In my research, I’ve discovered four general ways of understanding love. One way focuses on desire and intentionality. Let’s call it “the desire understanding of love.” This approach draws from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Neo-Platonic tradition. The desire understanding of love thinks love is desire that motivates action. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: “every agent, whatever it be, does every action from love of some kind.” This approach tends to talk about proper or improper loves. Or it talks about virtuous love or love deformed. The essence of love, from this perspective, is desire.

The second way focuses on relationality. Let’s call it “the relational understanding of love.” This approach is less common historically, but it is growing in popularity, as relational approaches to metaphysics seem to many more plausible. The relational understanding of love says the reciprocity inherent in any relationship is itself love. Philosopher Charles Hartshorne uses the phrase “life sharing” to define love as mutuality. Hartshorne says, “love means realization in oneself of the desires and experiences of others, so that one who loves can in so far inflict suffering only by undergoing this suffering himself.” (Hartshorne uses the classic word, “suffering,” here in the way we’d use “relational” today.)

The third way to understand love focuses on feelings. This “feeling understanding of love” is common among psychologists. From the scholarly literature, however, it is difficult to ascertain what this feeling precisely entails. For this reason, the feeling understanding of love may simply describe the emotional content of the desires or relationships of the one loving.

The fourth way focuses on positive results. Or at least it says positive results are the intention of the one doing the loving. Let’s call this “the well-being understanding of love.” In the well-being understanding, the lover is motivated to promote good. Gary Chartier defines love in the well-being sense when he says love is “a positive orientation on the other.” The essence of love, according to this understanding, is promoting the good.


My Definition of Love

For a number of reasons, I prefer the fourth understanding of love. But I think the other understandings provide necessary components to a normative definition of love. For this reason, I define love in this way:

“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.”

I use the phrase “to act intentionally” to take into account the desire aspect of love, which I think always accompanies those actions we rightly deem loving. I use the phrase “in sympathetic/empathetic response to others” to taking into account the relational/mutuality aspect of love, which I think is always present when we love. The phrase “promote overall well-being” is the main object of the sentence, because in my mind the essence of love is promoting what is good. I’ve inserted “overall” into this statement on well-being, because I want to account for personal well-being, social well-being, ecological well-being, and more.

Of course, I could and should say more about each aspect of my definition. I didn’t even explain why I’ve inserted the theological phrase, “(including God),” in my definition. I explain my definition further in my books, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement and The Nature of Love: A Theology.

So... back to our inquiring alien from Planet X. If asked at Starbucks what love is – and I didn’t have an hour to explain what I’ve written above – I might sing a (slightly altered) line from a Paul McCartney song:

“my love does ... good!”