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I teach an undergraduate course on the philosophy of sex and love on a regular basis, and I find there's more of interest to say about sex than there is about love. Of course, there are classic texts; most notably, Plato's Symposium and its debate on the nature of love. There are also contemporary discussions of love and identity centering about Robert Nozick's claim that a loving couple create a new entity, a "we," which changes the identity of the individuals that make it up. There are discussions with roots in theology about when love is unconditional, and what it means to love someone for themselves as opposed to loving them for their appearance, their intelligence, their wealth, their character, or their sense of humor, for example. There are debates over whether to love someone is essentially to value them, and again this issue goes back to theological discussions of whether God can truly love sinners. However, it has proven difficult to inspire undergraduates with these discussions, compared to the intrinsic interest of questions like whether oral sex is real sex, whether voyeurism should really count as a perversion, and whether threatening to break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend unless they have sex with you is coercive. So I read Tony Milligan's Love with the hope that I could find ways to make love more interesting to my students.
The book delivered mixed results. As part of Acumen's "The Art of Living" series, it is written for a general readership: it has no footnotes, and technical terms are explained. Milligan does discuss the work of major thinkers such as Freud, Schopenhauer, Proust, Plato, and contemporary philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt and Derek Parfit. It is a short book with 140 pages of main text, so it is a quick read. Yet it is a surprisingly difficult book to get clear on; Milligan's arguments are scattered and elusive, and one has to skip ahead or backwards to check where he is going with his chain of thought. Fortunately, he does set out his main claims in his Introduction.
The problems of working out his position are especially pressing in the second chapter, where Milligan grapples with pessimism about love. He defends a middle position, defending the possibility of love, correctly understood, but accepting that sometimes skepticism about love is reasonable. These are historically relevant considerations, Milligan does not give much reason to see them as pressing. While he makes a variety of comments about what love is, there is no central theory or thesis presented.
Similarly in the third chapter, the question of the depth of love is never very clear. He addresses issues of whether we choose love, whether it is biological, whether it is dispensable, or necessary for a good life, whether love can save us from ourselves, and finally, he defends the claim that we need to be loved in order to fully appreciate our own value or worth. This final claim seems to be empirical, yet Milligan presents no studies or data to support it. Rather, he gives a few pages of general discussion and reflections on life. Disappointingly, he never quotes the muse Morrissey, who wrote the immortal lyrics "I am human and I need to be loved, just like everyone else does" (The Smiths, How Soon is Now). Of course, the question of a life of solitude is indeed necessarily a bad life is an interesting one, especially given that so many people in the West do indeed live alone and have little love in their lives. One might whether self-love is enough, or whether it is the love of another person that is essential to a flourishing life. Unfortunately, Milligan's discussion of this topic does not us very far.
Chapter Four does build on previous discussion. Much of it revolves around the Christian theologian Anders Nygren, who argues that God loves all humans and this is what makes us valuable. Further, this is a model of love that we should emulate in our interactions with each other, on Nygren's view. He contrasts that idea with one from Simone Weil that all love for others is an indirect way of loving God. These theories may be interesting for theologians but it is much less clear why they are relevant to a general discussion of love, especially since Milligan says he is not a Christian.
Milligan sheds some light on his approach at the start of Chapter Five. He gives a useful summary:
I have tried to make sense of the idea that love is a deep part of human life. In doing so I have advanced a number of discrete but interrelated claims, such as: the claim that sexualized intimate love is a good exemplar of love in general; that love involves seeing others as unique but doing so in the light of our own history; and that, for our own well-being, we need at some time in our lives to be loves because nothing else discloses our value and worth in quite the same way. The guiding, but so far unstated, assumption behind this rather piecemeal approach is that nothing works as a complete theory of everything that we are inclined to call "love." (73)
Although I can understand an author's reluctance to start off a popular book on love with meta-level discussion of theorizing love, it would have been helpful to say this from the start. Milligan's brief remarks here about the difficulty or impossibility of a complete theory of love are related to love's mysterious nature, which he eventually discuses. It would also be useful to have some meta-level discussion of the place of the study of psychology in the philosophy of love; while he discusses some Freud (whose work is of questionable relevance) he never discussed attachment theory, which would seem to be of central relevance. Although one might reconstruct an argument for why he does not think it relevant, it would be helpful if he set out his reasons himself, and a whole chapter on the nature of the project would have been welcome.
Instead, Milligan glides into the question of whether being in a loving relationship implies a loss of autonomy and individuality. His answer is that it does but that it not really a problem, because love is valuable, and being in a relationship can also form (part of) one's identity. This is familiar ground, and his view has been shared by many other writers. The more interesting part of the chapter is his subsequent discussion of the loss of love and the difference between grief and mental illness. Although it does not engage in any of the recent literature on whether and when grief should count as a disorder, it is still a clearly set out defense of the view that grief is fundamentally different from a mental illness.
Chapter Six is possibly the most straightforward in the book: it defends the claim that a loved person is in principle irreplaceable. Milligan examines some of the claims of Derek Parfit that we should not care about an illusory uniqueness but instead we should accept we are rationally committed to caring about sets of qualities of people. He uses the example of Stanislaw Lem's story "Solaris" and the films based on that story as a way to discuss the issue. The chapter loses its way a little at the end, digressing to the topic of how we know we are loved, but it remains interesting and it has enough focus for the reader to know precisely what the main issue at hand is.
The book finishes with Chapter Seven, which asks what we can love and gives the answer that we can love whatever we can grieve for. There is a danger of arguing in a circle here, if grief is defined as the loss of a loved object. However, Milligan's most interesting claims are about the implausibility of claims of some to love individual people who they have never met or have met only once. He argues that we can love animals and we can even love natural objects, but with strangers and new acquaintances, there is no shared history that is on his view essential to love. However, he does concede that in the case of celebrities, there may be a sense that we do have a shared history with them even though we have not met them in person. So his account of what and who we can love ends up being quite liberal.
So Milligan's Love has many interesting parts but is difficult to grasp as a whole. The later chapters are better than the early ones. By far the most endearing aspect of the book is Milligan's discussion of his relationship with and his love for his wife Suzanne. It is a fair place to use as an introduction to a variety of issues in the philosophy of love, but it is an eclectic introduction. I won't be requiring it in my course in the philosophy of sex and love, but I might suggest it to students who are looking for some explanation of the topics Milligan covers.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York