Philosophers on Love & Friendship

Posted on February 26, 2021

By Jake Beardsley '21

To conclude February, let’s turn toward the academic literature on love. Dr. Paul Davies teaches two classes on the philosophy of love and friendship, one at an introductory level and one as a senior seminar. Students in these classes read a combination of philosophical and scientific texts about love, and Professor Davies encourages them to test philosophical arguments against empirical findings. Professor Davies has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his classes. At the end, I’ll explain where you can find relevant literature through library resources.  

- How did you become interested in the philosophy of love and friendship, and what motivated you to create these classes? 

Years ago, probably around 2005, I read two scientific works that lit a fire in my belly. Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will and Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience turned my attention to scientific findings concerning our capacities as practical agents. Those books inspired me to devote the next few years digesting a range of work in cognitive and social psychology and in affective and cognitive neuroscience. The result was my 2009 book, Subjects of the Word, in which I defend the skeptical view that we do not understand ourselves as practical agents, but that we at least have some clarity concerning agential capacities we do not possess. One such capacity is self-knowledge regarding our reasons for acting: on my view, under a wide range of conditions, the sense we have that we know our reasons for acting is illusory.

Having completed that book, I began applying my skepticism to alleged capacities thought to be unique to human agents. I developed a course in which we critically assess theories of moral or legal responsibility from the perspective of current scientific findings. The love and friendship course came next. Of course, we have good evidence that many non-human animals are capable of emotional attachments, and that piqued my curiosity. Is there anything about human love or human attachments that cannot be explained using the same theoretical elements with which we explain emotional attachments in dogs or elephants? If so, what are those capacities? How did they evolve in the lineage that became Homo sapiens? Most importantly, to what extent do those further elements confirm or undermine philosophical theories of love?

- Have discussions with students changed your perspective on these philosophical questions?

Discussions with students have certainly influenced my perspective on how to best study human love and friendship. (That was especially the case when I taught the course as an advanced seminar in fall 2019. That was one of the very best courses I’ve taught in my 27 years at William and Mary. It was outstanding not because of me, but because of the talents and level of serious engagement that every single student gave to the course.) I do not think those discussions have changed the framework within which I inquire into the nature and importance of human attachments; I think, rather, they have helped confirm and perhaps strengthened my confidence that the framework is our best current hope for getting at the truth

I do not think philosophy has shaped my thinking about questions concerning love and friendship. To the contrary, my study of relevant works in evolutionary theory, psychology, and neuroscience have shaped my estimate of the way philosophers have tended to frame inquiry concerning love and friendship. The fruits of conceptual analysis, of trying to achieve reflective equilibrium among our conceptual intuitions, are paltry and sometimes positively misleading. The more we learn about the actual history and the actual workings of the human nervous system, the more we realize how far from the truth some of our culturally inherited conceptual categories are.

- What are some of your favorite philosophical writings on this topic?

An excellent philosophical book on love is Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love. An excellent philosophical book on friendship is Alexander Nehamas’ On Friendship. Although both books offer genuine insights and repay careful study, both are flawed by a nearly complete absence of any discussion of relevant scientific findings. Central parts of both theories are, I believe, undermined by scientific findings.

Annette Baier’s essay “Unsafe Loves” is a delicious, spicey defense of a Humean-Darwinian approach to understanding love. It’s a beautifully clear depiction of the tragic fact that everything of value to organisms like us – especially the things we value most – are things that can and often do ruin us. Nothing in our lives is an unalloyed good.

- Do you expect to teach the class again next year?

Yes. I am teaching two sections of the Philosophy 225 version of the class this term (spring 2021). I will be teaching an entirely online version this summer. I will be teaching two sections of the course again this fall. And I plan at some point to teach it again as an advanced seminar.

Resources

Baier, Annette. “Unsafe Loves.” Available online.

Davies, Paul. Subjects of the World: Darwin’s Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature. Available in the stacks and in the Special Collections Research Center (both BD581 .D25 2009).

Frankfurt, Harry G. The Reasons of Love. Available online and in the stacks (PS374 .C48 O38 2003).

Lieberman, Matthew. Available in the Wolf Law Library (HM 1033 .L54 2013).

Moller, Dan. “Love and Death.” Available online.

Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. Available in the stacks (BJ1533 .F8 N44 2016).

Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Available online and in the stacks (BF531 .P35 1998).

Wegner, Daniel. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Available online and in the stacks (BF611 .W38 2002).