[Book Review] What Love Is

Written by Brian Kemple

A review of and response to Carrie Jenkins’ What Love Is: And What It Could Be, (Basic Books: NY, 2017).[1]

The Ruin and Salvation of Love

“Romantic love”, Carrie Jenkins writes near the end of her book, “cannot continue to be something we just stumble into and accept.”  This is true and good advice, and Jenkins’ book—which spans a prologue, introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion—successfully instigates a questioning after the truth of what romantic love is or ought to be.  The implication, however, that there might be other things—our politics, our careers, our religious beliefs—into which we, having stumbled into them, can or ought to accept unquestioningly, is itself highly questionable.  Indeed, I will argue that many of the presuppositions on which Jenkins builds the argument of What Love Is appear accepted without question.  As we intend to show here, these unexamined presuppositions, when exposed, result in Jenkins’ argument falling apart—or, perhaps to continue the metaphor, turn a stumble into a precipitous fall.

Thus, while the book may successfully raise questions about the nature of romantic love, we would all likely do much better to stumble into an acceptance than to follow carefully the ruinous steps Jenkins outlines.

1. Destroying One True Forever Love

Jenkins’ argument may be considered twofold: first, she attempts to demonstrate what love is; second, she attempts to demonstrate that, given such a concept of love, we should reject the conventional attitudes and opinions towards love.  This argument is effective and attractive, albeit simultaneously deceptive, because of its simplicity.

After two chapters examining the conflicting theories dominant in the present time for explaining romantic love—primarily, that it is explained by biology or that it is explained by social interactions—and a third chapter considering a small smattering of philosophers who have written on love,[2] Jenkins proposes a new theoretical understanding for “what love is” by drawing on both of the dominant views: “romantic love” (frequently abbreviated to “love”), she says, “has a dual nature: it is ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role.”[3]  Thus, per Jenkins, on the one hand, love is constituted by a reality independent of any human conception—the “ancient biological machinery”—and on the other hand, it is embodied in any particular instance through social constructs which are themselves entirely dependent upon what we think and believe, thus entailing that the meaning of love varies from generation to generation and perhaps even individual to individual.  The “ancient biological machinery”—what has been instilled in our very genetic structure through evolutionary adaptation over millennia—produces certain deep inclinations in the human being, not determining the precise desires we will experience, but setting out a framework within which they might develop.[4]  The “modern social role”, on the other hand, has no fixed determinations, except insofar as we are constrained by the biological machinery and our mastery over it.

Jenkins advocates for deliberate deconstruction and modified reconstruction of the modern social role, breaking apart any normative approaches and leaving the role open to individual or group idiosyncrasies.[5]  That is: the conventional idea of romantic love prevalent for most of history—which she calls the “one-true-forever” model of monogamy—is said to not fit her experience: namely, the experience of having a strong desire for polyamorous relationships.  She does not attempt to conceal this, but admits it outright: “A more inclusive picture of love would make better sense of what’s happened in my life than the image I grew up with, which made romantic love the property of straight monogamous couples only.”[6]  In other words, “what love is” for Jenkins in her personal lived experience is at odds with “what love has been” for most people, in most times.  Since she is not alone in finding her lived experience contrary to the conventional norm, she believes that we ought to “construct love’s social role… towards inclusion, expression, and equality,” and that we must “keep broadening the social role of love until it no longer imposes any substantive constraints.”[7]

The conventional “exclusionary, repressive, and oppressive”[8] norm of monogamy—which makes the present prevalent social construct of love a privileged possession of the few (and if it appears that this belongs to the majority, rather than just a few persons, we may assume that they are “many” only because they have fallen victim to the repressive norm)—belongs wholly, Jenkins claims, to a socially-constructed moral normativity grown from patriarchal paternity rites: i.e., men wanted to be sure that their children were really their children, and so insisted upon their wives sleeping only with them.  Consequently, “love”, as confined within heterosexual monogamous relations, “has always been intimately connected with the idea that people—especially women—are a kind of private property.”[9]  In other words, monogamous romantic love is the exclusive provenance of patriarchal possessiveness; monogamy—while it may not always and in all cases be that way—is fundamentally the product of man’s endeavoring to control women.

In contrast to the patriarchal construct of love’s social role, Jenkins believes we ought to construct one which better complements our biological nature.  That is, since the biological material for romantic love—comprising the hormonal and neurochemical activity of testosterone (correlated roughly with sexual desire), dopamine (correlated with excitement and pleasure generally), and oxytocin and vasopressin (each correlated with attachment to a beloved)—indicates that we may lack the capacity for lifelong romantic interest in a single partner; which lack is suggested also, she claims, by the high and rising divorce rates and the statistical commonality of “wants” which include extramarital sexual liaison.  Without understanding this underlying biological nature—implicated not only by hormonal and neurochemical levels, but also by the frequency of divorce and expressed desires for infidelity—and “armed only with an understanding of love as a social construct, we would lack valuable insights into the kinds of changes that might actually work and represent a better fit, given the kinds of creatures we are.”[10]

In other words, Jenkins advocates no limitations or borders upon whom or how anyone should express their loves—except, presumably, those expressions that involve manifest non-consensual physical or psychological harm to oneself or others.  The attainment of love, in other words, is the satisfaction of one’s desire for love: “My theory about love’s nature is ultimately a version of the old adage that ‘love is as love does.’”[11]

2. The Fallacy of Dualism

The strongest but also the most difficult and complicated argument which can and ought to be mustered against Jenkins’ thesis consists in demonstrating the error made in presupposing nature and society (or culture) are separate and innately unrelated chunks of being forced together by human machinations; that their respective realities belong to essentially different spheres.  In other words, there is a grave but deeply-imbued material fallacy of modern philosophy which undermines her argument: the fallacy of dualism.  The history of this fallacy, including its uncritical, unrealized assumption in Western culture, goes back centuries and has roots in Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau.  In this lattermost especially, “nature” and “culture” are entirely separated, which postulate too few have successfully challenged since.  In the meantime, the presupposed division is taken for granted not only in works such as Jenkins’, but subtly permeates much thinking in Western civilization for the past several hundred years.  To succinctly illustrate the fallacy: if nature and culture are innately unrelated, and anything we do which attempts to bring them together is itself only a product of culture, then we can never truly bring them together but only bring ourselves under deceit.  It is an unbridgeable chasm of our own making.

While the term “dualist” has historically referred to substance dualism—that is, a dualism concerning human beings which sees the person as dual-natured, having both a corporeal and a spiritual nature or a corporeal substance and a spiritual one, or something along those lines—much commoner in our own day is the dualism of nature and culture; of the “natural” and the “artificial”, culture being the product (or so it is widely believed) of human social construction.  In the background of such a dualism lies a presupposed and oft-unexamined chasm between the mind and the world: a chasm of discontinuity which leaves “as the ultimate elements, unrelated chunks of being,”[12] as Charles Peirce puts it.  In other words, the dualist presupposes that the mind’s knowledge or interpretation of the world is strictly the product of the mind and does not arise from the world tiself.

Such severance of being serves Jenkins’ goal: that is, by dissociating the natural from the cultural, and finding certain “facts” within the natural,[13] the claim is that we may develop social constructions more in-tune with the “natural”.  As she states:[14]

Yet the truth of love’s dual nature is empowering in its own right.  It empowers us to seek out genuinely possible changes to love’s social role, without neglecting or dismissing the fact that we have the biology we do.  It means we can respect love’s biological nature without simply regarding ourselves as love-driven automata at the mercy of our brain chemistry or evolutionary history.

And:[15]

On a personal level, understanding love’s dual nature can contextualize our own experiences with love.  We come to see our individual stories as embedded within social structures that we didn’t choose, any more than we chose the biology that drives us.  The dual-nature theory reveals how romantic love points both within and beyond the privacy of our own heads, hearts, homes, and relationships.  In so doing it empowers those of us who don’t conform to the “script” to resist the message that we are doing it wrong: we can turn the tables and question the script itself.

And:[16]

We need to uncover that hidden machinery and not turn away when it gets ugly, which it sometimes does.  Once we do, we’ll discover that—in all sorts of ways—we ourselves are the “man behind the curtain.”  We’re the ones running this show.  Our decisions about love’s social script and the biological interventions we might one day develop shape what love is and what it could be.

A fuller account of this dualistic error would run into the length of a book itself.  In short, however, we may say that the foundation on which this argument is built—that the biological is what it is and there is nothing we can do about it, so we should simply try to adjust society to fit that biology—itself rests upon deeply-flawed presuppositions which merit careful and lengthy questioning.  Nevermind that the scientific revelation of the biological is itself a social means.  Pay no attention to the highly-constructed nature of contemporary science; so long as it fits the worldview being propounded, we may pretend in the “objectivity” of scientific practice!

3. Biological Reductionism

But there is another and more accessible fault running beneath Jenkins’ argument: namely, that the only legitimate meaning of “nature” is the biological.  (A fault-line which stems from the presupposed chasm of dualism.)  But not only is our biology prone to error—material faults in genetic processes, disease, and so on—but also to deliberate human manipulation.  Nowhere does Jenkins’ book address this; never does it seem to cross Jenkins’ mind that a multitude of biological aspects, and particularly highly variable neurochemical responses, are subject to change through enculturation.  While too much has been made of neuroplasticity in recent decades, it is either willful ignorance or deceitful manipulation to pretend highly-contingent biological facts about individuals—even in large numbers—reveal universal truths about human nature.

Thus, although Jenkins scare quotes “nature” when used to signify any traditional use as a basis for human behavior, she continually appeals to contingent biological facts as suggestive of social and moral norms.   She would like to eat her norm-bestowing nature, and have it too, to which she tips her hand when she acknowledges that attribution of norms to an independent basis gives them strength:[17]

Social stability—including the maintenance of privilege by the privileged—is best served by mass unawareness of the deep core of the social machinery that structures our lives and our loves.  It is even more effective if we can attribute these deep-core norms to ‘nature’ or ‘biology’ so that we’ll accept them as inevitable.

The implication, here, is that monogamous normativity has been deceitfully allied with natural or biological factors; and yet, it has to be asked, what alliance does Jenkins seek when she asserts that a change to non-monogamous norms “might actually work and represent a better fit, given the kinds of creatures we are”[18]—namely, norms she suggests might better fit our “ancient biological machinery”?

4. Human Nature and Relations

If I may offer one point on which I am sympathetic to Jenkins, it is that she may well be herself a victim of presupposed falsehoods just as fundamentally distortive of the truth as the errors she propounds.  The dualism and biological reductionism structuring her “dual-nature theory” of love not only misses the mark, I believe, on human nature, but on the nature of relationships, too.  That is, to identify yet another presupposed and unquestioned premise, Western society has long accepted, uncritically, that intimate or romantic relationships intrinsically and exclusively concern the fulfillment of each individual in his or her wants and needs as pertains to a partnering; and that in their very best instances, a mutual fulfillment occurs.  But this belief disposes us incorrectly towards the nature of such a relationship, and, indeed, towards relationships themselves.

All too often, the concept of “love” finds itself reduced to a mere part what it ought to be, a part nevertheless taken to constitute the whole, or at the least to be taken in an outsized proportion.  Namely, this reduction is to “love” as what exists in the one who loves: the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and choices whereby we ground that relationship—and within that grounding, especially to the feelings and emotions arising in response to perceptions and thoughts of the beloved.  This fallacy pars pro toto displaces the essence of “love”, shifting it to the subjective basis within the individuals instead of the relationship itself.  This displaced essence creates a void for further error, for the myopic focus on the individual re-casts the “success” of love as consisting in the satisfaction of the individual’s feelings and emotions.

Once the satisfaction of individuals’ feelings and emotions finds acceptance as the normative functioning of love, a spiraling of the accepted societal norms for how love can be manifested follows: from lifelong monogamy, to serial monoamory, to “open” relationships, to outright polyamory, to—perhaps—the “everyone belongs to everyone else” of Huxley’s Brave New World.[19]  Why this spiral?  Simply put, one person has little chance to fulfill for most others the plurality of desired satisfactions: be they sensual, emotional, or something incidental (e.g., finances or temporal, geographical conveniences).  In consequence, “romantic love” becomes solidified as the surrender to consumptive unifying passion—and thus, the person to whom one is related in that romantic love becomes incidental to the satisfaction of the passions.

In opposition to this current, conventional view of “romance”, I propose we understand it thus: where the unitive love which characterizes a romance is not the feelings or emotions residing in one or even both individuals, but rather, it is essentially the mutual relationship between lover and beloved, a recurrent pattern which comprises, in its perfect accomplishment, not only the feelings and emotions, but also thoughts and choices of each as an interpretant concerning the other as an object with whom each seeks mutually-perfective unity.  Deficient love-relations falter in one or another of these categories: with feelings, emotions, thoughts, choices, or even in the unreciprocated relation.

In seeking and attaining what is good for the relationship—as a kind of tertium quid reality consisting in the mutual pursuit of mutually-perfective unity of the two persons within it—that relational-good redounds to each individual’s good, such that the good of the individual is fulfilled, not as the satisfaction of a checklist of desires, but as a qualitative whole superior to the sum of its parts accomplished through the good of the relationship.

This is a paradox (a truth which appears self-contradictory at the outset, but only because of our distorted view), for it may appear that the good of the relationship and the good of the individual are, at least at times, at odds.  Human beings, however, have a twofold subordination of their communal relationships: every common good, a good which circumscribes the multitude, is superior in quality to that which belongs to the individuals and yet that common good is good only insofar as it remains fulfilling for each of the individuals.  The potential conflict of goods, ostensibly between the good of the relationship and the good of the individual, reveals itself in fact as a conflict of goods for the individual: between a lesser good (the good of the individual which is exclusive to the individual) and a higher (the good not only of the individual which is fulfilled through the relationship, but likewise of the other similarly fulfilled).  There is, in consequence, a kind of asymmetry of goods, such that the good of the perfective relationship can never be meaningfully sacrificed for the good of the individual (a genuinely bad relationship being deleterious rather than perfective and thus better by its dissolution), but only the converse.  Only the sacrifice of lower for the sake of higher can be just.

Frequently, such sacrifice is miscast as being for the other in the relationship rather than for the relationship itself.  This “selflessness” sows the seeds of resentment.  But this is a miscasting insofar as it pits the individuals in opposition to one another—precisely what the relationship is supposed to eliminate.

This division-eliminating unity is what Aristotle glimpsed when he asserted that the truest friendship is that wherein the other’s good becomes one’s own.[20]  It is true: but it is not as though either one appropriates the good of the other (wherein lie possessiveness and envy).  Rather, the good of the other becomes one’s own because each places his or her good in the relationship: in that totality signified by the terms “us” and “we”, which governs the orientation of each to the other.  The more profoundly the relationship encompasses the lives of each, the more the good of each is bound up within it.  Thus, where perfect friendship may consist in a unity through taking the other’s good as one’s own, perfect romantic love consists in a unity through living the good of the other as one’s own, in a complete life.

From this total gift of one’s whole life—the entirety of oneself as across the duration of one’s life—to another person, in and through the relationship exclusivity follows as a consequence rather than standing as a prerequisite; not only can one not give of oneself simultaneously to two others, but one cannot even give wholly of oneself as though one could be divided into two different times—that is, there is no “whole of myself today” that excludes the “myself of yesterday” nor the “myself of tomorrow”.[21]  We exist not in temporal slices, a “me” of now and past and future.  To be a person is to have a past and a future which are inseparable from what one is.

5. Conclusion

Polyamory is far from a new idea.  Many societies in the past have practiced polygynous (multiple-women) polygamy, and a few have even practiced polyandrous (multiple-men) polygamy.  Jenkins’ thesis—releasing relationships from the restrictions of marriage—is only a new wrinkle.  It is, moreover, difficult to read the book without seeing a motivation of ressentiment: accusations that the conventional view of love has left Jenkins and others like her out in the cold; that monogamous amatonormativity (that romantic relationships are an integral part of human fulfillment) is a hurtful attitude; that being heterosexually monogamous makes one societally privileged; that monogamous normativity is an active inhibition of love “becoming a better version of itself.”  Jenkins admits at the outset that her motivation in advocating polyamory—as well as her research into romantic love generally—comes from her own experience: “A more inclusive picture of love would make better sense of what’s happened in my own life than the image I grew up with, which made romantic love the property of straight monogamous couples only.”[22]

Realizing the genesis of Jenkins’ interest, her book reads less like a philosophical inquiry or argument and more like a work of social activism; an activism which in its broad strokes is receiving the “scientific” sanction, no less, of the American Psychological Association.[23]  As she herself states: “once we start to see how we are responsible for romantic love’s social contours—we create and sustain them through the cultural norms we accept and reinforce—everything changes.”[24]

Indeed; not that we create the social contours of love (if anything, more the inverse), but that we certainly are responsible for them: for ensuring they are in conformity with the real—the whole, complete, coherent beginning-to-end reality of nature inclusive of culture—and not simply with the self-justifying rationales we propose for conformity with our own proclivities.   Though these attempts at self-justification ostensibly target only the desires of the self, they typically diffuse into society.  Our individuality is not pure, but is realized always through relations with others.  A chain reaction follows the pursuit of polyamory: one which weakens the bonds of all human beings.

Instead of looking at romantic love through the lens of what others do for oneself, we should look at it through the lens of giving oneself entirely to another.  Superficially viewed, from the standpoint of subjective fulfillment, this total gift of self seems like a limit on one’s experience of goods.  Indeed, it is; but it is through such a limitation that a greater good is made available.  Through the fragmentary plurality of disparate relations in polyamorous bearing, one may attain satisfaction of a greater number of individualized, subjectivized desires, but only at the cost of an incomparably superior qualitative good, a good obtained only through the sacrifice of exclusivity.  As Karol Wojtyla put this:[25]

[love’s] true nature is most fully revealed in the gift of self by the person who loves to the beloved person.  What we have called betrothed love has a specific quality of its own, which differentiates it from other forms and manifestations of love.  We realize this just as soon as we understand what is meant by the value of the person.  The value of a person… is inseparable from the essential being of that person.  By its nature, because it is what it is, the person is its own master (sui juris), and cannot be ceded to another or supplanted by another in another in any context where it must exercise its will or make a commitment affecting its freedom.  (It is an alteri incommunicabilis.)  But love forcibly detaches the person, so to speak, from this natural inviolability and inalienability.  It makes the person want to do just that – surrender itself to another, to the one it loves.  The person no longer wishes to be its own exclusive property, but instead to become the property of that other.  This means the renunciation of its autonomy and its inalienability.  Love proceeds by way of this renunciation, guided by the profound conviction that it does not diminish and impoverish, but quite the contrary, enlarges and enriches the existence of the person.  What might be called the law of ekstasis seems to operate here: the lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.  In no other form of love does this law operate so conspicuously as it does in betrothed love.

Can we “go outside” ourselves to more than one person?  Certainly… if what we are seeking is the fulfillment of various erotic desires of the self, if we go out only for the sake of appropriation.  But we can vacate the confines of ourselves—a transcendence which goes beyond seeking the satisfaction of self, which does not “go out” only in order to find something to “bring in”—in a truly ek-static movement only towards a single other.  For it is a metaphysical impossibility that one person surrender him- or herself—that is, make a gift of oneself—to more than one other person; such would require a reservation of a part of oneself; and to reserve a part of the whole is to not give the whole.

Since it is of the very nature of romantic love, as we have here described it, to live with the other in a relationship of mutually-unitive good—holistically, not moment to moment, but in the whole course of one’s life—the very notion of “polyamory” becomes self-contradictory.  It is having your cake, and your neighbor’s cake, and his neighbor’s cake, and eating all of them, too.  One may be polyerotic, but never polyamorous; for a fragmented or incomplete love is no love at all.


[1] Parts of this essay appeared in two separate posts on The Synechist.

[2] Primarily, Bertrand Russell, with others mentioned in passing—like Robert Nozick, Plato, Berit Brogaard, and others—and short considerations of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and de Beauvoir.

[3] Jenkins 2017: What Love Is, c.4, “Love Is as Love Does: Love’s Dual Nature”, “Stand Back: I’m Going to Try Metaphysics!” [review was performed with an electronic version with irregular pagination—citations will be given to chapter and section heading].

[4] In a scholarly monograph (2008: Grounding Concepts: An Empirical Basis for Arithmetical Knowledge), Jenkins asserts that the identifying characteristic of realism (which, although her focus is on arithmetical realism, seems to me non-specifically identified, here) is “essential independence”, p.7: “Something is essentially independent of us just in case it is no part of what it is for that thing to be the case that anything about us is the case.”  To remove this from the tortured language of analytic philosophy, “essential independence” thus means that the whole intelligible being of the thing stands outside any cognition-dependent contribution of a human (or any other) mind.  While many a self-professed realist—indeed, many a Thomist—would have no problem with this, I strongly caution against such an understanding: not only as being incongruous with Thomas’ thinking, but because it leads directly to the dualism Jenkins evinces in her argument in What Love Is.  It seems, that is, that while Jenkins attributes the character of reality to the “ancient biological machinery”, and even to the expressed norms of what is socially-constructed, she does not grant that character to the thinking which ultimately gives rise to those expressed norms (or what is socially-constructed in general), since that thinking (before it becomes socially normative) very much does depend upon something “about us” for “what it is”.  See my forthcoming article in this journal, “Signs and Reality” for more on the nature of “the real” and “realism”.

[5] Aided, she says, by uncovering the “biology of love”; see 2017: What Love Is, c.4., “Love Is as Love Does: Love’s Dual Nature”, “A Little Biology Goes a Long Way”.

[6] 2017: What Love Is, prologue: “On Being a Philosopher in Love (Maybe)”: “I’m personally invested, as are you.  Just as we all bring our experiences with us, and just as we are all biased, we are all personally invested.  Nobody is agenda-free, and there’s no ‘view from nowhere’ when it comes to love.”

[7] 2017: What Love Is, Coda: “Make it So”, “Are We Unstoppable?”

[8] 2017: What Love Is, c.5, “Under Construction: Love’s Changing Role”, “Jailbreak My Heart” [paraphrased].

[9] 2017: What Love Is, Coda: “Make it So”, “Are We Unstoppable?”

[10] 2017: What Love Is, c.5: “Under Construction: Love’s Changing Role”, “Disappearing Love”.

[11] 2017: What Love Is, c.2: “Love Is Society”, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G”.

[12] 1893: “Immorality in the Light of Synechism” in The Essential Peirce, vol.2: 2.

[13] That there are biological correlations suggestive of monoamory being “unnatural”, for instance (as though the biological operates independently of the cultural).

[14] 2017: What Love Is, Coda, “Make It So”, “Choose Your Own Adventure”.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] 2017: What Love Is, c.6: “What Needs to Change”, “First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes Baby in a Baby Carriage”.

[18] 2017: What Love Is, c.5: “Under Construction: Love’s Changing Role”, “Disappearing Love”.

[19] At the moment, we seem to be in a liminal space between serial monoamory, open relationships, and outright polyamory as societal norms, with some variation geographically (the latter more prevalently accepted in urban regions), but with more rapid changes following the “shrinking” of space and time through digital technologies.

[20] Aristotle c.349bc: Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9 in passim and especially c.4 and 8.

[21] Consider, in those relationships where one person has had a previous beloved who died, that something of that first relationship is carried over even into the second; the first love’s residual effect upon the lover does not disappear but remains; yet in the absence of a recipient of that first love, the gift may be given to another.

[22] 2017: What Love Is, c.2: “Love Is Society”, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G”.

[23] The APA’s “Division 44: Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity” includes a “Consensual Non-Monogamy Task Force” < https://www.apadivisions.org/division-44/leadership/task-forces/ >.  Retrieved 8 November 2019.

[24] 2017: What Love Is, c.2: “Love Is Society”, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G”.

[25] 1960: Love and Responsibility, 125-26.