The avowed aim of this book is not to provide a set of conclusions, but "to succeed in sharing with the reader a way of thinking about ... things", that is, to introduce "the general reader" to the method of analytic philosophy and hopefully to be of some practical help along the way. John Wilson's fidelity to the Socratic method is unfaltering, beginning with the familiar assertion that the first step in any philosophical endeavour is the clarification of basic concepts; in this case, love. For how are we to be able to identify cases of love, to be sure that what we are doing with our partners is in fact "loving" them, if we are not first clear about what love is? Wilson then plays both parts in his dialogue, offering possible definitions, showing how love differs from these, and arriving at the conclusion that love between equals is, in brief, a strong desire to share the self.
Justice, Wilson says, requires that we start from scratch, with nothing taken for granted. As with everything else, "we should look without prejudice at sexual and other differences ... not impeded by any kind of political or other theory or ideology". Throughout, however, Wilson subscribes to a form of biological essentialism that allows him to propose that if a woman is not "positively aroused as a woman" by the aggressive elements of her male partner's personality, then it is legitimate to ask her what she is doing associating with men in the first place: "Do you really want a man as such?" A prodigious amount of qualifying adjectives and subordinate clauses accompany almost every statement about sexual difference. But phrases such as "the male psyche", and a range of examples drawn from largely unquestioned stereotypes indicate that on this score the author had already made up his mind, thereby refuting, or at least violating, his own non-partisan, non-ideological ideal (although he argues that he has, on the contrary, arrived at this position according to that ideal).
It is likely, however, that for those outside the tradition of philosophical analysis as practised by Wilson, and possibly for some within it, the greatest quarrel with this book might arise over the question of whether the often irrational, always complex phenomenon of love is amenable to such logical analysis. In this regard, Wilson does his argument no favours by ending with a "checklist for love", where questions with "yes" or "no" answers will tell you whether you love your partner. Necessarily reductive, this quiz serves only to summarise and emphasise the prescriptive, conservative message of this self-confessed moral educator.
Stella Sandford is a lecturer in philosophy, Middlesex University.
Love Between Equals: A Philosophical Study of Love and Sexual Appeal
Author - John Wilson
ISBN - 0 333 643 2 and 644 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 208