On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion, by Berit Brogaard

A philosophical investigation of romance leaves Jane O’Grady feeling frustrated and unsatisfied

June 4, 2015
Book review: On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion, by Berit Brogaard

Transcendent yet fleshly, poetic yet bestial, both liberating and ensnaring, wild and conventional: romantic love with all its paradoxes surely cries out for philosophical investigation, but philosophers have oddly neglected it. Jean-Paul Sartre’s morbid presentation of erotic struggle in Being and Nothingness (1943) and Michel Foucault’s three-volume history of sexuality, published four decades later, were probably what opened the gates to the philosophy of love, which has increasingly become a meeting point for the Anglo-American and continental philosophical traditions.

So subjective and familiar a theme invites stringent, personally informed analysis – and also, unfortunately, lazy popularising and jaunty journalese. Berit Brogaard clearly intends an enjoyable spin through the philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology of romantic love, touching lightly on Freud and Nietzsche, Abelard and Héloïse and attachment theory, with juicy stuff on polyamory and open relationships tossed in, but her touch is too light. She asks crucial questions: to what extent is romantic love a bodily sensation or a disposition over time? How far is it lust, how far empathy; rational or irrational? Must it be consciously felt to count as love? Does it have to be exclusive? But in attempting effortless erudition, she flits too quickly through theories she hopes deftly to convey. Exposition so lean as to be often unclear, even misleading, is interlarded with sensational news incidents that are (mistakenly) supposed to illustrate them.

The book begins with 10 pages on the amorous misadventures of “my friend Zoe”, followed by the statutory dip into neuroscience. Under the subheading “Your Brain on Crack”, romantic love is predictably compared to cocaine addiction. Neural categories are conflated with psychological ones and scientism with folksy metaphor, with questions continually begged. We are told that “the main difference between love and hate lies in their effects on the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain”, although “love is something we feel in our hearts”. Twice there is a list of symptoms to tick off as qualifying you to count as love- or grief-addicted.

Brogaard should credit readers with more intelligence and patience, yet also with less. If only, as with her exposition of attachment theory, she allowed herself leisure to linger, or would more often provide the incisive criticism she applies to her account of Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’s famed experiment on emotions. Intriguing questions are tantalisingly dangled (why we empathise with fictional characters, whether we can consistently approve of casual sex while disapproving of rape and paedophilia), then left hanging. Instead we are offered easy mystification (the Müller-Lyer visual illusion; the virtual reality of The Matrix film) and space-filling facetious cartoons (Freud in stockings and heels; an orientalised Dalai Lama meditating).

Why patronise us? At the outset Brogaard promises “a new theory of love”, and sometimes seems on the brink of offering one. Her “perceived response” theory, derived from Elizabeth Anscombe’s example of the child who finds a ribbon terrifying because he mistakes the word “satin” for “Satan”, argues that it is the way in which we perceive someone, and what we perceive her as, that is the true cause of love. If only Brogaard would develop this. Inevitably, however, we are whisked away to the Little Albert experiment, and left feeling frustrated.

Jane O’Grady is visiting lecturer in the philosophy of psychology, City University London, and a founder member of the London School of Philosophy.

On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion
By Berit Brogaard
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780199370733
Published 19 March 2015 

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