Balcony scene. Verona, Italy. Photo by vavva_92.

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Interview with Paul Kottman

Love as Human Freedom examines how the practice of love has evolved over time. What inspired you to explore this unique topic?

There’s an autobiographical answer, but it’s connected to a more philosophical answer. The autobiographical answer – aside from sheer human interest in the topic – is that I was spending time in Verona, Italy, and walking almost daily past the balcony that the city officials there had determined could serve as a tourist marker for Juliet’s balcony from Shakespeare’s play.

What struck me was the sheer number of visitors to this site from all over the world. I took this to be an indication of the global appeal of the Romeo and Juliet story and I began to want to understand the reason for that appeal. More generally, I wanted to understand why ‘love’ has been the most generative, the most popular, theme in the history of world literature.

At the same time, while writing my second book on Shakespeare, I began to realize that I was less interested in making sense of Shakespeare’s plays than I was in making sense (with Shakespeare’s help) of basic puzzles that confront us all. I began to think about ‘love’ and ‘love stories’ in the same way. I became convinced that I should not to try to define or make sense of love; instead, I wanted to understand what love – understood as collective activities that change over time – makes sense of. That is what led to Love as Human Freedom.

How does love serve as a form of human freedom?

It is difficult to state economically what ‘freedom’ means, but I can offer some points of orientation. I situate Love as Human Freedom in relation to a tradition of thinking about freedom that emerged in German Idealism. In that tradition—in contrast to Christian or voluntarist philosophies, according to which freedom means being able to cause an action by an independent act of will—freedom is understood to be tied to a dependence on social relations in which independence is achieved. That is, freedom is understood to entail being in a kind of relation to oneself, as well as in a kind of mutual relation with others, in which one’s actions can be experienced as one’s own. Hegel saw these sorts of relationships not as the result of some prima causa, like ‘individual acts of pure willing,’ but as socio-historical achievements—consequences of practices undertaken over time. This freedom is not just a ‘negative freedom’ (freedom from constraint, or from want), but a kind of ‘positive freedom,’ an opening of possibility.

Following Hegel, I ask: How to understand the form of social relations and dependencies in which freedom is achievable? My own inquiry turned to love as such a collective practice. In late modernity, I think, lovers increasingly reflect on this freedom as lovers – in love affairs, as it were. But in other places and times such reflection was found primarily in artworks – especially, in literature.

In what way does love contribute to the production of knowledge?

It depends on what is meant by ‘knowledge.’ For instance, many have thought that Kant showed that whatever there is to be ‘known’ could only be known through the modern natural sciences; and that whatever couldn’t be known through the natural sciences had to be approached ‘practically.’ At the same time, Kant also held that there are things that we cannot know, but which we also cannot doubt. For example, I cannot ‘know’ that you are in pain – I cannot know the ‘pain itself’ (whatever that may mean) – but I also cannot doubt that you appear to be in pain when you tell me that your body hurts. There are moral (and aesthetic) domains, in which our relationship to things we need to understand are not ‘knowledge-based’ relations but rather ‘meaning-based’ relations, so to speak.

In my book, then, I avoid claiming that love contributes to the ‘production’ of the kind of knowledge that the natural sciences deliver. Instead, I speak of love as “sense-making” – as helping us to understand the meaning of phenomena that otherwise appear as threats to sense, threats to the intelligibility of anything whatsoever. I have in mind, for instance, the way in which we have to try to figure out who another person is – how to understand her – notwithstanding the way she may change over time. Philosophers refer to this as the problem of identity and difference, or ‘being and appearing,’ and we need ways of making sense of such problems that are not necessarily those of the natural sciences.

At perhaps the most extreme, we need to make sense of what it means for a living person to die – the problem of individual mortality – as well as what it means for our form of life to reproduce itself over time, or for individuals to enter the world. Love, I argue, is a fundamental way that we humans make sense of temporal change, especially the inevitability of death and the propagation of life. I also claim that love also helps us to explain, immense social-historical shifts—from the rise of feminism and the emergence of bourgeois family life, to the struggles for abortion rights and birth control and the erosion of a gender-based division of labor. 

Which authors and philosophers most helped you understand love’s transformation? Do you have a favorite of the group?

Well, I won’t name any favorites, but I also won’t deny that the philosopher who was most on my mind throughout was G.W.F. Hegel. This is partly for reasons mentioned above (namely, the way Hegel talks about ‘freedom’) – but also because ‘love’ was an issue that concerned Hegel from his earliest writings all the way down to his last lectures. Hegel sometimes spoke of ‘love’ the way he came to speak of Geist or ‘Spirit.’ And he spoke of freedom as “being with oneself in the other” in ways which, as I’ve said, are a point of departure for my book.

And yet Hegel was unable, finally, to see love as a practice. He seems to have understood love as a contingent passion or feeling (as in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right) or as an attitude of passionless devotion, as in parental love (which he saw instantiated in Christian paintings of Mary, for instance). But Hegel never considered love as a fundamental, practical form of human sense-making – alongside Philosophy, Religion and Art (his ‘big three’ sense-making practices). Unlike Hegel, I think ‘love’ must count as a fundamental, practical way human beings have made sense of themselves and the world. By engaging with what I thought Hegel understood, as well as what I thought Hegel missed, I was able to make my way toward my own conclusions.

The greatest philosophical texts on love, I suppose, are Plato’s Symposium and the writings of Nietzsche. I tried to place both Plato and Nietzsche within the overall account I offer, and I would never have been able to make a start without having given a lot of thought to why Plato wrote that “eros is a lover of wisdom, a philosopher” – as well as to why Nietzsche wrote: “Suppose truth is a woman – and why not?”

In which historical period would you argue that love was most influential?

If by ‘influential,’ you mean having some kind of normative authority for the way everybody in a particular society lives – everyone, not just passionate lovers – then the answer seems to me to be the era in which we are living. At least, as viewed from where we sit, in certain parts of the world.

In recent years, with astonishing rapidity, widespread social opposition to same-sex marriage has evaporated in many parts of the world. Reliable and effective birth control has become increasingly available to individuals around the globe. Millions of women, in the past century, have gained the ability to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy at will. New reproductive technologies, along with new kinship formations, make the propagation of life and the raising of children seem less and less the result of sexual reproduction. At the same time, in many places, we are living through one of the most profound social transformations in human history: the erosion of a gender-based division of labor. The tidal waves of political and philosophical feminism, and the critiques to which entrenched institutions of sexual domination are subjected, are being felt throughout society.

Behind all this lies the expanded social authority of lovemaking and ‘love-based’ commitments, in our laws governing everything from marriage and domestic economic life, to the adoption of children, to our schools and medical practices. Virtually no social, civic or political institution is being left untouched by these vast changes. 

What most surprised you in your study of love in human history?

Since I knew the broad historical outlines of the material I would treat, I cannot say that I was surprised by any particular discovery about pederasty in ancient Greece or amor in Ovid or ‘courtly love’ poetry and so on.

Instead, what shocked me were certain conclusions to which I was led, philosophically.

For instance: I had been asking myself, ‘Why, given the manifestly equal intelligence and capabilities of women, how could there have been so many centuries of sexual domination or patriarchy? What ends were being served by gender-based divisions of labor, by the sexual tracking of children and women?’ To most people, the answers to these questions have seemed as self-evident as the privileges of power in any other form of social domination. But I think that the available answers to these questions are insufficient and impoverished. In their place, I outlined a historical dialectic that claims – and here I have to be careful, lest the claim sound exculpatory – that sexual domination was inevitable, however wrong. I shocked myself when I reached that conclusion.

For a long time, the only aspect of sexual reproduction that was ‘known’ with confidence was the simple fact that only women of a certain age might bear children following particular sex acts with men. Among the consequences of this limited knowledge was a pressing question: What are we doing with one another sexually when we are not procreating, or when sexual reproduction is known to be an impossible outcome of the sexual interaction?

This question has of course prompted enormous reflection, from Plato to Freud. But in many circumstances, one essential aim of sex acts has been to prove that sexual acts are not merely being wrung out of us—to disprove that sexual experiences are merely suffered or ‘undergone,’ caused by natural appetite or procreative demands. Sexual experiences had to be understood – somehow — as expressive of an agent, as something we do as well as undergo.

Sadly, the certainty that one is acting sexually – not just driven by appetites or desires beyond one’s control – can be readily achieved through institutionalized sexual domination, by installing a gendered hierarchy of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sexual roles. The mind boggles when considering the countless ‘initiations,’ the deep and lasting ways in which human beings have lived this out: the systematic abuse of boys and girls, prostitution and sex trafficking, wives and concubines, socially sanctioned harassment and abuse, whereby the certainly of ‘acting sexually’ is achieved for some in the subjugation of others.

Did the process of writing a book about love change the way you view the present?  

‘Sexual reproduction’ and ‘sexual domination’ remain, to this day, powerful explanatory matrixes through which we understand sex. Only when human beings began to understand themselves as sexual lovers – as striving to understand and meet the demands of mutuality with each other, subjectively and in our shared institutions– have these two matrixes begun to recede. Or, so I argue.

Rather than see our own time as the happy ‘teleological’ result of a march of progress out of a painful past, then, I see our present status as lovers – at least, in certain parts of the world – as a fragile social achievement, one that is itself dynamic and far from settled. If it not wrong to say that a certain kind of self-education in love, as a changing practice over time, has played a crucial role in getting us where we are – and if it’s true that this self-education is cumulative – then it’s also true that no lessons are ever learned once and for all. Historical changes can be cyclical.

Do you have any new projects underway?

I am working on two new book projects. The first deals with slavery as a failed form of human reason. The second defends Hegel’s famous claim that ‘art in its highest vocation remains for us a thing of the past,’ and tries to articulate a contemporary agenda for the humanities based on a defense of that claim.