Podcast: Episode 5 ~ Kierkegaard on Love and Selfhood

Sara speaks with Dr. Patrick Stokes, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University on the subject of love and selfhood. Stokes’ focus has been Kierkegaard and bringing conversations on his work back into dialogue with contemporary analytic philosophy, in addition to research interests in personal identity and moral psychology, as well as exploring temporal and perspectival aspects of the question of selfhood.

When I first met Patrick Stokes earlier this year, I told him point blank that I don’t believe in love. He had a very concerned expression on his face, a kind of questionable look that said, “O, what have I gotten myself into?” But, what I really wanted to say was that I don’t believe in the definition of love as people have defined it today. Contemporary society views love to embody a commitment to one other person or object alone – erotic love is probably the most obvious – but doing so at the expense of other people. How is it that some men and women are dedicated or ‘love’ their partners and yet treat other people badly, or who are racist and violent.

I think to really explain what I mean, I will read a quote by Erich Fromm, who basically articulates it perfectly. So he says:

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person. It is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. Yet, most people believe that love is constituted by the object, not by the faculty.

I really love that quote, and there is nothing magical about love. It remains within the confines of rational thought, and people who “fall in love at first sight” for instance are likely to just be very lonely and irrational, and it is understandable. We thrive and feel joy when someone likes us and we feel good about ourselves because of it, and while that actually shows that we probably have no self-esteem, it is nevertheless comforting, which is why so many people attempt to be loving, wanting to be loved and so they try to be attractive, whether it is physically or financially. Love is a faculty that permeates outwardly, not inwardly. It is not about being loved, but to be loving, about giving love.

Love to me and I have long said this, is being morally conscious, and it is only when we really understand ourselves and have a truly honest and mature ability to self-reflect that we are able to raise that socially constructed definition of love up to an abstract level that transcends beyond one person or object or things, and is directed to all of humankind. It doesn’t mean that I cannot form relationships with people, but these relationships need to be founded on objective, intelligent and rational reasons. If I love someone, I love them because of how loving they are, the fruits of their labour, the way that they think and the decisions that they make or the righteous things that they do, and not because of how much they love me or flatter me or tell me how wonderful I am. And I do this under the assumption that we are two mutually separate, equal individuals. I don’t attach myself because my ego is my own, they are not an object that I want to control or make a part of me and all I keep as mine are the experiences that we share together, that I am consciously aware is within the constraints of time or temporality.

This is why genuine friendship is the greatest of all these forms loves.

Humans thrive in the positive company of others, and psychologically, it is against our nature to be alone. However, it is not uncommon for intellectuals, especially philosophers, to be domestically unconventional. Plato, Immanuel Kant, Sir Isaac Newton, Schopenhauer, Hume, Hobbes among many more all remained unmarried, although St. Thomas Aquinas probably had no choice in matter. Being alone requires a type of intellectual and emotional transcendence that not everyone is able to achieve, even Nietzsche, who admittingly wanted to marry but was rejected, wrote about the will to power, to try to find that strength within to be unconventional and be okay with it, and yet even Nietzsche ultimately had a mental breakdown.

Being unmarried and alone, and being lonely are two very different things. People can feel incredibly lonely even while they’re in a relationship, because the subjective authenticity and underlying intention to be in the relationship is a socially imposed identity and not one naturally and rationally formed. People make choices and do what they think they are supposed to do, educated from a very young age by their environment that they grow to feel comfortable and familiar with these constructed stereotypes that their lives and choices are ultimately inherited without any clear intellectual reflection behind it. They do what they think they are supposed to do in order to be happy, since, again, we thrive in positive social environments and if other people are happy with our decision to conform, then we are happy because people appreciate us.

If we decide to be ourselves and be unconventional, we are at risk of being socially rejected and therefore alone, and again, not everyone is capable of being alone.The reason why so many philosophers remained unconventional is because philosophy is, in some way, defining our belief-systems. It is an intellectual or theoretical form of interpreting and ultimately escaping that blind conformism. Why do we think what we think or believe what we believe, deconstructing that decision-making process. Philosophers are comfortable being uncomfortable, they paradoxically thrive when they critically reflect why they do things and why they believe things, so it is enough for them to be in the company of those who understand them rather than numbing themselves in order to survive living in a horizontal, flat-lined and false consciousness.

Kierkegaard is one such philosopher. Known as the father of existentialism, he became famous for his haunting love for Regine Olsen, with whom he broke off an engagement because of his impassioned love for philosophy and theology. What is the path toward our true selves, free from desire, free from socially constructed perceptions of reality, the authenticity of our subjectivity? The intentions behind the decisions that we make? For Kierkegaard, love is the substance of life and precedes knowledge and as a Christian, Divine love, that is, the love of God, and ultimately self-love, concentrates on the authenticity of this love that is no longer tainted by flattering deceptions or appearances. 

My next guest, Patrick Stokes from Deakin University, is a lecturer in Philosophy and well known for his research on Kierkegaard. His work sits at the intersections of Continental and Analytic philosophy, as well as the philosophy of religion, and has done numerous publications on personal identity and selfhood, time, death and moral psychology, and we discuss his works on Kierkegaard and in particular on the subject of love. He is also a very lovely person and I had a great time chatting with him that I am quite certain you will enjoy it too. So please welcome, Patrick. 

You can read more about Dr. Patrick Stokes on his website http://www.patrickstokes.com/ and follow him on his twitter account. He is also a regular on The Conversation