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The Reasons of Love
Harry G. Frankfurt

Published by Princeton University Press/NJ in 2004
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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How should a person live? This is the question that Frankfurt poses to us and answers in the course of this book. Although he is a philosopher, he proposes to deal with this question, not with some abstract theory, but in a concrete, personal way. He strives to show us how the answer to this question bears on "how we conduct ourselves" and "how we experience our lives." It is important to note outright that how we experience our lives bears directly upon how we conduct ourselves and vice versa — the two processes are recursive and operate upon each other. Loving is a way we conduct ourselves vis-a-vis the world and it is also a way we experience ourselves in the course of our conduct.

Caring about something, like experiencing and conducting our lives, is another example of a recursive process.

[page 14, 15] What, then, does it mean to care about something? It will be convenient to approach this problem indirectly. Let us begin, then, by considering what it would mean to say that we do not really care about going ahead with a certain plan that we have been intending to carry out.
       We might say something like that to a friend who needs a favor badly, but who appears to be hesitant about asking us for it just because he is aware that doing him the favor would require us to give up our plan. The friend is embarrassed. He is reluctant to take advantage of our good nature. In fact, however, we would like to do him the favor; and we want to make it easier for him to ask. So we tell him that doing what we had been planning to do is not anything that we really care about.

Frankfurt explains we may abandon our original plan either by giving up our original desire or giving up the plan and keeping the desire. Caring comes about when we are committed to keeping our desire — caring is a desire with which we identify and we accept as something we really want. Animals do not have an ability to care — this is a human capability that arises from our ability to be reflexive or recursive. In other words to experience our own conduct and make decisions based on that reflexive experience of our conduct.

[pag 17, 18] By its very nature, caring manifests and depends upon our distinctive capacity to have thoughts, desires, and attitudes that are about our own attitudes, desires, and thoughts. In other words, it depends upon the fact that the human mind is reflexive. Animals of various lesser species also have desires and attitudes. Perhaps some have thoughts as well. But animals of those species — at least, so it appears — are not self-critical. They are moved into action by impulse or by inclination, simply as it comes, without the mediation of any reflective consideration or criticism of their own motives. Insofar as they lack the capacity to form attitudes toward themselves, there is for them no possibility either of self-acceptance or of mobilizing an inner resistance to being what they are. They can neither identify with the forces that move them nor distance themselves from those forces. They are structurally incapable of such interventions in their own lives. For better or for worse, they are not equipped to take themselves seriously.

Frankfurt clearly describes in the passage above that animals lack an "I" or "Ego" which humans possess. "I" is a name we can only use to refer to ourselves and no one else. Animals completely lack the concept so far as we know. An animal can react to some impulse with a desire — the sound of a can opener may trigger a desire for food. A human being can form a desire for its own desires, or a motive, which an animal is incapable of. I use the terms animal and human as mutually exclusive terms based on this distinction: animals and humans can have desires, but only humans can have motives. This higher or recursive capability of humans distinguishes us from other animals and justifies our use of the term “animal kingdom” to refer to animals at all stages of evolution excluding human beings. Beings in the animal kingdom do not have the recursive capacity of desires which we call motives or reasons. This capacity is unique to humans.

Sometimes a desire can be so strong that it can overcome even a motive to avoid some action. For example, due to a powerful desire a person might find himself performing some conduct that he would else not have considered proper or befitting his own motives.

[page 19] Given that he has opposed it as well as he could, it may then reasonably be said that the desire has moved him — and that he has consequently acted — against his own will.

I would prefer to say in such a circumstance that he lacked a strong enough will to oppose the desire. Of someone who often acted this way, who often went against his better judgment or motives, we would say "He acted like an animal." In other words, he acted as if he did not possess an independent "I" — which a human being does, but an animal doesn't.

If someone becomes concerned about whether he should care about certain things or not, he is concerned with reasons. Should his conduct reflect what he cares about or not? This can be a disorienting question because its very nature is recursive — it makes us dizzy because we are in a recursive loop operating on our own values, conduct, and experience. But simply being recursive doesn't mean that there is no way out. In programming computer code using recursion techniques, a careful programmer always provides a way of ending the loop. Frankfurt gives examples of ways a man might get himself out of recursive human programming loops. One must evaluate whether the loop one is in is furthering one's path to some chosen goal and decide whether to continue or to break the looped chain of values, conduct, and experience.

[page 24] For instance, it must be clear to him how to evaluate the fact that a certain way of living leads more than others (or less than others) to personal satisfaction, to pleasure, to power, to glory, to creativity, to spiritual depth, to a harmonious relationship with the precepts of religion, to conformity with the requirements of morality, and so on.

One example of a recursive computing problem is how do we load a program into a computer? Simple, you say, use the program loader. Okay, now, let me ask you this: how do you load the program loader? — It is after all a program itself, is it not? Somehow a way must exist to load a program which loads the first program. That's called the bootstrap paradox. It's like lifting oneself from one's own bootstraps — an apt metaphor for the process of living as a human being in which our conduct determines our future experience of life and our experience of life determines our future conduct. The answer for computers and humans is one: you solve the bootstrap paradox one level at a time.

Frankfurt proposes that the first level for the human is to identify things that are important to one. He says this is a circular process because it “presupposes possession of the very criterion that is to be formulated.” Determining what is important is a circular process, however, only if one lacks an operational definition of “importance”. Given such a definition, one can readily apply it to determine whether something is more important than something else(1).

Frankfurt admits that the "category of love is difficult to elucidate" (page 31) and notes that Niels Bohr cautioned that "one should never speak more clearly than one can think." I agree with Bohr, I find it hard to decipher the writing of those who write more clearly than they think! Harry Frankfurt is definitely not one of those writers. He speaks clearly and is easy to comprehend.

Frankfurt poses a problem: you witness two people drowning and you can only save one. Which one do you choose? Suppose one is a stranger and one is your wife? Then the question becomes interesting, doesn't it? Frankfurt poses an interesting question about such a decision: "What acceptable principle can the man invoke that would legitimate his decision to let the stranger drown?" He quotes Bernard Williams who says that any man who thought of anything but saving his wife had "one thought too many." And adds, "If the man does not recognize the distress of the woman he loves as a reason for saving her rather than the stranger, then he does not genuinely love her at all." (page 37)

[page 37] Love is itself, for the lover, a source of reasons. It creates the reasons by which his acts of loving concern and devotion are inspired.

Suppose the choice was between saving your own child from death by abortion or some stranger's child. Which would you do? If there is a difference in your position in each case, what would that mean? Suppose you’re a psychiatrist and your choice is between giving drugs with potential horrific side-affects to a client or to your daughter. Would your decision be different? What would that mean?

Suppose the dilemma is not between two external and equal lives to be saved, but between the loss of the tip of your finger and the destruction of a multitude of human lives. This was Hume's example — which Frankfurt points out in a footnote on page 45 and comments further about anyone who might kill thousands to save his fingertip, "Anyone who could bring himself to do such things would be regarded as crazy." He used this to illustrate that being illogical is not the same as being immoral. It might be logical to save one's fingertip from injury, but it would be considered immoral to kill multitudes in the process. Thus, Frankfurt disagrees with philosophers who believe "the ultimate warrant for moral principles is to be found in reason."

He also points out that reason and logic cannot exist in a vacuum — they must be seeded by the presence of caring. Caring for something can be seen as the initial program loader for loving and for thus having a reason for loving.

[page 48 footnote] It may be perfectly reasonable to insist that people should care about certain things, which they do not actually care about, but only if something is known about what they do in fact care about. If we may assume that people care about leading secure and satisfying lives, for example, we will be justified in trying to see to it that they care about things that we believe are indispensable for achieving security and satisfaction. It is in this way that a "rational" basis for morality may be developed.

Frankfurt says that it might be impossible to accept ourselves as we are. Read the passage and then we'll discuss an important aspect of it.

[page 50] The psychic integrity in which self-confidence consists can be ruptured by the pressure of unresolved discrepancies and conflicts among the various things that we love. Disorders of that sort undermine the unity of the will and put us at odds with ourselves. The opposition within the scope of what we love means that we are subject to requirements that are both unconditional and incompatible. That makes it impossible for us to plot a steady volitional course. If our love of one thing clashes unavoidably with our love of another, we may well find it impossible to accept ourselves as we are.

We act in a way that is "un-sane" if we talk about the "way we are." The "way we are" is a map we hold in our heads, which at any moment may vary from the territory of what we do(2). All we can talk about is the way we have been, up until now. To pretend that there is some reified "us" which is now, has always been, and will always be is to ignore that the present moment is a moving point of change. This possibility of change in the present is a direct consequence of the recursive or reflexive nature of the human being who is able to modify his conduct based on the immediate experience, and is able to modulate at any time his desires if they vary with his reasons or motives.

[page 51] What we love is necessarily important to us, just because we love it. There is also a rather different point to be made here. Loving itself is important to us. Quite apart from our particular interest in the various things that we love, we have a more generic and an even more fundamental interest in loving as such.

Someone once said about love, "No other pleasure is so much worth all its pains." Being in love is always new and interesting. If we find our interest lagging, we express that by saying or thinking, "I am falling out of love." In other words, no one who is in love considers themselves to be bored. Boredom is the complete absence of love, an absence of things we care about.

[page 52, 53] Boredom is a serious matter. It is not a condition that we seek to avoid just because we do not find it enjoyable. In fact, the avoidance of boredom is a profound and compelling human need. Our aversion to being bored has considerably greater significance than a mere reluctance to experience a state of consciousness that is more or less unpleasant. The aversion arises out of our sensitivity to a far more portentous threat.
       The essence of boredom is that we have no interest in what is going on. We do not care about any of it; none of it is important to us. As a natural consequence of this, our motivation to stay focused weakens; and we undergo a corresponding attenuation of psychic vitality. In its most characteristic and familiar manifestations, being bored involves a radical reduction in the sharpness and steadiness of attention. The level of our mental energy and activity diminishes.
Our responsiveness to ordinary stimuli flattens out and shrinks. Within the scope of our awareness, differences are not noticed and distinctions are not made. Thus our conscious field becomes more and more homogeneous. As the boredom expands and becomes increasingly dominant, it entails a progressive diminution of significant differentiation within consciousness.

Thus, it can be noticed that when we are full of vitality and attend a lecture, that sometimes within minutes we suddenly become sleepy. Boredom leads us to become sleepy. Our "I" becomes uninterested in the proceedings and our body responds by beginning to shutdown its processes. It is not the processes of our physical body, but rather the persistence and vitality of our Self, our “I”, that keeps us alert and awake — it vitalizes the processes of our physical body. Frankfurt points this out in the next passage:

[page 54, 55] At the limit, when the field of consciousness has become totally undifferentiated, there is an end to all psychic movement or change. The complete homogenization of consciousness is tantamount to a cessation of conscious experience entirely. In other words, when we are bored we tend to fall asleep.
       Any substantial increase in the extent to which we are bored threatens the very continuation of conscious mental life. What our preference for avoiding boredom manifests is therefore not merely a casual resistance to more or less innocuous discomfort. It expresses a quite primitive urge for psychic survival. I think it is appropriate to construe this urge as a variant of the universal and elemental instinct for self-preservation. It is related to what we commonly think of as "self-preservation," however, only in an unfamiliarly literal sense — that is, in the sense of sustaining not the life of the organism but the persistence and vitality of the self.

He is getting us closer and closer to the reasons of love which he promised us in the title of this book. Next he asks two important questions for which the answer is love.

[page 55] But how is it that things may come to have for us a terminal value that is independent of their usefulness for pursuing further goals? In what acceptable way can our need for final ends be met?
       It is love, I believe, that meets this need. It is in coming to love certain things — however this may be caused — that we become bound to final ends by more than an adventitious impulse or a deliberate willful choice. Love is the originating source of terminal value. If we loved nothing, then nothing would possess for us any definitive and inherent worth.

Since love is ultimate gauge of importance, then, he says, "it is the ultimate ground of rationality." Love is the basis for having reasons — it is our practical basis for rationality.

[page 57] The most fundamental issues of practical reason cannot be resolved, in other words, without an account of what people love.

When I attended my first course in metaphysics, the professor Alex Keller asked us why we came to the class. We each gave a variety of answers. As Alex prod us to refine our answers further and further we each came to see that it was love which brought us to his class. Love for ourselves. Love for ourselves, given that we are not in the class of those who make no distinctions and thus are completely bored with life, brought us to class. It is the basis of motivation for every person who is motivated to do anything. If we love someone we want them to be happy, so if we love ourselves, we want to be happy, and we pursue happiness for ourselves out of this love.

If we would pursue happiness we need goals and our goals become important by the happiness they can provide us. But goals also provide a value in addition to what we can achieve when we attain them. They are like a compass which keep us moving in a direction and a thermostat that keeps us comfortable at every stage of our path. If you think of the goal as a destination on a journey, the destination has a value at every step of the journey. If we would be happy, we must not only enjoy the end results of our journey, we must enjoy every step of the way to the destination.

[page 58] Our goals are not important to us exclusively because we value the states of affairs that they envisage. It is not important to us only to attain our final ends. It is also important to us to have final ends. This is because without them, there is nothing important for us to do. If we had no goals at which we aimed for their own sakes, there would be no meaningful purpose in any activity in which we might engage. Having final ends is valuable, in other words, as an indispensable condition of our engaging in activity that we regard as truly worthwhile.

Have you ever heard someone claim that your love for them is selfish? It is one of the paradoxes of love that it can be at the same time both selfish and self-less.

[page 61, 62] To the extant that he invests himself in what he loves, and in that identifies with it, its interests are identical with his own. It is hardly surprising, then, that for the lover selflessness and self-interest coincide.

This next passage offers a conundrum which each of us must solve in our lives. It deals with freedom to roam and ties to home which would seem to be contradictory.

[page 64] How could we claim convincingly to cherish freedom and at the same time welcome a condition that entails submission to necessity?

As a child growing up, we often played with Bulldog Squeezers playing cards which have on the back of each card a cartoon of two bulldogs each chained to their doghouse and straining on the chain while the Man in the Moon looks down from above. The words at the bottom burnt into my memory over time as I strained my 11-year-old brain to decipher them, "There is a tie which binds us to our homes." It is this paradox that Frankfurt deals with here.

[page 64] The key to dissipating that appearance lies in the superficially paradoxical but nonetheless authentic circumstance that the necessities with which love binds the will are themselves liberating.

He now homes in on the reasons of love by elucidating rationality — the capacity to reason — and the capacity to love:

[page 65] There is a striking and instructive resemblance in this matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized feature of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct. Both are sources of what is distinctively humane and ennobling in us. They dignify our lives. Now it is especially notable that while each imposes upon us a commanding necessity, neither entails for us any sense of impotence or restriction. On the contrary, each characteristically brings with it an experience of liberation and enhancement. When we discover that we have no choice but to accede to irresistible requirements of logic, or to submit to captivating necessities of love, the feeling with which we do so is by no means one of dispirited passivity or confinement. In both cases — whether we are following reason or following our hearts — we are typically conscious of an invigorating release and expansion of ourselves.

Somehow we are each like the Bulldogs Trip and Squeezer, chained to our homes, pulling against the chain, but content with having a safe place from the elements and someone who loves us and feeds us. We are chastened by our chains, but liberated by the love that accompanies them. And the Man in the Moon looks down lovingly on us all the while.

[page 65] Similarly, the necessity with which love binds the will puts an end to indecisiveness concerning what to care about. In being captivated by our beloved, we are liberated from the impediments to choice and action that consist either in having no final ends or in being drawn inconclusively both in one direction and in another. Indifference and unsettled ambivalence, which may radically impair our capacity to choose and to act, are thereby overcome.

Frankfurt sums it all up in one grand unification scheme:

[page 66] It may seem, then, that the way in which the necessities of reason and of love liberate us is by freeing us from ourselves. That is, in a sense, what they do. The idea is nothing new. The possibility that a person may be liberated through submitting to constraints that are beyond his immediate voluntary control is among the most ancient themes of our moral and religious traditions. "In His will," Dante wrote, "is our peace."

The final chapter Frankfurt devotes to "The Dear Self" and I will leave that to your own dear self, dear Reader, except to reinforce what was said earlier about self-love being selfless. In other words, self-love and selflessness are not opposite but apposite — that, rightly understood, they stand together in one and the same person. He seems to think that it would be ludicrous to equate self-love (seen as an aspect of selfishness) with selflessness, since that would make being selfish equivalent to the contrary state of being selfless. But a strong sense of one's Self or "I" is truly necessary for one to have the will which allows one to love another person selflessly. Here is how he equivocates or navigates around the apparent contradiction.

[page 82] In the love we devote to ourselves, the flourishing of the beloved is sought — to a greater degree than in other types of love — not only for its own sake but for its own sake alone. Perhaps it would flirt too egregiously with the absurd to suggest that self-love may be selfless. It is entirely apposite [RJM: i. e., appropriate], however, to characterize it as disinterested [RJM: i.e., unselfish]. Indeed, self-love is nearly always entirely disinterested, in the clear and literal sense of being motivated by no interests other than those of the beloved.

Frankfurt reveals that a female associate of his said to him that the only two things required for an intimate relationship were honesty and a sense of humor. On further thought, she added, "I'm not really all that sure about honesty. After all, even if they tell you the truth, they change their minds so fast that you can't count on them anyhow." That made me laugh. She certainly knew the reality of the territory changing faster than the map when it comes to people. This anecdote reminded of my elderly father who at 85 told me one day, "I've lost my sense of hearing, my sense of taste and smell, and I can hardly see — I seem to be losing all my senses." I looked at him and said, "Well, Dad, you still have your sense of humor!" He laughed. He would also appreciate this bit of advice which Harry Frankfurt leaves us with in the last paragraph of this fine book:

[page 100] So here is my advice. Let us say that you are simply unable, no matter what you do or how hard you try, to be wholehearted. Let us say that you find it impossible to overcome your uncertainty and your ambivalence, and that you cannot keep yourself from vacillating back and forth. If it is finally and definitively clear to you that you will always suffer from inhibitions and self-doubt, and that you will never succeed in being fully satisfied with what you are — if true self-love is, for you, really out of the question — at least be sure to hang onto your sense of humor.

Because, as Frankfurt pointed out above, we human beings are equipped to take ourselves seriously, life can be seen, as Woody Allen said, as a high school cafeteria where “the food is bad and the servings are too small.” Indeed it would be so, if not for the God-given gift to humans beings of a sense of humor. To paraphrase the old saw, “He who laughs, lasts.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Footnotes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Footnote 1. I owe my operational definition of "importance" to Dr. Andrew J. Galambos who formulated it in his courses on Volitional Science. Importance is determined by the amount of "property" involved where property is defined as one's life and all non-procreative derivatives of one's life. He also formulated an operational definition of "morality" which allows one to determine whether some proposed plan is moral or not. Given the limited distribution of Galambos' concepts, it is not surprising that Frankfurt is not aware of those definitions. See Sic Itur Ad Astra for some background into these operational definitions.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.

Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


Footnote 2. It was Alfred O. Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, who first pointed out in his 1933 classic work, Science and Sanity that the "map is not the territory" — it cannot represent all the territory — either in space nor in time. We must always use a time index when talking about what a person is. We must acknowledge, in effect, that Bobby at t=1969 is not Bobby at t=2005.

Return to text directly before Footnote 2.

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