Love as a Contested Concept
The last decade has witnessed a welcome renewal of interest in the emotions across philosophy and the human sciences. Understandably, as one of the most obviously social emotions, love has attracted particular attention.(1) And yet, a curious oversight can be detected in many such discussions. It is this simple observation: people can disagree fundamentally about what love means, and when they do, such disagreements do not stem from misunderstanding or a lack of clarity. Rather, they stem from basic disagreements in values. I will argue that the existence of such fundamental disagreement sets constraints upon what a theorist can say, ex cathedra, about love. For, the types of disagreements we ordinarily engage in are not different in kind from those that engage philosophers. In such circumstances, anything that resembles a philosophical definition will seem at best arbitrarily stipulative and at worst peremptory. Consequently, the idea of a grand theory of love, resting (whether explicitly or implicitly) upon such definitions is chimerical. My main focus will be upon philosophical theories of love, since these wear their assumptions on their sleeves. However, my argument, if correct, has ramification for any theory that rests upon morally neutral definitions of love. Since any empirical investigation makes theoretical assumptions about the nature of the object studied, however tacit or inchoate, the recognition of the concept’s contestability mean that social scientific investigations into love ought to take a hesitant and piecemeal character, eschewing grand generalisation, in favour of a careful piecemeal mapping of the role that love plays in our moral practices.
Hamilton, R. P. (2006). Love as a contested concept. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 36(3), 239-254.