Book Review: What Love Is and What It Could Be by Carrie Jenkins

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This won’t be a review so much as a personal musing prompted by the book. I could go on at length-and I may edit this post probably as time goes on. It’ll be a development of thought rather than a final thought. There’s a lot to discuss, plenty I probably have missed with this first pass. I wanted to start something though because I think-like Jenkins-that this topic has been sadly neglected by the philosophical community. In short, I highly recommend this book not only as an introduction in to the philosophy of love, but in to philosophy itself. It’s rare to find a text that has combined intellectual humility, rigor, and accessibility.

On to the musing:

I finished What Love Is and What It Could Be, by Carrie Jenkins about two weeks ago, thinking about how I wanted to approach talking about this-whether it be from a philosophical or a personal standpoint. Ultimately, this will be a personal reflection on a point or two that I’ve picked up. The book is rich with interesting ideas that I think I could write on about but for the sake of this post, I’ll just pick a couple of points.

Philosophically, it has a few new-to-me conceptual terms. Amatonormativity perhaps being the principle one; an exclusive, central romantic relationship is regarded as the norm for all and we all seek those relationships.

Carrie has good reason for arguing against this way of thinking-an important one being that she is in a polyamorous relationship. So understandably-being outside of what is considered the “norm”-she would question what then is romantic love and how her experiences fit in to that role.

Carrie Jenkins-Ichikawa argues for an understanding of love that combines a biological and social understanding; biological machinery embodying a social role.

At first blush, this intuitively seems right. She presents great cases (I’m trying not to spoil the book too much). However, it’s left me with more questions than answers. I believe this is because

Coming in to this, I wanted to understand what love is. Using Jenkins understanding, we get a very broad functional definition. We could use this definition-using an example- to explain what language is in a very similar way (biological machinery embodying a social role). So we’re describing the machinery-the input and outputs- but not the machine itself.

This is all fair for Jenkins to do, by the way. I think I agree-I have some more thinking to do. However from a personal standpoint, I want to understand love itself; the love I have for my dog vs. my family and friends vs. a lover is all very different-same, but different. What is that? Why is that? The machinery explains it to some degree, but in what way is the machinery and social roles different than say, language?

So in order to use Jenkin’s work, first course for me was to try and place this within my own experiences:

Personally, I felt vindicated by her defense of those of us who haven’t been in romantically loving relationships. You are often assumed “incomplete”. Do I feel lonely sometimes? Yes. Is it difficult? Sure. However, I have great joy in being alone as well. There are emotional and physical experiences that I’ve had that many people will never be able to experience. That doesn’t-in my eyes-make them incomplete people in my mind. They are simply different. I do hope to be in a romantically loving relationship one day and have the privilege of feeling those wonderful feelings and intimate bond that comes with romantic love. I do however see myself as a wholly rich person. Romantic love does not fill in a person; it enriches one as any experience can.

This lead me to my next question. Though I have never been in a romantically loving relationship, I have been in love-or at least I thought I had been. Without getting in to much detail, I-or at least I believe I had-loved a man. He however didn’t love me back. Nothing to blame him for, I understood perfectly well that it wasn’t anything to be upset about. It happens; love is not always reciprocated. I just happened to develop feelings I had no control over and he didn’t develop the same. Nevertheless, it was a painful experience and surprisingly so. Rationally, I understood that there was nothing to be upset about. That understanding unfortunately was not my compatriot many nights when I felt the burden of pain, which has a way of rehashing old pain and insecurity I thought died long ago. Love I suppose is powerful in that way-it forces you to feel. But, was this love?

From Jenkin’s conceptualization, I’m not sure I get the answers. Moreover, I think we get the mechanism of love, but I’m not sure I understand yet how to understand love itself. If what I experienced is different than romantic love, what about that makes it a different experience than those who have experienced loving relationships? Was it love that I experienced? It’s hard for me to say right now. I do think though that I’ve come out of this understanding how to conceptualize the mechanisms for those feelings.

In short, I’m still left wondering how to understand my own experience. I need to think more about what I’ve read but in doing so, this book achieved what it set out to do; to have a philosophical discussion about love. It sets the groundwork for serious discussions about love that have gotten left behind.

I’ll end with these thoughts:

In Confucianism, concepts like “goodness” are not definable in the abstract sense; it’s a response. We feel it and once we know it, we should bring it out. (The Path by Michael Puett and Chrstine Gross-Loh). Love-I suspect-would be similarly fruitless. Though I appreciate the humility this emphasizes, this approach to it’s full extent is deeply unsatisfying to me on a philosophical level.

A philosophy mentor of mine provided me with this quote-as an answer for a separate question- from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts.”

I think Jenkin’s brings about the best of both world’s here; intellectual humility and clarity of thought upon which to build excellent literature on the topic. From my own standpoint, she gave me the freedom to think about love in a more grounded way, and in my own way. This book brought back an elation to continue this journey. Moreover, as a budding philosopher I’m excited because this isn’t something an armchair will solve.

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