Explore Philosophy of Love, a class offered fall 2014

The philosophy of love is the subject of a special topics in Philosophy course taught by the head of the philosophy department, William (Russ) Payne. The class, which was taught once a few years ago as an interdisciplinary class, is being offered fall 2014.
“I wanted to do a class that would have more immediate practical value for students. It looked like something that would be more immediately applicable to students’ lives than some of the more theoretical questions that you’re getting in a more traditional philosophy class,” Payne explained.
“Everybody loves things; everybody does a better or worse job at it. We all have relationships and things that matter to us. It looked like an area of philosophy that I could do where we could look at stuff that applies to things that matter,” he said. The class will explore much of what conventional philosophy classes learn about, but will guide students back in the direction of exploring love and what love means to individuals internally, as well as in action.
“We read a large variety of different views about the nature of love, and then I ask students to write some exposition, to show me that they can explain the different views.” Since it’s a special topics class, students won’t have to do much in the way of quizzes, but there will be seminar papers. The papers will be an opportunity for students to show what they know, explore their own thoughts and the applications of what they’ve learned. There will be many interesting readings and students should expect seminars on roughly a weekly basis, with a final five-page paper to wrap up the course.
“I would like students to write about issues where they think they’re stuck and try to get a new angle on those issues. That can be a pretty broad choice. Some people will be interested in what love is, some people will be interested in how loving relationships develop over a period of time, some people will be interested in romantic love. It’s not just about romantic love, because friendship is also generally thought of as a variety of love. Love between parents and children, even love of things is an interesting topic. Some people love their house or love their boat. Well, how is that different from just really liking something? If there’s something that I love, like a bicycle, I have a couple that I love and a couple that I don’t really love. The difference seems to be that you love something after you’ve invested something into it. You have a shared history with it. And I think the same happens with people, too. When you’ve invested some effort into a relationship and there’s a shared history there, there’s going to be some kind of love. What kind? That’s an open question,” Payne explained, and that question is what the class is seeking to answer, to a degree, for the sake of self-exploration.
He continued, “Look, loving something doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to find it pleasing all the time. Sometimes we love things and we’re horribly aggravated with them too, or we love something and feel terribly jealous about it. It’s a really complicated kind of emotion, and it’s worth some exploration just to try to figure out what’s going on there.”
The kind of students who would be interested in this class are “people who love things,” plain and simple. “We sometimes get some real cynics in the class, and I think that it’s good to have a healthy mix there.”
The class is going to be organized around exploring the concepts of John Armstrong’s book, “Conditions of Love,” which is very accessible, having been written for a popular audience. Payne said Armstrong “treats love as [a] sort of historical thing, something that develops over time.” Love can be thought of as an emotion, as an entity in and of itself. It is tempting for philosophers to define what love is and then give a set of specific conditions. “The problem with that kind of attempt to just define what love is, is that you’re trying to peg down a moving target. Real emotions and real relationships develop and change over time, and they have different characteristics at different points in time.”
Payne continued, “One of the things I like that Armstrong does in this book is that he really tries to not define what love is but rather give a characterization or an investigation of love by thinking about how it develops. Part of the goal in the book is to get an understanding of what a mature love looks like. You can trace the developmental progression through maybe infatuation as a beginning stage or romantic love or something like that. And then at some point we figure out the people we’re infatuated with aren’t as perfect as we had hoped they’d be, and then we’re disappointed or disillusioned. In the case of a mature love, when a real love develops in spite of that, what does that development look like?
“I have also an anthology of philosophical works on love, and at various point[s] we’re going to depart [from the Conditions of Love] because he refers to Plato, the Symposium and that kind of stuff. We’re going to take breaks from this occasionally to look at the primary sources and some philosophical literature. There’s a long history here; the first work on love is Plato’s ‘Symposium’, which is over 2,500 years old. There are important writers on love in the history of philosophy all the way through, including Augustine, Spinoza and Hume. In addition to that, there’s a very active contemporary literature. There are a lot of people writing about love now, including the editor of the anthology we use.”
Studying the concept of love, understanding what it means to be a person is a topic that often arises.
“A person is the sort of being that leads a life. Leading a life involves some sort of intentionality. You make your own plans, you have your own values, but that doesn’t tell you very much. So to get a better understanding of what a person is, you’ve got to think more developmentally and historically about what it means to lead a life, what it means to develop some principles and values and try to live in accordance with them.”