September 9, 2008
"love" as a family-resemblance word
This is one of several recent posts in which I struggle with definitions of the word "love" as a way of thinking about how we define moral concepts, generally. Here I borrow the idea of “family-resemblance” from the later Wittgenstein. Sometimes, we recognize that people belong to a family, not because they all have one feature in common, but because each individual looks like many of his or her relatives in many ways. Maybe eight out of twelve family members have similar noses; a different six out of the twelve have the same color hair; and a yet another seven have the same chin. Then they all resemble each other, although there is no (non-trivial) common denominator. Wittgenstein argued that some--although not all--perfectly useful words are like this. They name sets of objects that resemble one another; but members of each set do not share any defining feature. Their resemblance is a statistical clustering, a greater-than-random tendency to share multiple traits.
A good example is “curry,” which the dictionary defines as a dish flavored with several ground spices. The word “curry” thus describes innumerable individual cases, where each one resembles many of the rest, but there is no single ingredient or other characteristic that they all share. Nor is there a clear boundary between curry and other dishes. Is bouillabaisse a curry? Clearly not, although the dictionary’s definition applies to it. Indeed, any definition will prove inadequate, yet we can learn to recognize a curry and distinguish it from other kinds of food. If we want to teach someone how to use the word “curry,” we will serve several particular examples and also perhaps some dishes that are not curries. If the student draws the conclusion that a curry must always contain coriander, or must be soupy, or must be served over rice, then we can serve another curry that meets none of these criteria. Gradually, he will learn to use the word. Even sophisticates will debate about borderline cases, but that is the nature of such concepts. Their lack of definition does not make them useless.
It seems to me that “love” is also a family-resemblance word, because there is no common denominator to love for ice cream, love for a newborn baby, love of country, brotherly love for humanity, self-love, tough love, Platonic love, making love, amor fati, philately, etc. Some (but not all) of these forms of “love” involve a high regard for the object. Some (but not all) imply a commitment to care for the object. Some (but not all) signify an intense emotional state. Dictionaries cope by providing numerous definitions of love, thus suggesting that “love” means “lust” or “enthusiasm” or “adoration” or “agape” or “loyalty.” But “love” never quite means the same as any of these other words, because we faintly recognize all of its other meanings whenever it is used in a particular way. For instance, “love” is always different from “lust,” just because the former word can mean loyal adoration as well as sexual desire.
The experience of love is complex because one has usually loved before in several different ways and has seen, heard, or read many descriptions of other loves; and these past examples and descriptions become part of one's present experience. “Love” is a family-resemblance word that brings its family along when it visits.
When we read a literary work that vividly describes an example of love, it changes our experience of the concept. Any philosophical discussion of "love" must be a discussion of the experience; and therefore what we conclude philosophically must depend (in part) on how love has been portrayed for us in the arts. (Cf. Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, p. 127).