Love and the liberal arts
When we first learned about Susan Kennedy’s lecture on the neuroscience of love, we just knew it had to be our Valentine’s Day story. But it also got us thinking about how love, that coolest, most human of qualities, might play into a lot of academic discussions around campus, a cool and most human of places.
So we asked our faculty to explain how their respective disciplines deal with the concept of love. Not surprisingly, we loved the responses—especially one from a certain emeritus. Read on…
Matthew Kretchmar, associate professor of computer science
The arrival of Valentine’s Day is an excellent opportunity to introduce our computer science students to the Stable Marriage Problem. In the traditional problem (not a literal exercise), all the guys line up on one side and all the gals on the other. Each person ranks the desirability of members of the other pool, their potential partners. The algorithm attempts to form stable matches by avoiding situations where a guy and a gal who are not matched prefer each other over their current partners. An algorithm that is proven to work has guys doing the proposing and the gals doing the accepting. While such an algorithm forms stable matches, interestingly it maximizes the guys’ happiness while minimizing that of the gals. Indeed, it is better to be the chooser than the chosen! And people say computer scientists aren’t romantic?
Veerendra Lele, associate professor of sociology/anthropology
Anthropology studies human relationships, and love relates people. Romantic love might differ from kinship love (humans trade in both). And while we might believe that romantic love is the same across time and space, it might not be. Could a person from our time fall in love with a person from pre-Columbian MesoAmerica, or pre-Celtic Ireland? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe ‘love’, like other things human is both universal and specific, social and unique. And maybe it is precisely (cf. Frost) what is lost in translation, so that we are most incommensurate in the things that seem most universal and necessary.
Tim Hofmeister, professor of classics
Never mind Plato’s Symposium. Apuleius’s Lucius suffers from his passions, especially for knowledge, in the dytopic, dysphoric world he finally escapes by embracing the goddess, Isis. In the Passio Perpetuae, a young woman won’t renounce the christianoi and embrace the Emperor’s cult, for motives including love of her brother, Dinocrates, whom cancer killed and, after horrible dreams, she finally “sees” drinking from an unquenchable cup: quae fiala non deficiebat.
Or just read the All-night Vigil of Venus?
Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet.
(“Tomorrow let him love who has never loved, and whoever has loved, let her love tomorrow!”)
Bradley Rowe, visiting instructor of education, and Taylor Klassman ’13, religion/English major
Contrary to popular opinion, education moves beyond the concrete walls of classrooms and reaches into the depths of love and desire. Long before the advent of schooling and academic departments, love and desire – eros – were central to teaching and learning for the first educational theorists of the West, the Greeks. Education is about enhancing the human condition through the acquisition of knowledge. But to acquire knowledge, we must desire it: we must love knowledge. Teaching and learning begins with humans expressing and sharing this deeply-felt love. In transcending the institutionalized process of teachers imparting mere information onto students, education is about lovers desiring knowledge.
Ken Bork, professor emeritus of geology
It’s a rocky road.
Alexandra Bradner, assistant professor of philosophy
There’s a sense in which philosophers don’t think very much of love. Plato worries in The Republic that emotional attachment will lead to bias and breakdown. And the number of great, married philosophers is so low that a life of monastic isolation or unrequited yearning often seems like a prerequisite for true wisdom. Could there be anything more irrational than love? The rashness, stubborn close-mindedness, embodiment, blindness and complete loss of perspective. The most insightful philosophers need the judgment that comes with old age, while the dreamiest lovers require the ignorance of a teenager.
But the last 50 years have seen a reversal. Moral psychologists think about the roles that emotion and value play in decision-making. Ethicists of care suggest a mother’s love as our best exemplar of moral behavior. And, contra Plato, communitarians argue that socio-political stability requires sympathy. Philosophers are now preoccupied with the project of defining, justifying, accounting for, and determining the significance of emotions.
This development isn’t quite so contrary to our nature. After all, it would be question-begging to offer reasons for promoting reason. The philosopher’s task has never been to argue for wisdom, but to nurture its love.