Philosopher Alan Watts’ views on ‘love’

“Love is always something more and something different than can be captured by any single definition” (Watts, 2002). 

Love is a universal phenomenon of life. Where ever life exists, love manifests there. Love can take various configurations too. While romantic love is the most publicised and celebrated type, parental love, sibling love and compassionate love towards larger humanity are all equally powerful and valid. Besides, there is also the love of art that powers creative energies, and the love of knowledge and discovery that drives a scientist toward this goal. Since Alan Watts is a spiritualist and philosopher, his understanding of love would have encompassed all of these possibilities. This essay would venture the arduous task of confining to words the endless scope and interpretation of this time-honoured concept.

Evolutionary sociology has offered to lay bare the practical and rather mundane reasons why love exists between two individuals of a species. While falling short of defining love, evolutionary sociology does elicit a connection between love and warm-bloodedness – a defining quality of all mammals, including us. (Bender, 1996, p115) It has also established

“a relation between love, handedness, and speech; the disappearance of estrus; and possible mitochondrial involvement in the genetics of homosexuality. Further, young mammals need more intensive care than the offspring of reptiles, which lack the biological substrates of love, including milk and tears. Noting that even left-handed mothers tend to hold babies with the head near the heart, it is contended that right-handedness evolved from holding babies in this orientation, and that the localization of speech in the right hemisphere followed.” (Acree, 1999, p.109)

Far removed from the bland theoretical and scientific portrayals of love, the cultural presentations of it take an emotional and artistic hue. William Shakespeare, the playwright of the highest reputation, has showcased love in all its manifestations. His encyclopaedic understanding of human motivation and interpersonal psychology makes the critique and interpretation surrounding his works relevant to this essay. Marcus Nordlund is one contemporary critique of The Bard, and he reckons that “a concept like love is not based in nature at all, but is rather a historically variable construct”. (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256) In his book Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution, Nordlund goes against the grain of conventional Shakespeare studies and brings attention back on the nature of love in the plays. Nordlund attempts to bring love to its full glory by overcoming the theoretical and political presuppositions it has suffered erstwhile. But the challenge of constructing a new theoretical framework for love is impeded by the broad range of meanings and definitions that are already attributed to it. In most cases these definitions are contradictory and don’t lend themselves for synthesis. Nordlund tries to accommodate all the forms of love in his study of Shakespeare, including a cultural-biological perspective based on evolutionary theory. The irreconcilability of the literary traditions associated with love and the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives is well captured by the following passage:

“Literary scholars generally hold a broadly constructivist view of human emotion and sexual identity. Darwinism posits continuity derived from natural selection that would appear to many to be shamelessly essentialist. Against the Foucaultian view of short-term epistemic shifts and the more broadly historicist notion of cultural distance and difference, it assumes an extreme longue duree of adaptation against which cultural differences are no more than epiphenomena. And in contrast to Marxist denials of the existence of any trans-historical human qualities or essence, it makes no apologies for its belief in a fundamental human nature grounded in biological fact.” (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256)

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