02 September 2010

Book Review: The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

My goodness, what is this dude smoking?

Someone close to me made me aware that this book existed, and so out of curiosity, I decided to borrow the book from the library and read it. It took me 2 days, and really, I hated every bit of this book, for several reasons that I will delineate below. But first, let me tell you what this book is about.

Obviously, this is non-fiction. This is written by Erich Fromm, a prominent German social psychologist who happens to belong to the Frankfurt School, also known as the proponents of Critical Theory. And in this book, Fromm outlines his theory of love, and how it is an art. As with other arts, such as painting and sculpture, he claims that love has two parts: theory and practice. The book is divided accordingly.

In the theory section, he goes over five different types of love: brotherly love, motherly love, erotic love, self-love, and love of God. He explains the different functions of these different types, and its various characteristics. And in the practice section, he basically gives various factors that affect and influence the practice of love.

So, where do I begin criticizing this work? First of all, I deeply hated the fact that his arguments are all along the lines of speculation. I am all for empiricism, and he has all these grandiose claims that were never proven with evidence, all throughout the book. He has claims for example about the difference between motherly and fatherly love, about the importance of the male-female divide, about mothers and instinct, but all of his arguments are conjecture, and not actually supported by empirical evidence. I being a scientist have big problems with that.

I also think that he suffers from a cultural bias, in that in Eurocentric cultures, at least, love as a concept actually refers to various different things, which roughly corresponds to the different "types" of love. However, I think that it is just an accident of language that English has one word to refer to all of those, which gives the illusion that all of these concepts are inter-related and compose a superset of human emotions. However, one simply has to look to other cultures, and one will realize that there are actually different words that refer to these "types" of love. Greek for example has four different words for what the English language refers to as "love". C. S. Lewis actually has a book discussing the Four Loves as seen in Christianity. Thus, I fear that this book, which is in a way a typology of "love" may actually be resting on the false premise that there is something in common will all manifestations of love, and that Fromm is just undergoing an endeavor that is ontologically faulty. This can be seen by the various differing assumptions that he makes regarding the different types of love.

Speaking of assumptions, this is another part in which I have problems with. He makes all these assumptions about the various characteristics of various "loves" but I can think of so many counter-examples to prove him wrong.

One assumption he has is the instinct of the mother to her offspring, and how that is the defining factor in motherly love. He claims that mothers by virtue of giving birth of her child, are predisposed to love her child unconditionally. I believe the contrary. I think I can re-explain every phenomenon he tackles with a simpler rule, without resorting to various other assumptions, and that is by claiming that "love" as we know it is simply a matter of constraint satisfaction and selfishness. We show love to a target because we need something from the target: whether it be one's child, one's brother, one's sexual partner, or one's God. If the need goes away, then we stop showing love. Thus, in the case of motherly love, when there is another need that is present in the mother, that runs counter to the need pertaining to the infant, then the mother will sooner or later give up the child for adoption, abandoning the infant in one way or another. If motherly love were instinctive, then we won't actually be witness to the grave number of orphanages around the world.

Another assumption he makes is the centrality of the male-female opposition. He claims that these two poles are necessary for real erotic love to happen. By implication, he explicitly claims that homosexuals are incapable of love. I tend to disagree. Personally, I believe that humans can be post-gendered and has the ability to be attracted to another person, regardless of the other person's gender, if one's constraints are set up that way. Thus, gender variation for me is just a matter of constraint setting. I do not like the fact that Fromm categorically eliminates the ability to love from non-heterosexual people. Perhaps it is just the sign of the times he was living in (the book was published in 1956), and important studies by Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker were not around yet. As of 1956, homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and wasn't removed from the list until 1974. Alfred Kinsey published two seminal volumes on sexual behavior of the human male and female, and Evelyn Hooker did several series of experiments providing evidence that self-identified homosexuals were no worse in social adjustment than the general population. I actually found her experiments rather neat, where she took two groups of samples: homosexuals and heterosexuals. She conducted three tests across the two groups: the Thematic Apperception Test; the Make-a-Picture-Story Test; and the Rorschach Inkblot Test. She then asked other specialists to determine whether there is a significant difference between the two samples based on their test performance. In all tests, the specialists' ability to differentiate was no better than chance, suggesting that there are no significant differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals when it comes to social performance.

Fromm also has a section on love of God. Again, I can explain this by selfishness. Love of God for me is simply another term for therapeutic delusion. Humans sometimes need to feel that they are not in total control of their lives, to the point that they construct an entity "higher" than them. This in effect removes the blame from themselves, whenever there is a tragic event that has happened. Things that are seemingly beyond their control are given an explanation by invoking the notion of God. This for me is a selfish act, because it's basically a form of a survival mechanism. The human basically victimizes oneself and removes the responsibility and reassigns it to God. Having belief in God also has a second function, and that is to give hope, hoping that the afterlife is better than the present, which again is a survival mechanism, because otherwise, people may not be able to survive the present.

Now, I have tried to explain the concept of love by recasting it in terms of selfishness. I do believe that human behavior can be reduced to two terms: selfishness and curiosity. Love is never self-sacrificing. Someone told me that we only continue to love if we are loved in return: we love our mates as long as our mates love us. If not, then the relationship breaks down.

So the question is, do I believe in love? I guess the answer depends on what that question actually means. If by believing in love, it refers to the act of immediately finding oneself attracted to some other person, with no rhyme or reason, then I have to answer no. However, if by believing in love, it refers to the act of ascertaining whether an individual is beneficial for oneself, that even though one can survive by its own, one has determined that the system can be improved by factoring in the other person, and therefore pursuing that person, then my answer is yes. Love for me is a selfish act: it's an act of system improvement. It is an economic act, getting something from someone else in exchange for something else. Thus, a successful relationship occurs whenever there are two people who mutually satisfies the needs of each other.

So, I have offered here a counter explanation to the phenomenon of love. I believe that it is a simpler explanation, satisfying Occam's Razor. I have fewer assumptions: constraint satisfaction and selfishness. I only assume that those are the two big factors, and the variation on human behavior can be explained by modulating the various constraints that are different across the board. I believe that my thesis here is also testable: I could easily imagine a way to sample this, and one can run a regression model and see whether the factors really are significant or not. Needless to say, I belong more to the experimental psychology camp, than the Frankfurt School.

And needless to say, I was dissatisfied with this book. I am giving it 0.5 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.

(Against the Valley, from my Pisac Series)

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