Can Concepts Capture Love?

And if someone loves me for my judgment or my memory, do they love me? me, myself? No, for I could lose these qualities without losing my self. Where then is this self, if it is neither in the body nor the soul? And how can one love the body or the soul except for the sake of such qualities, which are not what makes up the self, since they are perishable?

Jean-Luc Marion’s book The Erotic Phenomenon constitutes the completion of a triptych that began nearly twenty years ago with The Idol and Distance and continued with Prolegomena to Charity. It is a deeply meditated book that in many ways stands out as the crowning achievement of his entire work. A provisional crowning achievement, of course; but all the same a recapitulatory book: at once clear, refined, stripped of all useless erudition, almost severe in appearance; and disconcerting, complex, indeed, at moments, tortuous, attempting to mold itself to the folds and creases of a phenomenon that is obscure like everything that is evident, and difficult like everything that is simple—a phenomenon that is simplicity itself, known by all, and for that very reason unknown.

Love, about which so much has been written, here unfolds with the rigor of a concept, outside of the horizon of metaphysical thought. Indeed, as Marion recalls at the outset, there is an “erotic blindness of metaphysics” that needs first to be surmounted. This is in fact a triple blindness: metaphysics has first of all been ignorant of love’s unity, reducing love to a multiplicity of phenomena that are irreducible to one another: eros and agape, concupiscent love and benevolent love, sexuality and sentimentality; second, metaphysics has denied love its rationality, preferring to lower it to the level of a phenomenon of passion, and thus a confused and irrational phenomenon; and finally, metaphysics has subordinated the understanding of love to the questions of being and of knowledge.

Marion on the contrary poses three theses, in appearance extremely simple, the consequences of which The Erotic Phenomenon opens out methodically: first, that love speaks with one and only one meaning—it is perfectly univocal, whether we are talking about God’s love or that of creatures, whether maternal, paternal, or filial love, or the love found in friendship and in carnal love; second, that love sketches “another figure of reason”—there is an erotic rationality that exceeds (and, according to the author, precedes) metaphysical rationality; and third, we must think a “love without being” that excepts itself from the horizon of ontology, and which prescribes for phenomenology a new field of research and even a sui generis realm of phenomenality. We will concentrate upon the univocality of love in what follows.

It makes sense to begin by taking seriously the book’s title. The question here is not “love,” that worn-out word that our civilization endlessly invokes, to the point of rendering it almost obscene, the word that metaphysics has employed as a means of “denial,” as Marion puts it, in order to rid itself of, rather than to confront, a problem. Instead, and in place of “love,” we have “eroticism,” a term that, by its semantic tenor, immediately ties love to sexuality, and thus to the flesh. But above all, love is qualified here as a “phenomenon,” a word whose neutrality and indetermination is important.

To say that love is a phenomenon is to hold implicitly against a tradition that goes from La Rochefoucauld to Proust and from Stendhal to Freud, that love is not an illusion—even if, on occasion, it allows for illusions that are difficult to eradicate. But the word “phenomenon” here has above all the role of excluding customary psychological labels: “feeling,” “emotion,” “instinct,” “desire,” “will,” “tendency,” and so forth. In its indeterminate neutrality, it has almost the same meaning as the word “weight” that St. Augustine, doubtless for analogous reasons, privileged, thus refusing to allow himself to be caught in the trap of these oppositions: “My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me .” Thus, Marion dismisses such questions as whether love is of the order of an emotion or of an intention. Is it something we undergo or is it voluntary? Does one who loves seek the good of the other or his own satisfaction? Is love essentially altruistic or selfish?

If love presents itself here in the neutrality of a simple “phenomenon,” it is precisely in order to escape the dichotomies in which the problem has become mired, to the point of becoming insolvable: the opposition of profane love and holy love, of eros and agape, of sexuality and sentimentality, of interested and disinterested love, of benevolent and concupiscent love, of passionate and intellectual love, of sensual and mystical love, of friendship and passion, of divine and human love. Clearly, for Marion, all of these oppositions mask the phenomenon, or in any case fracture it to the point of taking away its face.

His thesis of the univocality of love, on the contrary, allows no exception, not even the opposition between human and divine love. In the command “Come!” from the Book of Revelation, which Marion describes as “the final word of Revelation and of the mystical theology rooted there,” there still resonates something of the human call, and even of the cry of human love—in short, “God loves in the same way as we do.”

But in what way, precisely? All of Marion’s conceptual work, which is also terminological work, consists in attempting a description that does not dismember the phenomenon, but instead preserves its cohesion and its coherence. For example, he never speaks of “desire,” or of “instinct,” or of “sexual drives”—even if the corresponding phenomena are present in his analyses and even minutely described—alongside which there would come to be added in a second stage feelings, emotions, or wishes. Love cannot be broken down into desire, on the one hand, and feelings, on the other. On the contrary, with sexuality we are already within the dimension of eroticism, which is to say of love, one and indivisible.

Far from desire being a simple “drive” within me, which turns toward objects and aims blindly at them, the phenomenon of erotic attraction is a global phenomenon that is impossible to break down into elements or parts, a phenomenon in which it is the flesh of the other that eroticizes my flesh: “my eroticization,” writes Marion, “comes to me from the other.” There is not a pre-erotic, stammering stage of love—the stage of desire—and an accomplished or finished stage—that of moral engagement, of the promise or the oath.

From the very moment that we are within an attraction, we are also, whether we know it or will it or not, within the dimension of the oath, and we cannot be within this latter without also being within the former. Thus, one can hold with good reason that everything in love is sexual and that everything in sexuality is erotic—even if the author prefers to avoid the term “sexuality.”

In reality, the eroticization of our flesh and of that of the other is a phenomenon that wins us over completely, without any remainder: there is an eroticization that begins with the gaze, with the voice, and above all with speech, and which in no way passes through sexuality in the restricted sense. Marion calls this “free eroticization,” in contrast to the “automatic” eroticization of desire (§35). This eroticization is the place in which it is at once possible for two flesh [deux chairs] to “cross” and for two beings to relate to one another in person, to offer to one another their true faces.

For the flesh, we must note right away, can in many cases also be the barrier against which the erotic élan breaks itself, barring the other from showing him or herself as such. Often, the flesh “obscures” rather than “accedes to the person.” The flesh, which we want to “possess,” hides from us that which it is not possible to possess, for “one only possesses that which cannot love.”

Marion describes with care—and not without humor—the diverse modalities of this failed meeting with the other, which stops at automatic eroticization, without ever reaching free eroticization: cruising, sweet-talking, infidelity, all of which are forms of existential duplicity in which I lie to myself as much as I lie to another, since in refusing the other the chance to show her or himself in person to and for me, I, at the same time, refuse myself the converse. In other words, these are forms of love that fail by running aground in an endless repetition of automatic eroticization. Opposed to and freeing us from the “bad infinity” of this iterative eroticization is the true infinity of the oath.

One may nevertheless wonder whether, at this stage, Marion’s analyses are not somewhat distorted by his vocabulary. Does it make sense to oppose at this point the automaticity of desire, wherein the flesh “takes off” or “starts up,” to the freedom of eroticization through the word grounded in the oath, when the very project of the book is, in a sense, to unite them?

The notion of “automatism” in particular may appear excessive: the spontaneity of desire is not its automaticity; we do not react to the flesh of another like one of Pavlov’s dogs reacting to a conditioned reflex; we allow ourselves to be bewitched, we give in to a tropism, which is different. In opposing “the automatic desire” of the flesh to the fidelity of the promise, is there not a risk of rendering unthinkable the very fact of love, which is to say the surpassing of this alternative in an act, which—when it exists, which is rarely—makes the other and her flesh coincide, such that there is no longer any hiatus between loving carnally and simply loving?

But doubtless Marion would respond that, if this possibility exists at the horizon of the erotic phenomenon, then first it is necessary to conquer it, and it is only conquered through the test of the contradiction between the finitude of (automatic) eroticization and the oath that, by its very nature, is willed and hoped to be eternal, which is to say “properly without end.” Here then there is a lived contradiction that makes up the heart of love and that is thus at the center of its manifestation. The oath wills the infinite, and eroticization is finite.

In an interview, Marion has affirmed that “in this work I aimed only at describing the logic and the contradiction that we endure when we love.” That love is indeed a contradiction in the act, and thus a paradox in the Kierkegaardian sense as well as in the phenomenological sense that Marion intends to confer on this term, results from the fact that it is thought rigorously according to univocality.

Indeed, in the cases where thinkers have behaved toward love like the botanist toward his species, seeing only contradictions between different loves, Marion, who thinks of love according to univocality, sees a single center with multiple contradictions. The contradiction is no longer between several loves, but rather fixed within the heart of love. But this contradiction does not abolish the possibility of love; rather, it grounds it. One might say that love is nothing other than the collection of hopeless efforts that we make in order to hold ourselves to the requirements of love—without ever entirely reaching them.

What are these requirements? In truth, they boil down to a single requirement from which all the others flow: to love first, to arrive ahead of the other in love. That is, to presuppose love in the other, instead of waiting for him to show or to demonstrate it; to dismiss all demands for reciprocity and to move, with regard to the loved one, not within the closed circle of exchange but rather within the an-economy of the gift. By making this the unsurpassable requirement of every love, whether filial, friendly, or romantic, rather than the limited condition of a limited and particular love—for instance, charitable love as opposed to carnal love, or agape as opposed to eros—Marion renders edifying that which was profane, annulling the very distinction.

Kierkegaard asked, “But what, then, is love? Love means to presuppose love; to have love means to presuppose love in others; to be loving means to presuppose that others are loving”—thus to arrive before them in love, without even waiting for anything in return. The description of love that Kierkegaard reserved for his edifying discourses is the one that Marion offers for the constant and normative, and thus universal and unsurpassable, phenomenon of love, sacred as well as profane. Anything that does not obey this requirement quite simply is not worthy of being called “love”: “Either loving has no meaning at all, or it signifies loving utterly without return.”

Marion calls this anticipation of the other’s love, which is the only way to enter into love, by the name of “advance.” “The more I love at a loss,” he writes, “the more I simply love.” Yet in this “loss,” in fact, I lose nothing and win everything, beginning with the very possibility of loving. Whence come the different paradoxes that follow: love that risks the most is the most assured; when lovers separate, the one who is most unhappy is the one who no longer loves, not the one who still loves: “[H]e has lost nothing, because he still remains a lover.”

We might ask ourselves at this point whether Marion is proposing a new description or a new designation. Is he analyzing the amorous phenomenon in a new way, or is he simply content to christen it with another name? Does the operation merely consist in giving the name “love” to everything that traditionally has belonged to charity, and refusing this same name to everything that has belonged to eros? Such a critique would be deeply unfair: by changing the names, Marion aims very much to reinterpret the phenomena, which is to say, to show concretely the manner in which the requirement of non-reciprocity inheres in every possible form of love. And indeed he accomplishes this aim perfectly. I cannot enter here into the diversity and richness of his analyses—for instance, that of the crossed eroticization of two flesh, the analysis of truth and lies in love, and the particularly luminous analysis of the birth of the third, the child, who is witness to the oath from the very beginning. The requirement of non-reciprocity is not only a common trait, but the only trait common to everything that gives itself as an erotic phenomenon.

We understand now why Marion purposely does not choose between a description of love in voluntaristic terms and a description in terms of passivity, or even in terms of permanent disposition. He adopts them one after the other, without opposing them. Thus, as for the description in terms of will and decision: “I can make a primary decision to love without return”; there is an “incomparable and unstoppable sovereignty of the act of loving,” which is to say that to love is an act that I can accomplish.

As for the description in terms of passivity: “My flesh eroticizes itself in me without me. Its radical passivity . . . arouses itself like a spontaneousness within me that is not me . . . [and that] takes initiatives and then presents the accomplished facts.” And for the description in terms of hexis: “[L]ove grows in loving.” If these descriptions do not contradict one another it is because the unity of the erotic phenomenon is not to be sought in a psychological theory of the faculties, nor in a “grammatical” theory (in Wittgenstein’s sense) of action verbs, of verbs referring to a state (of experience), and of dispositional verbs, but rather in the unique and unavoidable phenomenon of the advance.

Wherever the lover is in advance of the beloved, love is present, and wherever this advance “melts,” love is eclipsed. Thus, for example, friendship just as much as eroticism (in the narrow sense) is characterized by the advance, by the non-reciprocity of gifts, by the unconditional nature of the oath that aspires to the eternal—unless, of course, it degrades into “friendship based on usefulness,” as Aristotle would say—but this, Marion would add, no longer merits in any way the name of “friendship.”

Thus the thesis of love’s univocality can serve as a key to a rereading of metaphysics, a rereading that, within the framework of The Erotic Phenomenon, is more sketched and suggested than fully developed. The demand to be loved by another that is expressed by the Pascalian question “Do they love me? me, myself ?” and that serves as the guiding thread through Marion’s first “erotic meditation,” is revealed, with regard to the full and rigorous concept of love, as a true aporia. Not only does this demand not arise from love, but it emanates from self-hatred and reaches its end in the hatred of others. We must be attentive to the very movement of the text if we are to see that the dismissal of this preliminary question—“Does anyone out there love me?”—can only receive its (retrospective) justification in the third “erotic meditation,” that is, in the positive presentation of the erotic phenomenon grounded in the advance.

Thus, what may seem enigmatic or even arbitrary in the thesis of the “impossibility of self-love,”  or, inversely, of the existence of an originary “hatred of self,” disappears, I believe, after a more attentive reading. To the affirmation that self-love is in principle impossible and that self-hatred is “the ultimate affective tonality of the ego,” one is at first tempted to object “How could the possibility of hatred exist where the possibility of love does not exist?” Unless we establish that hatred is not the opposite of love, which Marion does not do, it follows that he who can hate himself must also be able to love himself, and vice versa. In order to “hate his own incompetence,” for instance, must not one already have self-love?

But these objections, so sensible in appearance, do not hit their mark, for a simple reason (which nevertheless can only appear in the third meditation): the concept of “love” has changed between the first two meditations and those that follow. When Marion denies the possibility of self-love, he does not deny the possibility of selfishness or of self-love in the ordinary sense; rather, he denies the possibility of a love of self in the sense of the full and developed—and solely phenomenological—concept of love, which corresponds to the phenomenon of the advance. Put another way, the possibility of self-love is refused in the name of a concept of love that he who proclaims or who demands such a “love” of himself does not yet possess.

There is a distortion here within the “order of reasons” that, as we shall see, results from Marion’s use of the method of phenomenological reduction. What is impossible and even absurd is thus simply the possibility of a love of self that is defined by the phenomenon of the advance, and thus by the unconditional gift and the absence of reciprocity. Between me and myself, such a love is clearly unthinkable. And, Marion concludes, because I do not love myself with that love, I do not love myself at all, since love speaks in a univocal manner.

But what has been modified as a result: the thing or the vocabulary? For self-love (selfishness) not defined by these characteristics—which includes attachment to one’s own life, the predilection for what makes it pleasant, and, eventually, self-confidence or self-regard—emerges intact from the critique. We simply do not call it “love” anymore. Let us accept this reform of the language, but not the idea that such an attachment to self would be a “logical contradiction”! None of Marion’s arguments support this point, for at no moment does the reflexivity of a feeling (expressed by the reflexivity of a verb) presuppose that I “precede myself ” or that there is “a gap within myself”—or indeed a “distance” to traverse!

It is necessary to underscore that the method Marion follows is circular: it is because the univocality of love is presupposed, and thus also its “full” and rigorous concept, grounded in the advance, that there is no love of self in the restricted sense.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a shortened version of "Love in Its Concept" from the collection Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion edited by Kevin Hart. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Our congratulations go out to Professor Jean-Luc Marion, winner of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize, and to the Lumen Christi Institute whose founding and work he's inspired.

Featured Image: Gustave Courbet, Lovers in the Country, 1843; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Claude Romano

Claude Romano is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne and Professorial Fellow at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of many books, including There Is: The Event and the Finitude of Appearing.

Read more by Claude Romano