Neither psychology nor anthropology fully understand love: only history sees that it’s all about the time and the telling
Barbara H Rosenwein is professor emerita in history at Loyola University Chicago. Her recent books include Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (2020) and Love: A History in Five Fantasies (2021).
Edited by Sam Haselby
The top song on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart in 1967 was Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. Once (he sang), he had been ‘down-hearted’. Then he found a special girl. Now he’s flying high.
Next, compare the feeling of love in Wilson’s song with that of Odysseus in Homer’s epic the Odyssey. The eponymous hero doesn’t want to fly. When the beautiful goddess Calypso tries to keep him as her bedmate, he turns her down even though she promises him immortality – a place with the gods. He wants to go home, to his wife. He wants to be grounded – quite literally, since the nuptial bed on which he and Penelope make love is constructed around a deep-rooted olive tree.
And then there is the love that the philosopher Carrie Jenkins has for her husband and, at the same time, for her boyfriend, sharing her time with one or the other. She considers hers a form of romantic love, but she knows very well that it is not the sort celebrated by Wilson or Homer. She calls it polyamory.
These examples hardly begin to cover the vastly different feelings that the simple word ‘love’ is supposed to cover. Such variations should call into question the Basic Emotions Theory accepted by the majority of psychologists today. They maintain that there are six or so emotions, most often listed as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust and fear. These are universal and hardwired, the hard-won products of long evolution. Other emotions are compounds of the basic ones or are not emotions at all.
Note that love is not among them. Love has no one recognisable facial expression, whereas (argue Basic Emotions adherents) each basic emotion is signalled by an invariable facial expression. Some cultures may try to disguise that expression, but it will nevertheless leak out via ‘micro-expressions’.
The Basic Emotions Theory dates back to a study undertaken in the 1960s by the psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace V Friesen to test their hypothesis that emotions were universally understood ‘in the face’. They chose as their subjects the non-Westernised Fore tribespeople of Papua New Guinea. At first, they simply showed photos of faces posed to express the six basic emotions. But the Fore respondents couldn’t figure out what they were being asked to do. Therefore, Ekman and Friesen had first to make up a story to go with each emotion. For example, the story for the photos of faces sporting a wide grin was: ‘His (her) friends have come, and he (she) is happy.’ After hearing the story, 100 per cent of the Fore adult subjects chose the Happiness face rather than two faces showing (or, rather, posing) Disgust and Anger. And so it went – similarly (if less successfully) – with the other emotions. The researchers concluded that emotions were constant across cultures – basic and universal. This idea pervades numerous psychology labs today. As the scholar Ruth Leys points out in The Ascent of Affect (2017), the theory is particularly attractive to scientists because it leaves out intentionality – something too variable and messy to measure.
But the scientists who use posed faces are overlooking the fact that the original study was obliged to introduce intention – via the stories. What did the lady with the large smile intend? To greet her friends. It was the story that animated the inert photo, not the facial expression per se.
Intentionality is at the heart of the emotion of love; what a person means when he or she ‘loves’ must be expressed in words, tones of voice and gestures. Faces may play a role, but not necessarily. Before Ekman and Friesen, love had most certainly been considered an emotion. Indeed, by leaving it out, the two psychologists were bucking a long tradition that made love not only an emotion but sometimes also the premier emotion. In the 4th century BCE, love was one of 12 passions named by Aristotle (though he knew that he was leaving out many others). In the 13th century CE, Thomas Aquinas made love the prime mover of every emotion. And in the 1960s, Magda Arnold, a pioneer of cognitivism, classified love as a positive ‘impulse’ emotion. For all of these theorists, love was paradigmatic of all the other emotions…