My self-love poll revealed that 17 readers of this blog love themselves and 15 don't.  (In my class of 25 undergraduates, 24 said they love themselves.)

Why did I ask? Harry Frankfurt's chapter on self-love in The Reasons of Love took me by surprise.  He starts by questioning why Kant inveighs against self-love.
When all is said and done, what is so embarrassing or so unfortunate about our propensity to love ourselves?  Why should we regard it with any sort of righteous sorrow or distaste, or presume that it is somehow a dreadful obstacle to the attainment of our most proper goals? Why should we think of self-love as being at all an impediment to the sort of life at which we ought reasonably to aim?
The surprise was the implication that most people do love themselves.  I'd always taken Kant's worries about self-love non-literally.  Self-love is nothing more than following one's own inclinations, instead of being obedient to principle. It's not really loving yourself!  But Frankfurt, both here and throughout the chapter, takes for granted that people do love themselves.  And not in some strange, alternative sense, but in the same sense that they love other people.

So I got to thinking about this. First thought--definitely not. What you feel for a child (love, no doubt about it) is nothing like what you feel for yourself.  On second thought, it occurred to me that the truth about this doesn't have to be obvious. You can love something and not know it.  For example, the events of 9/11 revealed feelings for the US I really wasn't aware of having.  In the weeks and months after that day, I was shocked to discover (me, patriotic?) that I loved my country.   So you could find out you love yourself, even if your initial reaction is skeptical.

Frankfurt's story about self-love makes it seem more of a real possibility.   Loving another person, he says, is loving what they love.  If Sam loves x, y, and z, then loving Sam is loving those things.  Don't say "ridiculous" too quickly.  There's something to this, even if it's not the whole story about love. (How could it be the whole story?  We love little babies, and what do they love?)  When you start to love someone, it's true there's a lot of "You love Woody Allen?  So do I!!"

But then Frankfurt's account of love entails that loving yourself is just loving whatever you love in the first place. If I love x, y, and z, loving myself is simply loving x, y, and z. Huh?

Initially this does sound vacuous--in fact badly vacuous. But Frankfurt's discussion made me (amazingly enough) like the theory.  He asks us to reflect on what it takes to really love x, y, and z.  It takes caring about them unambivalently--loving x, and not also hating x.  And loving x, but also endorsing that love--being pleased by that love and making sure it continues.  In other words, to truly love x, y, and z is to be wholehearted about them.  Once you think about what love is, it's not so crazy to think loving yourself just boils down to really loving whatever you love.  Self-love turns out to be wholeheartedness, on his account.

Put in that light, maybe self-love is not so weird.  The story even comes with some personal advice. Do you spend a lot of time doing things about which you are ambivalent?   The Frankfurtian counselor would stay "STOP!  Do what you love. Then you'll love yourself."  I like it... and love the book.


s. wallerstein said...

Loving Sam is loving x, y and z, because Sam loves them?

What if Sam loves gambling away his paycheck, cocaine and
sexual tourism in Thailand?

Inspite of that, I still love Sam: I care for him, am concerned about him, and try to get him to see that he has taken the wrong path in life.

That is, I can love Sam, without loving his x, y and z, without even liking his x, y, and z.

In fact, I cannot think of anyone whom I love whose x, y, and z I would endorse unconditionally. Maybe I'm very moralistic, but I don't see that that makes me incapable of loving.

Faust said...

The most interesting thing to me is the near 100% postive response rate in your students as opposed to you blog readers. That's a bit of data that invites some spectulation.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I thought that was interesting too. In fact, the 24 acted like it practically went without saying that they loved themselves. It was like finding out I was colorblind, or something. I had no idea most people were feeling something that really seems foreign to me. The poll I did here was very reassuring, though, especially in the first 24 hours, when almost everyone was saying they didn't love themselves!

Paul Hutton said...

Hi Jean

Would have loved to hear you teach on this book. I'm inspired to re-read it now.

I do like how Frankfurt links self-love to love for others, and vice-versa - how both need each other, as it were.

I always get the feeling reading Frankfurt that he's simply describing the shape of something that's true, rather than trying to argue a proposition. It's like he's reporting back on what he's found; and it all fits together without any inconsistency or wrinkles.

Great thinker! I'd love to hear him speak some time.

BW, Paul

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Paul, I agree completely. I found this book very insightful, and even downright helpful, personally speaking. While reading I kept thinking it ought to be read by psychotherapists...it really tells you important things about well being.

My class on the book was fun--we had a nice discussion about how people fall into and out of love, to test out the idea that loving someone is (or involves) loving what they love. A lot of data suggests this is true, but there were also some fun apparent counterexamples.

I want to hear him speak too and read more of his books.

s. wallerstein said...

Let me say something more about the idea that loving someone involves loving what they love.
That may be true with falling in love, especially when one is young.

However, there is family love.
I love my parents, and I love my son. I would hardly say that I love what they love. There are some values and lifestyle habits which my parents love, which I intensely disapprove of. Yet I love them.

There are old friends. It may be that when we met, I loved what they loved and vice versa. However, people take different paths in life, and yet they continue to feel affection and love for one another. I have old friends, whose values and life-style are definitively not things that I love or even feel comfortable with. Yet the bond of love persists.

I know people who love to eat meat.
People whom I love. Aren't there meat eaters whom you love?

I personally like Erich Fromm's definition of love, stated in his book "The Art of Loving", in which he explains that love is an activity (or art) involving care, responsibility (for the other), respect for the other and knowledge of the other. Thus, love is not blind nor does it necessarily love all that the other loves.

Jean Kazez said...

Your counterexamples show that loving what someone loves is not necessary and not sufficient for loving someone. It could still be a very important part of love. It's most obviously relevant to romantic love, but not absent in family relationships. I love Eminem -- how did this happen???? Well, my son loves Eminem. I he loved the Westboro Baptist Church, I think I would find him harder to love. Love's comings and goings and ups and down do seem to be explainable at least partly in these terms.

s. wallerstein said...

Love has a lot to do with attachments.


Attachments run much deeper than shared loves (values, lifestyles) and often survive value conflicts.

In limit experiences, those upon whom I counted and those with whom I could count were not necessarily those who share my love for, say,
Beethoven's piano sonatas, but old friends with whom I have deep attachments, often people who have taken very different paths in life that I had regarding values and tastes, and often people whom I don't get together with that frequently to discuss literature or philosophy, because what we share is not a common taste for Kafka or a common interest in what Spinoza means by "God", but an attachment.

At least in my life experience, sharing tastes is fairly superficial. The guy with whom I can discuss books and who reads lots of the same books as I do is not my closest friend and perhaps not a friend at all.

It was different when I was young. Then close friendships and love arose from shared tastes and values. I have a theory that a friend is someone who survives at least two changes in life stages. That is, the test of friendship is not sharing an opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship, but continuing to care for each other after the Pinochet dictatorship is over and each one takes his own separate path, separate paths involving differing tastes and values.

Wayne said...

Is it really that we love the things that they love? Or are we just a little more selectively attentive to their interests? When we're in love, we tend to focus on commonalities, rather than differences. But if I think about all the different things that my wife enjoys that I don't enjoy, or the things I enjoy that she doesn't, the list is rather long. She doesn't love these things I do, so I don't bring them up or engage in them with her. She might dislike it less, because I like it, but that doesn't sound like what Frankfurt is saying here.

s. wallerstein said...


My experience with my female companion is very similar to the experience you describe with your wife.