Last Thursday, Alexandra Gustafson, a class of 2016 graduate, was welcomed back to The College of Wooster to give a talk during the weekly Philosophy Roundtable (hosted by the Philosophy Department) about her research at the University of Toronto, titled The Phenomenology of Love. She’s currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto and is what graduate students call “ABD” – all but dissertation, which really just means that she’s on the last leg of her journey to being addressed as Dr. Gustafson. Her dissertation asks the ever-relevant questions of what it feels like to love, not just what love is. Does love feel the same for everyone? How do we know we’ve fallen in love with someone? Is it by the way they make us laugh, or how a text back from them makes us grin like idiots and feel like we’re having a crush for the first time all over again? Or as Gustafson puts it, “One day, I realized that I’d fallen in love with someone without noticing that I’d been falling — how was that possible?” Questions like that are what inspired her to research the way that love feels. This may not seem like a philosophical question – philosophy does, after all, tend to conjure up images of boring blackboards of logic and marble busts of dead Greeks — but according to Alexandra, “philosophy is actually primarily concerned with the things that happen in our day-to-day lives.” Personally, as an aspiring philosopher, I’m inclined to agree. There’s something for everyone in philosophy, even for the true romantics. Attendee Max Shiffman ’23 remarked that he “thought the speaker did an excellent job and talked about a subject [he doesn’t] normally consider from the perspective of philosophy which is always interesting.”
During the talk itself, Alexandra provided two examples of a loving couple on the eve of their 12th anniversary. In the first example, one of the lovers can’t help but smile as she thinks about how happy and grateful she is to be in a relationship with her wife. In the second example, the lover unconsciously smiles because she’s empathetically happy for her wife: she sees her happy wife and thinks “Good for her.” While we can’t define or quantify love, most people would agree that there seems to be something missing in the relationship in the latter example — Gustafson referred to it as an “impoverished” version of love. What’s the missing piece? Is it because the former example feels like adoration and the latter feels a little more transactional? But is there really a difference if they’re both in happy, successful, long-term relationships anyway? I think there is, but I have no idea how to explain it. When asked for his thoughts on this difference, Professor Evan Riley gave this rather eloquent statement — “Love has been on the philosophical agenda for thousands of years — at least since Plato’s Symposium. So you might think that philosophy would have nothing more to say about it. Yet I expect that Alexandra is really on to something fruitful in her basic methodological presumption that directing our attention to the phenomenology of love — to what it feels like, for both lover and beloved — will pay fresh theoretical dividends.” Professor Riley is also “looking forward to hearing more about the development and defense of this thought in her dissertation.”
On reflecting on her time at Wooster, Gustafson a told me that “it was at Wooster [that she] learned to love philosophy.” That’s rather lovely, don’t you think? It’s also understandable, considering that the philosophy department is both dedicated and rigorous. Wooster is “where [Gustafson] learned to trust [her] instincts and ask the questions [she] wanted to,” and I, for one, am grateful that the College has prepared her to ask the eternally compelling question of what love feels like. We’ve all got an investment in the topic — during the talk, Gustafson stated that she couldn’t comment on how the love of a 30-year marriage felt because she hadn’t experienced it, and a professor unmuted himself to yell, “It’s awesome!” — so I suspect that her eventual dissertation will be engrossing even to those of us who don’t care for philosophy. Humans love love. We talk about it, sing about it, write about it, cry about it. Many of us will spend years searching for it. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we don’t just look for it; we live for it. Gustafson has a wonderful piece of advice on finding love: “You don’t have to choose between your head and your heart — that’s a false dichotomy.” So good luck to all of us, and good luck to Gustafson for the completion of her dissertation, though I suspect she won’t need it given her philosophical acumen. A closing remark from Gustafson :“If ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom,’ then it’s impossible to do philosophy without love. I think that makes it pretty important to think about.”
If this article has moved you to care about love or philosophy, Professor Riley encourages you to consider attending future Roundtables. Helpfully, he told us that the “Philosophy Roundtable will be held on Microsoft Teams this semester starting at 11:15 a.m. – 12:15 pm most Thursdays See the schedule under “Events” via the departmental web page. All members of the College community are welcome to participate — just ask to be put on the list of interested parties and we will make sure you get the relevant reminders and links.” If you’d like to take Professor Riley up on his offer, please contact him at email@example.com, or Patrice Reeder at firstname.lastname@example.org.