Defining Love

Someone facebooked me the other day and asked why I haven’t talked much about love here, and wondered if it was because love is hard to define. I thought it was a cool question – the definition of love – so I thought I’d write a little sumn sumn just about the task of defining love, and then maybe later filling that out.

Love definitely is hard to define – for me at least. That’s because love, as a term, gets a lot of mileage, and that makes it sort of fuzzy. Now, terms can become fuzzy in a few different ways. For one, they can be fuzzy by being vague. A term is vague when it’s not quite clear what its boundaries are; that is, when it’s not clear just when the term applies. Think of the term ‘beard’. It’s a little fuzzy (har har) because it’s vague. There aren’t hard and clear boundaries that separate a beard from a non-beard. For instance, today I used a one guard on my neck. I’m pretty stubbly at this point, but is that a beard? If it is, how much less length would I need to no longer have a beard? (Or is it not length, but the number of hairs that makes a beard? Again, fuzzy.). But, for all it’s fuzziness, beard is still a perfectly useful and meaningful term. It just comes with some gray area. Love is fuzzy, but is it fuzzy because it’s vague? I don’t think so. It seems to me that, even if it’s a tough task, it’s possible to outline clear boundaries to say exactly when a person is being loving or not, and I don’t think that these boundaries would just be randomly selected (unlike if we were to say a beard is x number of hairs at a certain length – that would just be silly and dogmatic).

So love is fuzzy, but it’s not vague. It’s fuzzy for another reason: it’s ambiguous. That is, the term love can be used to mean a wide variety of different things. Notice though that beard, another fuzzy term, doesn’t have this problem. A beard refers to one thing – the bit of hair on your face. Love, on the other hand, is used much more widely. We talk about loving chocolate, and loving our partners, but those don’t mean anywhere near the same thing. “I love chocolate” means something like “chocolate is very useful to me for getting pleasure”, but that’s probably not a very good meaning for love when someone says, “I love my boyfriend”. No one makes a big deal about treating chocolate like a mere object to be used for pleasure, but we don’t tend to think it’s okay to think about people that way. Love, still, is used in both ways all the time, and in a million others.

I’m not going to be a preacher about this, and complain about people claiming to love their dogs, and televisions, and spouses, and chocolate. I only want to point out that the wider a range of meanings a term has, the less meaningful it becomes. Love is in that awkward position.

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