The early modern philosophers were fascinated by the problem of human emotions that appeared to combine the imcombinable, that is, the material world of bodies and the spiritual world of human souls. For instance, anger is a conscious state, but also something you feel in your chest. They might be called passions or affects, but the task was still the same: to catalogue and define their seemingly endless variety.
It is thus no wonder that Wolff also spends a considerable number of paragraphs on the issue of affects. I already mentioned briefly in the previous post that Wolff had accepted the Leibnizian idea of imperceptible changes in the human soul. Thus, Wolff has to add a layer of sensuous or indistinct subconscious desires (Begierde) and aversions (Abscheu) that we do not consciously perceive, although they do affect us. It is only when such a desire or aversion – or a combination of several – becomes great enough that we experience a real affect.
It would be quite pointless to go through all the different affects in detail: the truly interested will find a short summary of the Wolffian definitions of them at the end of this text. I shall instead investigate one important affect – love – and its definitions in Descartes, Spinoza and Wolff.
Starting with Descartes, we find him defining love as an emotion that induces the human soul to desire joining with the object of its love. I might be reading more to the Cartesian definition than I should, but the mention of joining suggests the idea of matrimony or even the more physical joining in sex. Of course, love is used as an euphemism for sex – we do call sex making love, and when Janet Jackson speaks of loving someone under cover, we know what she is insinuating. Yet, Descartes would still have failed to characterise all types of non-sexual – e.g. parental – love.
Moving on to Spinoza, we find him criticising Descartes for confusing a certain consequence of love with love itself. Spinoza's himself defines love as a pleasure together with an idea of its cause. One might be wary of Spinoza's emphasis on pleasure: term ”lovesickness” tells rather well that love is not always just fun and games. Yet, Spinoza knows that pleasure of love is often mixed with various negative feelings, such as jealousy. Somewhat more disturbing is that Spinoza fails to specify humans as the object of love. True, we do speak of loving chocolate, detective stories or a sip of white wine, and Shirley Bassey sings of Mr. Goldfinger who loves only gold. Still, we usually feel that these are just secondary types of love or even mere likings compared to our love of fellow humans.
Wolff, finally, defines love as a preparedness to be noticeably delighted of the luck befallen on beloved. Compared with Descartes' and Spinoza's rather crude forms of love, Wolffian love is quite refined, altruistic and even saintly. This is the love that mystics spoke about and that Beatles made their song of: all you need is not sex nor gold, but love – respect and care for other living beings and their welfare. Yet, no matter how refined love of Wolffian definition is, it is also removed from the ordinary earthly love – tell a person that she should be glad of her spouse getting lucky and you will probably be thought a bit naive.
Descartes, Spinoza and Wolff have thus been able to define some aspects of love, embodied in the figures of Don Juan, Uncle Scrooge and Buddha, but none of them has truly captured the totality or essence of love. This just shows how complex a seemingly simple emotion like love can be – and indeed, we may wonder if ”love” or "Liebe" designates more than one emotion. Furthermore, this complexity might make us disbelieve that love would be something that could be pointed out in a brain scan: this man obviously loves, because that area is red, says the neuropsychologist, and we may ask what he means by loving – sexual infatuation of a playboy, miser's lust of money, mystical absorption into pantheistic unity or something else?
So much for affects and especially affection or love. Next time, we shall speak of will.