Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Incompleteness Theorem of the Heart’s Truth, from Plato to Proust
“The alternations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”
“The state of enchantment is one of certainty,” W.H. Auden wrote in his commonplace book. “When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.” Nowhere is our capacity for enchantment, nor our capacity for self-deception, greater than in love — the region of human experience where the path to truth is most obstructed by the bramble of rationalization and where we are most likely to be kidnapped by our own delicious delusions. There, it is perennially difficult to know what we really want; difficult to distinguish between love and lust; difficult not to succumb to our perilous tendency to idealize; difficult to reconcile the closeness needed for intimacy with the psychological distance needed for desire.
How, then, do we really know that we love another person?
That’s what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling philosopher of our time, examines in her 1990 book Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (public library) — the sandbox in which Nussbaum worked out the ideas that would become, a decade later, her incisive treatise on the intelligence of emotions.
Devising a sort of incompleteness theorem of the heart’s truth, Nussbaum writes:
We deceive ourselves about love — about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the condition of the heart are the reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions? We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth? (And what does it mean to look for a criterion here? Could that demand itself be a tool of self-deception?)
With an eye to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and its central theme of how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, Nussbaum contemplates the nature of those experiences “in which the self-protective tissue of rationalization is in a moment cut through, as if by a surgeon’s knife”: Proust’s protagonist, Marcel, has rationally convinced himself that he no longer loves his beloved, Albertine, but is jolted into confronting the falsity of that rationalization upon receiving news of her death; in the shock of his intense sorrow, he instantly gains the knowledge, far deeper and more sinewy than the intellect’s, that he did, in fact, love Albertine.
In a testament to Proust’s assertion that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Nussbaum writes:
Proust tells us that the sort of knowledge of the heart we need in this case cannot be given us by the sciences of psychology, or, indeed, by any sort of scientific use of intellect. Knowledge of the heart must come from the heart — from and in its pains and longings, its emotional responses.
Such a conception of love’s knowledge, to be sure, stands radically against the long intellectual tradition of rationalism stretching from Plato to Locke like an enormous string of reason that plays only one note, deaf to the symphonic complexity of the emotional universe. The Proustian view calls for a restoration of lost nuance. Pointing to “the pseudotruths of the intellect,” Nussbaum revisits Marcel’s predicament, wherein the intellect has imposed an illusory sense of order and structure upon the entropy of the emotions:
The shock of loss and the attendant welling up of pain show him that his theories were forms of self-deceptive rationalization — not only false about his condition but also manifestations and accomplices of a reflex to deny and close off one’s vulnerabilities that Proust finds to be very deep in all of human life. The primary and most ubiquitous form of this reflex is seen in the operations of habit, which makes the pain of our vulnerability tolerable to us by concealing need, concealing particularity (hence vulnerability to loss), concealing all the pain-inflicting features of the world — simply making us used to them, dead to their assaults. When we are used to them we do not feel them or long for them in the same way; we are no longer so painfully afflicted by our failure to control and possess them. Marcel has been able to conclude that he is not in love with Albertine, in part because he is used to her. His calm, methodical intellectual scrutiny is powerless to dislodge this “dream deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so incrusted in one’s heart.” Indeed, it fails altogether to discern the all-important distinction between the face of habit and the true face of the heart.
Nussbaum considers how our over-reliance on the intellect for clarity about love produces instead a kind of myopia:
Intellect’s account of psychology lacks all sense of proportion and depth and importance… [Such a] cost-benefit analysis of the heart — the only comparative assessment of which intellect, by itself, is capable — is bound, Proust suggests, to miss differences of depth. Not only to miss them, but to impede their recognition. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of comforting oneself, of putting oneself in control by pretending that all losses can be made up by sufficient quantities of something else. This stratagem opposes the recognition of love — and, indeed, love itself.
To remove such powerful obstacles to truth, we require the instrument that is “the subtlest, most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth.” This instrument is given to us in suffering.
Half a century after Simone Weil made her compelling case for why suffering is a greater clarifying force than intellectual discipline, Nussbaum examines this antidote to the intellect’s self-delusion by quoting directly from Proust:
Our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.
Central to this method of truth-seeking is what Nussbaum calls catalepsis — “a condition of certainty and confidence from which nothing can dislodge us.” To be cataleptic — from the Greek katalēptikē, derived from the verb katalambanein, meaning “to apprehend,” “to firmly grasp” — is to have a firm grasp of reality. But, of course, the implied antinomy is that because reality is inherently slippery, either the firmness of such catalepsis or its conception of reality is false.
Noting the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Zeno’s view that we gain knowledge of the heart’s truth through powerful impressions that come directly from reality, Nussbaum returns to Proust’s Marcel:
The impression [that he loves Albertine] comes upon Marcel unbidden, unannounced, uncontrolled… Surprise, vivid particularity, and extreme qualitative intensity are all characteristics that are systematically concealed by the workings of habit, the primary form of self-deception and self-concealment. What has these features must have escaped the workings of self-deception, must have come from reality itself.
We notice, finally, that the very painfulness of these impressions is essential to their cataleptic character. Our primary aim is to comfort ourselves, to assuage pain, to cover our wounds. Then what has the character of pain must have escaped these mechanisms of comfort and concealment; must, then, have come from the true unconcealed nature of our condition.
And yet there exists another, more dimensional possibility. Nussbaum writes:
For the Stoic the cataleptic impression is not simply a route to knowing; it is knowing. It doesn’t point beyond itself to knowledge; it goes to constitute knowledge. (Science is a system made up of katalēpseis.) If we follow the analogy strictly, then, we find that knowledge of our love is not the fruit of the impression of suffering, a fruit that might in principle have been had apart form the suffering. The suffering itself is a piece of self-knowing. In responding to a loss with anguish, we are grasping our love. The love is not some separate fact about us that is signaled by the impression; the impression reveals the love by constituting it. Love is not a structure in the heart waiting to be discovered; it is embodied in, made up out of, experiences of suffering.
Marcel is brought, then, by and in the cataleptic impression, to an acknowledgment of his love. There are elements of both discovery and creation here, at both the particular and general levels. Love of Albertine is both discovered and created. It is discovered, in that habit and intellect were masking from Marcel a psychological condition that was ready for suffering, and that … needed only to be affected slightly by the catalyst in order to turn itself into love. It is created, because love denied and successfully repressed is not exactly love. While he was busily denying that he loved her, he simply was not loving her. At the general level, again, Marcel both discovers and enacts a permanent underlying feature of his condition, namely, his neediness, his hunger for possession and completeness. That too was there in a sense before the loss, because that’s what human life is made of. But in denying and repressing it, Marcel became temporarily self-sufficient, closed, and estranged from his humanity. The pain he feels for Albertine gives him access to his permanent underlying condition by being a case of that condition, and no such case was present a moment before. Before the suffering he was indeed self-deceived — both because he was denying a general structural feature of his humanity and because he was denying the particular readiness of his soul to feel hopeless love for Albertine. He was on a verge of a precipice and thought he was safely immured in his own rationality. But his case shows us as well how the successful denial of love is the (temporary) extinction and death of love, how self-deception can aim at and nearly achieve self-change.
We now see exactly how and why Marcel’s account of self-knowledge is no simple rival to the intellectual account. It tells us that the intellectual account was wrong: wrong about the content of the truth about Marcel, wrong about the methods appropriate for gaining this knowledge, wrong as well about what sort of experience in and of the person knowing is. And it tells us that to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving — a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.
And yet this notion of measuring love by degree of suffering seems to be a particular pathology of the human heart — could, Nussbaum asks, Marcel’s sorrow at the loss of Albertine be evidence not of love, or at least not only of love, but of grief or fear or some other constellation of contexts? She writes:
Marcel’s relation to the science of self-knowledge now begins to look more complex than we had suspected. We said that the attempt to grasp love intellectually was a way of avoiding loving. We said that in the cataleptic impression there is acknowledgement of one’s own vulnerability and incompleteness, an end to our flight from ourselves. But isn’t the whole idea of basing love and its knowledge on cataleptic impressions itself a form of flight — from openness to the other, from all those things in love for which there is in fact no certain criterion? Isn’t his whole enterprise just a new and more subtle expression of the rage for control, and need for possession and certainty, the denial of incompleteness and neediness that characterized the intellectual project? Isn’t he still hungry for a science of life?
Noting the contrast between the mutuality of love and the asymmetry of infatuation — after all, Marcel’s confrontation of his feelings for Albertine doesn’t require her participation at all and can be conducted as a wholly solitary activity — Nussbaum adds:
What Marcel feels is a gap or lack in himself, an open wound, a blow to the heart, a hell inside himself. Is all of this really love of Albertine?
The heart and mind of another are unknowable, even unapproachable, expect in fantasies and projections that are really elements of the knower’s own life, not the other’s.
Proust’s protagonist arrives at this conclusion himself:
I understood that my love was less a love for her than a love in me… It is the misfortune of beings to be for us nothing else but useful showcases for the contents of our own minds.
And yet this conclusion, Nussbaum argues, is but a form of self-protection — in denying one’s porousness to the other and instead painting love as a curious relationship with oneself, it bolsters the illusion of self-sufficiency as a hedge against the suffering which love entails. Such a conception is ultimately a form of self-delusion masking the true nature of love and what Nussbaum calls its “dangerous openness.” Reflecting on Proust’s ultimate revelation, she writes:
Love … is a permanent structural feature of our soul.
The alternations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart. In suffering we know only suffering. We call our rationalizations false and delusive, and we do not see to what extent they express a mechanism that is regular and deep in our lives. But this means that in love itself we do not yet have full knowledge of love — for we do not grasp its limits and boundaries. Sea creatures cannot be said to know the sea in the way that a creature does who can survey and dwell in both sea and land, noticing how they bound and limit one another.
Love’s Knowledge is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Adam Phillips on the interplay between frustration and satisfaction in love, Erich Fromm on mastering the art of loving, Alain de Botton on why our partners drive us mad, and Esther Perel on the central paradox of love, then revisit Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness, agency and victimhood, the intelligence of the emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.