Various Philosophers on Erotic Love, Flirting and Marriage

As many of you know, my specialty within philosophy is the philosophy of sex and love.  Many people have asked me what sort of readings are there about that topic?  Well, below are readings, speeches, and ideas to this wonderful subject.  I will cover love, flirting and marriage in this post.  Eventually, I hope to cover familial love, friendship, all forms of sexuality, pornography and singledom.

* = Really good
** = Must read


To start you off, here are some sources online:

  • SPSL: The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love.
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry.
  • What is love?  Listen to this interview with Simon May.
  • The Idea of Love by Robert G. Hazo.  This gives a historical account on the philosophy of love starting from Plato and ends with Ortega y Gasset.
  • An iTunes podcast on the Philosophy of Love.


  • *Philosophical Perspective on Sex & Love edited by Robert M. Stewart.  This is probably the best starting point of this topic.  It has more variety than the Solomon and Higgins book.
  • *The Philosophy of (Erotic) Love edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins.  This is a nice anthology of the major philosophers, even when these major philosophers only mention love briefly.  For example, Spinoza has a philosophy of love in his Ethics, but Solomon and Higgins take those parts in the book.  This only concentrates on erotic love, so it’s more specialized.
  • *Philosophy of Sex and Love edited by Robert Trevas, Arthur Zucker and Donald Borchert.  This covers a lot of areas within the fields such as pornography, adultery, marriage, fornication, prostitution, perversity, homosexuality, and rape.  Great for those who want a nice range of topics.
  • Eros, Agape, and Philia edited by Alan Soble.  This covers only love but of all types.  It mainly looks at current articles.
  • Love Analyzed edited by Roger E. Lamb.  Mainly articles from the analytical tradition.
  • Special issue of Essays in Philosophy dealing with the topic of love and reasons.

Specific Philosophers on Erotic Love (in historical order):

  • Empedocles’ world is a mixture of love and hate as the foundations.  It’s probably not erotic, but someone has a love of him: 
  • Mozi started a following of Mohism stating that universal love is the key to a great society, but not in the erotic sense.
  • **Socrates may have had the best speech in Plato’s Symposium (or here for a better translation)…
  • Jesse Fleming extrapolates Chuang Tzu’s philosophy of love from his writings.
  • **Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view in the Metaphysics of Love has driven love to a biological/psychological view.  It is stark, yet things that are stark may have an element of truth: love is an illusion in order to propagate the species for the sake of the Will.  I will just put part one for your enjoyment:
  • Stendhal had a view of love around the idea of “crystallization”–you start to see the beloved as an ordinary person, but then the mind “crystalizes” the beloved into something wonderful.
  • There is no overarching idea behind Nietzsche’s view of love.  Overall, it seems that he views friendship in higher regard than eros.  Here’s a great article summing it up.
  • Does everything revolve around sex for Freud?  In this regard, he is a philosopher.  On Narcissism details that romantic love is an outgrowth of a primary state of narcissism.  With mature love, it’s a move to find an external object to desire and there’s a tradeoff for one’s narcissism.  But this may affect self-esteem.
  • **Sartre is another pessimist on love by looking at it from a phenomenological route where all relationships come down to conflict by trying to steal another person’s freedom.  Start with Part III, Chap. 3.
  • *Simone de Beauvoir is another phenomenologist but also looking at it from a feminist route.  Love is a matter of culture and interpersonal dynamics and not some essential nature.  For women, love is “irresistible” but she will always be second place compared to man.  Genuine love would be “the mutual recognition of two liberties.”  Start with Part VI, Chap. XXIII.
  • Jose Ortega y Gasset.  This is a rare find, yet truly a treasure.  He mainly criticizes Stendhal’s defintion.  But it has an existential character where love is a choice and it changes your character through that choice.
  • For Ayn Rand, love and self-esteem go together.  Love is extremely selfish: 
  • Shulamith Firestone gives a radical feminist critique of love arguing that it is actually harmful for women because it keeps women in their place.  Start with chapter six.  For true equality, technology must catch up so that artificial births would generate equality.
  • Irving Singer is another big name who makes a difference between appraisal and bestowal in love.  Go here to see him lecture.
  • Robert Nozick isn’t known as a philosopher of love, but he states that love is forming a “we.”  Here’s a summary.
  • Annette Baier offers a Humean account of love.  Love has many risks in it, but it’s worth it because the alternative is solidarity and loneliness.
  • Robert C. Solomon views love as a virtue, in order to broaden our view of ethics, and that it shouldn’t be downgraded as it has been in the tradition.
  • *Speaking of Solomon, he has two books.  The first is an argument on how love is an emotion that shouldn’t be riddled with myths and metaphors.  It works great until he brings in the Aristophanes’ tale and how love is like that.  The second is broader view and more matured where love starts off as a passion, but then is informed by a phenomenological outlook of selves-in-the-world where there’s a feedback loop between the selves.  In other words, it’s Aristophanes again but in a complex way a stating it.
  • **Alan Soble’s The Philosophy of Sex and Love is a great introduction from an analytical view.  He also doesn’t shy away from some Continentals like Foucault.  But he goes through the various arguments of Plato, Kant, traditional Catholicism, feminism, and current views.  Great read!
  • A more complicated view of Soble where he certainly loves structure.  It’s very analytical, but makes very good arguments along the way.  Love of a romantic parter starts with eros, but tends toward agape over time.
  • *Alaine de Botton is a great philosophical novel going through all aspects of what a loving relationship is about.  It’s a great story too.
  • *Helen Fisher isn’t a philosopher, but she gives some interesting insight what the brain looks like when one is in love.  A lot of brain chemicals kick in and… I’ll just let the TED talk explain it: 
  • Levinas offers an account by suggesting that ethics cannot be reduced to the Same, that one must look at the Other as Other and respect the Other’s otherness.  One can extract this into an account of love.
  • M.C. Dillon gives a critique of the tradition as well: we reduce others into a projection of what we desire.  We need to get beyond the tradition to have genuine loving relationships.  Let’s get beyond romance.
  • Here is Derrida making a distinction of who you love as opposed to what you love stemming from Plato.  “Fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what”: 
  • *Luce Irigaray combines the features of Levinas and the feminism of her time.  We need to respect the Other in their sexual difference.  The previous tradition has ignored this.  Two books help explain this idea out.
  • *Against Love?  Laura Kipnis is.  Great polemic against traditional love, especially the chapter entitled “Domestic Gulags.”  Overall, it’s a critique of the notion of coupledom and that there’s nothing wrong with being single.
  • Slavoj Žižek says that love is always trying to fit the other into our ideal fantasy, but this can lead to violence: 
  • Melissa Seymour Fahmy uses a Kantian argument saying that one has a duty out of beneficence to interfere with a beloved’s plans if the beloved’s plans don’t achieve some legitimate ends.
  • Troy Jollimore asks what kind of experience is love.  It seems that it violates a lot of epistemic and moral norms, but by investigating the experience of love, it turns out that we only need to focus on the visual aspects of it and the violation is mitigated.


  • *Carrie Jenkins started the field asking what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for flirting.  Her answer is that flirting must be intentional.  There is a difference between flirting and flirting behavior.
  • *Daniel Nolan has replied to Jenkins saying that flirting can be accidental, thereby flirting doesn’t necessarily have to be intentional.  Interestingly, both Jenkins and Nolan are partners.
    • Listen to Jenkins here.  (Note: you’ll either have to subscribe to the podcast or buy the episode.)
    • Listen to their debate here.
  • Social research on flirting, such as where to flirt, who to flirt with, how to flirt in both verbal and non-verbal formats (note: it doesn’t matter what you say, but how you say it), what to say (note: opening lines don’t matter; don’t waste your time on those), how to listen, and how to part.  As an interesting tidbit, 80% of women responded that the three words they want to hear is not, “I love you,” but “You’ve lost weight.”
  • Steven Pinker mainly talks about language, but he uses flirting as an example.  Basically, we are always indirect with flirting because of epistemological concerns of the other.  Keep watching to the very end to see how and why flirtation works: 
  • Book on how to flirt.

Specific Philosophers on Marriage

  • What is marriage?  Grover explains: 
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry.
  • Traditional Catholic View: 
  • Marx and Engels found marriage as a form of capitalistic oppression.  It traps women into unpaid work, and it keeps the inheritance to the biological children.  Communism will change that, but a short cut would be to give men and women equal rights in marriage and socialize the care of children.
  • Emma Goldman is known as a feminist and anarchist, but her view of marriage is that it’s an economic institution that keeps women in their place.  So marriage encourages women to be unequal.  She asks for a change in the economic institutions for women to be emancipated.  Here’s an interview about anarchism and same-sex love.
  • Bertrand Russell gives an unconventional marriage at his time, but it would be mild nowadays, or perhaps even antiquated: let the people live together before they get married, sort of like a trial.
  • Lawrence Casler offers an alternative to marriage such as open marriages, trial marriages, communes, group marriages and nonmonogamous matrimony.
  • **Stephanie Coontz isn’t a philosopher, but she gives an excellent history of marriage, which I’ve blogged about.
  • *Unmarried to Each Other is a great resource for any alternative to marriages.
  • Should marriage be abolished?  Listen to a philosophical interview.  (Note: you’ll have to sign up for the podcast.)

  • On PhilosTV, Simon May and Elizabeth Brake discuss marriage.  Around 4:30, they talk about same-sex marriage in which both are in favor of based on political liberalism (meaning that the state is neutral when it comes to a conception of the human good).  They consider objections to same-sex marriage and they both show that those objections don’t work.  Around 13:00, May raises a concern on whether the public should give a positive recognition to same-sex couples in the same way we give opposite-sex couples, thereby giving up political liberalism as a foundation.  Brake’s reply is that previous types of marriages have been considered wrong and it was unjust that the state did not intervene, and so the state can uphold a sense of justice while still remaining neutral.  Also, one can still embrace a sense of care to same-sex couples without endorsing a conception of the human good.  May brings up another possible objection at 17:06, why should the state remain neutral?  Why can’t the state say that an activity is a moral good and so the state should endorse it?  Brake’s reply is that everyone has different moral and religious views that if the state endorses a view, then it’s favoring one side of the human good.  If so, the state is not treating the citizens as equals.  Around 21:39, May brings up a concern that if the state should remain neutral, wouldn’t this mean that polygamy would be allowed?  But polygamy has been traditionally been a patriarchal institution which doesn’t seem to benefit anyone.  Brake replies that neutrality would hold that polygamy should be allowed.  This would include polyandory, polyamory, or simply groups.  One could visualize that they are all equal instead of one as the head of the marriage.  To be neutral is to extend marriage to all groups.  The state right now doesn’t make patriarchal marriage between two people, the same is said for group marriages as well.  There are, after all, egalitarian group marriages.  The typical argument from conservatives is, “If we allow same-sex marriage, then we must allow polygamy.”  To which Brake replies, “of course.”  This changes when it comes to children, however.  Around 34:28, May brings up the argument that if the state should remain neutral when it comes to marriage, why does the state even need to get involved in marriage in the first place?  Why does the state need to get in the marriage business?  After all, there is no public recognition for making friends, so why marriage?  Why have a law of marriage at all?  Brake admits that this is a challenge and she brings up a lot of interesting authors and philosophers that bring up the same challenge that May brought up.  However, some possible reasons why that state should still get involved in marriage is that the citizens prefer them.  It is here that Brake brings up her solution: minimal marriage: the state is required to support all sorts of relationships.  This would include all sorts of groups, no matter the number, tribes, and even non-sexual friendships where they live together.  It would give more entitlements to these type of relationships.  At 45:40, May brings up an egoist argument, why should I care about these other type of caring relationships?  And at 47:06, May asks if these other relationships are just as good as marriage?  Does care need to be expanded out?  If so, this doesn’t seem neutral.  Brake replies using Rawls suggesting that there are primary goods and one of these (controversial) primary goods is the state making sure that you can live out your life in order for you to reach your conception of the good.  One of these are caring relationships; that is, a caring relationship is a primary good.  She relates it with self-esteem where being in a caring relationship reinforces a sense of value to oneself.  The state can distribute the social bases for a caring relationship.  Around 54:50, May brings up the issue of polygamy.  Usually, polygamy is circumscribed around cultural practices which has significant meanings.  If so, then it’s implicitly suggesting that this is more valuable than other forms of relationships.  This could create an asymmetry within marriage.  Brake’s reply that this could happen within monogamous marriage, thus that faces the same challenge.  May replies that it’s not inherent within monogamy whereas it’s within polygamy because of the cultural practices.  Overall, this was a great discussion and it has inspired me to read both May’s and Brake’s works.
  • Speaking of Brake, she’s written a book on this topic, which I have reviewed here.

If there is anything that I’m missing, please let me know.  But note that this list is not exhaustive.  I’ve included books and articles that I’ve either read or skimmed through.  If you do contribute something, please allow me some time to at least skim through the material so that I may add it.

UPDATE: Aug. 17, 2011-I have added a journal article by Fahmy.

UPDATE: Oct. 18, 2011-I have added an interview of Troy Jollimore on the experience of love.

UPDATE: Nov. 24, 2011-I have added a radio interview with philosopher Simon May.  I have also included a discussion with Elizabeth Brake and Simon May that was on PhilosTV in the marriage section.

UPDATE: Feb. 3, 2013-I have added a book review of Elizabeth Brake’s new book Minimizing Marriage here.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Experts, Flirting, Love, Marriage, Marx, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Various Philosophers on Erotic Love, Flirting and Marriage

  1. Daniel says:

    Epic post Shaun! I love the Pinker video.

    Here is another telling of Aristophanes’ myth:

  2. Pingback: Various Philosophers on Sex | Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: Various Philosophers on Relationships: Polyamory, the Family, Friendship, and Singledom | Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  5. Mark says:

    José Benardete’s book ‘Metaphysics: The Logical Approach’ has a chapter (the last one) on the metaphysics of love.

  6. Torben says:

    Hi, really useful summary here. Pleasantly concise. I’m just addressing a question on the role of illusion in romantic love. The Schopenhauer and Nietsche video links are missing, do you recall who made the lectures?

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi thanks for the comment.

      I have updated the Schopenhauer video. Unfortunately, I can’t find the Nietzsche video, but I have linked to an article that may prove useful.

  7. J. Baker says:

    This is the most helpful post! I tried to talk about the Stoic views on marriage here and here:
    They are older, and Psychology Today updated their site so the links don’t all work, I imagine. But just in case it’s of any interest. So glad to have found your blog!

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