Frankfurt – Part I (A Book Review)

I probably won’t write about my feelings or anything personal directly in this blog (not that anyone is actually interested). In middle school I discovered (yes, I did keep a xanga, livejournal, etc) that practically all of my entries about how I felt were really emo (angsty, cynical, and pessimistic). Even now, I’ve come to realize that I’m no better (still the same emo kid it seems). Yesterday I finished a book The Reasons of Love by Harry G. Frankfurt, the same guy who wrote On Bullshit. I’m going to flush out some of my thoughts about this, hopefully giving me a better grasp of the material as well.

Overall, I felt like Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love read too much like a Kantian exploration of the meaning of life or love, but in this book the two are practically interchangeable. (For Frankfurt, to love is to live, but more on that later.) I found it a little bit difficult, but that maybe be because I’m a bit slow or am not used to thinking about these things anymore. That being said, what Frankfurt seemingly proposes to do (to say why we love) is quite lofty, but as I read through the book, I quickly discovered that he simplifies this arduous task by choosing not to actually define what love is. (It’s okay, a lot of philosopher elect to do this.) In addition, some of the ideas, like volition and will, touched upon within Reasons are probably better elucidated in his other lectures and writings anyways. According to his wikipedia entry:

“known for his interpretation of Descartes’s rationalism, his account of freedom of the will (on which he has written numerous important papers[1]) based on his concept of higher-order volitions, and for developing what are known as “Frankfurt counterexamples” (i.e., thought experiments designed to show the possibility of situations in which a person could not have done other than he/she did, but in which our intuition is to say nonetheless that he/she acted freely).”

Frankfurt begins Reasons by asking the question “How should we live?” This first part basically delves into issues of “what is morality?”, “where do moral standards come from?” and “where should morality be placed in our lives?”. These are all very interesting issues. Of course, Frankfurt never gives any normative recommendations, nor does he attempt to. He simply describes the reality of the role of morality within life, which is not much. Frankfurt states,

“Morality is less pertinent to the shaping of our preferences and to the guidance of our conduct – it tells us less of what we need to know about what we should value and how we should live – than is commonly presumed. Even when it does have something relevant to say, it does not necessarily have the last word.”

Frankfurt goes on to give some examples of why. He states that even if a person manages to live a scrupulously moral life, he may still be “destined by deficiencies of character or of constitution” such that life may be absolutely miserable. In addition, this person may have other personal defects that have nothing to do with morality but nonetheless “make it impossible for (him) to live well” (i.e. the experiences they encounter may be dull, insipid or even “relentlessly banal and hollow”). Following this reasoning, Frankfurt goes on to say that perhaps living morally shouldn’t take “overriding precedence over all other interests and claims”. I particularly liked this sentence:

“Morality is most particularly concerned with how our attitudes and our actions should take into account the needs and the desires, and the entitlements of other people. Now why must that be regarded as being , without exception, the most compeling thing in our lives?”

I’m not sure if my liking this implies that I have a very selfish nature (it’s okay, I’m sure I do), but this reminds me of discussion I once had in my humanities courses about the difference between acting self-interested and selfishly. This distinction is so nuanced that even the dictionaries seem to confound the two. According to, “self-interest” is “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others”. On the other hand, “selfish” is defined as “concerned chiefly or only with yourself”. To me, the definition for “self-interest” seems almost egregiously incorrect. Here, they seem practically the same. I was always under the impression that “self-interest ” in itself is not a bad thing, and that a person who acts truly self-interested almost always has some regard for the consequences because to not would not be in his best interest. Therefore, acting in a way that is perceived as “selfish”  is usually not in the self-interest of a person.

Anyways, what Frankfurt seems to be asking here is “why should we always be chiefly concerned with others?”. I think its a fairly valid questions, and the answer seems to be that in reality we’re only concerned with others in their relationships to us. But he states that even in circumstances where “morally proscribed conduct is understandable”, such conduct can never quite attain the status of being “admirable”. Yet, according to Frankfurt there are times when even “reasonable and respectable people” ignore these claims of morality because something else means more to them. In other words, there are reasonable things that one can do outside of morality. For Frankfurt, what this all leads to seems to be the issue of cardinality. What order of importance do we assign moral precepts and other things we value?

This is where “caring” comes into the picture. Frankfurt states that even if a thing is acknowledged as being intrinsically valuable (here we get a little Kantian), meaning the thing is a final end in itself, we may not care about it. I had a little bit of an issue wrapping my head around this idea at first, and I am still not completely certain if I understand all the implications. Frankfurt uses the example of watching tv.

“Suppose that someone who needs to kill a little time decides to do so by watching television, and that he chooses to watch a  certain program because he prefers it to the others that are available. We cannot legitimately conclude that watching this program is something that he care about.” He watches it, after all, only to kill time. The fact that he prefers it to the others does not entail that he cares more about watching it than about watching them, because it does not entail that he cares about watching it at all.”

Therefore, even if we do acknowledge that “yes, morality it important” or “yes, duty is important”, we may not identify it as being relevant to us (“it’s not my morality” or “it’s not my duty”). Thus, when we legitimately care about something, it relevant and important to us. In other words, it rises up on that ladder of cardinality for us. Frankfurt states that when we “care” about something, we are “willingly committed” to that thing.

After this, Frankfurt seems to foray in to concepts of volition by discussing the fact that sometimes, we are moved to action even though we may be conscientiously trying to avoid those very actions, like acting out of rage, jealousy, etc. In the same vein, we cannot always help what things we care about (same as love). (Okay, I don’t really like this idea, but its seems to be true.) (In this discussion he has a little aside about how true “freedom” is when one acts in accordance to one’s desires and will.)

Finally, through all this discussion about cardinality and caring, Frankfurt finally leads the reader to the idea that caring is what gives meaning in life. If you absolutely cared about nothing in life, then life would have no meaning, because nothing would be important to you. I also really liked this sentence: “The totality of the various things that a person cares about — together with his ordering of how important to him they are — effectively specifies his answer to the question of how to live.”

This first part, Frankfurt uses to set up the idea of caring and eventually leads it into love. It was a little slow to get there, but he does make some valid points along the way. And ultimately, Frankfurt wants to show the reader that to love is to have meaning in life, and self-love is the purest form of love, since when one love’s oneself, one loves living and genuinely loves the things that one loves.

Conceptually, I thought it was a little bit confusing. It reminded me a lot of Kant, but some of his conclusions are quite beautiful.


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