Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Contempt opens with an unforgettable scene: laying on the bed, a wife asks her husband if he likes her feet. He says yes. She then asks if he likes her ankles, her calves, and so on, and as she goes through the list of her body parts, he responds each time in the affirmative, finally ending with her face. By way of summation, she asks, “Then you love me totally?” He answers, “I love you totally…tenderly…tragically.” It’s a beautiful scene, artfully staged with gentleness and a sensitive musical score. It certainly captures a common way of conceiving of love, that to love a person is to love everything about a person. If you really love somebody, you think of them as the most beautiful person in the world.

But there is a tension simmering under the surface, one that—I would argue—underscores the falsehood of this approach. We are not meant to think the problem is that the husband might be lying about his fondness for her feet, her face, and so on (the wife is played by the conventionally attractive Brigitte Bardot). The problem is thinking that loving a person’s qualities amounts to loving that person, as though a person is the sum of their qualities. Some might argue that in loving everything about your partner’s body you succeed in affirming their quidditas, their singularity as that unique individual, but this is a fool’s errand, and not just because our body parts age and sooner or later fail to conform to narrow beauty standards.

If our uniqueness is constituted by a list of qualities, even if that inventory is made diachronic, then our being is fundamentally being viewed as replaceable. While it would only be a likelihood in the realms of science fiction, we could be replaced by someone else with identical qualities and our lover could just as well cherish our clone and dispense with us. In a less outlandish context, however, we encounter this eerie danger of being seen as replaceable all the time: in our sports, in our political economy, in our social lives, in our love lives, and in any number of phenomena. It is perhaps this insecurity that drives Bardot’s character to seek the reassurance of her husband that she is indeed lovable. It is perhaps also no wonder that their marriage is over before the film ends.

Sometimes I think the question “What do you love about me?” is one of those unanswerable but unavoidable questions Kant says human reason poses to itself in the first preface to his Critique of Pure Reason.[1] More precisely, I sometimes wonder whether this question is at bottom the question (or “paralogism”) of whether there is a soul, whether there is a self beyond a bundle of observable qualities.[2] Just as there is an epistemic (and perhaps even ethical) danger in attempting to prove the soul’s reality by reifying it—by treating it as though it is another sort object, just one that escapes materiality (and thus one’s character is a fait accompli)—there is a danger in reifying the beloved by treating them as a collectivity of lovables (what critical theory calls a “fetish”). Every now and again, in the fulgurating words of a Shakespeare or a Plato, words seem to have done justice to what the soul of love is, but they prove curiously insufficient for what one means to say but can never say. I wager that infatuation differs from love in being able to satisfactorily identify the lovability of the beloved.

At this point we might protest that there must be something about the beloved that I love, without being so crude as to think that we can enumerate every lovable aspect of the person I love. It could simply be that what I love about the beloved is so multiform as to escape enumeration or even conscious detection—it is instead a sophisticated and unique combination that makes for a je ne sais quoi. Leibniz’s theory of the tiny perceptions—infinitesimal sensations we have of everything in the universe, from our unique perspective, amounting to a confused experience whose elements we mostly cannot isolate—suggests that love could be the byproduct of innumerable small qualities of the beloved whose order of importance cannot be identified.[3] Only a superhuman mind could track down the imbrications of logical priority and anteriority that constitute the reasons why you love who you love; those reasons are there, you just don’t perceive (or more appropriately, apperceive) them. The ultimate intelligibility of love is thereby preserved while acknowledging its inscrutability to us. Your love might appear to be unconditional, but that’s only because there are so many conditions on it that you can’t keep track of them all, and so it appears that there are none because there are none in particular.

What do we love when we love disinterestedly? In his letter to Nicaise of August 1697, Leibniz defines love as the disposition of taking pleasure in the happiness of others. As Ursula Goldenbaum has noted, in this definition Leibniz aims to reconcile the Christian and Platonic morality of altruism with the Hobbesian insight that all our actions are self-interested.[4] Leibniz puts the crux of the issue thus:

For everything that produces pleasure immediately through itself is also desired for itself, as constituting (at least in part) the object of our aims and as something which enters into our own felicity and gives us satisfaction. This serves to reconcile two truths which appear incompatible; for we do everything for our own good, and it is impossible for us to have other feelings, although we may say we do.[5]

For Leibniz, it is impossible that I should be motivated to do anything that is not somehow to my advantage, yet this advantage must not be conflated with a crass attitude that helps others so as to get something else out of it, beyond their happiness. Gregory Brown argues that Leibniz’s “weak egoism” enables him to say that genuine and virtuous love is disinterested because it takes immediate pleasure in seeing the other pleased, whereas mercenary love treats the other’s pleasure as mediate, as a means to a further end such as monetary reward (which is what this opportunist takes immediate pleasure in).[6]

Thus if I buy you lunch because it makes me smile to see you smile, then my love for you is disinterested; but if I’m smiling because I know that you’re more likely to do me a favor in the near future once I’ve put you in a good mood, then my love is mercenary. The more materialistic my aims are, the more likely I am to envy your good fortune, because it is the nature of material goods that they are fungible; the pleasures of intellectual goods (knowledge, contemplation, etc.), however, are strengthened by being shared, and so disinterested love is best kindled by rational discussion and contemplation.[7]

Thus we see that for Leibniz, the object of the will we have in view—what we desire—is what determines the manner of willing, the kind of loving, that we can perform. What our desires alight upon is the function of how foolishly or wisely we go about looking for happiness, and that in turn depends upon how dimly or clearly we understand the nature of things. For Leibniz, reality is fundamentally mental, so it is the mind that not only discovers what is inexhaustibly pleasant, but also constitutes what is inexhaustible for pleasure: namely, the infinite richness of the divine Mind fashioning an intricately harmonious universe set up for our flourishing. Thus things are lovable to the extent that they offer an occasion for mental improvement.

For Leibniz this kind of “food for thought” is called perfection, which we should think of in its etymological sense as the per-fectus, what has been made all the way through, brought to completion. Perfection is the degree to which a thing fully is what its nature dictates it should be, so that it is without defects or aberrations, and from this we can easily draw the analogy that happiness is the perception of such completeness. For example, missing teeth or limbs would be imperfections, which we find less pleasing than the alternative. However, Leibniz is the first to acknowledge that the perfections of an object often transcend such blatant simplicity, for subtle diversity offers our minds more capacious reflection, and it is this activity of understanding harmony (rather than monotony) among diverse elements that is pleasant.[8] For instance, Leibniz notes our delight of syncopation in music, and we might add to the earlier example the beauty of people with a gap between their front teeth.

As one improves one’s taste with sensual delights, and even more so as one improves one’s mind through intellectual attractions, one develops a clearer sense of reality’s intelligible foundation in the ens realissimum: God as the supreme Mind who is the condition for the possibility of all finite things reflecting him in miniature, and this most harmonious of all possible universes gives us the greatest pleasure possible. As Leibniz writes toward the end of his life to Christian Wolff, “…pleasure is the sensation of perfection. Perfection is the harmony of things, or the state where everything is worthy of being observed, that is, the state of agreement or identity in variety; you can even say that it is the degree of contemplatibility.”[9]

The ideal Leibnizian lover is someone who has discovered that the greatest pleasures are the pleasures of the mind, and with that rational rubric finds intellectual potential in the beloved and develops it, thereby developing and expanding his own mind. Education therefore has a decidedly moral import for the Leibnizian: the more one learns the universe’s order the more one sees how it is set up to reward beneficence through rational self-interest. As the mind’s strength is constituted by its ability to properly differentiate the diverse elements making up a whole, the confusion wrought by the tiny perceptions will take on greater clarity and distinctness as the lover’s mind improves, meaning that the lover will become more and more capable of saying what it is they love about the other. The uniqueness of the other is ultimately sayable, even though it might take a finite mind infinite time to learn all the nooks and crannies of the beloved’s lovability. It is at least in theory possible to love someone “totally,” like Brigitte Bardot’s lover, but by loving their mental qualities one purportedly avoids shallowness and selfishness in that love.

For Kant, on the other hand, to think of uniqueness as indexed to qualities rots love at its root: the very activity of thinking there are conditions to one’s love, even ones subtle enough to escape apperception, changes the way one relates to one’s beloved, it puts one out of the attitude of respect and into the attitude of admiration. To pull a formulation from Alejandro Iñárritu’s recent movie Birdman, this is confusing love with admiration (the dangers of which the movie marvelously illustrates). To put this into Kantian terms, there is a profound difference between pathological love and practical love. Pathological love is a feeling that arises from the complex ways our body, our culture, our diet, and all other environmental factors interact to give us the inclination we call love; Kant calls it “pathological” because it refers to the pathe, the ways we are determined to feel. Practical love, on the other hand, is love you have to put into practice; practical love is taking care of someone even in the absence of feeling pathological love, out of a sense of responsibility for the other. Leibniz would explain the activity of practically loving others—indeed, all actions we undertake—as the result of what we think it will offer us in the end (pathological love).

Some people see Kant’s practical love as cold, but I don’t. I think the person who treats me well and does what is best for me—even when I don’t like it and am being especially ugly, which is probably connected to why they don’t like it—is the person who really loves me, as opposed to the mutual admiration society in Leibniz’s conception of love. Practical love is love that sticks around when the going gets tough and stays tough.[10] And much to the surprise of most readers of Kant, he makes the astute observation that taking care of a person even when you don’t feel like it (practical love, or beneficence) tends to produce a fondness for them over time (pathological love, or benevolence).[11] We owe others practical love even when they don’t reciprocate it, and even if we will never feel pathological love for them; this is the duty that is religiously comprehended as the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself—“that law of all laws,” as Kant calls it.[12] Virtue sets the parameters for happiness, not the other way round.

Loving someone is not just different in degree but different in kind from liking them. It therefore follows that to truly love someone (that is, love in the very impractical “practical” sense) is to not base my treatment of them on the attitude that there are identifiable or even non-identifiable qualities of the other that please me. What Kant’s practical love captures is that love is an ongoing choice, that requires you to commit yourself—and like all commitment, it may mean making some sacrifices, and genuine sacrifice is mysterious. In Leibniz’s understanding of love as a kind of utility calculus, you don’t sacrifice anything for love so much as you exchange a comparatively small pleasure for a comparatively large pleasure. The rationality of this logic of exchange is readily apparent, because acting out of self-interest is readily intelligible, and Leibniz’s entire philosophical program is the affirmation of the fundamental intelligibility of everything, the universality of the principle of sufficient reason.

Because Leibniz holds that for absolutely everything that exists, there is some sufficient reason why it is this determinate way and not another, he also argues that it is impossible to make a choice without being guided by some conception (however wrong) of what makes one option more attractive than the other.

God or a perfectly wise person will always choose the best that they know of, and if one side were not better than the other, they would choose neither the one nor the other. The passions often take the place of reason in other intelligent substances, and we can always assert, with respect to the will in general, that choice follows the greatest inclination (by which I understand both passions and reasons, true or apparent).[13]

Through rational reflection we properly perceive our alternatives for what they truly are, and in this way our choice of them is what Leibniz calls “freedom of indifference” as opposed to “indifference of equilibrium.”[14] The famous example of indifference of equilibrium is to imagine a donkey placed between two equidistant piles of identically large and identically appealing hay; will the donkey be able to choose a pile of hay to eat from, or will it eventually starve to death because it cannot see any difference between the options? Indifference of equilibrium holds that the donkey can make a choice in this scenario, and Leibniz’s commitment to the principle of sufficient reason entails that he reject it. For Leibniz, the donkey could not make up its mind, if it is truly the case that the piles of hay are identical—but his companion principle of the identity of indiscernables means this is a phantom possibility. Because no two things can be entirely equally attractive, parity between options is impossible.

Thus for Leibniz, self-determination is therefore always a result of one’s perception of the determinate qualities within competing objects of the will. The process of choosing always involves—and is decided by—comparing one thing to another, one person to another, on the basis of their qualities. This job offers more money, that school has better libraries, this person has a better smile, that person has more eloquence. According to Leibniz, we cannot explain our interest in anything or anyone without this drive toward optimization.

Kant agrees on one point: we cannot explain a choice that is not determined through optimization, but that does not mean such a choice is impossible. From a Kantian perspective, when we love we are charged with a mystery. This is why though Kant in large part adopts the Leibnizian tradition’s definition of love as the adoption of another’s ends as one’s own—that is, loving someone entails taking an interest in the things that they want to achieve and that bring them happiness—Kant nonetheless thinks that unconditional respect for them as a priceless and separate person must be the foundation for all genuine (practical) love.

Dignity means that you have the right to be treated with respect—it would be hard to give Kantian arguments for tolerating abusive conditions—but at the same time love and respect for dignity call upon us to never make the condition of being wronged a pretext for doing wrong. Only by seeing the other as having inviolable and unconditionally important rights—that is, dignity—can we avoid the serpentine egoism of mutually beneficial categorization and comparison. The other’s lovability is not fully or even mostly intelligible to us, and thank heavens it is not, for were our love based on definite reasons we could replace them the moment someone else comes along offering amplified versions of those same reasons. Only then do we see them—and concomitantly, ourselves—as more than the sum of component traits and parts, only then do we see ourselves as whole and unfinished beings—i.e., as free beings. Love is a mystery because freedom is a mystery: How can moral agency be disinterested without being uninterested?


[1] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason Avii

[2] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A345/B403-A346/B404

[3] Leibniz, “Preface to the New Essays,” in Philosophical Essays, p. 296

[4] Ursula Goldenbaum, “All you need is love…Leibniz’s Vermittlung von Hobbes’ Naturrecht und christlicher Nächstenliebe als Grundlage seiner Definition der Gerechtigkeit,” in Neuzeitliches Denken: Festschrift für Hans Poser zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Günter Abel, Han-Jürgen and Christoph Hubig (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), 209-231.

[5] Leibniz: “On the Disinterested Love of God,” in Leibniz on God and Religion, trans. and ed. Lloyd Strickland (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). Strickland 159.

[6] Gregory Brown, “Disinterested Love: Understanding Leibniz’s Reconciliation of Self-and Other-Regarding Motives,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 19 (2), 2011: 265-303. 282-283.

[7] Here Leibniz is building upon an argument Spinoza makes at Ethics IVP35

[8] Donald Rutherford: Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.) Pp. 31-32.

[9] Leibniz, letter to Wolff 18 May 1715, in Philosophical Essays, trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1989. Pp. 233-234.

[10] Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

[11] Kant, 6:402; Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy (Cambridge University Press), pp. 530-531

[12] Kant 5:83, Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy, op. cit., p. 207

[13] Leibniz, letter to Coste, 19 December 1707, in Philosophical Essays, p. 194

[14] Ibid.