The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Philosopher Judith Butler on Doubting Love

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination,” John Keats famously wrote. John Keats, who also argued for the gift of “negative capability” — the intricate art of embracing uncertainty and living with those shaky in-between states, echoing Einstein’s contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Still, we’re creatures incredibly susceptible to cognitive dissonance and painfully prone to paralysis in the face of ambiguity, especially when it comes to the most tender and vulnerable corners of our inner worlds.

In her poignant essay titled “Doubting Love” from Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the same anthology that gave us Martha Nussbaum’s exquisite advice on fully inhabiting your inner life — philosopher Judith Butler examines the question of uncertainty in that corner of life where we most long for security and grounding conviction. She writes:

On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.

Butler then describes herself as a “secular Kierkergaardian when it comes to love,” but also sees Freud as her guide:

[Freud] is the one who writes, ‘A man who doubts his own love may, or rather, must doubt every lesser thing.’ And this is the line I return to in my life, a line that cannot be read once, at least not by me. Freud is making a statement, but he is, implicitly, delivering as well a warning and an admonition. The one who doubts his own love will find himself doubting every lesser thing.


There is no way around it: If you doubt your own love, you will be compelled to doubt every lesser thing and if there is no greater thing than love, you will be compelled to doubt every other thing, which means that nothing, really nothing, will be undoubted by you.

After examining the oscillation of certitudes and uncertainties in love, Butler returns to Freud:

It would seem that for Freud the goal is not to doubt one’s own love, to come to have certainty in it, and to somehow know oneself in the dispossession that love provides. I am the one who loses myself here, in this way, under these conditions, who finds the following irresistible; who falls then and there; who wants, who idealizes, who pursues; who cannot forget this or that kind of thing, wants it again, cannot stop wanting it easily; who wants to be pursued, or to become unforgettable, irreplaceable. One finds that love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.

And yet, what Richard Feynman knew about science, Orson Welles knew about film, and Rilke knew about life might indeed be true of love as well — that faulty vision, that state of doubt, seems absolutely necessary for complete love:

If one becomes somewhat savvy about one’s love — ‘ah, yes, there goes my love again, what will it bring forth this time? What havoc will it wreak?’ — does this mean that one ceases to doubt it, or that one knows it with certainty for all time? Or is this the distance that one takes from what one cannot do, an instance of the doubt that goes along with love? We might think Freud is saying that to doubt one’s own love is to doubt it in a very fundamental way, to call the most important matters into questions, and to not let assumptions go unquestioned. It is, in a way, to become philosophical in and about one’s passions. And this does not mean that one ceases to live them or that one kills them by thinking them into the ground. on the contrary, one lives them, and seeks to know them, but only by bringing one’s questions into the practice of love itself. I cannot pretend to know myself at the moment of love, but I cannot pretend to fully know myself. I must neither vacate the knowledge that I have — the knowledge, after all, that will make me a better lover — and I cannot be the one who knows everything in advance — which would make me proud and, finally, lovable. Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.

Published November 12, 2012




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