What Would Aristotle Do?

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Is There Love at First Sight?

What love at first sight really means

Is there really such a thing as love at first sight?  Many would claim that there is, and that they have had firsthand experience of it.   But is this merely to confuse sexual attraction with love?  Is love “at first sight” even possible; and what exactly does the qualification “at first sight” mean anyway? So, let’s first define our terms and see if we can make sense of this popular idea.

In fact, the idea of love at first sight appears to be somewhat of a misnomer since it cannot reasonably be taken literally.  This is because merely seeing someone does not afford a sufficient window into the nature of the person seen.  For example, seeing Brad Pitt or Gwyneth Paltrow in their latest flicks is not a basis for loving them.  Indeed, the characters sauntering about on the screen are not really the actors themselves, an obvious fact that some groupies seem to miss.  These fans may be sexually attracted to, or infatuated with, the actors but they cannot be said to love them because they really do not know them even if they know some things about them (for example, from gossip columns).    Similarly, in simply seeing others without ever having an opportunity to get to know them, we cannot reasonably be said to love them.  Indeed, in some cases, when we get to know others whom we admire from a distance, we may even come to regard them as downright repulsive! 

Nevertheless, some people believe there can be a mystical experience of unity that accompanies the mere sight of the beloved for the first time.  Perhaps there is a sense of déjà vu triggered by having known this person in a prior lifetime.  Perhaps at first sight your “other half” pulls you toward him like the opposite poles of a magnet.  Thus, Plato held the view that, when our souls descended from heaven to earth, they were divided, so that meeting your soul mate for “the first time” in this lifetime was a sort of reunion.  Notice, however, that such metaphysical explanations of love at first sight also include some prior direct experience with the person in question.  So, even in accepting such explanations, we must concede that love at first sight is not really love at first sight.  There is familiarity of sorts; we do not simply see others and then, automatically, love them.  There is what Bertrand Russell called, “knowledge by acquaintance.” We are directly acquainted with others in certain ways before we come to love them. 

Such acquaintance can be cognitive (what she says to you, and what emotions and attitudes she expresses); auditory (her tone of voice); kinesthetic (the way she moves her body); olfactory (her scent); tactile (how she feels such as in an embrace); and even gustatory (as in the “taste” of the first kiss).  This does not mean that all such types of acquaintance are requisite to “love at first sight”; however, this knowledge cannot meaningfully be restricted to the visual perception alone.

So love at first sight may turn out to be more, much more, than what at first meets the eye! Thus, we also invariably rate the elements of our acquaintance with the potential beloved.  Does he have a good sense of humor (according to you)?  Is he articulate? Does the tone of his voice resonate well with you?  Are her morals, as expressed, consistent with your own (for example, she says she’s against factory farming and so are you)?  What messages is she conveying to you through her body and are you comfortable with them?  What is she saying to you with her eyes?  Here, the evaluation of such acquaintance appears to take place largely at a visceral or “gut” level.  One does not carefully analyze and construct rational arguments to defend one’s ratings.  One at first reacts. Such is what gives legs to the metaphor of “love is blind.”

Of course, sexual attraction for the other is part of “the chemistry” and adds its flavor to the overall gestalt, but it is not the only ingredient in love at first sight.  This love potion appears to be quite complex, a concoction of acquaintances of sundry sensible varieties and their visceral ratings, including cognitive ingredients.  All of these informational ingredients are “mixed” (mentally processed) into a whole, which is greater than (distinct from) the sum of its parts.

Clearly, a substantial part of this information processing is performed in a relatively brief time period, for example, on a first date or even when meeting someone for the first time in grocery store; and it is such information processing that is needed to make sense of the idea of love at first sight.  Indeed, such elements of acquaintance and their (visceral) ratings seem to account for the chemistry between persons.  So, leaving aside, any metaphysical views of prior acquaintance, perhaps it is more edifying to speak in terms of love at first acquaintance, rather than love at first sight; inasmuch as reference to sight obscures the fact that visual perception is not the sole basis of such love.  So is there such a thing as love at first acquaintance?  Indeed, this broader question seems to resonate well with what is usually intended when the narrower question is raised, only it is more intelligible for the stated reasons. 

Still, behind this broader question is a further pressing question:  How can you tell the difference between liking and loving someone at first acquaintance?  Indeed, liking someone, even liking someone a lot, is not the same as loving the person.  So, while you can definitely have liking at first acquaintance, can you also have loving at first acquaintance?  To answer this question, we obviously need to have an idea of what it means to love someone.

In my blog, “How good are you at loving?” I presented my view of loving as an activity involving a set of caring activities including being loyal, consistent, candid, trustworthy, considerate, empathetic, tolerant, beneficent, and being there. As such, I have maintained that “loving is an intimate, personal activity that seeks the welfare, happiness, and safety of another.” In the case of love at first acquaintance, which is a kind of romantic love, there is also sexual attraction for the other, which is lacking in other kinds of love such as that of a parent for a child.  On the other hand, the deep caring for the other associated with all kinds of loving relationships appears to be absent in love at first acquaintance, since the time needed to cultivate the activities involved in this caring relationship is absent.  So, does this concept of loving as intimate caring mean that it is impossible for there to be love at first acquaintance?

Indeed, love takes time to cultivate, and in love at first accquaintance there is simply not enough time for any of the activities of loving to be brought to fruition.  But let’s not be so fast to dismiss the idea; for there still appears to be room for a precursor to full-blown love.  This is not uncommonly referred to as falling in love.  So is there such a thing as falling in love at first acquaintance?

Here, the metaphor of “falling” is quite helpful.  In the act of falling, one is still in the process.  It is not a fait accompli.  The process of falling in love has begun and in time it can be “fully” actualized to the extent that anything in this imperfect world is ever completely actualized.  In cases of love at first acquaintance, there appears to be an earnest desire to be loyal, consistent, candid, trustworthy, considerate, empathetic, tolerant, beneficent, and to be there for the other.  There may also be a disposition or tendencies in this direction, which can come to fruition as the relationship matures. 

Accordingly, there is clear meaning to the idea of falling in love at first acquaintance.  This is where, after a first meeting, you passionate and exuberantly say to yourself, “This is the one with whom I want to spend the rest of my life; this is the one whom I will always cherish, and look out for; the one with whom I will share my deepest secrets and whose deepest secrets are, in my hands, safe and secure.”  To the extent that this is not pretense and is genuine, not merely sexual attraction or infatuation, it can be the beginning of a life-long commitment.

Of course, things may change.  After all, people do fall in and out of love; and obviously some people confuse mere sexual attraction with love and never really fall in love.  But loving, as an intimate human activity of deep caring does have a beginning, and it can begin at first acquaintance as well as on the second or the third, and even several years down the road.

Inasmuch as this is what is really meant by the idea of “love at first sight,” it surely does exist, and there is no reason to suppose otherwise.  Of course, those who have had the experience of falling in love at first acquaintance know well what it means.  I can speak from my own experience.  What do you think?

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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