The Metaphysics of Emotion

Love undoubtedly ranks as one of the most important emotions among 17th-century authors: Descartes counted love among the primary passions, Spinoza’s Ethics culminates in the intellectual love of God, and Leibniz viewed love as central to his definition of justice. However, present research has not yet captured one of the most fascinating aspects of 17th-century discussions of love: their metaphysical dimension.

From a 21st-century perspective, love and sympathy seem very much divorced from metaphysical concerns. But for many 17th-century thinkers, deeply influenced by Platonist notions of sympathy revived through Renaissance natural philosophy, love loomed large in debates of the most central themes of the period, such as mind-body dualism, occasionalism, the nature of God, or the extent of human freedom, and fulfilled important explanatory functions. Anne Conway and Margaret Cavendish, for example, did not view the force of love as a mere metaphor, but held that love unifies and moves particles of matter as much as it draws together individuals. For Spinoza and Leibniz, love was essential to our understanding of freedom. Moreover, the relation between the human and the divine was forged through conceptions of religious love, which in turn provided the paradigm for all other relationships of love among living beings. In the 17th century, these metaphysical dimensions of love and sympathy exist side by side with love’s and sympathy’s moral dimensions, which were to fully come to the fore in 18th-century thinkers such as Shaftesbury or Smith.

Through investigating how love figured centrally in some of the central metaphysical debates of the period, this project will shed light on a crucial yet neglected aspect of early modern conceptions of love. The results of this research will enable us to take a fresh look at traditional metaphysical topics, and provide new impulses for contemporary philosophical debates around love. Moreover, this project will bring to the fore to a number of lesser known thinkers of the period, particularly female thinkers such as Conway, Cavendish, or Mary Astell, whose sophisticated and inventive voices deserve to be heard again.

A first paper, “Loving the Body, Loving the Soul: Conway’s Vitalist Critique of Cartesian and Morean Dualism” (abstract) offers a new interpretation of Anne Conway’s critique of dualism by showing how she undermines the dichotomy between mind and body by drawing on the metaphysical dimensions of her Neoplatonist conception of love.