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19.11.05

Leibnizian Love

I've noticed that there seem to be three basic approaches to romantic relationships, which I've taken to calling "Leibnizian," "Newtonian," and "Habermasian."

Leibniz was an early modern philosopher who believed that the world was made up of "windowless monads." These monads didn't truly interact with one another. Rather, they each had the design of the world programmed into them, and were thus able to perfectly go through the motions specified by that plan without any reference to what the other monads were doing -- sort of like a series of clocks that were callibrated initially and thus all remain in sync through the dictates of their gears. Two monads might appear to bounce off of each other not because their collision affected their velocities, but because their internal programs told them that they should reverse direction at thus-and-such a moment.

In relationships, a Leibnizian expects their partner to already know the script. The rules for how to handle any given situation should already be in their head. For example, a traditionalist Leibnizian woman would expect her partner to know that the man is supposed to pick up the check at a restaurant, and would hold him responsible for spontaneously doing so. Leibnizism comes in two varieties: "natural law" and "jigsaw." A natural law Leibnizian believes that the rules in question are universal. Thus the woman in our example, if faced with a date who attempted to split the check, would consider him to be a bad person who can't grasp the basic and obvious rules of social ettiquette. A jigsaw leibnizian, on the other hand, recognizes the diversity of internal rule sets that a person might have, and sees their challenge as finding a person whose internal rule set matches their own. So if our example woman were a jigsaw Leibnizian, she would reason that while "going Dutch" is not inherently wrong and may work for other women, she happens to like the "man pays" system and is only interested in men who would volunteer to act accordingly.

The Newtonian view of the world is much more familar to us, and hence needs less elaboration. It's a world of cause and effect, stimulus and response. Any action elicits a predictable reaction from an affected object. The Newtonian view sees romance as a game of strategy. The big challenge is to find the right stimuli -- the right set of clothes, the right amount of time to wait before calling, the right restaurant to go to -- that will elicit the right set of responses on the part of your partner. Much attention is also given to deconstructing your partner's stimuli, either in order to make sure you give the right response, or in order to discern their ulterior motives.

The last perspective on relationships is named for Jürgen Habermas, a contemporary German philosopher about whom I've written a number of times. Habermas's work is centered on the idea of "communicative action." Communicative action is not stimulus-response, or even sophisticated social conditioning, type of action. Rather, its goal is to reach freely accepted understanding on the part of the two parties. In a Habermasian relationship, situations of uncoordination (such as our previous example of the disagreement over who pays for dinner) are handled through the offering of explanations and reasons. Such communication requires both parties to show respect for the other's viewpoint and be genuinely open to being convinced of its truth. This communication would take place continuously, not just at the moment of crisis -- so our couple would have discussed their ideas about date financing in advance and ideally come to some shared understanding.

Of course, I've presented all three views in a slightly caricatured form. Nobody adheres strictly to a pure version of one of these paradigms. Each one has a grain of truth in it, and any functional relationship will be a mix. However, there is much diversity in the proportions in which people mix these views (as a rough characterization, I would say that conservatives tend to favor natural law Leibnizism, liberals like jigsaw Leibnizism, and the cynical postmodern generation goes for Newtonism). My own preference leans strongly toward Habermasian relationships, a fact which I now recognize has caused me a fair bit of confusion and frustration in talking to people who prefer to order their lives on more heavily Leibnizian or Newtonian principles.

(And lest you think I could do a post without mentioning Cultural Theory, I would propose the following mapping of the three perspectives. Newtonian relationships correspond to low-group ways of life, falling under either Individualism or Fatalism depending on how in-control the person feels. Leibnizian relationships are high-group, though I don't believe that the natural law and jigsaw variants can be assigned one to Hierarchy and the other to Egalitarianism. Many Egalitarians would try to claim Habermasian relationships, and to some degree they're right, but I think the true home of the Habermasian perspective as I've outlined it is with the oft-neglected fifth way of life, Autonomy. I have further thoughts about the place and importance of Autonomy that I will perhaps blog later.)

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