Eroticism and philosophy - Interview with André Comte-Sponville
Doctissimo: Why are you interested in sexuality in particular?
André Comte-Sponville: Because love and sex are the most beautiful aspects of our lives, the most troubling and the most fascinating! I wanted to talk about sexuality all the more when I saw that philosophy was relatively silent on the subject. Certainly, some philosophers have spoken of it at length, like Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre and Bataille... and I’ve taken inspiration from them. All the same, I was astonished to notice there was some reticence more generally. It was at the request of clinical sex therapists who invited me to participate in the French Society of Clinical Sexology Conference, that I decided to develop my line of thinking.
Doctissimo: You insist on the notion of sexuality separated from the idea of reproduction in favour of pleasure and eroticism. Can you tell us more?
André Comte-Sponville: Sexual function and the reproductive function of the body are both connected since they are performed by the same organs, and separated by the fact that you can make love without having a child... The progress made by science has moved towards this increasingly. But completely aside from contraception, there are numerous sexual practices which are clearly not reproductive at the heart of eroticism, like coitus interruptus, fellatio, reciprocal masturbation and anal sex, that humans have discovered in order to get sexual pleasure, independently from the idea of having children.
Doctissimo: Humans are erotic animals then?
André Comte-Sponville: Pleasuring the body of another is never innocent, and from this point of view, it seems to me that we have passed down a flawed way of thinking over the centuries and decades. The first lasted more than twenty centuries in the Christian western world. This mistake was thinking that sex was “evil”, and that the Devil somehow guarded it. It thus became a sin. You can find this notion in the texts written by St Augustin. This demonisation of sexuality was an error we have thankfully long since left behind. But I think often we leave one mistaken idea just to adopt a new one: we’ve gone from demonisation to trivialisation! From the 1960s, there are many who, renouncing the idea of guilt, have only wanted to see sex as an innocent, insignificant leisure activity procuring pleasure like anything else, as if making love was the same as drinking a glass of water or wine... I don’t believe this is right. What makes sexual desire unique is that it presents us with a particular issue, the fact that it always runs up against a forbidden grey area. Even people who practice naturism close the doors in order to make love.
My view is that a sort of tension between morals on the one hand and sexuality on the other still persists, and this is the reason why we have eroticism. As Bataille pointed out so well, there is no eroticism when there is transgression. This is why there is no eroticism among animals; there is no transgression that forbids it for them and no morals which prescribe against it. Only humans are capable of morals, and therefore of transgression. This is why only humans are capable of eroticism. Pleasuring the body of another is never totally innocent or mundane. That is why it is so good!
Doctissimo: You specify that sexuality should be seen together with our impulses and instincts. What is the difference between these two?
André Comte-Sponville: In both cases, it is about innate behavioural tendencies. The difference is that instinct involves its own method of deployment: an instinct is knowledge that is passed on genetically. For example, spiders know how to spin their webs and birds know how to make a nest without having any instruction. On the other hand, men and women do not know how to make love. We have no innate knowledge transmitted genetically. This is why, as children, we ask ourselves how babies are made. This knowledge is not written in our DNA, it is a fact that is learnt. In other words, you have to learn! This is why sexuality is an impulse, and not an instinct. We all have an innate behavioural tendency to make love, but we don’t know how to act on it. This forms part of all this sexual training each individual must go through.
Doctissimo: As far as this training is concerned, why do we need the help of philosophers?
André Comte-Sponville: In reality, we need philosophers whatever the subject. Philosophy is all about thinking through life and applying those ideas... so how can you live without it? In actuality, it is about thinking about the place sexuality has in your life. For example, is it ok or not to make love without love being there? Is love a slave to sexuality? Or is it the other way round? Does sexuality require marriage or not? Does it have to be exclusive or not? What does it reveal about our animal sides or, for others, the divine part of human nature? What is modesty? What is obscenity? To think about these things personally and freely seems to me to be important: and this is called philosophising!
Doctissimo: In this particular era, when we are experiencing “sexual freedom”, do you think philosophy could potentially put sexuality back in its proper place?
André Comte-Sponville: Go and see for yourselves. If you tap “sex” into a search engine, hundreds of porn sites will come up. However, these have given sexuality a vulgar image and are extremely misogynist, from violence to degradation. This is a reality that we cannot conceal and which defines rules for masculine sexuality, since porn is created by and for men, almost exclusively. This association between sexuality and porn that is so dominant manifests itself through the fact that loveless no strings sex is a fantasy of so many men, and it often surrounds violence, contempt, the desire to demean the other (almost always the woman) and to humiliate... It is here where philosophy can play a role and offer a way of thinking about sexuality within the framework of liberty, equality and reciprocity. When not connected to the ideas of love and morals, sexuality resembles rape or prostitution.
Doctissimo: Your book doesn’t only address sexuality but also love. You say that sex is the sun, and love originates from it, either being warmed or being consumed.
André Comte-Sponville: Sex and love are two different things. Fortunately they can exist together comfortably, but they remain two separate things. You can have sexual relations with someone with whom you are not in love, and equally love someone without making love to them. But it is precisely because love and sexuality are two different things that the combination of both is without doubt, the best way to live!
Le sexe, ni la mort. Trois essais sur l'amour et la sexualité
(Sex, not death. Three essays on love and sexuality)
By André Comte-Sponville
Editions Albin Michel.