An Amazonian Philosophy of Love
What we can learn about love, community and softness from the indigenous Enxet people of Paraguay.
Philosophy and human malleability
As a philosopher, I’m fascinated by life’s big questions. What does it mean to live well? What does it mean to love or to hate? What does it mean to form friendships? What does it mean to act virtuously? What does it mean to die?
But sometimes I wonder about the answers philosophers give to these questions, and whether they are limited by drawing on too narrow a range of traditions.
The philosophy of love is a good example of this. If you pick up any introductory philosophy book on love, the chances are it will start out with Plato. Or else it will start out with the idea that in Greek philosophy, there are different kinds of love: eros, or passionate love; philia or friendship; agape or altruistic love, and so on. These ideas are certainly interesting, and they can be useful. But I worry that if we always go back to the same old sources, we always end up seeing the same thing. If we limit the range of philosophical traditions we draw on, we fail to do justice to the richness and malleability of human experience and human life.
This is why I often find myself plunging into the work of anthropologists. Because if anybody knows about the sheer diversity of human ways of thinking and being, it is the anthropologists.
Recently, while working on developing a course on the philosophy of love, I found myself reading Joanna Overing and Alan Passes’s fascinating edited collection, The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia. In this book, the various authors explore how the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region understand what it means to live and to love in society with others. The results are absolutely fascinating, and they have changed how I think about what love is, and why it matters.
Love in the Amazon
In one particularly powerful chapter, the anthropologist Stephen W. Kidd explores the social philosophy of the indigenous Enxet people of Paraguay. And I think that the Enxet give an account of love from which we can learn a lot.
According to Kidd, for the Enxet, the centre of our personhood lies in the wáxok, which is located in the stomach. This may sound exotic. But we too talk about how our identity lies in a physical organ: in the heart that hangs in our chest, or in our brain that nestles in our skull. The Enxet see emotions as physical changes in the wáxok (just as we might say “my heart is all aflutter”). When we are content, wáxok stretches out; when we are sad, it becomes heavy; when we are afraid, it shivers.
The wáxok is not just the seat of emotion. It is also the place where thinking and knowing take place. The Enxet say that the wáxok searches (for example, when you are trying to think of something). It mentions things (when an idea comes to you). It makes fun of things (when you have a rising sense, somewhere in your stomach, that you want to make a joke). The wáxok even turns around and goes back to where it came from (when you change your mind).
The wáxok is also social. It is at the same time personal and interpersonal, with no hard boundary between the two. This social wáxok is developed as you grow from being a baby to a child to an adult. It takes shape through your engagements with others. And when your wáxok is well-formed, this gives you the ability to engage better with others on the basis of love and knowledge.
A fully formed adult, the Enxet say, is somebody whose wáxok is hápek, or soft. The word hápek can also be used for a semi-inflated football or a door that is unlocked and therefore easy to open. This means that the ideal way of being is to have a slightly deflated self — a hápek wáxok. Only when you are slightly deflated and soft can you be open to others. Only then are you affected by the sufferings of others, and good at spending time with them — sharing with them, eating and drinking together.
The person with a good wáxok, Kidd says, is a person who is knowledgable about love.
A sketch of an Enxet theory of love
This talk about the wáxok may seem unfamiliar. It is not, after all, a term you usually find in philosophy textbooks. But it gives us an alternative way of thinking about the philosophy of love. If we take an Enxet view on love, this is what a theory of love might look like:
- Love is rooted in our physical, embodied being: in our gut, where our wáxok resides.
- Love involves our bodies, our emotions, and our thinking (because the wáxok is where thinking and feeling happen as well).
- Love is about our built-in sociality: it is both innate and also learned through our relationships with others.
- And finally — perhaps most importantly — our capacity to love is rooted in our susceptibility to others and the extent to which we can be affected by them. Love needs softness. If we are over-inflated and hard, we cannot love, and we cannot live successfully in society with others.
This is beginning to look like a pretty coherent theory of love.
Love and community
One reason this is such a powerful account is that it sees love as something that is rooted, first and foremost, in the idea of community.
Human beings are social animals. Like other social primates, we are fond of play and mutual grooming and sex. We make friends and alliances. We fall out and make amends. We manage the competing demands of living out the lives we want and living alongside the others on whom we depend. We snuggle and cuddle, struggle and quarrel.
Through all this, we try to live as best we can in community with others. And this is where love comes in. In her book All About Love, writer, activist and social theorist bell hooks complains that contemporary talk about love is often focussed on individuals, couples and nuclear families, and that it misses out on the idea of community.
Communities sustain life — not nuclear families, or the “couple,” and certainly not the rugged individualist. There is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community.
One reason we can learn from the Enxet account of love is that it puts community right at the heart of the question of what it means to love. And as a starting point for thinking about love, thinking in terms of community has a significant advantage over thinking in terms of the nuclear family, the couple, or the individual. Because unlike the romantic couple, or the nuclear family, community is a human universal. The fact that we are social communal beings is baked into our biological machinery.
In different societies and cultures, we organise our communities in different ways. Some of us live in nuclear families, some of us in more sprawling networks of kinship. Some of us live out our lives as a part of romantic relationships, while others embrace more anarchic structures. But these social and cultural forms are secondary to the fact that we are in community with each other.
Learning and relearning what it means to love
Ever since reading about the Enxet theory of love, my own sense of what love is has shifted a little. One of the ways you can tell if there is something worth exploring in a philosophical idea is the way that it continues to resonate, giving rise to new ideas and new thoughts.
So when I think about love now, I’m more inclined to think about the virtue of softness, and the dangers of becoming over-inflated and hard. I’m more likely to think about how a certain sense of loving is rooted in the gut—in the wáxok, or in the physical responsiveness we have to those we encounter. And I’m more convinced than I was before that love, at root, is about how we learn and relearn what it is to be in community with others, social animals that we are.
 Joanna Overing and Alan Passes (editors), The Anthropology of Love and Anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in Native Amazonia (Routledge 2000)
 Stephen W. Kidd, “Knowledge and the practice of love and hate among the Enxet of Paraguay”, in The Anthropology of Love and Anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in Native Amazonia, edited by Joanna Overing and Alan Passes (Routledge 2000), p. 115.
 Stephen W. Kidd, “Knowledge and the practice of love and hate among the Enxet of Paraguay”, in The Anthropology of Love and Anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in Native Amazonia, edited by Joanna Overing and Alan Passes (Routledge 2000), p. 118.
 bell hooks, All About Love (William Morrow 2000), p. 51.
Some of the ideas in this piece appeared in a substantially different form over on Looking for Wisdom and were first published on Monday 8th March 2021.
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