Book cover art detail for The Promise of Friendship

The Difficulty of Defining Friendship

By Guest Contributor Date: May 13, 2024 Tags: SUNY Press Authors, Philosophy, Literary Criticism

Guest post by Sarah Horton

Friendship, once a major theme in philosophy, has largely fallen by the wayside. For Aristotle, philia was essential to a well-lived life; Thomas Aquinas believed that we would still have friendships with other humans in heaven; and of course the very word philosophy comes from philosophia, the friendship of wisdom. More recently, despite a few notable exceptions such as Derrida and Blanchot, philosophers have written little on friendship, preferring, when they write about love, to focus on eros instead. I chose to write The Promise of Friendship to counter this neglect, as friendship remains profoundly important to human life.

True, “friend” often seems, in everyday speech, to mean little more than “acquaintance” or, at best, “person whose company I currently happen to find pleasant,” with no deeper sense of commitment. At the same time, the fears that twenty-first-century Americans in particular use the word “friend” far too readily and that social media is spreading a shallow conception of friendship show that the notion of friends as deeply committed to each other, even for their entire lives, remains an ideal. The ease with which we can “friend” people on Facebook is alarming only if we suspect that the name of “friend” ought to mean something more profound. Indeed, op-eds pointing out that Facebook “friends” are often not real friends and advising us not to mistake shallow social media relationships for genuine friendships are commonplace, almost to the point of being cliché. It is easier, though, to criticize shallow notions of friendship than to understand what it ought to mean, and we still struggle to determine what, exactly, friendship might be.

The difficulty of giving a clear definition of friendship is in fact central to The Promise of Friendship. Friendship is difficult to define and describe because it is not something that we control. Friendship, though not typically marked with a ceremony or with explicit vows as is marriage, is a commitment to another person, and we can never know exactly what a long-lasting commitment will lead to. How might my friend change over the course of our friendship? How might I change? What specific actions will I need to take to be a good friend, and what might those actions cost me? Even when I can make some plausible predictions, I can never be sure of the answers to these questions, so no mere definition can encompass everything that friendship means in practice.

At first glance, friendship might seem to be a burden because I cannot fully predict what my obligations will be. Thinking of friendship as a burden on me is backwards, though, because it takes me as the starting point and my commitments as secondary. In reality, my commitments determine who I am. I am not first and foremost an isolated individual who can or should make decisions without regard for others. Because human beings are limited, they cannot exist without other people. And the fact that we are not fully independent is actually a good thing, since our lives become meaningful precisely because of the commitments and obligations that bind us. Without commitments to other people, each of us would be driven by our changing whims; although commitments to others are risky, since we do not know where exactly they will lead us, they also give us constancy by giving us something to live for beyond our own desires.

Our friendships, as deep and lasting commitments to other people, thus play a fundamental role in making us who we are. It is difficult to define friendship both because friendship defines us and because how friendship shapes us depends on the particular people with whom we are friends. My friendship with one person will never transform me in the exact same way as my friendship with another. To be friends with someone is to be transformed by, and to transform, that specific other person. And this mutual transformation is one of the greatest joys of human existence.

Sarah Horton is pursuing research in philosophy at the Institut catholique de Paris.