Chapter 25: May – Existential Psychology

Part 4: Love and Intentionality

Love was a very important topic for May.  Simply put, “To be capable of giving and receiving mature love is as sound a criterion as we have for the fulfilled personality” (May, 1953).  He was certainly not alone. Harry Harlow, best known for his studies on contact comfort, described love as “a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding,” and Abraham Maslow said “We must understand love; we must be able to teach it, to create it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and to suspicion” (Harlow, 1975; Maslow, 1975).  However, there are “a million and one” types of relationships that people call love, so it remains a perplexing issue (May, 1953).

May talked about four types of love in Western tradition: sex, eros, philia, and agape (May, 1969).  Sex and eros are closely related, but they are different.  Sex is what we also call lust or libido, whereas eros is the drive of love to procreate or create.  As changes in society allowed the more open study of sex, prompted by the work of people like Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, May noted three particular paradoxes.  First, our so-called enlightenment has not removed the sexual problems in our culture. In the past, an individual could refrain from sexual activity using the moral guidelines of society as an explanation.  As casual sex became common, even expected, individuals had to face expressing their own morality as just that: their own. This also created a new source of anxiety for some, namely the possibility that their personal relationships might carry an expectation of sexual activity, and that if they did not comply, they might not be able to continue dating someone they liked.  The second paradox is that “the new emphasis on technique in sex and love-making backfires” (May, 1969).  Emphasizing technique (or prowess) can result in a mechanistic attitude toward making love, possibly leading to alienation, feelings of loneliness, and depersonalization.  This can lead to the anticipatory anxiety described by Frankl. Finally, May believed that our sexual freedom was actually a new form of Puritanism. There is a state of alienation from the body, a separation of emotion from reason, and the use of the body as a machine.  Whereas in the Victorian era people tried to be in love without falling into sex, today many people try to have sex without falling in love.

Philia and agape are also related to one another, as with sex and love.  Philia refers to feelings of friendship or brotherly love, whereas agape is the love devoted to caring for others.  Friendship during childhood is very important, and May believed it was essential for meaningful and loving relationships as adults, including those involving eros.  Indeed, the tension created by eros in terms of continuous attraction and continuous passion would be unbearable if philia did not enter into the equation and allow one to relax in the pleasant and friendly company of the object of one’s desires.  Harry Harlow, once again, showed that the opportunity to make friends was as essential in the development of young monkeys as it appears to be in humans (cited in May, 1969). In the West, however, given our highly individualistic and competitive society, deep, meaningful friendships seem to be something of the past, especially among men.  May cautions, however, that since the evidence shows the importance of friendship during development, perhaps we should remember the value of having good friends.

Finally we have agape, a selfless love beyond any hope of gain for oneself.  May compared this love to the biological aspect of nature in which a parent will fight to the death in defense of their offspring.  With agape, we run the risk of being like God, in the sense that we know others never act without some degree of their own interests in mind.  Similarly, we don’t want to be loved in an ethereal sense, or on the other hand, only for our body. We want to be loved completely. So, all true love involves some element of the other types of love, no matter how little or how obscured it may be (May, 1969).

In the foreword to Love and Will (May, 1969), May acknowledged that some of his readers might find it odd that he combined the two topics in one book, but he felt strongly that the topics belong together.  He considered both love and will to be interdependent, they are processes in which people reach out to influence others, to help to mold and create the consciousness of others.  Love without will is sentimental and experimental, whereas will without love is manipulative. Only by remaining open to the influence of others can we likewise influence them, so love must have an honest purpose, and purpose must be taken with care.

Will, or will power as it is more commonly known, was one of the earliest subjects in American psychology, having been examined in detail by William James as early as 1890 (see James, 1892/1992) and again in 1897 in The Will to Believe (James, 1897/1992).  May considered Sigmund Freud’s greatest discovery to be the uncovering of unconscious desires and motives.  Although many people may believe themselves to be acting out of higher ideals, most of us are, in reality, acting according to psychologically determined factors of which we are unaware.  Nonetheless, May considered this to be one of the most unfortunate results of Freud’s work. By accepting determinism, we undermine the influence of will and making decisions. As May put it, Freud’s theory suggests that we are “not driving any more, but driven” (May, 1969).

The suggestion that we are no longer in charge of our own lives, that we are driven by psychological determinism, seems strange to those who believe that never before have people had such power, both in terms of individual freedom and in the collective conquest of nature.  But May referred to a contradiction in will, the contrast between our feelings of powerlessness and self-doubt, and the societal assurances that we can do anything we set our minds to.  May believed that we exist in a “curious predicament,” in that the technical wonders that make us feel so powerful are the very same processes that overwhelm us (May, 1969).

Will alone is not the driving force that leads us to responsible and authentic lives.  Underlying will is something May called intentionality.  Intentionality is the structure that gives meaning to experience, it is both how we perceive the world and how the world can be perceived by us.  In other words, through our perceptual processes we influence the world around us; we affect the very things that we perceive. Intentionality is a bridge between subject and object (May, 1969).  Compare this once again to the nothingness between beings and Being (à la Heidegger), or between the en-soi and the pour-soi (à la Sartre). Still, our ability to reach and form the very objects that we perceive, in other words, to participate actively in our lives, can be dramatically curtailed by the problem addressed by May early in his career, anxiety:

Overwhelming anxiety destroys the capacity to perceive and conceive one’s world, to reach out toward it to form and re-form it.  In this sense, it destroys intentionality. We cannot hope, plan, promise, or create in severe anxiety; we shrink back into a stockade of limited consciousness hoping only to preserve ourselves until the danger is past.  (pp. 244; May, 1969)

Supplemental Materials

If You Know Nothing About Personality: 14 Rollo May

This video [5:27] features Dr. Ken Tangen introducing existentialism with a look at Rollo May. Although existentialism is known for its emphasis on anxiety, May offered a solution: love. Not the fluffy thinking of romantic love, but the solid thoughtful love that shows care, concern and a willingness to be helpful.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, June 25).  If you know nothing about personality: 14 Rollo May.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.