bell hooks’s Definition of Love: Aiding Spiritual Growth

What is bell hooks’s definition of love? Why does love require reciprocity and trust?

bell hooks’s definition of love is an act that develops one’s spiritual growth. Although she uses this definition in her book All About Love, she credits the meaning of love to M. Scott Peck.

Continue reading to learn more about Peck and hooks’s shared meaning of love.

What Love Is

bell hooks’s definition of love comes from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. In his book The Road Less Traveled, Peck defines love as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” 

What Is Spiritual Growth?

In The Road Less Traveled, Peck does not provide a concrete definition of spiritual growth but suggests it’s a lifelong process of becoming increasingly aware of one’s own inner nature and of one’s relationship to the universe and God.

He outlines four stages of spiritual growth:

I. Antisocial: People in this stage often pretend to be loving and virtuous, but in reality, their relationships with others are primarily manipulative and self-serving. They don’t genuinely care about anyone else.

II. Institutional: In this stage, people follow rules and laws, often set by institutions. However, they don’t fully understand the deeper meaning behind these rules. As a result, they can be inflexible, closed-minded, and focused on strict adherence to the rules. They rely on their beliefs to escape their fear of the unknown.

III. Individual: In this stage, people are skeptics and individual thinkers. They question and seek logical explanations, often leaning toward atheism, agnosticism, or a scientific mindset. Although they may not believe in traditional religious teachings, individuals in Stage III are often more spiritually evolved than those who remain in Stage II because they value independence and think for themselves. 

IV. Communal: In this stage, people develop a sense of communal connection. Motivated by love and a dedication to the greater whole, they transcend differences to embrace the idea of a global community. They recognize the interconnectedness of humanity with the divine and see the divine within people regardless of their faith.

hooks acknowledges the word “spiritual” may not resonate with everyone because of its religious connotations. However, she explains, spirituality does not inherently imply any religious affiliation. She clarifies that in this context, “spiritual” refers to an internal sense of self that goes beyond mind and body—what some people may call a soul or spirit, your innermost self. 

(Shortform note: While hooks’s definition of spirituality focuses on the sanctity of an inner self, in Waking Up, Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher and scientist, offers a different perspective on spirituality. He suggests that spirituality is about recognizing that our sense of self is illusory. Harris defines spirituality as the process of exploring our consciousness in a way that helps us see through the illusion that our identity is solely based on our thoughts and emotions. According to Harris, a spiritual experience is the feeling of transcending your limited existence and freeing yourself from the constant cycle of anxiety, longing, sadness, and pain.)

In her discussion of Peck’s definition, hooks highlights his description of love as an active choice, emphasizing that it is not an innate quality or feeling but rather a decision to nurture growth in yourself and others. Genuine love requires committed action and discipline. We choose to commit because we understand that not committing will have a harmful effect on the growth of the relationship, but more importantly, the growth of the individuals in it. 

(Shortform note: Peck emphasizes that because love is an act of will, you can act in a loving way toward people for whom you have no loving feelings. This means that you have the power (and the choice) to extend compassion and generosity to other people, regardless of how you feel about them.)

hooks goes on to explain that love requires not only intentional action, but also reciprocity and trust.


While not explicit in Peck’s definition, hooks explains that love is always an act of reciprocity, in that both people take responsibility for nurturing the relationship. 

Does Genuine Love Require Reciprocity?

In The Art of Loving, philosopher Erich Fromm argues that genuine love should have no expectation of reciprocity. According to Fromm, within the context of capitalism, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of reciprocity—of giving in order to get something in return. He argues that genuine love is about giving someone time and energy without the expectation of getting anything in return.

However, others argue that genuine love must include some measure of reciprocity. In that view, giving someone endless time and energy without expecting anything in return is an unhealthy practice. Instead, genuinely loving relationships should be interdependent: Both partners should be able to count on receiving affection, attention, and trust from the other. This expectation isn’t rooted in capitalism—it’s rooted in the understanding that all healthy relationships require give and take.

hooks argues that patriarchy has belittled this kind of investment in another person, relegating it to the responsibility of women. Instead of mutual care, patriarchy upholds the value of power and control. According to hooks, when power is the primary focus in a relationship, both men and women end up vying for control over the other person, whether that be through physical force, verbal abuse, financial control, or manipulation. 

(Shortform note: Patriarchy is a set of values and beliefs embedded in political, social, and economic structures that upholds male control and authority while marginalizing and devaluing women. Symptoms of patriarchy can be observed in gender-based violence, discrepancies in pay, underrepresentation of women in decision-making roles, double standards, objectification and sexualization of women, and control over reproductive choices. However, some scholars criticize patriarchy as an analytical tool, arguing that its conceptualization of unequal relations between men and women is overly general and fails to capture the complexities of gender dynamics.)

hooks explains that love won’t grow in a relationship where the primary focus is power because the search for power is inherently selfish. Loving someone requires us to move past the pervasive selfishness of our culture and become fully invested in the well-being of another person. However, hooks acknowledges that when we relinquish power, we often relinquish a feeling of control, leaving us feeling vulnerable and in search of something we can trust.

(Shortform note: While hooks argues that the pursuit of power is incompatible with true love, relationship expert Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, argues that power imbalances are often fundamental to sexual desire, which she believes is crucial to romantic partnership. Perel encourages couples to use power dynamics in consensual, compartmentalized, erotic spaces, while maintaining egalitarianism in other aspects of the relationship.)


hooks argues that love is predicated on trust. We live in a society where lying has not only become normalized, but also encouraged. People lie every day—to save face, to avoid punishment, or to circumvent hurting someone else’s feelings. hooks explains that we learn from a young age that lying often serves us better than telling the truth. 

(Shortform note: While many relationship experts discuss the importance of trust in loving relationships, they don’t always agree on the definition. For example, John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, authors of Eight Dates, define trust as the conviction that your partner values you and will be there to support you. However, Perel (Mating in Captivity) defines trust as a confident engagement with the unknown. Perel argues that trust isn’t necessarily about the belief that your partner will always be there or take care of you, but the confidence that when you and your partner make a mistake or cause harm to one another, you’ll come back together, heal, and move forward.)

hooks highlights the way that patriarchy encourages duplicity for men and women. For example, from an early age, boys are discouraged from showing any sign of vulnerability, as it’s considered a sign of weakness and a feminine trait. As a result, many men feel compelled to hide or deny their true feelings, leading to emotional dishonesty and a disconnection from their authentic selves. Women also engage in self-deception by denying their own authentic experiences and desires. They are taught to suppress their true feelings in order to prioritize the needs of others and to maintain harmony and avoid conflict. Ultimately, people of both sexes suffer because they don’t have the opportunity to be their full, honest selves with another person.

(Shortform note: While hooks points to patriarchy as the root cause of dishonesty, Aziz Gazipura, author of Not Nice, blames the cultural obsession with being liked. He argues that lying is often linked to a fear of rejection or negative judgment from others. Driven by a desire to protect oneself from potential criticism or disapproval, individuals often resort to lying as a means of self-preservation and to maintain a positive self-image in the eyes of others.)

bell hooks’s Definition of Love: Aiding Spiritual Growth

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  • How a commitment to love can reshape our society for the better
  • The power of love from a feminist perspective
  • Why romantic love is not the most important form of love

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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