NPR logo Exploring The Metaphysics Of Love

Philosophy

Exploring The Metaphysics Of Love

What is love?
iStockphoto
What is love?
iStockphoto

Valentine's Day isn't just about flowers and chocolates and heart-shaped candies. It's fundamentally about love. And we all know what love is, right?

Well, not so fast. Is love an emotion? An experience? Is it a kind of desire? Is it possible to love a fictional person? To love more than one person? Is romantic love fundamentally different from other kinds of love?

Now that the sappy cards have been exchanged and the cupid-shaped chocolates devoured, we can move on from the Valentine's version of love to tackle the hard questions — the philosophical questions. That's what Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia, has been doing for the past year or so as part of a project titled "The Metaphysics of Love."

Professor Jenkins was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project by email:

As a philosopher, why are you interested in love?

Short answer: Everything about love is interesting! But I'm particularly intrigued by the fact that there are radically different theories of romantic love floating around. At one extreme, there's a kind of biological realism that says love is a natural and universal human drive, like thirst, that evolved so we could form monogamous bonds for long enough to raise children. At the other extreme, there are forms of social constructionism that say romantic love is a local and contingent cultural product that we've developed in order to regulate social life: something more comparable to the legal institution of marriage than to the biological phenomenon of thirst.

Whatever romantic love is, it has a history of breaking free from social constraints. But the interplay between those freedoms and constraints is complicated and continually evolving. As a philosopher, what draws me in is the prospect of drilling down into the details of the interactions between the social and the biological, and thinking about what kinds of change are possible (and desirable) in the future. What might romantic love look like in 10 years, or 20? And do we want to go there?

So, what is love?

I am not sure yet, but I'm working with a two-part hypothesis. The first part says that romantic love can be characterized by its place in a social structure or framework. The second part says that biological states of human animals play out the roles currently defined by that social framework. So it's not wrong to say romantic love is a social construct, and it's not wrong to say it's a natural, biological, phenomenon; we're just describing the world at different levels when we say those things.

To fill in a couple of details, the first part of the hypothesis is that romantic love forms a kind of nexus within a particular way of structuring social life, connecting up some important dots (things like affection and desire with things like marriage and commitment). This part of the view makes room for critiquing the way romantic love structures social life, the way that feminists have critiqued the role of romantic love in creating and maintaining harmful gender norms. Romantic love is not presented as a totally unalterable, universal, "natural" phenomenon: We don't just have to put up or shut up. (And perhaps it's worth emphasizing here that I'm focusing on the romanticness of romantic love when I suggest that it's largely a social matter.)

But I suspect it's also crucial to understand the biology of love — the neurochemistry, and the evolutionary history — to see the big picture. Our biology got there first, as it were, even if it wasn't always the biology of romantic love as it is now: Our dopamine and serotonin responses were developing long before the complex structure of contemporary social life existed, and may well outlast it. By understanding the biological side of love we can hope to get a handle on what it is that persists through social change, and inspect the ancient machinery that's now playing these much newer social roles.

People sometimes have the impression that philosophy is far removed from everyday life and that it has little practical relevance. How do you see your project extending beyond the ivory tower? Do you think it speaks to particular contemporary issues?

I think a lot of people make major life decisions based on whether they're in love, or in order to find love. But if we're making these decisions without any sense of what love is, they start to look like leaps into the dark. I take a leaf out of bell hooks' book here; she urges everyone not to avoid the question of what love is, because it's dangerous to do that: In the worst cases we can mistake abuse for love. There's also the perennial issue that what you mean by "I love you" might not be the same thing someone else hears when you say it. And when life choices are on the line, this kind of miscommunication is no laughing matter.

One ambition I have for my project is that it will encourage people to reflect on what "romantic love" means to them, and to the people they care about. It is possible to step back from cultural scripts that present romantic love as a package deal — hearts and flowers, sex, obsession, marriage, commitment, monogamy, eternity and all that. And once we have that bit of critical and philosophical distance, we are empowered to ask which (if any) of the items in the bundle are really part of "love" as we understand (or want) it. Thinking this way can ultimately provide us with new perspectives on contemporary issues like same-sex marriage, polyamory, gender stereotyping and divorce rates, to name just a few.

Has embarking on this research project changed the way you think about or experience love in your day-to-day life? If so, how?

Sometimes I've heard people express the worry that thinking about romantic love too much will "destroy the magic," or even make one bad at loving. But to be honest, even if I weren't doing this for my day job, I'm pretty sure the same thought processes would be chugging away in me at some level. So I don't think it makes much difference, except that this way I get to discuss the issues with more people! In general, overthinking is not something I've ever been too worried about. I'm much more concerned about underthinking, which is a serious problem when it comes to topics that have this awkward pair of features: They're really important, and they're really hard to understand. Romantic love is the perfect storm as far as that problem goes.

Is there a way for readers to learn more about this project or contribute to it?

Yes! I am inviting people to contribute their own take on what romantic love is, by tweeting with the hashtag #romanticloveis. To get beyond the stereotypes and assumptions, it's crucial to bring as many different perspectives to the table as possible. So I am always looking for more people to tell me what they think romantic love is!


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.