Unthinkable: Does thinking about love kill the passion?

A philosophical tip for St Valentine’s Day: ‘You can very easily talk yourself out of love,’ says philosopher Noel Kavanagh

Professional philosophers are much more comfortable talking about abstruse concepts and impenetrable theoretical frameworks than everyday subjects such as love. It's not just that you're getting down to the level of a Hallmark St Valentine's Day card, but romantic love is so plainly a realm of unreason that any self-regarding academic will duck the conversation.

Not so Dr Noel Kavanagh, lecturer in philosophy at Carlow College. He did his PhD on philosophical approaches to love through the ages and has kept up a research interest since with a keen eye to love's expression through popular culture.

Explaining his thesis in a nutshell, he says: “We traditionally have been caught up in the appearance-versus-reality debate in relation to love: is it real or simply a figment of our imaginations?” This question, he says, “represents a false dichotomy”.

Hence, today's idea: "Love is entirely a figment of our imaginations and is no less real because of it."


How can love be both imaginary and real?

Noel Kavanagh: “We have created two ideas of love within the western philosophical tradition. One is the idea of love as external metaphysical force that descends on us, bringing together two lovers destined to be with each other through space and time. This is thought through from Plato’s Theory of Forms to the idea of the Christian loving god.

"I also think we have created the idea of 'true' love as inherently tragic to ameliorate the fact that we can never achieve this idealisation of love we have created for ourselves. We find this first, I think, in Aristophanes account of love in the Symposium.

"From Michael Bublé telling us that he and his intended are going to have a great life together but he just hasn't met [that person] yet, to Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Tristan and Isolde, and back to most great popular love songs, these two ideas counterpoint one another.

"So, along with Tom Cruise telling René Zellweger that she 'completes him', we also get Adele singing Someone Like You. Our lot is to bounce back and forward between these two ideas of love, from unachievable idealised, perfect love to the value of love as tragic, one to cure the other: the appearance and reality of love."

What song best explains love?

"All of our love songs tend to articulate one or the other of these ideas and perhaps the best of them incorporate the two, the aimed-for perfection of love and the perhaps inevitably tragi-romantic idea of the failure of that love.

“We love a song that speaks to that and I think we regard them as more ‘authentic‘ than others that are perhaps optimistically one-dimensional.

"Personally, I like From A Late Night Train by The Blue Nile. It expresses that tragi- romantic idea of a moment in time on a late night train: the relationship is now over but he is still holding on to the idea of true love that he simply can't let go of.

"I think Poker Face by Lady Gaga is really interesting too, in that it raises a scenario that perhaps suggests there is no real face of love but only unending masks."

What’s the most misleading – or intellectually dishonest – song about love, in your view? 

“I honestly don’t think you can have one. Perhaps all cultural depictions of love are misleading in that sense and can only be what Nietzsche might refer to as ‘

flabby generalisations’. If psychoanalytic theory is right, then all love is simply a case of mistaken identity: I love someone because they remind me of someone else and so on into the labyrinth of love.

“Perhaps love is something that is so particular, unique and irreducible, it resists all talk or description ultimately. I think this is perhaps the thing that haunts most philosophers when we come to talk of love; we risk coming off like love fundamentalists if we look to say something of the order that ‘this is what love is all about’.”

Why don’t pop stars ever incorporate developments in neuroscience into their lyrics? We know a lot more today about the brain activity behind passionate emotions, but you wouldn’t know it from contemporary cultural depictions of love.

“Perhaps it is as simple as the lack of a good rhyming scheme that could incorporate the word ‘neuropeptide’. Maybe it is the case that the current ideas of love, that are relatively new, have yet to work their way into our shared cultural ideas. It could very well take a while yet for us to see that manifest itself in the top 40.”

How does one know if one is in love? 

“Perhaps one never really knows whether you are ever in love, as such. You can only ever tell if you are not in love. Hölderlin once exclaimed in relation to love that ‘man is a god when he dreams, a beggar when he reflects’. The lesson here, perhaps, is that thinking about it can be perhaps counterproductive. You can very easily talk yourself out of love.”


Twitter @JoeHumphreys42