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Love & Romance

The Philosophy of Romantic Love

Peter Keeble says philosophy, like love, is a many-splendoured thing.

Philosophy is normally not shy in dealing with highly emotive issues: Philosophers often tell us what we should not do and that certain cherished beliefs are nonsense. However, not many modern philosophers have written about individual emotions, such as the feeling of romantic love. Yet it would seem a subject ripe for analysis of the kind that Phenomenologists do – to examine in a detailed, neutral way what it is like to be in love. Analytical philosophers have also occasionally dipped their toes in the subject. Romantic love therefore presents a chance to look at how these different forms of modern philosophy tackle the same topic, and compare their strengths and weaknesses.

A neat way of getting at the difference between the phenomenological and analytic approaches is to say that one looks at inner feelings, the other at outer meaning. Phenomenology makes no claims about reality beyond our experience, only about the content and structure of experience. Analytical philosophy, by contrast, is more interested in looking at concepts to ensure that we do not reach unjustified conclusions about ourselves, our world, and what we can know. Thus romantic love can be viewed phenomenologically as an experience of which you are the subject, and analytically as a concept and object of study. The one relies heavily on introspection – whether your own or reports from others – and the other on an analysis of meaning and usage.

We are looking specifically at romantic love here, not love of family or friends, not intellectual love, nor love of your neighbour. Nonetheless, romantic love has many facets and phases. Among these are: falling in love, infatuation, unreciprocated love, erotic love, love within a long-term relationship, falling out of love, unrequited love, and bereavement. They may not all have the same one thing in common, and so might best be grouped together in terms of Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblances’. In what follows I’ll be concentrating on falling in love and love within long-term relationships, which are closely allied.

Dance of Summer Love
Dance of Summer Love by Dror Rosenski, 2022

A. The Phenomenology of Love

The term ‘phenomenology’ can be used to describe the examination of experiences, as I mentioned, but it can also refer more specifically to the philosophical school centred on our experience of the world. A third meaning of ‘phenomenology’ is the body of alleged findings of particular phenomenological philosophers with regard to how our experiences are structured, as well as their practical or ethical implications.

There are two main schools of phenomenological analysis: Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic (or interpretative) phenomenology.

This is terrifying terminology! But put simply, Husserl’s approach, as applied to romantic love, requires us to be aware of all our preconceptions about love and then ‘bracket’ them off, in order to become a stranger in its strange land and observe our experience of it as objectively as possible.

This is already problematic for our present interests. For instance, is it not the case that any experience of love is to some extent moulded by our upbringing in a society that has written and sung so much about this emotion? If so, then our preconceptions about the experience are part of the experience! Indeed, isn’t the experience largely the product of such cultural influence? Maybe even more to the point: how will I know if I’ve rid myself of all the artificial biases of my perception of love? Perhaps it would require extensive training under the tutelage of some transcendental guru.

It is something of a relief to turn to Heidegger’s phenomenology, which gives interpretation a central role in our perceptions. Heidegger’s perspective recognises there is no way to separate yourself from the human world you are in. It is therefore necessary to try to make your personal experience and thinking explicit, in a statement of pre-understanding. Being aware of initial feelings about the experience being investigated should help ensure they are not smuggled back into what one reports.

Edmund Husserl
An unlikely love interest. Edmund Husserl, about 1910

Making this statement too is problematic, but let me have a go: I think I have a tendency to believe that love is a sometimes-unnervingly-overwhelming emotion that is often overrated as a justification for how people behave. Watch out that this preconception doesn’t sneak in without any evidence.

We now enter the hermeneutic circle. Here we break down the elements of the matter in hand – the experience of romantic love – and look at what each part adds to the whole and how they are related in the totality of the experience.

At this stage we must gather data about what it is like to be in love. The sources include our own introspections, and reports of other peoples’ introspections. When it comes to love, these include, for instance, popular song lyrics.

Collecting Experience Data

Introspection is considering how something appears or feels to you. In my case, looking at feelings of romantic love yielded among other things, what I think is a seldom remarked-on physiological factor, namely a sort of ache in the lower throat and upper chest. However, this is not peculiar to romantic love in my experience – it is similar to my experience of nostalgia or sympathy for a dying child or homesickness.

What of popular music? I was struck by this lyric from Jackie De Shannon, made popular by The Searchers: “I can feel a new expression on my face / I can feel a glowing sensation taking place / … Every time that you / Walk in the room” (‘When You Walk In The Room’, 1964). Here the uncontrollable and unbidden nature of the feeling is emphasised. Here it comes again, along with certainty, in Katie Melua’s ‘Nine Million Bicycles’ (2012): “There are nine million bicycles in Beijing / That’s a fact / It’s a thing we can’t deny / Like the fact that I will love you till I die.” While there is often a sexual element to the romantic experience, this is not always the case. This comes across in a traditional Somerset song collected by Cecil Sharp with the lines, ‘She looked so fine and nimble/ Washing all her linen, oh’ (“Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron’). Here the beloved is engaged in a mundane task, but there is something about the way it is done that manifests qualities that the lover appreciates.

Romantic love may simply be an appreciation of and attraction to physical beauty. However, the experience of love may also be much more than mere appreciation, but transformative, even a matter of life and death. There are so many examples of this in music: here are two. The first was written in 1958 by Philip Spector and performed by the Teddy Bears: “Just to see him smile / Makes my life worthwhile”. In 1970, just before her death, Janis Joplin sang, “But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday / To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine” (‘Me & Bobby Magee’). So overwhelming may the experience of love be that it can seem irrational – as when Dusty Springfield sings, “No matter what you do / I only want to be with you” (1964). This can spill over into a rather unpleasant possessiveness, such as “I want you no matter what you do” – as sung by the Four Seasons in 1966 (‘Opus 17’).

Here we have collected some data about what people say it is like to be in love. But this seems to only be a collection of factoids – interesting and thought-provoking, no doubt, but no more than open-minded social research.

Does it help to gather these insights into one overarching description of what it’s like to be in love? Doing so might produce the following: to be in love is to experience a strong emotion we’re often unable to control that’s accompanied by a sort of ache and an overwhelming admiration for someone, along with a possibly irrational desire to be in their presence and to help them. Put more succinctly, Love is a powerful experience centred on one other person that enriches your whole perspective on life, apparently forever.

This certainly helps to tease out the various aspects of what we experience when in love, but it is not particularly philosophical, more a survey of popular culture ideas about love. Nothing about romantic love necessarily follows from it, such as how we should respond to it. With the benefit of these insights we might be more likely to indulge the strange behaviour of those who claim to be in love: but we might just as well conclude that we should not do so.

Heidegger in Love (Perhaps)

At this stage I turned to various summaries of Heidegger’s phenomenology. In what follows I try to apply these analyses to the nature of romantic love. I should emphasise that this is not taken directly from Heidegger. Rather, it is an attempt to apply his conceptual system to romantic love, and to illustrate how a hermeneutic phenomenologist might turn experiential data into something more profound.

For Heidegger we are inherently social beings who experience and operate through interpretation in such a way that we already see the world, and the loved one, in a particular and to some extent socially-determined way.

Heidegger thought we always see an object as something; in other words, we cannot but be always wearing our cultural spectacles. If I see a door, I see it not as a meaningless piece of wood that I afterwards interpret as an entrance; on the contrary, when I see it, I see it as an entrance. In this sort of way, one’s experiences of love represent a particular way of interpreting one’s experience of another person, the beloved. Love is indeed a very intense example of how we don’t see other people as mere humanoids, or shapes, but rather as people of a certain kind. We do not see a person and then think we love them. Instead, once we’re in love, the other person immediately presents to us as someone we want to be in the presence of and to do good to because they enrich our perspective on life. We feel, to use a phenomenological term, that we want to ‘fuse our horizon’ with them. We want to fuse horizons with another being, and to forge a sort of third being in the interaction between lover and beloved – one which contains some of the qualities of both.

Unless we’re particularly self-conscious, this perception steals up on us. Perhaps on first meeting we just saw another person; but once in love we see the beloved with all their qualities and our shared history, in one gestalt experience. This is what Heidegger calls a ‘coping state’ – one in which we are not fully aware of what we’re doing, in the same sort of way an accomplished carpenter is not particularly aware of the hammer they’re using. If something goes wrong with the hammer, or with the love relationship, we are jolted out of our coping state and pay it attention. That’s analogous to what happens when we first fall in love – our normal state of chugging along is suddenly shaken up by the awareness of love. It disturbs our everyday coping state.

To introduce a bit more of Heidegger’s terminology, in your interactions with your beloved, you see them as useful to your life project. You are projecting a different future which gives your life further (or some) meaning. I think Heidegger would also say when we are in love we see at least some of the essence of the beloved. But there is also a danger that our feelings are inauthentic and the product of the cliched ‘they’ world – in Heidegger’s German, the world of ‘das Mann’. This is why we must pay particular attention to what we actually feel in order to determine whether it is true love. We might see the sort of love lyrics we’ve just looked at as a guide or litmus test for love.

There are clear links with existentialism here. The authenticity of your love may not lead you into any different behaviours than your inauthentic neighbours, but it might. For instance, authentic love may well decide to break some social taboos of the ‘they world’, regarding race, sex, or age, for instance.

This is fascinating, and perhaps useful. However, it seems to me essentially arbitrary. A pre-existing Heideggerian ideology of authenticity has been bolted on to the experiences of love outlined above. It reveals some possible insights into the experience of love, but it’s like a sculpture adorning an office block, in that it does not have to be that specific sculpture. Another sculpture in a different style would work as well and could have revealed and emphasised other aspects of love. Feminism, Marxism, or evolutionary psychology could just as easily have been bolted on to the experience.

B. Romantic Love: Analytical Philosophy’s Perspective

One approach of analytical philosophy applied to love has highlighted dilemmas of fungibility. If love is based on properties of the beloved then this suggests the beloved can be replaced by someone with similar or superior versions of these properties. If, however, the beloved is irreplaceable because of a history of shared experiences, the possibility arises of being trapped forever with a partner who may change and become less desirable. Here, however, I will concentrate on Gabriele Taylor’s examination of whether we are entitled to pass comment on the appropriateness of somebody’s claim to love another person.

In her article ‘Love’ (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 76, 1976), Taylor asks whether falling in love, which we tend to think of as a bolt out of the blue that cannot be questioned, is so different from a large set of other emotions where we can feel justified in questioning whether the feeling is reasonable. She suggests we can question infatuation too. First, she points out that it is the structure of other emotions, such as fear, which enables us to make judgements as to their reasonableness. Fear involves someone thinking that an object, animal, or person has certain determinable qualities which result in and may (or may not) justify that emotion. Suppose, for instance that Sheila fears a cobra because she believes it is venomous. From this we infer:

• Sheila must have some relevant want. In this case, not to be killed.

• Sheila must believe the snake has the determinable quality of being venomous.

• Sheila must believe there is a causal connection between the determinable quality (venomous) and her want (to stay alive).

• The determinable quality can’t be just anything: it must explain the emotion.

So there are criteria by which we can judge if the emotion of fear is justified in any particular case. On closer inspection, we may find that Sheila is wrong in thinking the cobra in front of her is venomous; she may even be wrong in believing it is a snake and not a stick. Or she may not know that the snake is venomous and could kill her, but be fearful of it for some absurd reason, such as an intense dislike of spaghetti.

Taylor claims that there seems to be no comparable structure for love. What is the determinate quality of the object of your love? Lovability ? But this seems too empty and subjective to be useful – so much so that it is a tautology rather than a possible explanation, What, we feel entitled to ask, are the specific properties of lovability that justifiably inspire love? They surely vary markedly from person to person. Nonetheless, Taylor says, although there may not be easily-identified determinable qualities for love, we can observe the common wants of those who are in love. These include:

• A wanting to be with B

• A wanting to communicate with B

• A wanting to cherish and benefit B

• A wanting B to take an interest in A (and for B to admire them – hence all that showing off)

In relation to qualities, most of us will deem these wants to be justifiable if A identifies that B is kindly, or attractive, or has a sense of humour, for example. All that is reasonable. But we would not think it reasonable for A to love B if she thought B was a crushing bore. She might love B despite thinking him a crushing bore, but it would be absurd to love him because she recognises his extreme boorishness.

Taylor concludes that we can ask whether it is reasonable for someone to be in love. However, this is not so much because of easily identifiable characteristics, as in the case of fear (for example, the object of fear has features that are dangerous; and everyone knows cobras are dangerous). Lovable characteristics are to a greater extent in the eye of the beholder, whose wants may also be less clear. Nevertheless, there are some limits on what is reasonable in love. The properties of the beloved must not directly contradict the wants of the lover.

I think Taylor is correct that it is possible to make judgements about whether people are really in love, but I believe her to be wrong in saying that there is a difference in kind between love and, say, fear. Love and fear may be better thought of as placed on a continuum of emotions. At the ‘fear’ end are emotions whose objects have more objective criteria with wider public agreement. At the ‘love’ end. the opposite is true.

Rose © Paul Gregory 2022

The reason we can be so sure about the reasonableness or otherwise of fear, is that there are more clearly objective criteria for identifying fearsome qualities, such as those of a cobra, which most of us would agree are fearsome. However, it seems that the criteria for lovability are more numerous, more subtle, and more subjective. Still, we do expect there to be some identifiable qualities in the beloved that the lover could with some thought identify – and, moreover, some of those qualities (such as being a crushing bore) would be seen as unlovable. Ultimately, who we fall in love with is a bit of an enigma, but not a total mystery. And in any case, doesn’t infatuation have an analogue with the irrational fears known as phobias? As with infatuation, there often seems to be no objective reason for a phobic emotion.

Taylor goes on to consider situations where we might be inclined to argue with someone about the reasonableness of their proclaimed love. For example, it may be obvious that B does not possess the spontaneous sense of humour that A thinks they have. Or it may be clear that B dislikes A. Or A may have an inflated belief that marriage will solve all B’s shortcoming. In each of these situations we would feel justified in sitting down with A and having a good heart to heart with them.

Finally, Taylor looks at examples where someone proclaiming their love does so for all the wrong reasons, including where the love is overly coloured by the lover’s interests. In an example taken from Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, Taylor tells us that Helmer’s love for Nora is unreasonable because it requires Nora to remain passive rather than develop into a fully rounded person in her own right.

Some Conclusions

I have argued that phenomenology is good at identifying and appreciating an emotion like love, but may bring an arbitrary ideology to bear as a response to it. Analytical philosophy may provisionally assume an understanding of love, before going on to reveal controversies and insights, such as concerning our ability to judge another’s love.

I think that phenomenology and analytical philosophy are not mutually exclusive but collectively revealing. Philosophy, like love, is a many-splendoured thing.

© Peter Keeble 2022

Peter Keeble is a retired local government research officer and teacher in London.

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