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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Kissing

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

“Let no one whom he has in mind to kiss refuse to be kissed by him”, wrote Plato in his Republic. Well, in these #MeToo times there can be plenty of reasons for refusing to be kissed. This was recognised by some philosophers. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eponymous young hero Emile’s desire to kiss Sophie was not reciprocated: “She turns away… She resists feebly.” (Emile, 1762).

But, in fairness, most of the philosophers who have covered this subject have been interested mainly in kissing between consenting adults. Martin Heidegger, for example, wrote a love letter in which he informed his lover that kisses stimulated his work: “with a kiss on your pure brow, [I] take the honour of your being into my work.” (Briefe 1925-1975, p.135).

The woman to whom this letter was addressed, it may not surprise you to learn, was Hannah Arendt. And she too had a developed sense of the importance of smooching. Great philosophers, remarked the author of The Human Condition, “cannot think without kisses.” (At least, according to the movie Hannah Arendt she said this!) So when Nietzsche wrote that his eponymous Zarathustra “desired to be kissed”, it was totally understandable. (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883).

So far it would seem that the philosophy of kissing is the preserve of Continental philosophers. This of course is not the case. Though not long ago the Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff despairingly wrote an article on ‘Why Philosophy of Art Cannot Handle Kissing’. (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2003).

One can ponder the status of kisses and reflect on Marilyn Monroe’s tautological statement that “a kiss is a kiss.” Søren Kierkegaard – another Continental writer on the subject – disagreed. In his arguably most influential work, Either-Or (1843), the Danish existentialist confessed that he had considered writing a whole treatise on kissing, and that he was working on a typology. And, he went on, “One… makes a Difference between the first Kiss and all the others. What is reflected on here is incommensurable for what appears in the other divisions; it is indifferent to the sound, the touch, the time in general.” (Either-Or p.404).

Philosophers always theorize. That is their business. Poets get straight to the point. The ancient Roman poet Ovid was a good example: “I could wish you well with kisses.” (Ex Ponto, IV, ix, 13).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2022

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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