My World View: Love

My thoughts on “love” — a philosophical and semantic essay. A highly intelligent woman friend of mine in Germany once asked me what I thought love was and here I try (in English) to recreate, and expand upon, what I tried to explain to her (in German) back then.

The level at which I approach this topic, and what I say here, may (to some) seem trivial; however, I approach all supposedly big philosophical questions — initially, at least — from the starting point of semantics: how to people use a word in its various grammatical roles) and what do they really mean by it?

If you think this is lazy or shallow, I would remind you that it was the essential approach to all supposedly big philosophical questions taken by the post-WW2 Oxford philosophers. See my Linguistic philosophy.


  1. If it is a noun, the word “love” is an abstract noun — so much at least is a truism; it is a label attached by most people to any one of, and also to any combination of, a collection of emotions experienced by human beings and (arguably) by at least some animals [Note 2].
  2. As an abstract noun, the word “love” is used as though it refers first, to a property of a collection of relationships, and second, to an imaginary "stuff", almost a commodity. Let us look at usage.
    As a property:
    • “He offered her his coat when it started to rain! can this be love?”
    • “Mum”, said Mary, “How do you know when you have fallen in love?”
    As an imaginary "stuff", almost a commodity, although it is obviously just a figure of speech because it is self-evidently unquantifiable, many people talk about it as though it is something of which each person has a certain supply which they have to share out among those with whom (s)he has such a relationship, as in:
    • “I have so much love to give and nobody to give it to!”
    • (On greetings, labels or inscriptions on gifts etc.) “To X, with all my love”
    What is absolutely crucial to remember here is that all such usage is a figure of speech, or if you like poetic licence; there is no such stuff, no such thing as love. A friend of mine was appalled at this last statement. [Note 1] He totally missed the point. I repeat: the use of this word as a noun is a figure of speech; so which? Well, it is almost like a metaphor, but in reverse: instead of the word being borrowed from another realm in life, the way it is used is borrowed: the references to it as a commodity or stuff and what one can do with it are borrowed from the world of trading in (say) some foodstuff or precious metal. Indeed the fact that the word is used as a noun is borrowed because as such there is nothing to which it can refer. This usage occurs with a few other abstract nouns such as “luck,” or “happiness,” but not to many. Talk of sharing it around, and how much there is to be had, and wishing somebody (say) “all the luck in the world” are comparable.
  3. If it is a verb, the word “love” means — very simply — to experience any one of, or any combination of, that same collection of emotions referred to in the definition of the abstract noun. As with the semantics of belief, the semantics of love are really very basic: living beings experience a wide range of what are called emotions; some of those emotions are described or identified as “love” and in many human languages a verb exists of which the meaning, albeit highly ambiguously, is (simply put) to experience any subset of that set of emotions.
  4. Of the emotions identified as being in the set referred to as love, some can be identified as some form of mental state resembling or involving euphoria associated with the object of the affection ("object" meaning the person or animal or thing loved), and some can be identified as less disturbing, as more nearly a feeling of inner warmth or contentment associated with that person (or animal or thing). These two sorts are very different, and the experience of the first can be very disturbing whereas the second is (generally) just reassuring. The combination of the two can clearly prove quite intoxicating [Note 3], whereas the first kind alone can evidently make the one experiencing it wish it would stop. [Note 6],
  5. Recognition

  6. People often assume that everybody shares the same idea of what is meant by the various labels (“anger”, “grief”, “happiness”, and so on), and of what it is like to experience each of them. However, I reckon that this assumption needs to be questioned. I think there is a lot of evidence that what people mean by the words, and what they experience in particular situations presumed likely to stir particular emotions, may vary quite a lot; and I think many psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts would also take this view.

    Emotions can often be described to others most clearly in terms of what the emotion makes the person (or animal) experiencing it want to do. This perspective is a very good way of talking about belief, and also, it turns out, for talking about love; but here there are two other ways as well.
  7. The different emotions collectively referred to as love can be differentiated from each other in three ways:
    • by the type of person that most generally experiences each type of love
    • by the type of person or animal or thing that is most generally the object of each type of love
    • by the actions that each type of love generally tends to provoke in the person experiencing it [Note 4].
  8. One kind of love is the love of a person for a thing — an object, or a commodity — and this generally provokes excessive zeal at acquiring the commodity or (in the case of a particular thing) in spending money on and time with the thing.
    An example of such a commodity is money itself; hence the well known much quoted (and misquoted) verse (from 1 Timothy 6:10): ‘The love of money is the root of all evil” [Note 5].
    An example of an object is a vintage motor car that needs a great deal of money and time spent on it to restore it to pristine condition and then to maintain, let alone run it.
  9. Another kind of love is the love of a young man for a pretty girl. His emotions are often confused, but entail misery either (if he has not yet told her how he feels) because of fears that she will not like him or will think he is not good enough for her, or else (if he has told her) when her response is to reject him.

    Of course, the man who is not so young may well feel the same kind of love; but often, with an older man, previous experience will alter the whole experience somewhat.

    Huge numbers of love songs, from pop ballads to operatic arias, have been written expressing the first big love experience of young men for the first girl they fall for in a big way. The topic is perhaps the most abiding cliché of all time.

    One reason for this is that there is a tradition that a young man sings to his girl to try to woo her, and this is shown in art as far back as the mediaeval troubadours, through the lyric tenors of opera (say, Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore) to the young male singers and boy bands of pop music. Indeed, it is evident as far back as the most ancient myths and legends: look at the story of Orpheus and Euridice.

    The tendency of young men to sing is a stereotyped version of a general tendency among such men in love to want to use extravagent gestures to express their feelings to the girl in question. It is also a cliché that each young man imagines at the time that he is the first person in the history of the planet to have felt what he is going through. (Now, girls: when she falls in love, she thnks she’s the first girl etc. too; somehow, neither can imagine that their own parents probably went through exactly the same emotions at a similar age.)

    Another fundamental tendency in young men is the sexual desire for the woman, which (until very recent years at any rate) was generally supposed to be far stronger than any desire by the typical young woman to reciprocate on that level. Traditional western society approved of this in both after marriage, but not before; the mismatch between the strength of this kind of desire respectively in men and women of the same age because of the differing profiles of this through the adult life cycle, plus the tradition of men being attracted to women quite a lot younger than themselves (rather than the other way round), led through the ages to disharmony. Nowadays an age gap in the other direction is also acceptable to some older women and some younger men; but this can tend to attract attention.
  10. The love of a young woman for a handsome man might be supposed to be the same as that of a young man for a girl, but the vast amount of literary evidence suggests that the two are usually somewhat different, even at the beginning. It is quite possible that for some less innocent and more brazen young women the difference is smaller, at least for a certain phase in their development, but it would appear that even they generally tend back towards a female experience that is a little different from a man’s. Of course, some of our writers will ascribe an evolutionary reason for this; and they may well be correct. If they are, some feminists may be disappointed if they attempt to minimize this pattern of difference.
  11. The love of the older man for his wife, that is, after they have been married some time, is sometimes more of another kind of love, with perhaps some of the young man’s kind gradually fading and being replaced by the strong urge to provide for his wife, to have children with her, and to provide for those children.
  12. The love of a man for his children (in isolation from that for his wife) is different from that for his wife, or should be, in that (obviously) marital desire should not be in that mix. If danger threatens there will be a strong element of desire to protect them from harm and to give them the best of everything. However, not every father exhibits this equally strongly, and some may not show it much at all.
  13. The love of a woman for her children is a bit different from that of a man for his. In common is the desire to protect from danger, but the experience of childbirth appears in many cases to result in something even stronger and deeper in mothers than is generally seen in fathers.
  14. The love of brothers and sisters for each other is evidently extremely variable, but where present can be strong and is different again in nature, both in the emotions felt and in what actions it tends to provoke. Brothers may want to protect beloved sisters from harm just as fathers do children and husbands wives; sisters may want to protect brothers as mothers do children and wives do husbands. Away from threats of danger, however, the degree of drive to care for each other is evidently very different even from one pair of siblings to another in the same family: even among just three siblings A, B, and C, in the pairs A-B and A-C, A may feel quite different.
  15. The love between some elderly couples who have been together a long time is evidently different again from what it was even between the same couple in their youth and in their middle age. The feelings evolve as do the drives to action for each other, so the mix is not static across the years.
  16. The love of a child for each of his or her parents is another different set of emotions and desires to action. A child is often very powerfully driven to do, to achieve, something that will win the approval of each parent. This drive to achieve something begins very early, and is probably already there in toddlers; and for some perople it persists into adult life even to the death of the parent, especially if the longed-for approval is consistently denied by one parent. An adult will on the other hand often feel towards a frail elderly parent as a younger parent does toward a small child: they want to take care of them and protect them from harm, because of their greater vulnerability.
  17. There is often a quite different type of love again among good friends, and between comrades (including comrades in arms); and this does not refer (incidentally) to homosexual couples, but to what are simply close, devoted, platonic friendships. The emotions are typically just caring a lot about the other’s well-being and wanting to protect them from harm or hurt.
  18. What is the problem?

  19. What appears to confuse a lot of people not used to careful analytic thought and the examination of sometimes fine distinctions, particularly those not subtle in their understanding of semantics, is the simple fact that the same word "love" is used of all these kinds of relationship. Of course there are noun phrases such as "a mother’s love", "brotherly love" "courtly love", and others that purport to distinguish them; however although it should be obvious to everybody that these kinds of love are different, it is rather easy to forget how different because of the simple fact of the word "love" itself being there in the labels of all of them. It is all too easy to forget this when thinking about love.
  20. Most people give quite a lot of thought to the subject of love at various times in their lives. From the teenage girl asking her mother how a person knows whether or not they are in love with somebody, to a son or daughter — perhaps in late middle age themselves already — agonizing over whether if they really love their aged, probably widowed, parent with encroaching senile dementia it is the right thing to do to find them a place in a care home, people agonize over what love is, whether they really love somebody at the moment, and (if so) how much, and in any case what to do about it.


Note 1

Therefore from a scientific, empirical — if you like, ontological — point of view, there is no such thing as love (as such; but see Note 7. ). However, be careful: one of my long-standing friends (I have known him some 35 years), W.D.Zitzkat (nowadays a lawyer in Connecticut), wrote in an email to me (in February 2009):
Love is a drug, an hallucinogenic! It causes you to see things that aren’t there, and be blind to things that are. It is midnight and afternoon at the same time. Love is what gives meaning to the universe.
He went on to claim that perhaps I had never experienced it. The reason his argumentation is void is that everything he said in the abover quotation was metaphor. It was the stuff of poetry, if you like. His subsequent assertions were therefore as foolish as those of the people who still now (I write this in 2009) repeat the interview fragment in which Margaret Thatcher said: “There is no such thing as society”. The latter is always taken out of context. She had been asked whether she didn’t think that “society” ought to pay for something, and the point she was making was that when people talk about “society” paying for something they were evading the reality by implying that there was some external source of money called “society” that was available to fund public expenditure whereas they were in reality saying that we, all of us, the taxpayers, should pay for it.

In the same way, here, attacking on one basis a remark made on another basis is pure sophistry. To anybody who rejects my observation that there is no such "thing" or "stuff" as love, I say: “OK, if there is such stuff as love, where do we get it from? Do we mine it? Or grow it in fields? Or does it come into the atmosphere on meteorites? What is its chemical composition? How much a pound does it cost? Which commodity market trades in it? There must be a lot of it about because almost everybody talks about it.” In my reply to my friend’s outburst I asked:
Love is a drug, eh? OK. Where can I buy it? How much per ounce (28g.) is it on the street? Can I get it on prescription? What is the molecular structure? Has the FDA approved its possession & use in the USA? Or will I get arrested if caught with it by the police?
In short, introducing metaphor into a philosophical or semantic discussion without saying so (that is, using it and then referring to the image in the metaphor as though it were literal and not metaphor) is stupid and makes the continuation of serious discussion impossible.

Note 2

That animals experience love will be ignored for brevity in most of the following. It is a rather different, even more empirical, subject that needs a separate essay.

Note 3

The wrong combination, indeed perhaps in many cases the (extremely unfortunate) confusion in the individual’s mind, of the one with the other of these two intrinsically rather different sorts of love (the “desire” kind with the “urge to care for and nurture” kind) is perhaps, or presumably, the origin of the phenomenon called paedophilia.

Note 4

Here, by “tends to provoke” I mean not “provokes in typical cases” but rather “induces a tendency to experience or exhibit”

Note 5

This remark by Paul is of course arrant nonsense, like so much of what he wrote. The hatred, for all of humanity that does not shared their extreme religious bigotry, of the islamist terrorists in the world nowadays who are determined to destroy all non-muslim life on the planet is not caused by money, although lack of money and of career opportunities might quite possibly have been a factor in recruiting some of the stupid young men who are recruited to that faction. However, their hatred is an evil in the world, as is 9of course) the hatred for the rest of us of their extremist christian counterparts.

Note 6

All the remarks about what is called love in the list of different categories of relationship may read like a collection of platitudes or truisms; I do not claim to have anything strikinglyly new to say on the subject. However the sheer length of the list of different relationships, and (as appears to be rather obvious when set out like this) the observations about precisely what actions the range of emotions that are all called “love” provoke in the individuals in each of those relationships, should make it abundantly clear that all alk about “love” without extensive qualification can only ever be a shorthand — given these semantic difficulties, rather a lazy one — so that everything said about love — yes, all the vast literature, the psychology, the songs and poetry — needs to be read or heard with all the necessary caution that such a difficulty implies.

Note 7: the scientific study of love

Science does not treat of “love” as such because it is an abstraction, not an object or a substance in itself, and because as such many aspects of it are better dealt with by literature, such as love poetry and the lyrics of songs, so from an academic standpoint work on it belongs, if anywhere, in the literature or modern languages departments — the humanities faculties — of the universities rather than in the science faculties.

However, the processes by which human beings, and members of other mammalian species to which the phenomenon applies, experience love can perfectly well be studied by science, and indeed are being studied successfully.

One department of such study is biochemistry; others are psychology, genetics, neurology. First, biochemistry. Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. It plays a major part in the sensations, moods and feelings associated with the phenomenon called love. (This much at least isn't new science: oxytocin has the distinction of being the very first polypeptide hormone to be sequenced and synthesized biochemically, in 1953.) Thus quite a lot of the actual biological mechanisms that are involved in the mental and practical occurrences associated with the abstraction called “love” can be described very well scientifically in terms of processes involving levels of hormones including, in particular, that one.

Psychology: Professors Karen Wynne & Paul Bloom of Yale University have been studying the onset of recognition of good and bad in people by studying babies. In the experiments, they have babies watching a puppet morality play with characters playing ball together and a villain character who steals the ball. The action then ends and they bring out a good puppet and the villain, giving the babies a chance to choose one to see which character the babies prefer. 70% of babies choose the good puppet. There are always variations, a spread of findings of any result; in this case, with all the babies being studied at a particular age there will be some who will develop the empathy with the nice puppet character (and prefer it to the bad puppet character) a little later than the average, and so will be in that other 30%. But there will be some who will never get to like the nice character more.

It has been found that psychopaths, people with apparently no moral feelings, who are capable of the most horrific crimes with no apparent signs of any ability to feel remorse, all have a genetic difference, a characteristic of their DNA. This is one particular variant of the MAOA gene; people born with this variant, known as the "warrior gene", are capable of becoming psychopaths. Others are not. Nobody without this DNA characteristic shows this psychopathy, this total lack of empathy with other human beings. Such people are completely incapable of experienceing or showing the emotion called love. This is definitely a domain clearly appropriate for scientific study, and indeed only a scientific approach to it is appropriate as far as understanding what is actually happening, though other academic and professional spheres are involved in how society deals with the issue, including psychiatry and the law (legislature and judiciary). See the work of American neuroscientist James H. Fallon, and Professor Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

The relevance of this work on psychopathy to the phenomenon called love is this: a human propensity for love does depend on a person not having the combination of that "warrior gene" plus an unhappy childhood (characterized by abuse). If a person has both the gene and the bad childhood, and becomes a psychopath, they are incapable of genuine love or any sort of empathy with anybody, although they may be extremely good at mimicking empathy. Dr Paul Babiak, business psychologist, says that such people can be very good at mimicking the charm and charisma of other leaders but it is false, although they can imitate involvement with people and, through such manipulation, intimidation, and deviousness, get promotion to high positions. Indeed, there are almost 4 times as many psychopaths who are in the top managements of big business (VPs, directors, CEOs) as there are in the general population; but in their actual performance, rating as a team player and contributor, in their productivity, they are terrible. Babiak says you could be living with or married to one for 20 years and not know that person is a psychopath.

All of this is not about the sort of comments about love that is the stuff of poetry and love songs, but it is about how some people are incapable of love, and about why: their DNA and childhood combine to preclude their being able to love anybody, but not their ability to fool ordinary people into believing they love them. And all that part is precisely the product of the scientific study of an aspect of what happens in the phenomenon called love. So it is not true that science cannot study that phenomenon, and anybody who claims scince cannot deal with love, that love is not the stuff of scentific study, is hopelessy naive or severely mistaken.