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Meditations on Love; Empirical or Idealist?

What does it mean to love? The classical philosophical debate between empiricism and idealism can unravel two different traditions of love, loving and being loved. Empiricism is the view that all knowledge and reality emerges from our senses and experience while idealism is the school of the thought that reality is dependent on the creation of concepts in the mind. Do our experiences lead to our ideas or do our ideas shape our experiences is the central question in this chicken-or-egg debate.

The empiricist school of love may claim that it is impossible to love someone without knowing that person. Love and knowlegde go together. “Let’s get to know eachother better” is the beginning of many modern romances. One must love only after certain experiences with the person. One must share a history with one’s beloved. Love is then about the way in which memories are created. Love is about the different moments in which one has ‘been there’ for the beloved. Memorialization may have an important place in this empiricist view of love. This takes a material form in the infamous box of things that is thrown away on a break-up. Our relationships get memorialized into objects like clothes, pictures and movie tickets and we find those objects painful after a beloved’s exit from our lives.

In this notion of history, there is an idea that loving someone is about spending time with them. It is about a recollection of the past that has been spent together. ‘Spending time’ becomes an idea associated with loving. We assume the intensity of our love by quantifying time spent together. Anniversaries become a cause of celebration. Each anniversary is thought to not only be a commemoration of the present but is also thought of as an accumulation of love. Love takes on qualities that can be measured in time. There is a link drawn between the calender and a romantic relationship. Dates become important and years assume salience.

Perhaps, the empricist view of love can be seen in the classic children’s novel – the Little Prince. The Little Prince lives on a planet with his rose. He loves his rose and assumes that his rose is the only one of its kind in the entire universe. One day the Little Prince discovers a field full of roses. He always thought there was only one rose in the world which was his. He questions why it is that he loves his rose so intensely. He discovers that he does not share anything with the hundreds of beautiful roses in the field. He says, “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose”


But does the empirical understanding of love account for some of love’s mysteries like infatuations, crushes or love at first sight? Perhaps, not. And so, we turn to the idealist understanding of love which is that love is possible through firstly an idea of love and a conception of the beloved. We love the Tall, Dark and Handsome man because we have an idea of love that is centered on such cultural mores.


One of the most famous love stories in Persian is the romance between Khosrow and Shirin. It was made popular in the English-speaking world by Orhan Pamuk’s translated book called My Name is Rose. The story goes that in the land of Persia there was a king Khosrow who heard of the niece of the Queen of Armenia who was Shirin. He heard about her immense beauty and knew that he was in love with her. He had to find a way to love her. In these Persian empires, there was an esteemed place of the painters and minitiarists. Shapur who was a close friend of Khosrow was a painter and decided to depict Khosrow and bring that painting to Shirin. Shirin fell in love with the painting. It is here that the epic love story commences. It is a love that begins with a painting. Love here begins even before experience, it begins at representation.


But the other side of the idealist notion of love is that it implies a love within boundaries. It is always a love that has already been thought of. Love gets a timetable and will precede in a defined pattern. In hollywood movies, this means that on the first date one talks about themselves, by the fourth date, one is in bed together and by the second year one has moved in together. Is love predictable? Is love about a pattern?


If we are already conditioned on who to love based on pre-conditioned ideas of the perfect partner, is there a revolutionary capacity in love? Perhaps, it is the idealist notion of love that explains why it is that one ends up loving the beloved who belongs to the same class/caste/religion/race as oneself. We already have an idea of who we must love even before we love that person. The feminine is trained to desire the masculine and vice versa. It is another riddle of love that presents itself in love across boundaries. In the Marathi movie, Sairat which is gaining critical acclaim we see the traumatic love story of an upper-caste girl who is the daughter of a politician fall in love with the son of lower-caste fisherman. How do we account for such tales in the idealist notion of love? How do we understand such transgressions?


Both the empiricist and the idealist understanding of love leave questions unanswered. Perhaps, it is in the nature of love to elude understanding.




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