Prof aims to determine the metaphysics of love

Valentine’s day may have been an emotional minefield for many people, but for philosopher Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, it was the perfect opportunity to engage the public in her research.

That’s because Jenkins, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at UBC, is exploring a question that has baffled our species for centuries:

What is love?

Her project, the Metaphysics of Love, aims to find out. In the days leading up to the most highly-advertised romantic holiday of the year, they used Twitter to launch the hashtag #romanticloveis. The hashtag is intended as a way for the digital community to add their personal experiences and theories to those of the sociologists, anthropologists, economists and philosophers whose work Jenkins is currently combing through.

In true philosopher tradition, Jenkins is not expecting to find a definitive answer to the central question that drives her research.

“Romantic love is not one-size-fits-all,” she said, explaining that her hope is to create a conceptual space in which the question can be resurrected so that people can begin to recognize the limitations of their understanding of the term, and how that might be affecting them.

“It’s about empowering people to ask the question, ask it better, ask it more.”

After all, many of the important life decisions we make tend to be influenced by our understanding of whether or not we are in love. A dream job offer to work overseas, for example, may be rejected if it means leaving a beloved behind.

“But then you ask what love is, and people go ‘uhhh …’” said Jenkins. “So the next question has to be, what are you basing your life decisions on, exactly?”

All About Love, a book by bell hooks, warns that the widespread uncertainty regarding the true nature of love may leave people vulnerable to domestic abuse, and Jenkins agrees. The commonly-held ideal of unconditional love -- where romantic love between two people is considered independent of their individual qualities and how they might change over time -- feeds into this problem by demanding irrational persistence regardless of the state of the relationship. Besides, as Jenkins points out, this approach oddly resembles favouritism.

“Why don’t you love everybody, if it doesn’t matter what they’re like?” she asked.

Some people may be concerned that too much interrogation may undermine the intangible magic of love, but Jenkins needs more. “Overthinking is what I do for a living,” she said.

Her previous work, investigating the metaphysics of arithmetic, may make Jenkins seem an unusual advocate for inquiry into romantic love, but it was the natural outcome of a an increasing amount of off-duty time spent thinking about the subject. Though she still considers numbers her “intellectual home,” Jenkins recognized the relevance of her conceptual tools and resources for this new topic, and seized the opportunity to engage with her community more directly.

“I can be in a taxi, coming home from the airport, and ask for input on my research,” she said.

The creative approach that allowed her to combine arithmetic, love, academia and Twitter is being put to the test in the Metaphysics of Love project, where she hopes to develop the “Holy Grail,” a theory of love that accommodates both the biological and the social concepts of the word. She also looks forward to collaborating with poets for future presentations.