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On Kierkegaard and Tinder: An Interview with Christopher Hamilton

Does the Danish existentialist offer a remedy for the anxieties of modern love?
Kierkegaard Tinder
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Christopher Hamilton is Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London and the author of The Philosophy of Tragedy, Middle Age and How to Deal with Adversity.

After beginning his undergraduate studies at King’s, his journey through philosophy came full circle when he joined the Department of Religious Studies and Theology in 2003. Along the way he held teaching and research positions across Europe at the University of Bonn, the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, Salzburg and Trent, Italy.

His work focuses on core themes in moral philosophy but always with an eye on aesthetics (no pun intended), political philosophy and philosophy of religion. He contends that philosophy has largely lost touch with the ancient goals of seeking wisdom and exploring the meaning of life and seeks to make these a core principle of his work.

This interview was conducted by phone following Christopher’s participation in the IAI’s weekend retreat on the philosophy of love, The Greatest Adventure, in Hay-on-Wye. Both interviewer and interviewee longed wistfully to exchange the grim London weather for the pastoral delights of Wales.

 —David Maclean


 

DM: What is love? Or at least your definition of it?

CH: I would say there is no definition of love. I say this partly because there are so many kinds of love — erotic love, romantic love, familial love, love of one’s vocation, love of one’s country, and so on. I think the other reason for that is the notion that love is a public concept in that we can all talk about it and share some sort of understanding of what it means. But ultimately love is one of those notions that you pick up from the world around you, primarily through how people talk about it and the cultural ideas that form around it. Then experience comes in causing each of us to develop our own subtly different and more personally inflected understanding of love. And that is why I would say there couldn’t be a single definition. And I think that’s actually part of what made your event The Greatest Adventure so interesting, because although we all knew what we were talking about, we were all coming at it from very different perspectives. This should be familiar to anyone who has read Wittgenstein’s discussion of what makes a game and why we say that particular activities, such as football, rugby, tiddlywinks and cards etc., are games. In a famous passage from the Philosophical Investigations, he describes how there’s no essence that they share but they have a “family resemblance”; in the same way that one brother can share the same nose as another brother but then their sister has a shared characteristic of temperament that the first brother doesn’t share, etc.

And ultimately I think that is one of the things that make it worthwhile thinking about: that we can’t have a definition. It bears mentioning that we have at least two key sources in Western civilisation for thinking about love — one is Ancient Greek thought and the other is Christian. The latter conceptualises love fundamentally as a kind of selflessness through which one is able to see the true reality of the other. And my own view is that that is an illusion, and instead love has got a tremendous amount of egoism in it.  I must be clear here that I don’t mean selfishness but egoism, such as the parent who is proud of their child because it’s their child. Or again, you know, in erotic love, there’s a type of neediness for the other person that is not necessarily selfishness but about your own relationship to that person. I believe that love is much more bound up with these kinds of egoistic concerns than we’d care to admit and it would probably do some good for us to be more honest with ourselves about that.

 

DM: I take your position on love to be quite an existentialist one. With that in mind, do you think that some forms of love are more authentic than others? You mentioned the love of one’s country and it put me in mind of Simone Weil’s claim that "a nation cannot be the object of [absolute] love because it has no soul".

CH: That idea frankly doesn’t seem to me to be right at all. Obviously Simone Weil has got a very particular agenda which is to do with her almost-conversion to Christianity. I think there are people who can genuinely love their country, and that leads us to an interesting question of when that love becomes jingoistic. When does it become simply mindless patriotism that is not open to other ways of living? That’s a very difficult thing for individuals to work out.

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"We should recognise that, as anything else in life, [Tinder] comes with risks. These are risks of deforming our sense of what other human beings are and how we can relate to them."
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DM: One of the philosophers you placed great emphasis upon in your discussions of love was the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. Is he the philosopher best suited to make sense of the anxieties around modern love and dating?

CH: Now Kierkegaard was very interesting because what he displays in his work are quite radically different conceptions of love. As those familiar with him will know, he was writing works under pseudonyms at the same time as publishing work under his own name. The works that he published under his own name are essentially very, very deeply Christian works, which were talking about love as a kind of selfless self-giving or a kind of effacement. However, it often seems to me that it’s the pseudonymous works — where he’s discussing love in all its complications and the way it gets bound up with need and sexual desire and so on —  where Kierkegaard seems more realistic than when he’s veering towards that Christian mentality. And he’s extraordinarily interesting for that reason, because he shows the difference between two things: how love actually is and how we think love ought to be. And often I think these things aren’t adequately separated.

Of course, I think it’s true that human beings need to and can learn how to love better. But on the other hand, I think we all put ourselves under pressure to think of an idealistic conception of love, including romantic love. And that seems to me often very damaging since one must learn to make compromises within love. So I think for that reason my ideas can be classed as partly existentialist: the idea that one can never love as selflessly as one would like to, that it’s always going to be bound up with need and desire, that it will always involve the idea of wanting this person just as he or she is and, at the same time, an inevitable sense of trying to change that person.

 

DM: So we’re acting in bad faith?

CH: In a certain way, yes. I think these tensions are there and we’re being dishonest with ourselves and one another, which feeds into the whole Tinder thing in that we want to be able to control love, but the point being lost is that we can’t. As I said many times at The Greatest Adventure, it seems to me fundamentally mysterious why and who we fall in love with. Furthermore, there’s a real limit to how much we could even think that we should want to control how we love, all the way from long-term marriages on the one hand to the first ponderous blushes of love on the other. And I worry about the way in which we have imported the mechanisms of capitalism into our thinking on love — just as we can go to the shop and choose between four varieties of a particular fruit, it’s as if we think of human beings as a sort of commodity. People think “I can choose between hooking up with this person or that person”. To borrow the term you raised, it’s that kind of existentialist dimension to the sheer baffling mystery of attraction that we’re likely to lose sight of in an age of Tinder.

 

DM: Do you perhaps think that the main failing with apps like Tinder and the dating market in general is that they’re treating love as something that can be rationalised – as something almost contingent?

CH: Yes, as I say, it’s treated as if it were a commodity where you go out into the marketplace and find someone who appeals. And of course, I can understand the attraction of that and I’m not saying that it’s always bad or always terrible and that no one should do it, but we should recognise that, as anything else in life, it comes with risks. These are risks of deforming our sense of what other human beings are and how we can relate to them. Because they’re not commodities. And we know that, but these apps have a tendency to make us forget that. It’s not that we don’t know that — of course we know that — but they have an amnesiac quality to them when they have you swipe right or swipe left as if you were browsing between books on Amazon. And doesn’t that seem very worrying? You think to yourself, there should be more voices saying, “Look, there is something problematic about all this and love has never been as straightforward as finding someone that you’re interested in.”

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"I think there is more to be learned about love from reading Plato’s Symposium or The Republic than contemporary self-help books; and certainly more than is often said by scientists."
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DM: So do you think it’s philosophers who are best placed to solve these issues, rather than technologists and futurists?

CH: If by philosophy one also includes the broader humanities, then I certainly do. For example, I think that a knowledge of history and the way that people have changed their attitudes towards love and the family can be incredibly enlightening about the sheer contingency of our particular way of going about this. By way of example, consider Oscar Wilde’s trials for gross indecency. A major part of his defence was to talk about ancient Greek and Athenian culture to demonstrate that those societies had homosexual practices that would be considered immoral in the contemporary milieu, but both were nonetheless part of the classical heritage that everyone at that time would have acknowledged. What the defence were trying to do was to show that the way people were judging Wilde was incredibly limited and narrow, unaware of the sheer contingency in the ways in which we interact with one another in terms of love. So, I would most certainly say that philosophy can do that. In fact, I think there is more to be learned about love from reading Plato’s Symposium or The Republic than reading many of these contemporary self-help books; and certainly more than is often said by scientists. I don’t think there was anyone at The Greatest Adventure who took a highly reductive line, but I don’t think we’d want to leave it in the hands of scientists. But philosophy, history and literature — Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for instance, with its intrigues of devotion, need, jealousy and the strangeness of attraction, has almost everything you might need to learn about love. All this shows the irreducible place for the humanities in making sense of these issues as they open up so many perspectives and take us out of the small world we live in.

 

DM: What would you be your advice for someone seeking love in the time of Tinder?

CH: Keep your expectations — of yourself and others — low and realistic, and be open to surprises.

 

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