In the title track from his album Station to Station, at the junction where the music resolutely picks up pace, David Bowie sings: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love.” [1] In contrast to the accelerating beat, the lyric is riddled with irresolution. Is love an object of experience or an object of thought? Why does it hang in the balance between chemical intoxication and its vaguely organic alternative? These uncertainties are additionally fueled by an impression of amorous compulsion — the insistence that whatever one is going through “must be love” registers avowals of love and the search for what they avow as matters of utmost urgency. This urgency and the lyric’s overall epistemic instability are especially disconcerting considering their source. If Bowie, on the wings of his stateliest and most authoritative persona, could not understand love, what chance do the rest of us stand?

Song lyrics might not be the most epistemically reliable, but of all discourses on love they seem to be the most impactful. Since the ancient rhapsodes, the language of romantic interest and attachment has been set to music to effects of unparalleled intensity and ubiquity. Philosophy is, of course, invested in matters of love just as intensely, but not as frequently and often to exceedingly confusing results. Even Plato’s Symposium — a paradigmatic treatment of the subject if there ever was one — reads like an opulent display of confusion. The speakers disagree so profoundly that any hope of a cogent account of love evaporates like the breath of an emptied chalice.

Even in the absence of a dominant position, however, occasional nuggets of insight emerge from the crosshatching of disparate philosophical theories. For example, philosophy gives us good reasons to doubt the privileged access we assume to the knowledge of who, why and how we love. This does not mean that we are any less entitled to acting on our amorous compulsions, but that the claims we make about their thrust and their origins are much less reliable than we assume. Bowie’s lyric confirms this — its uncertainty applies to what we know about love but not to the credit we draw in love’s name.

But why would we claim privileged access in the first place? Perhaps this has to do with love’s association with emotion in the popular consciousness. It is crucial to remember, however, that even thinkers who endorse this association are careful not to equate love and emotion. Jonathan Swift, for example, sees love not as one feeling but as “a compound of them all.”[2] Hegel similarly recognizes love as “not a single feeling,” adding that, whatever it is, it does not admit of finitude. [3] Wittgenstein complicates the association between love and emotion by reducing the latter to a mere symptom of the former.[4] This is why, he says, we are in the position to question one’s love but not one’s pain. In terms of knowledge, all three approaches locate love beyond the range of privileged access. Swift’s emotional compound is greater than its parts and, unlike them, inscrutable. The same holds of the infinite bundle of feelings Hegel posits. And on Wittgenstein’s view, if love is “something deeper” than emotion, it is also likely less available to our understanding. Knowing who, why and how one loves is thus simply not reducible to knowing how one feels.

Despite popular implications of intimacy and self-determination, love gives little indication of being inalienably ours. On the contrary, we have plentiful evidence that instead of being a matter of private interest and introspective understanding, love originates and thrives in an economy of social relations. Jealousy, for example, is recognized as a transactional phenomenon — one that, in the words of Kristjan Kristjansson, distinguishes the jealous person as a “capitalist pig of the heart.” [5] On Kristjansson’s reading, jealousy is paradoxical because it tries to accommodate treating one’s beloved as an object and as a moral agent all at once. In both cases, however, a person is commodified as part of a larger system of social relationality — if an object, the beloved remains vulnerable to possessiveness and dehumanization; if an agent, they are cast in a theater of comparative favoring.

Stanley Cavell’s reading of King Lear suggests that Kristjansson’s claims about jealousy apply to love as well. The king’s bargain — demanding his daughters’ love in exchange for his property — equates love with spending power. Cavell notes that if love does not have to be returned in kind it becomes a function of the public and political realms. Of Lear’s three daughters, only Cordelia refuses to socialize, and thus ostensibly dilute, her love in this ritualistic exchange. But the play makes it abundantly clear that it is the other two daughters’ approach that represents the norm. According to Cavell, the reason most of us fall for such uneven bargains is because we lack in either of two capacities — to love or to be loved. The danger, of course, is that we end up hedging various values on love “without passing through love.” [6] This reduces love to a commodity disbursed through the same symbolic stock exchange in which Kristjansson locates jealousy.

If these are all reasons to doubt our knowledge of why and how we love, is it still possible to imagine that knowing who we love is a matter of judgments and justifications that are uniquely and irreducibly private? In a recent article, Kevin Melchionne reconsiders the tectonics of aesthetic taste in a way that might be helpful for our understanding of love.[7] What is at issue for Melchionne is a presumed aspect of inalienability in the way we think about aesthetic judgments. Over two hundred years of studies in aesthetics, philosophical and otherwise, the parameters of taste have been continuously contested and redrawn. What has remained untouched, however, is the assumption that we know what we like aesthetically. It is easy to imagine why this is so. To say that one knows what they like seems to amount to a first-hand report of personal preference and is thus putatively not governed by the conceptual and/or social demands we place on taste. The ancient adage de gustibus non est disputandum says this much — while its literal translation is “there is no accounting for taste,” it also implies that the origins of taste are subjective and thus undisputable. Melchionne, however, emerges with an account that undermines these time-worn intuitions.

The observations Melchionne makes are of things so obvious that they could only have ever hidden in plain sight. Firstly, he uses the findings of contemporary psychology to remind us that “we are often unaware of our mental states and their causes.” [8] Secondly, when it comes to what we like aesthetically, he notes how prone we are to resort to guesswork both in terms of our bestowals of approval and opprobrium, but also in terms of the reasons we marshal in their support. Finally, Melchionne acknowledges the social pressures — palpable or less so — that shape our likes and dislikes in ways that make them inscrutable to us. Subjected to these pressures over time, we form an “aesthetic personality” whose purpose is to streamline the haphazardness of our immediate aesthetic responses into a coherent, and socially acceptable, character. [9] As Melchionne says, “independently of our real responses, biographical taste prescribes proxy responses for us.”[10] What this picture amounts to is an epistemic impasse, our purported knowledge of what we like resting on operational assurances that have little to do with the actual tectonics of taste. Melchionne’s conclusion is that not only do we not know what we like, but we also do not hold a privileged position as to potential knowledge of the matter.

Even though liking and love are sufficiently different, Melchionne’s epistemological observations about the former readily apply to the latter. When he says that “what we love fails us,” part of Melchionne’s message is that we are unfit to understand our amorous investments. [11] There seems to be no reason for our knowledge of who we love to be any more stable than our knowledge of what we like. In fact, the main reasons for skepticism Melchionne cites in the case of liking seem to also be at play in the case of love. Firstly, love’s wages cannot be exempt from the imperfections psychologists register in our awareness of our own mental states. Secondly, the guesswork we do in the bestowing of and accounting for our aesthetic preferences seems akin, and is often concomitant, to the guesswork we do in the bestowing of and accounting for love. This is exceedingly demonstrable in the dynamics of online dating, where liking and loving are often placed on the same continuum of romantic viability, to the possible detriment of both. Online dating also illustrates the insight Kristjansson and Cavell share — that our capitulation to social pressures, foundational and transactional alike, is as distortive of love as Melchionne thinks it is of aesthetic preference. In the spirit of Melchionne’s conclusion, we can thus posit that we do not know who we love and that we do not have the privileged access to some inner core that this claim to knowledge assumes.

These skeptical conclusions can do little to undermine the force and importance of love. What they accomplish, however, is a momentary consolidation of philosophy’s powers towards addressing a central problem of love — its unintelligibility to those under its spell. As to love’s compulsive force, its resolution lies beyond philosophy, in the palliative discourses of horoscopes, therapy and love songs. In the following injunction to an imaginary patient, Julia Kristeva, as accomplished a therapist as she is a philosopher, displays the intimate relationship between love’s unintelligibility and the restorative possibilities it opens up: “Tell me what ails you; you will be addressing a discourse of love to me, but you don’t have to know that.” [12] Kristeva makes it look like the admission of epistemic infirmity is the threshold beyond which philosophy gives way to therapy. Wittgenstein would have agreed. And so would have Bowie. Why would the song’s beat pick up otherwise?

Rossen Ventzislavov is a philosopher and cultural critic specializing in aesthetics, architectural theory, literature, popular music and performance art. His work has appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Deleuze Studies, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. He is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Woodbury University.


[1] David Bowie, Station to Station, (RCA Records: 1976).

[2] Jonathan Swift, The Poetical Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Thomas Park, (London: Stanhope Press, 1806), 100.

[3] G. W. F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, tr. T. M. Knox and Richard Kroner, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 304.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology: Volume II, ed. G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, tr. C. G. Luckhardt and M. A. E. Aue, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 24.

[5] Kristjan Kristjansson, Justifying Emotions: Pride and Jealousy, (London: Routledge, 2002), 156.

[6] Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 350.

[7] Kevin Melchionne, “On the Old Saw, ‘I know nothing about art but I know what I like,’ ” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 68 (2010), No. 2, pp. 131-142.

[8] Ibid, 134.

[9] Ibid, 137.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 139.

[12] Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers, Marriage as a Fine Art, tr. Lorna Scott Fox, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 74.