On love and constructivism

It was the beginning of the 2000s. God knows why, I have decided to write my first single-authored academic article on “ethnosymbolism”, the particular approach to nationalism developed by non other than the late Anthony D. Smith, the doyen of nationalism studies, my instructor at the LSE, the person who taught me most I know on nations and nationalism. (No, no, don’t worry, this is not an essay on nationalism of course! It is on love and constructivism).

Anyway, as if it was not foolish enough to pen a scathing critique of his theoretical perspective, I have submitted it to the journal he was editing! Great thinking, right? To my surprise, the article had good reviews and eventually published. And, naturally, Anthony smashed it into little pieces in a short reply (though, to this day, I believe I won the argument but that’s another question).

My kamikaze mission contained a passage comparing nationalism to love, individual love, in the context of a discussion on constructivism:

According to Smith, artefacts cannot generate passion. Are we to assume that only “genuine”, “authentic” things can generate passion then? What is genuine and authentic anyway? Take love. Is it real or constructed? Do we love someone because he or she is the real, the authentic partner for us? Do we [continue to] love that person because the myths, symbols and memories of our relationship have a long history? How do we manage to forget that person and carry on in case we are dumped? How do we manage to love someone else if he or she [was] ‘the authentic’ partner? The answer obviously is that love is something we have created in our minds, but also something we feel. The fact that our feelings are the products of some complicated cognitive processes does not make them less real to us. The same goes for the love of the nation, and in fact any other kind of love, of God, of family, and so on. It is Anthony Smith who reminds us of Durkheim’s famous dictum and rightly so: ideas, once born, have a life of their own.

Anthony’s reply to this passage was rather unexpected:

As they may indeed be prepared to die for “love”. Here Dr Ozkirimli treats us to a charming excursus on the reality or constructedness of individual love, even if we may not in the end wholly agree with his conclusion that the fact that “our feelings are the product of some complicated cognitive processes does not make them less real for us”. Love as the product of cognition? Surely, a cosmopolitan philosopher’s dream.

Now, how on earth did Anthony link my metaphor to cosmopolitanism, I don’t know. What I was trying to say was quite simple: Love, or any other feeling for that matter, is contructed in the sense that it is “cognitive”. Oxford English Dictionary defines cognition, in its philosophical sense, as “The action or faculty of knowing taken in its widest sense, including sensation, perception, conception, etc., as distinguished from feeling and volition” and adds “A product of such an action: a sensation, perception, notion, or higher intuition”.

In other words, cognition which I claim is the root cause of love involves “sensations, perceptions, conceptions” which, depending on our needs, expectations, our strengths and vulnerabilities at a particular moment, develop into, in fact morph into love, anger, hatred, you name it. Don’t external circumstances matter? Of course they do. A beautiful woman, a handsome man, individual intellect and humour can and do act as a trigger or catalyst. But we don’t fall in love with every beautiful, handsome, intelligent, humorous person on earth, do we? When we do fall in love, that is our mind, our thoughts, our perceptions and sensations – in short our cognition – which do the job. We create the object of our love. We embellish it. And all this is not always experienced (even though sometimes it is) at a conscious level. It just happens. And, this is the part Anthony chose to conveniently disregard, it is real. The euphoria is real; the ups and downs are real; the suffering is real – in their effects.

Let us not go into a discussion on the notions of “truth”, “reality”. If you have ever been in love, you would know what “real” means under those circumstances. If you lose someone you love, your suffering is the only “truth” that matters. All I am saying is, this is all in our minds. Not hearts. The heart pumps the blood that is necessary to do certain things love requires. The mind falls in love; the mind falls out of love. The mind is that which creates love and the object of love, with all its reality.

Perhaps then, the French novelist Stendhal who produced the theory of crystallization was the first constructivist?

Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen: At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig…is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable. What I have called crystallisation is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.


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