Can You Define Love: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Love

what is love?

Given that it’s Valentine’s Day, I figured this week’s post should be all about love. While love and philosophy seem like two things you’d want to keep completely separate, the topic of love has been discussed by philosophers for millennia. Considering love’s prominence in the human experience in general, this shouldn’t be surprising.

But can you define love? And even if you can define love, should you? While it might seem like love is something that can’t be analyzed, the discourse surrounding love within philosophy doesn’t necessarily attempt to take away or diminish what makes love feel special. It instead seeks to clarify the concepts, ideas, and relationships implied by our understandings of love.

So, what is love? (Cue Haddaway…) If it’s anything like it’s portrayed in poems, books, songs, and film, then our definition and understanding of love may be somewhat vague. For philosophers, and even for people of other cultures, love isn’t one single thing. This notion is probably most obviously illustrated by the fact that in English, the word is used in a myriad of ways. We can love wine, love a book, or love a person. But even the ways we use love in relation to people can differ drastically. For example, I don’t love my partner in the same way I love my favorite writer, nor do I love my favorite writer in the same way I love my parents.

With this in mind, one of the first problems facing anyone seeking to develop a coherent understanding of love is its broad and imprecise definition. Unfortunately, the etymology of the word isn’t really of much help in illuminating the distinctions between our understandings of the dimensions that love can take. This ambiguity is why it might be useful to take a look at the ways other cultures define love.

The four loves

The Ancient Greeks inspire much of Western culture, and it turns out they thought about love a lot. Some philosophers, psychologists, and theologians who think abstractly about love sometimes refer to a list of four different types of loves discussed over time in Ancient Greek culture.


The first love on our list, agape, refers to transcendent, unconditional love and is generally associated with Judeo-Christian ethics as the concept was heavily refined within Christian theology. In Ancient Greek, the word most directly applied to familial love that emerged from the bonds of one’s relationships. Christianity takes this notion and relates it to one’s familial relationship to God and God’s children or, more broadly, to all of humanity. In the modern era, agape is best exemplified by Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights platform, which articulated a notion of nonviolence rooted in an appreciation of everyone’s common humanity. Key to most depictions of agape are care, charity, humility, and sometimes sacrifice – attributes that are especially reflective of the concept’s role in Christianity. It’s worth noting though that some other cultures and religions have notions of a transcendent or universal love that resembles agape. For example, while Martin Luther King’s notions of agape took inspiration from Greek and Judeo-Christian tradition, he was probably also influenced by the Jain concept of Ahimsa as articulated by Gandhi.


Eros refers to sexual attraction with the word literally being the name of the Greek god of desire. It’s also where the English word “erotic” is derived. The term is usually associated with a cranial, animalistic passion and madness, but it doesn’t necessarily always have that connotation. Eros is, for example, considered an integral aspect of platonic love where it’s transformed from so-called vulgar eros into divine eros or an appreciation of inner or true beauty.


If you remember our discussion about the etymology of philosophy, you might recognize that the prefix phil- comes from philia. Philia is a type of affection that emerges from a shared appreciation, and it’s often translated as “brotherly love.” Key to philia is not just mutual reciprocity but a sort of mutual shared benefit. Relationships rooted in philia are those in which both parties are made better off by the interaction, such as a business relationship or a friendship.


Storge refers to a type of compassionate love between individuals who are very close, like family members or very good friends—although, it is worth noting that storge is most commonly associated with parent and child. Key to storge is time and investment, as the types of relationships influenced by storge tend to be ones that are stable and familiar.

Three other loves

Some of the loves mentioned above are often paired with three others. Together, all of these types of loves constitute psychologist John Alan Lee’s color wheel theory of love.

Ludus. A playful type of love, often seen in flirtatious behavior and in young and immature relationships in the “puppy love” stage. Ludus can also refer to just general banter-filled companionship, like children playing together or friends sharing jokes at a kickback.

Philautia. This is self-love, which is probably considered by many to be the most important type of love. Unlike some of the loves mentioned here, philautia has a very noticeable dark side in excess or insufficient quantities. Too much self-love leads one to become a narcissist, but too little self-love results in one not being secure enough to give love.

Pragma. This type of love refers to love that emerges from a strong sense of duty, usually one arising from rational reflection and appreciation of a partner’s qualities. This type of love is compromising in the sense that it’s practical. Relationships revolving around this kind of love are ones where both partners take into consideration the goals, strengths, and weaknesses of one another and use those to set their expectations. While pragma isn’t the most romantic type of love, it’s likely one of the most stable ones.

Even more notions of love

Ancient India also provides us with different conceptions of love, some of which have overlap with those of Ancient Greece. Perhaps what is the most interesting articulation of love comes from Gandhi who translated the Jain concept of Ahimsa as love as part of his civil rights movement. Ahimsa is a deep philosophical tradition that considers all things sacred and thus demands that one be nonviolent, not only in their actions but in their mind and intentions. Although Ahimsa does not actually mean love, Gandhi’s choice to translate the word as such is interesting and could be used to highlight dimensions of love possibly not considered by those outside Jain tradition.

Specific issues regarding the philosophy of love

As these various notions of love illustrate, the philosophy of love is something that’s truly complex given love’s multitude of dimensions. Aside from defining love, philosophers are concerned with a number of other issues that full under the domain of other areas in Philosophy.

Regarding the metaphysics of love, there are a multitude of questions inquiring into love’s exact nature. For example, what types of relations fall under the domain of love? Should we define love solely as the desire to form a union with another person, or do unrequited love, sexual attraction, or mere emotional attachment best describe the characteristics of love? Do love’s defining traits extend to describing feelings and relationships involving non-real entities like fictional characters or hypothetical person(s)? Finally, can love be reduced to or solely explained by neuroscience and physiological responses?

Beyond understanding the properties of love, philosophers are also concerned with understanding how it is we recognize or have knowledge of love, which is an epistemological question. The epistemology of love engages with questions like is love rational?  Basically, can we have logical and consistent reasons for being in love? The alternative would be that love is solely an emotional and private affair that is not subject to explanation through rational considerations.

The philosophy of love is also concerned with ethical issues as well, like what our obligations are to those whom we are in love with and vice-versa. There are also contemporary issues like those surrounding the discussion around sexual consent and others regarding the nature of obligations within non-monogamous relationships. This short section, unfortunately, cannot give any of these issues fair consideration, but future posts will allow us the opportunity to delve into each topic and give each the individual attention it deserves.