Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but one CU Denver faculty member works to understand the mysteries of love all year round. Among other areas of research, Andy Yost, PhD, an attorney and lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, studies the philosophy of love. In his upcoming book, The Amorous Imagination, he asserts that, without the productive power of the imagination, love itself could not emerge. This makes him the perfect expert to explain a few fundamentals of modernity’s concept of love.
What Is Love?
Rushing right in, what can Yost tell us from his philosopher’s perspective about what it means to love another person?
“There is something radically transformative about the flesh and blood encounters we have with each other as people,” he said, “but some people stand out in the milieu of experience. Those people become unsubstitutable to us. They possess a radical particularity that I think is part of the structure of love itself.” In philosophical terms, that’s when another person, the Other, becomes the Beloved.
Historically, though, “love” has meant many things in addition to the more familiar concepts. As Yost notes, “We have a hard time thinking about love outside a cultural paradigm or convention, and it’s a little bit deeper than that.”
Yost explains further: “Max Weber, a 19th-century sociologist, said modernity is marked by a disenchantment that’s driven by the forces of rationalization, industrialization, consumption, materialism, and bureaucracy. We’re engaged in this obsession with explaining things away, looking for what’s underneath. And the structure of that critique has left us disenchanted when we think about love. Love is really just fill-in-the-blank.”
“Love isn’t really love to these analyses. We have deconstructed it so much that it can be pejorative rather than an ideal.”
In other words, modernity has a difficult time taking love seriously, despite its presence in our lives and its power as a social construct.
History of Love
The idea of love we are deconstructing is rooted in two historical eras: the era of courtly love that emerged in the 12th century (think fairy tale love) and the Romanticism of the 18th century, which many Americans encounter in English literature textbooks (think poetry). But ideas about love change over time in response to cultural and historical shifts.
Catastrophic events like the pandemic “tend to bring to the surface embedded cultural norms, and love is no different,” per Yost. Our modern concept of love, however, is no longer as able to confront disaster as it once was.
“During the bubonic plague, the dominant theory of love was Christian charitas, usually translated as ‘charity’—if you’ve read any part of the King James Bible, you’ll find that the word for ‘love’ is ‘charity.’ In the medieval period, there was an effort to unite the Greek concept of eros with divine giving. You would know love and see love when you saw monks tending to people dying of the plague. That was the medieval expression of love in the 14th century.”
Love and the Imagination
The bulk of Yost’s work addresses the interpretive interplay between love and the imagination. “The imagination is the space that allows us to work love out in our lives through a constant reorientation of the meaning of our life around a person in it,” says Yost.
“Like love, the imagination has been relegated in culture to a second-level status. It’s true the imagination conjures images, but Emmanuel Kant says the imagination also has a productive function. It synthesizes the world into a whole, where moments happen because of the preceding moment, a self-narrative. That activity happens in the imagination and makes certain chapters stand out.”
“In my research, when your imagination encounters the Beloved, it’s an event that can never be reduced to a single concept. The Beloved appears like a flood of experiences you can never wrap your mind around. The concept of love becomes an imaginative process, that orbits around the Beloved. Love becomes an imaginative project of interpreting and reinterpreting and working to understand a person you can never know [in the way you know yourself.]”
Like loving another person, the effort to understand a concept that is simultaneously real, familiar, yet forever on the boundary of comprehension might seem a challenge, but Yost remains committed to his work.
“Despite everything we’ve done to deconstruct love, we still really care about it.”