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Why do we fall in love?

Examining Derrida: Do we fall in love with a person or certain characteristics?

By Jose Quintero Ramos

Image courtesy of Alex Green via Pexels

The other day I came across an extract of an interview on YouTube of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Derrida is widely recognized today as the father of deconstructionism, a word that has enjoyed much popularity lately, even in common use of language. Although deconstructionism is a difficult term to define, we could roughly describe it as a method of analysis that aims at revealing the tensions and contradictions between apparently opposite set of ideas such as nature and culture or mind and body.

The interview had nothing to do - seemingly, at least - with deconstructionism, but rather with the difference between the who and the what. According to Derrida, this is one of the oldest questions in philosophy regarding not only love, but being itself. The question he poses is the following:

“Is love the love of someone or the love of some thing? Okay, supposing I loved someone, do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? I love you because you are you? Or do I love your qualities, your beauty, your intelligence? Does one love someone, or does one love something about someone?”

The questions are clearly revealing an opposition between two views that have existed for a long time, that which considers that we fall in love with the person as an individual and that which considers that we fall in love with perceived qualities such as intelligence or beauty. The first one seems like the one most people will feel drawn to since, in my view, it appears to be more beautiful and emotional somehow. If we say that we fall in love with a thing it does not have the same effect as saying that we have fallen in love with someone. And no doubt it seems more natural for us to automatically think about it in this way. We typically say “I have fallen in love with X”, rather than “I have fallen in love with the Y of X”.

However, under closer examination there seems to be a disappointing truth that hints the other way - Or does it? -. If we think about why we happen to like someone inevitably we will find ourselves enumerating a long list of adjectives pointing at qualities that we perceive in them. When we get asked what we want in a partner, and if we happen to have thought about it at any point, we will once again enumerate qualities of how they need to be or how they cannot be. There is something that strikes me as ugly in the idea that we are actually simply falling in love with a thing rather than with the person, yet if one does not love the qualities of the person, what is it that one is loving? I find it very hard to imagine romantic love without qualities associated with it. If you hold the opinion that we fall in love with the thing, then the person becomes simply a representation of that thing.

As the interview went on, this is what was somewhat suggested by Derrida:

“Often, love starts with some kind of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realise the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are, but because they are such and such.”

He is right, when love ceases - and no other circumstances like distance are involved -, when we no longer love someone romantically, it’s because they stopped representing the qualities that we liked them for, or reveal themselves to have never been like we thought they were - (the common pitfall of idealisation) -. But is this all settled? Can we all go home thinking that we fall in love with a thing? Or is there still room for the who?

I am going to contradict everything that I have just said and show - and I think Derrida would agree because I am about to do something of a deconstructionist gesture - how it very well may be that there is no opposition between the who and the what at all. That in fact, we cannot choose one over the other.

The distinction between the who and the what is somewhat artificial since the what is a condition of the who. Or in other words, when we are being, we are always being something, we are always expressing our qualities and their nuances through our unique personalities. If it were true that we simply fall in love with a certain quality or set of qualities, then we would be falling in love very frequently. For example, let’s assume that the set of qualities that trigger you are intelligence, beauty and humour; you would have to fall in love with anyone who is like this. But I am sure that there are people in your life who are intelligent, beautiful and humorous that you are not in love with.

One could respond, that well, it’s also a matter of degree and you have to get the right proportions in the mix of the qualities or something convoluted like that. I think that in reality, it is much more simple. Even if we do value some qualities over others - and we certainly do -, these qualities need expression, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. That is the who. The what has to express itself through the who. No two intelligent people are intelligent in the same way, nor two funny people are funny in the same way. It’s like two different actors representing the same character. They represent the same idea, but do it in their own unique styles and we most probably will like one more than the other. As I see it, it’s the same, or at least very similar.

There seems to be, however, some sort of hierarchy between the who and the what, since (remembering what Derrida said in the second quote), we get disillusioned by someone when they happen to go against what we thought they represented, either because they never actually represented it or because they changed. If they never actually represented it, they either deceived us, made a play of some kind, or we idealised or imagined what they were like.

That’s a matter for each one of us to answer in the best way that we can, but I do want to bring a final section to the article in relation to another important question. Why do we fall in love? And I want to ask that question - which is a giant question that I will not attempt to answer exhaustively - because I think it can help in recognizing what we truly like in someone, and who we truly like, which is not always that easy in my experience. It’s very easy, in my view, to "fall in love for the wrong reasons”, and it might be a bit unpopular to say that. I don’t know.

Over the years I have liked many women, but I think that I have only truly fallen in love once if I think about it as honestly as I can. I think that falling in love for the wrong reasons mainly has to do with instrumentalizing it as a way of covering or hiding something else. Stuffing a hole somewhere. It has to do with using that love as a form of distraction or a source of meaning, when it is used to not somehow rely on oneself for something, or everything even.

I think that the right why, the beautiful enduring why, can only come from the person that does not perceive love as a solution. Real love, in my opinion, is not a solution to our problems or our life, but the choice of a commitment - with all the awareness of the fears, the insecurities and the difficulties that will come with that - to a person who expands our world to such an extent that we find it worth it to try and go through the struggles with them. Real love, as much as it may sound like a cliche, makes both people grow, strive for reaching higher heights, and explore unknown aspects of themselves. When that happens, and I don’t think it happens very frequently, one lives twice; one for oneself and one for the other. In general, I just think that the why cannot come from a place of lacking, but from a place of self-sufficiency, and of course, like anything precious, that’s not easy.

Okay, after that final Dr. Phil-ish remark I think I will leave it there. In summary, I don’t think there is a real opposition between falling in love with the person or the qualities of the person, but rather that we need both to understand romantic attraction. We cannot have one without the other. I also think that one should think very carefully about why one falls in love, with all the honesty that one can, in order to know whether we are turning someone into a fixup of ourselves - which does not typically end well -, or if we can make the choice to be with that person from a place of not needing them.

But what do you think? Do we fall in love with the who or the what? Do you think like me that it makes no sense to separate? Why do we fall in love? Are there wrong reasons for falling in love?

Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in your future love affairs.

If you are interested check out the extract of the interview with Derrida in the link below.

Works Cited

Krishnamurti, J. “Jacques Derrida On Love and Being.” YouTube, 26 January 2007, (Accessed 30 October 2023).

“Deconstruction | Definition, Philosophy, Theory, Examples, & Facts.” Britannica, 29 September 2023, (Accessed 31 October 2023).


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