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Radar Love: Conway and separated unity

Date:14 June 2021
Author:Hugo Hogenbirk
Thomas Hawk Radar Love (
Thomas Hawk Radar Love (

We've got a thing that's called radar love.

We've got a wave in the air. Radar love

This is a line from the 1973 banger Radar Loveby the Dutch band Golden Earring. This musical investigation by GE describes to us, listeners, a mysterious relation that obtains between the singer and his girlfriend – radar love. This radar love is such that “She sends a cable coming in from above” and due to that they “Don't need no phone at all”. A very peculiar relation!

But, Radar Love by Golden Earring was not the debut of radar love as an object of investigation. A less catchy but equally impressive account of it can be found in Anne Conway’s only published work The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690).

Love between people, and the unifying power of this love, provides a potent antidote against the potential complete separation of the lovers Conway tells us:

[…] if two people love each other very much, they are so closely united by this love that no distance can divide or separate them, for they are present to each other in spirit and a continual flux or emanation of spirits passes from one to the other, by means of which they are united and tied together as if by ropes.

What a hopeful thought! Radar love transcends the spatial separation of the lovers. It allows for unities to remain even if the parts of the whole become spatially separated from each other. And radar love protects not only the unity of lovers, but also of other unities, as becomes clear when Conway discusses phantom pain:

When a surgeon amputates the leg and moves it a considerable distance away from the body, the man is overcome by pain and feels it in that part of the leg which was severed.

The natural unity of the body is such that it, too, protects itself from separation. One might think (and hope) that after the amputation of a leg, we are left with complete separation of body and leg, but we are not!

Conway tells us a lot about the particular mechanisms by which certain elements of reality are tied together “as if by ropes”. Creatures have particularly supple spirits, which are not quite immaterial, but are not crass enough to be bodies. They are in fact so supple that the body cannot cage these spirits. The body’s boundaries are so rough that the spirits will easily pass on through the porous bodily exterior. So, although they originate in the body, they then travel beyond it. To get the gist of how this works, liken these spirits to how light-waves emanate from a light-source, or, tentatively, to how a radio-station emits radio-waves!

Besides this concrete and timely mechanized model, however, Conway is making a general metaphysical point about the nature of unity. Unity cannot be a merely static order of things; it cannot for example be made sense of merely through a spatial relation like proximity.

To be a unity of parts is to be an object of which the parts are such that they have and retain structured relations to each other, and, where the parts are ordered in such a way that they can retain their structure under the application of external forces. To be one is to be resistant against becoming many; simply being one for a moment doesn’t cut it.

There are cases where this structure becomes indestructible. For instance, when new principal spirits come into being which have a: “[…] unity so great that nothing can dissolve it […]”. However, besides these, most unities are temporary. External pressures will eventually dissolve the unity. The parts are unified exactly so long as they retain an induced structured relationship to each other. The end of such a structure is the death of a unity and an end of life, as we see from this very peculiar example by Conway :

If someone without a nose has a nose made for him from the flesh of another man and it is fastened to him like a twig grafted to the trunk of the tree in which it is inserted, when that other man dies and his body rots, that nose also rots and falls from the body of the living man.

The death of the whole coincides wholly with the disappearance of the coordination of structural relations between the parts that were unified. Death is a death of an activity of unification – the end of a becoming. And, it is, the end of radar love between spatially separated parts of a whole – for it was the mechanism of radar love that allowed for the coordination of the parts of the same unity, even as the parts were spatially separated. As Emily Thomas puts the point in her article Anne Conway on the Identity of Creatures over Time when discussing the unity of bodies with souls: “A soul is unified with its body via parts that are arranged in a certain order, an order that continues the body’s life.”

If this is a correct way of characterizing Conway’s views on how to make sense of a unity of parts , radar love becomes an important tool to thwart a more statically inclined opponent. For, could spatial separation not do much of the same work? Could a unity of parts not be given by mere contiguity? In particular, when we are judging the unity of meso-level objects, spatial separation functions as a key heuristic. Individual animals, houses, persons, stones; many of our categories of unities are given as spatially separated wholes, with no separated further parts.

Conway’s examples show her being committed to wholes with spatially separate parts. In addition, Conway has a strong retort available against the prima facie naturalness of spatial contiguity as a measure of unity. This retort is suggested by the shared nature of her examples which I’ll happily bring out here. Three times Conway provides an example of a unity that persists through a spatial separation of some of its parts from other parts. And all three examples are cases where the spatial separation is in the face of an opposite inclination. The amputated leg, the grafted nose and the faraway lovers, they all retain their connection with the other parts of the living unity they partake in. But this connection is tenuous – and the more natural way for a unity of parts to be is to be unseparated in as many ways as possible, including spatial separation. So, of course, we intuitively latch onto spatial separation as a measure of unity – in the natural course of events it should be (and often is) a measure of unity of parts.

But if we follow this line, how hopeful is this thought of being in radar-contact with those we love? This question finally brings us back to Radar Love (the song) for its first lines are: I've been drivin' all night, my hands wet on the wheel | And there's a voice in my head that drives my heel | It's my baby callin', sayin' I need you here | And it's a half past four and I'm shiftin' gear.

Although the two lovers are connected by radar love, as if by ropes, they cannot remain contently at rest! The spatial separation may not ever be enough to separate them completely (presumably only the death of their love might do this) but the spatial separation is unwanted nonetheless. And so at the sign of the least excitement, one of them jumps in the car and races down the highway. The ropes turn out to act like springs, pulling the lovers closer again.

And it matters not whether we do or do not know that love transcends spatial separation. In fact, our protagonist from Radar Love is particularly aware of his connection to his lover. Even when we believe that love transcends spatial separation, most remain unhappy in their spatial separation from those they love; and no amount of radar love (or zoom-links) can wholly undo this. And as Covid restrictions are lifted many (including myself) rush back towards each other’s proximity, instead of continuing to take solace in what was more readily available. So, the two lovers from the song are then in their fullest right to amend this unhappiness not through further subtle speculation, but by driving all night, hands wet on the wheel.

About the author

Hugo Hogenbirk


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