Why Love is the Highest Form of Knowledge

There are two kinds of knowledge: primary reflection and secondary reflection.

Primary reflection is essentially signal response.  Animals are capable of this.  Humans have this kind of knowledge as well.

Secondary reflection is knowledge performed by a self-conscious being that can say “I.”  Self-consciousness allows for concept formation, which in turn makes language possible.  This kind of knowledge is an immaterial act, since the reception of a concept is not reception of a material thing.

Secondary reflection yields two kinds of immaterial objects: non-material impersonal objects and non-material personal objects. 

Non-material impersonal objects are things such as laws, mathematical formulas, and all universal concepts.  These are not fully satisfactory to the human Self since they are impersonal and the Self is personal.

Non-material personal objects of knowledge are persons.  These too are not fully satisfactory since they cannot answer every question that another person asks himself.  But since this knowledge is of persons, it is more satisfactory than non-personal immaterial knowledge.

The difference between these two kinds of immaterial knowledge is that the first does not require belief.  Impersonal objects reveal themselves consistently since they have no freedom.  But personal objects, having freedom, must be trusted in order to be known.  Hence, knowledge of persons requires belief/faith in the other.

Knowledge/belief in persons is the highest kind of knowledge since it is non-material and personal.  

Yet it only begins when one loves another.  Only love opens one to the revelation of the other as person.  Without love, the other is only immaterial impersonal object, not immaterial personal object.  Love alone reveals the other as ultimately unknowable on a complete level without trust and commitment.  Love reveals and understands the personhood of the other. 

Therefore, love, since it alone is adequate to the highest form of knowledge – knowledge of immaterial personal objects – is itself the highest form of knowledge. 


25 Responses to Why Love is the Highest Form of Knowledge

  1. Henry A says:

    I am both intrigued and confused by your post Nathan; and that’s probably because I do not have a philosophy background. So, I will reflect on what you wrote and then write again. Until then, I have a few brief questions.

    You wrote: There are two kinds of knowledge: primary reflection and secondary reflection. I ask: what’s your definition of knowledge? I was taught that to have knowledge consists in possessing the truth – is that what you mean?

    You wrote: Primary reflection is essentially signal response. Animals are capable of this. Humans have this kind of knowledge as well. I ask: Is signal response the same as stimulation? If yes, then why are you linking “stimulation” with “reflection”?

    You wrote: “personal objects, having freedom, must be trusted in order to be known. Hence, knowledge of persons requires belief/faith in the other.” I ask: 1) what would make me trust this “personal being”? and 2) what about/in this “other” am I putting my belief/faith in?

    You wrote: “Only love opens one to the revelation of the other as person. I ask: Is it only “love” that opens me to the revelation of the other as person? Can’t “wonder” or “beauty” also do that? If yes, are they linked? Where? If not, why not?

    Lastly, can you please give a concrete example – i.e., one from life – of this dynamic at work so that I can see it in action?



  2. Henry,

    Sure, knowledge is possession of the truth. I’m asking what kind of acts we perform that lead to the possession of truth.

    Reflection can mean simply to reflect back, as a bat does with sound waves. So in that sense of the word, it fits the meaning of signal response. Primary and Secondary Reflection are terms from Marcel. I’m using them loosely for my own purposes.

    You would trust a personal being, such as your wife, because you’ve come to love her. That is why I think love is the highest component of knowledge. You believe in someone you love because you have decided them worthy of your trust in what they reveal to you. But that comes from relationship building, not abstraction of the universal.

    Loves yearns for the full fulfillment of the good of the other. Wonder or Beauty can marvel without this yearning for the other’s fulfillment. Love entails belief in a way that the others don’t. It renders both parties vulnerable, which is precisely what opens up the highest kind of knowledge possible. Love overcomes the human default setting of selfishness.

  3. Turner,

    I agree. I was using “object” to mean “object of knowledge,” i.e., that which is known. But as JPII like to point out, there is something about subjects that is irreducible. That is why I think love is so necessary. What is reducible in subjects can only be known through revelation. The other must reveal him/herself to you or else that irreducible component remains unknown.

    Sure, you can trust without love. But that no longer constitutes a kind of knowledge, since such love is selfish and receives nothing very new from the other. To trust without love is to do so for selfish purposes. There is no revelation of the other. For a true kind of knowledge to be transferred, there must be love in the form of commitment to the fulfillment of the good of the other. Then revelation is possible, and thus personal knowledge.

  4. Additionally one can contrast our being created
    in the image of God, and through revelation, knowing
    that He is the source and core of our being,
    and the call to Authentic Self (cf. Kierkegaard).

    Therefore, the highest end of knowledge by
    definition, has to be love: because God “is” Love!

    And so humanity is still in pilgrimage
    to comprehend more depth of meaning in,
    plus understanding of, this mystery!

    Which in summary is why Kierkegaard writes that
    “subjectivity is truth!” Something most scholars
    until only recently did not understand, and
    errantly dismissed this profundity!

    Subjectivity is truth because that is where the
    soul is: in the “self!” But the self that God
    created, and calls us to become! Which event
    once attained, facilitates the beginnings of
    the experience of “eternal happiness” in the
    here and now!

    We have much more mining to do over the coming
    Millennia to deepen our shallow comprehensions of
    matters like this!

    Knowledge of God
    is not a possession,
    but an ever maturing faith,
    searching in hope,
    within the practise of love! (Rahner)

  5. Henry says:


    I have been using all this time to discern what it is about your post that struck a discordant note in me especially since I agree with you that love is the highest form of knowledge. Although I am not finished with my discernment, I want to share with you what I have so far so that I can solicit your feedback.

    I would have to say that what I find most lacking in the method you used to get to that truthful assertion is that it has a “Spock-like” quality that that seems to sap the poetry, beauty, passion, and trepidation of a human dynamic we call love. That is, it seems that your humanity and/or your experience is missing. That’s not to say that what you wrote doesn’t live next door to genius (which I think it does) it’s just that reading your original post again – I am sorry to say – leaves me cold.

    Now, why do “I” say that Love is the highest form of knowledge – because everything that makes me “me” is involved in the dynamic and not just a part of me. So, for example, when I am acquiring knowledge through direct experience, many parts of my “I” may not and do not have to be engaged. Of course, as you rightly point out, when I acquire knowledge through indirect experience – that is, from the testimony of a witness – more of my “I” is engaged precisely because I have to “trust” the witness. And, as you know, that’s why indirect experience is also called “faith.”

    Lastly, we should not forget that we have a “crookedness inside us” – the Church designates this reality with the term “original sin” – that prevents us from loving without possession. And, I can tell you from experience that if we do not link poverty (a fruit of hope) with love we will eventually imprison and/or destroy that which we say we love.

    I look forward to reading your feedback.



  6. Henry,

    First, just to say that the style of short and pithy is not really mine. It was brought on by the fact that I posted between teaching classes and didn’t have much time. Also, it is for the sake of clarity, mostly for myself, since I tend to wax eloquent and wordy. I am not trying to reduce love. I’m simply trying to point out that to love is to know and is really knowledge’s highest goal. This is not to take sides with the Dominicans or the Franciscans, but to assert that love perfects and completes knowledge’s highest act.

    I agree that love is an act of the person and not simply of the will (if that is what you are claiming.) I have always thought of love as an integrating act that grasps truth more fully than any form of intellectual exercises. Love is the greatest human act.

    Because of “original sin,” finite beings are in the act of becoming, and so necessarily err. I have always held, maybe more than Aquinas, that sin affects human knowledge. I think it does so most because it fails to grasp what is eternal in each thing. This is the greatest failure of original sin in the realm of knowledge — to fail to grasp its own finite mind’s projection upon the horizon of Infinite Being. Misunderstanding this human intentionality, it fails to recognize in all creatures the eternal, as Augustine said. And so we consume them rather then open ourselves to them and allow some of ourselves to be taken in by them in revelation. This is of course most dangerous with humans, who tend to dominate rather than open. This is why only love can know another human adequately. But human action persistently fails to see the end of the other, and cannot adequately take on a posture of pure reception without grace.

    I see here also Marion’s greatest contribution to epistemology.

    • Henry says:

      Thanks for your reply Nathan. I did notice that the tone of this post was very different than the tone of your other posts – for example – “What I learned in 2009” (which was great).

      I have never read anything by Jean-Luc Marion, can you recommend a good introduction to his work? Also, I picked up a copy of The Nature of Love by Dietrich von Hildebrand a few weeks ago (it’s on my “too read” pile) have you read it?

      Regarding your reply, several year’s ago Fr. Giussani wrote a letter to us in the Movement in which he stated that Our Lady “saved” God’s freedom and I have reflected on this often. And when thinking about that assertion, especially in relation to “original sin” and “concupiscence”, and what it means to be human (in general) it dawned on me that Don Gius’ insight provides a way to help us overcome our semi-Pelagian tendencies.

      And so, I find that the first and greatest residue of original sin is my inability to see the “real” – that is, my refusal to recognize that reality is the ambit, sign and arena of Being. Of course, my freedom, like yours, will always be imperfect as long as we are on the Way.

      Anyway, I am rambling. Have a good night and let’s remember each other in prayer tomorrow.



  7. Henry says:

    Nathan, while thinking of our exchange I remembered a beautiful movie that I believe perfectly illustrates the theme of your post (including the philosophical and human dimensions of the topic) and so I want to recommend that you see it. The film is A Heart in Winter (Un Coeur En Hiver) and I strongly encourage you to see it.

    If you do, maybe we can have a discussion about it.



  8. Also, Nathan, are you factoring in the core
    position of humanity on a maturity scale, as
    opposed to a mere ‘desire to be’ scale when it
    comes to love, or any real virtue?

    To me, our history is plagued with simplistic
    love spirituality. Few significant dents in the
    armour of knowledge on this topic exist, like
    for me the recent best, “Works of Love” by
    Kierkegaard. He terms his book “works” because
    we have to work at love, it doesn’t just happen
    or come into existence on its own (excluding
    Divine intervention were that ever operative
    and we know normatively it is not!)…..

    Then take the significant contributions on love
    that even the two geniuses of Soren and Weil
    contrast! Even the genius of Kierkegaard misses
    its mark: he over-focuses epistemological ONLY
    on love of neighbour! He next to, forgets to
    develop his theory further to the 1st of the
    greatest commandments: Love of God!

    In steps Simone Weil, who writes that we CAN NOT
    do this 1st commandment UNTIL we learn to do
    the former!

    So between these two giants, we have one develop
    knowledge on love of neighbour (Kierkegaard) and
    the other develop knowledge on love of God (Weil)
    that rarely is EVER DONE by any Christian because
    we NEVER mature to this state!!!

    Lastly, separate from those two stands Merton,
    in a prefacetory capacity, who writes something
    along the lines that before one -anyone!- can love,
    they must first mature to the awareness that
    they are loved! It won’t happen otherwise, not
    real love anyway and any which way!

    As always and as with each and every author in
    every Age, we confront our own individual
    Exodus Spirituality in the desert of life,
    wandering towards the ideal self created; and
    hopefully arrive at the promised land of
    the Authentic Self whose modus operandi revolves
    around the mystery that only when the heart
    is broken, do the words slip in….and only then
    do we learn how to (and practise real) love,
    both of neighbour, and of God!

    • Henry says:

      Virgilijus, thank you for your wonderful post! I especially want to commend and highlight your reference to what Fr. Merton said because it’s an absolutely astute and vital observation.

      Although I have not mentioned him before, I believe that St. Bernard of Clairvaux is someone who reached the “maturity” you mention. If you have not read his writings, I’d like to recommend Pathway of Peace: Cistercian Wisdom According to Saint Bernard as a beautiful introduction to his major themes.

      I also think you’d enjoy the movie (if you have not already seen it) that I mentioned to Nathan above.



  9. Thank-you, Henry!!! (And that’s a Trinity of
    exclamation marks!)

  10. Henry:
    Is “A Heart in Winter” North American or
    European so I know what to ask for at the
    If of interest, “Don’t Come Knocking” might be
    of interest also: the only real contemporary
    Existential Philosophy film done by a European,
    but released by Sony Films. Loaded with theological
    plus philosophical life plus love themes, which is
    why it didn’t exactly rake in the millions! But
    puts the simplisticiam of a “Titanic” to shame!!!
    Would love to discuss it!

  11. Henry: “Don’t Come Knocking” is available on Amazon
    as such as I have just verified, with the following
    core actors: Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth,
    and James Roday. Will love to get your feedback!

    I had rented it a few years back but now see it’s
    cheap on Amazon so may purchase it also:
    thanks for your advice!

    PS: Since Valentine’s Day is around the corner,
    let me dig out a summary essay written many years
    back which I trust you’ll like and can also pass on!

    • Henry says:

      I ordered the film Virgilijus and I am looking forward to seeing it – thanks for the recommendation!!!

      I would love to read your essay so yes, please send it to me. I don’t know the background mechanics of a blog but I surmise that Nathan, Michael, etc., can see my personal e-mail address since I have to enter it in order to post comments. So, what I propose is that we both write to them and ask them to give each of us the other’s e-mail address – agreed?



  12. Another angle of vision:

    Whereas Christianity took over the Roman pagan feast
    on Dec. 25th and named it “Christmas” when will we
    take “Valentine’s Day” back from both Paganism
    and Secular Society since we are the masters,
    the authority, on the subject of “love?” !

  13. ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE for all seasons, not just
    Valentine’s Day!

    Love is a Divine quality, never shame or guilt
    which are not Divine attributes! And in God’s unity,
    you and I are not here, likewise neither man, or

    LOVE: what verb does more work? What noun is more
    involved? That’s the human problem: the word “love”
    means too much and too little.
    Love stands for and justifies, just about anything:
    strong desires, feelings, emotions, action, inaction,
    People have done things for the love of God
    that God assuredly disavows. They have done things
    for love of others that have crushed the very objects
    of their obsession. They have done things for
    self-love that destroyed rather than built up
    Therein, the appeal to love is not only often
    trivial, it can be lethal.

    Love, therefore, is like a chameleon that hides
    in the hue of everything and disappears into any
    context available. By contrast, feelings are
    entertained, love comes to pass. Feelings dwell
    in us and remain there, whereas love emanates into
    constructive action!
    Feelings dwell “in” us but we “dwell” in love!

    But not so fast: to use Management Science jargon,
    how can we “operationalize” love? In its fundamentals?
    This “love” isn’t just anything. It involves heart
    and self, will and life, mind and strength,
    soul and the Divine -ultimately!
    It calls for fidelity. It makes demands. Love
    is not mere ardor, it is arduous! It is work!

    Love translates itself into action: for others!
    Anything less than serving others is not love.
    To love only a relationship, only ones family,
    only ones workplace friends, is pseudo love. Real
    love bridges into and is inter-connected with, to,
    for, in community!

    Love, when we do it, is the eternal in us
    and what lasts of us.
    It is an affirmation, a kiss to the universe
    around us both in its complexities and in its
    immediacy of our present moments, freely given.
    Ultimately love is a responsibility of an “I”
    for a “thou” in a venture to bring oneself in time,
    to the ultimate challenge: to love all!
    Only when this stage of living is attained is
    one then also ready, to be loved by the Lover of the
    universe, and not until then! Because now one loves
    the Source of one’s love! In that is unity, peace,
    and the beginnings of Eternal Happiness.

  14. Henry says:

    Virgilijus, I ordered the movie and I am waiting for it to arrive – I will definitely write to you after I see it.

    I would love to read your article. Can you send it to Nathan and ask him to forward it to me? If you agree, please ask Nathan to give me your e-mail (and vice versa) so we can discuss it via e-mail.

    I like your idea about Valentine’s Day very much – let’s go for it!!!



  15. Good to hear, Henry! The Valentine’s Essay is
    kindly now posted up above by Nathan!

    Also, then, start keeping an eye out for Simon
    Conway Morris: I label him a new “Chardin-II”
    for his pioneering scientific work as a Christian
    that now gives meat to the bones of the simple
    expression in Genesis in support of Creation theory
    that “we are made in the image of God!”

    The source of our love, is His: He is Love!
    The Cosmic Christ is the Divine image in every
    human being! Christology without Creation is
    pure projection! Let us keep living ongoing

  16. Henry says:

    Your essay/poem is fantastic and several lines were breathtakingly stunning – you have a real taste for the music of poetry!!! Have you read Peguy? If not, I think you’d love his work.

    I have been reading the work of a Spanish philosopher – Xavier Zubiri – lately and I suspect you might enjoy his work also – check him out.

    Thanks for the tip on Simon Conway Morris.

    Pax and good night.


  17. Henry, you’re too kind! But also inspired!
    I hope Nathan gets time to then give us some of
    his further genius by looking at the works you
    reference, along any lines of others he too is
    into these, and future days?!

    May the Good Lord and His Spirit inspire us to
    keep growing and have more time to get closer
    to Him through such sacred writings!

    Here though, simultaneously we are after as much
    Jesuit influence on our Spirituality Traditions
    as is feasible since there are so few other
    mediums to access Ignatian thought, which is
    incredibly powerful, and in my life experience,
    still insufficiently disseminated to the pews!
    Especially when it is the fact, but little known,
    that Ignatius’s own mysticism is placed in equality
    with that of St. John of the Cross! So stated in
    the 5 year research study on the lost Catholic
    tradition of foolishness for Christ in Saward’s
    book “Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in
    Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality”
    (Oxford University Press, 1980: pg. 112)

    We have yet to go beyond basics in comprehending
    such mysteries!

  18. Cameron Graff says:

    Hey, I just want to apologize in case this read more like an essay than a comment. Our Christian Discipleship class wrote responses to various blog posts as an assignment and Mr. Shelton (whom I’ve been lead to believe knows all of you running this blog) insisted that we post the assignment as a reply. So, here we are.

    “In largely abstract and ironically depersonalized terms, Nathan O’Halloran’s article details how love is the highest form of knowledge. Or at least it attempts to by making grand assumptions. He claims that the ‘secondary reflection’ made available by self-awareness is comprised of nonmaterial impersonal objects and nonmaterial personal objects, and that love is key to unlocking the latter (which is really just a fancy way to say ‘having a functional human connection’). This is fine and all, but why love is the greatest knowledge of all is barely touched; to justify his claims O’Halloran only says that nonmaterial personal knowledge is ‘personal and non-material’, thus making it invaluable. It may just be me, but this seems a little circular, and a little non-responsive. It also fails to address the ambiguity in the word love, something that means something different to every person who encounters it.

    The blog post reminded me heavily of the Walker Percy article we had to read earlier in the semester. First, both share intellectual banter that, while good intentioned, drowns in its own need to prove itself via big words and alienating phrases. O’Halloran’s post also seems to be at the heart of Percy’s critique of the modern world; in it, love is reduced to an ideal, a mere form of knowledge, a means of unlocking the secrets of the person. This objectification of the emotion sterilizes it, leaves it dry and useless. We don’t experience love when it’s addressed in this compartmentalized form, we just think of it as a scholarly idea necessary for the next level of social zen.”

    Again, sorry if that came off as a little harsh, that’s just how I tend to write critiques or replies for classes. I really did enjoy the article, despite any flaws I saw with it.

  19. roger says:

    Love is the gravity point of honesty.

    How well we, in self-awareness, know the
    nature of our love: that’s another thing.

    The reactions of others to our behaviors
    is a formative force either as a constraint
    or ‘stoking’ of the ‘fire’ of our love or
    principle of our life. Our affections
    represent the principal or core thing that
    is the gravity-well of our thinking.

    Intellectuality may ascend to many things
    far beyond our direct affection, and they
    become a kind of tendril, or extention, beyond
    ourselves. If love, or the willingness to
    do and behave in consonance with these
    extensions doesn’t also extend likewise:
    they are mere ‘fancies’ that perish upon
    awaking the next day.

    There are obviously different forms of
    love: love of goods and love of evils.

    We are logically compelled to learn to
    discern between them ere we commit our
    powers or energies to them.

    Volumes of literature an adages and lore
    have been writ so as to inform our discretion
    so that we might not blindly commit ourselves
    in our affections to the evil side of this

    Who can say, in all certainty, what affection
    is most perfect and able to render to all
    futurity and all posterity: the best?

    Selfish interests will always be involved.

    History tells us that simple ‘family’
    interest is not enough to ensure the
    ‘greatest’ good.

    Beyond self is the body of humanity
    somewhat, even far removed from direct

    And this gave birth to the idealism of
    a balance between small groups and large
    groups of our general human family.

    And this is the issue of intersection
    we know as ‘politic’ or policy for greatest

    This accruing knowledge developed into
    a body of policy we term ‘diplomacy’, or
    a method of keeping harmony between great
    bodies of groups of humans: all of whom
    have in their constituency self-love or
    love amongst themselves as the primary

    No doubt, the greatest form of government
    is based on mutual love.

    Well, then, what is love?

    I think nature provides a very good example.

    As far as continuity is concerned, the
    simple fact is evident in nature that the
    parents expend, for the most part, more energy
    caring for their children than they do for

    Obviously there must be a balance, ere the
    providers perish and their offspring starve.

    This seems to me to point to the aspect
    of distribution of energy and attention, wherein
    for some period of daily life one is not thinking
    about oneself or one’s needs, but the needs
    of their children, or neighbor, or anyone

    I think it should not be so difficult for
    any intelligent person to allot to the hours
    they live a segment wherein they are utterly
    and completely un-self-aware.

    Besides deep sleep, that is.

    I mean: a period daily where what they
    are doing is directed to the good of another
    or some other group beyond themselves or
    family, but to a neighbor or other nation,

    This would be a puny habit.

    That is, it ought not consume that much
    time, but as an accumulative effect, if
    everyone did this, imagine what a change in
    the world!

    I would deem this not simply attention
    merely to humanity, but to any form of life
    or to the earth itself as a living being.

    Dropping self, if only for an hour a day.

    Maybe then a greater form of love might
    reveal itself or be realized. And our awareness
    and intelligence, greatly enriched

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