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David Cowles

Dec 1, 2023

“…When your identity is indefinitely plastic, when events are no longer ‘orientable’, when relations are neither transitive nor commutative, that’s Love…actually.”

This article is not about Hugh Grant’s movie of the same name, but it was triggered by something I read recently, suggesting that Grant’s movie is now considered a ‘Christmas Classic’, alongside Elf, The Santa Claus, and It’s a Wonderful Life

“I love you” is perhaps the most famous phrase in all of human speech. But what does it mean? I love many things: my family, a bottle of fine wine, seared foie gras, and visits to London, to name just a few. “I love” tells you something about my emotional state…but that’s all.

Surely, this is not what we mean when we talk about Love! Love in its true sense is not just an emotion. It is something real, tangible, and fundamental. Anaximander, the grandfather of Western philosophy, is quoted as saying that the phenomenon of Presence (Being itself) arises when two potential relata “give each other reck,” i.e., let each other self-actualize, ‘be all that they can be’. (U.S. Army)

The existentialist Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, followed suit: “In the beginning is the relation,” and according to St. Paul, only three things endure ”and the greatest of these is Love”. But how do we model a phenomenon that supposedly “makes the world go round” and “makes time stand still”?

I propose that Love (capital L) occurs when and only when the following four propositions are simultaneously true: (1) I love you; (2) you love me; (3) I feel loved by you; and (4) you feel loved by me. Only when all four of these conditions are met can we properly speak of Love.

When I say I ‘love’ a bottle of wine (or any Tom, Dick, or Harriet for that matter), I have no idea if (1) they know I love them, (2) they feel my love for them, (3) they love me, or (4) they know I feel their love for me. So when I say, “I Love you”, I’m saying something totally different. I’m no longer talking about an emotional state; now I’m talking about an ‘actual entity’, an objective matter of fact. Love is real!

For “I Love you” to be more than just an emotional ejaculation, I must recognize you as my ontological equal, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” because to love means to recognize yourself in the other (“love your neighbor as yourself”).

(Note: the term “ontological equal” will remain undefined. ‘Equal’ does not necessarily mean ‘identical’. ‘Congruent’ may be closer, but you get to define your own circle of ontological congruence. Is your pet inside the circle? How about your PA Bot? And what about your neighbor who’s let his home go to wrack and ruin and who sits every day, even in winter, bare-chested on his front lawn, guzzling beer at 10 o'clock in the morning? (Not so much?)

The account of Love found in Genesis is relevant to our inquiry: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” I am incomplete; something is missing, and I discover what is missing in me in you. 

For Love to be more than a state of mind, for it to constitute an ‘actual entity’, I must not only love you, but you must also love me. For you to love me, you must recognize me as your ontological equal. You must see yourself in me, and you must feel that I complete you and make you whole, just as I see myself in you and feel that you complete me and make me whole. If this is not the case, then any ontological reciprocity I seem to experience is a mirage. In that case, were I looking at you, I would not see myself in and through you; I would just see my own sterile reflection. I would be Narcissus.

Unrequited love is not nothing, but it’s not what we’re talking about here today. Love denotes Relation and so it is not enough for me to love you and/or for you to love me. These two states of affairs are entirely independent of one another; they are like ships passing in the night. To rise to the level of an ‘actual entity’, Love must be experienced by you and by me.  

Love requires not only that I love you and that you love me, but also that I feel loved by you and you by me. When I feel loved by you, I feel you in me. You may love me, but if I do not feel that love, for whatever reason, then we are not talking about Love. 

Let’s rephrase our four requisite propositions (above) in light of these further reflections: (1) I see myself in and through you; (2) You see yourself in and through me; (3) I feel you in me; (4) You feel me in you.

Of course, I am using “see” and “feel” metaphorically. I don’t need the sense of sight to see myself in you, nor do I need the sense of touch to feel you in me. “Seeing” is how we incorporate the transcendent, while “feeling” is how we recognize the immanent. 

So to rephrase yet again: (1) You transcend me; (2) I transcend you; (3) You are immanent in me; (4) I am immanent in you. And so Love is a paradox. Quelle suprise! Where else do we find such a paradox? In the Christian doctrine of Incarnation, of course! 

If Love is Incarnation, then every instance of Love is the Second Coming of Christ. One of the many peculiar features of our newly discovered ontological landscape is that wholes reside in each of their parts, Relations resides in their Relata. Our Love resides in each of us. 

These are the necessary and sufficient conditions for Love. The transcendent must be immanent, and the immanent transcendent. When I love you, and you love me, and when I feel you, your love, in me and you feel me, my love, in you, we discover together that the I’s we thought we were are, in fact, only fragments of who we truly are. Like shards of pottery that thought themselves complete, albeit strangely rough-edged, we now find our true identities as sections of a beautiful, smooth, and curvaceous vase.

The things we thought of as ‘subjects’, building blocks of our world, turn out not to be ‘actual entities’ after all: the foundational building blocks of Universe are not subjects (or objects) but dynamic relations. “I seem to be a verb.” (R. Buckminster Fuller)

Love is Relation, and therefore, always personal and binary, but never exclusive. We may, in fact, love many people, even simultaneously. In response to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus was asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that story is that every ontological equal is my neighbor, and therefore, in some sense, myself. Potentially and ideally, Love may exist between me and every ontological equal I encounter.

In the world we seem (doxa) to live in, identity is mercilessly conserved, events are drearily orientable, and relations are both transitive and commutative. ‘Bora boring’. But when your identity is indefinitely plastic, when events are no longer ‘orientable’, when relations are neither transitive nor commutative, that’s Love…actually.

Returning to the analogy of pottery shards, every shard is unique, but any two shards can relate and so constitute a whole. In the Language of Legos, we are all Master Builders. The ‘real world’ is a world of exuberant joy and boundless creativity. It turns out that the solitary unit I thought I was is not who I am at all. There is no I, no self, in isolation from ‘other’, i.e., apart from Relation. I am the pure potentiality underlying every actuality. (Sartre)

Can we take this reflection further? Love is the paradigmatic and defining human experience; it reveals our true identity. But why should we be content to regard this as a ‘species-specific’ phenomenon? Why shouldn’t Love constitute the cornerstone of all-encompassing ontology?

Of course, that would require us to generalize the dynamics we have been discussing so that they apply to the full spectrum of ‘actual entities’ in our world. Returning to our four original propositions, note that they contained no explicit requirement that the subjects be human. The only requirement was that they be ontological equals and that they have the capacity to enter into dynamic relationships…i.e., that they be part of what we call ‘the World’. 

Relata and Relation never collapse into a single, undifferentiated entity. Relation remains incurably dynamic; with each of its Relata, Relation forms an irreducible Trinty, the substructure of every event. So Love turns out to be both Incarnation (the whole resides in each of its parts) and Trinity. The universe is plural and, at a minimum, three, and so Love does make the world go round, and it does stop time. Love, actually, is the substructure of the World!


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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