Lonergan’s Notions of Consciousness Derived from St. Augustine’s Notions of Presence

In the De Trinitate, 10, 3, 12, St. Augustine distinguishes between two kinds of presence (which have been interpreted as two kinds of object). A first kind refers to something which exists as the terminus or term of a cognitional act (whether one speaks about an act of sense or an act of reason). As Augustine notes, this is the kind of presence which exists if one sees one's face in a mirror. One's face, as seen in a mirror, is experienced as an object, an external object. It exists cognitionally as an other. It is other than one's act of cognition although it also exists as the term of one's cognitive act. A second kind of presence or object, however, refers to an experience of self-presence. As Lonergan translates the wording of Augustine’s discussion as he cites Augustine's text in The Incarnate Word, p. 182: “But when it is said to the mind: ‘Know yourself,’ then it knows itself in the very act in which it understands the word ‘yourself’; and it knows itself for no other reason than that it is present to itself.” In his Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 46, 8, Aquinas refers to this insight of St. Augustine: “And so, according to Augustine’s meaning, our mind knows itself through itself, in so far as it knows concerning itself, that it is. Indeed, from the fact that it perceives that it acts it perceives that it is. Of course, it acts through itself, and so, through itself, it knows concerning itself that it is.” On the basis of the kind of wording used, Augustine and Aquinas do not speak directly about consciousness although, if one refers to how Lonergan talks about these two kinds of presence as they were known by Augustine and Aquinas, he refers to presence by way of a transposition which speaks about consciousness and the existence of different theories about consciousness. Presence, the presence of something suggests a metaphysics; consciousness, an understanding of cognition.


Before venturing into a more specific explanation that one might allude to in the context of Lonergan's work and interests, an historical note helps us understand why, for instance, Augustine and Aquinas did not explicitly speak about consciousness and self-consciousness (as we directly speak of these things and as Lonergan also speaks of them). Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (Inner Traditions International, April 1986), pp. 169-171, looks at the vocabulary of the “self” and notes how developments in our concept of the human self (especially since the 16th Century) have had fructifying consequences for developments in language so that we can now speak more precisely about the interior life of the human self in a manner which can distinguish between different parts and elements and which can also speak about the relations which also exist between different parts and elements. Citing one summary that speaks about this development (Fr. John Eudes Bamburger, “Retreat conference given at St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington, DC,” August 22, 2009, unpublished):


Plato and other Greek philosophers had but a partial grasp of the concept of the self as we know it. Although the first glimmerings of the modern self appear in the High Middle Ages under the form of such words as the individual and the person yet it functions under many occult influences. It is only after the Reformation and especially at the end of the 16th Century that such a series of words as self-consciousness, self-conceit, self-love, self-liking, self-command, self-esteem, self-knowledge, and other hyphenated forms of self appear. Descartes, in 1664, made the thinking self the source of knowledge and most philosophers since his time have assumed the same stance. It was shortly before this date that Locke…adopted the new word “consciousness” and defined it as “perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” Coleridge was the first to use the term “self-conscious.”


In turning then to proximate reasons which can be identified in Lonergan's thought, because consciousness exists as a human experience which all persons can relate to and identify, it can be regarded as a fundamental point of departure for discussions which would want to move through consciousness to whatever can be known about a human subject. But, if Augustine and Aquinas speak about two kinds of presence or two kinds of object, they are referring to a metaphysical difference which translates into a cognitional difference that distinguishes between two notions of consciousness. The experience of one kind of object suggests a particular species of consciousness and the experience of another kind of object, another species of consciousness. But, without a clear understanding of differences, one will not understand how these two notions or two kinds of consciousness are ordered to each other and how one species of consciousness conditions another. One will not understand why one cannot have one species of consciousness without also having the other. Difficulties in this area create problems for theology if an inappropriate notion of consciousness is employed as an analogy to find deeper meanings than that what is initially given through the proclamation of a revealed truth. The unity of God's being is not well understood if the unity of God's consciousness is not adequately fathomed, if its unity finds no echo in how we, as human beings, experience and find unity within the orientations that we find in our own consciousness. In Christology, Christ's incarnation and suffering death cannot be too well understood if it is not possible to argue that Christ's consciousness of self should be regarded as a precondition for a consciousness which refers to a consciousness of objects that is other than a consciousness of self as this is given in Christ's acts. Without this prior consciousness of self as this occurs through specific acts or by reason of specific, no consciousness of objects can be properly attributed to Christ's consciousness. On the cross, it cannot be said that Christ truly knew pain, that he truly suffered from any pains that were inflicted on him by the kind of death he suffered. Without a good understanding of consciousness that we each have as human beings, we cannot so easily join ourselves to Christ's consciousness in a manner which more fully joins us to the life of a divine being. The availability of our consciousness coupled with its malleability or changeability reveals a point of access which encourages forms of self-examination. We ask about the kind of person which we have become through our acts and we also ask about the kind of person which we can become through our acts. Through changes of consciousness, we can draw closer to God. We become more conscious about the depths of our interiority.

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