Some Notes on the Inner Word as an Object of Thought
by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB
In a review of arguments that Lonergan marshals, Lonergan contrasts the necessity of an inner word in human understanding with the absence of such a necessity in divine understanding (where God exists as an unrestricted act of understanding). Key is the discursiveness of human reason. The absence of any discursiveness in divine understanding and knowing (or, in other words, the simplicity of God’s existence as an act of understanding) explains why we cannot conclude that the proceeding of an inner word necessarily exists in God.1 If an inner Word necessarily exists within God, its basis or ground is an actuality that exists without the necessity of there having to be any reasons or considerations which exist as prior conditions that need to be attended to and fulfilled. The unconditionedness of divine things can be spoken about or conceived in thoughts and words by us in the thinking and speaking that we do although this unconditionedness or this simplicity cannot be understood by us through any acts of understanding which exist in us because these acts (our own acts of understanding) always exist as conditioned acts and no conditioned act of understanding is able to understand an unconditioned act of understanding. Conditioned acts of understanding have have been brought into being through conditions which have been fulfilled or which must be fulfilled if anything is to happen in terms of the possible reception of an act of understanding. If A, then B. But A, therefore B.
Before attempting to understand more deeply why it is not possible for us to move from our contingent acts of self-understanding toward an understanding of God which demonstratively proves the existence of a Divine Word, we can simply note that, for us, inner words need to proceed for us if our understanding is to move toward satisfactory completions of one kind or another. First, without the proceeding of an inner word from a prior, direct act of understanding, we cannot have an idea or a meaning which we can detach from its point of origin (a point of origin which refers to its originating act of understanding). An idea or meaning cannot exist as an other that we can think about, ponder, and question in order then to think about what kind of reality perhaps exists in a given thing or in a given event. No further thinking can occur unless an initial idea or meaning has been transposed into an externalized form through an act of conceptualization that follows in the wake of a prior act of understanding. By this means, a form or inner meaning, through a conceptualizing act of understanding, can now exist as a negotiable point of reference, as a communicable concept, and as a datum of consciousness which differs from a datum of consciousness that is simply present to us in the experience of that which exists as an idea or meaning (the term of a direct act of understanding).2 Through the proceeding of an inner word, we can begin to transcend the initial identity which always exists in our every act of understanding (an identity which exists between an act of understanding and that which is being understood by us in an act of direct understanding). Through an inner word, an idea or meaning can be taken and worked on to see if it can be viewed later as a fact, as a true idea or as a true meaning. Through the forming of an inner word, an idea or meaning can also be re-combined with a material component as this exists in a generalized specification of matter which refers to common matter, and so, by this means, we can apprehend a meaning which defines and points to a thing which we can later judge to see if it truly and really exists.3
Second, specifically with respect to our acts of reflective understanding as this exists in judgment, without the proceeding also of an inner word from a prior act of reflective understanding, we cannot move from an apprehension about a sufficiency in evidence toward an affirmation that can speak about the truth of an idea or meaning.4
Third, without the proceeding of inner words that can accumulate into communicable bodies of knowledge, human learning cannot develop in a way which can lead to growth in the development of a tradition of thought which characterizes how progress can be made in the development of the various natural and human sciences. Without inner words, a universalized human order of meaning cannot begin to arise in a manner which can lead to the creation of a higher order of control for us as human beings as we try to find a way to live with each other in a context that already exists for us within a world that is constituted by physical, chemical, and biological nature. Inner words encourage the asking of new, additional questions and the later, possible receptions of newer acts of understanding which can reveal new ways of thinking about our world and about new possible actions that we can take to change the world that we are currently living within. From an order of meaning that tends to be immune from radical changes in the meaning of things, apprehensions of value can also come and these can also act as a stabilizing influence in the conduct of our lives (despite what trials and difficulties might come our way).
Fourth and lastly, without the mediation of inner words, we would not have a point of departure for moving into analogical forms of inquiry which encourage the reception of analogical acts of understanding. As inner words reveal an inner life which exists within our limited human understanding of things and a dialogue within our understanding which reveals an orientation which is directed toward unrestricted experiences of meaning and truth, inner words begin to function in a different manner. A denotative order of significance yields to a form of attribution which takes a properly understood predicate and which then properly applies it to two or more analogates as when we should say, for instance, that in human beings understanding exists and that in God understanding also exists.5 Understanding applies differently; it has a different meaning when we think about human understanding and then when we think about divine understanding although, as regards both God and ourselves as human beings, understanding exists as a real thing. It is a real property. And so, through this form of signification, inner words can be employed to speak about some meanings which are real although we do not adequately understand what these meanings mean when we work from meanings which are only adequately understood within a context of conditions as these exist within our concrete, contingent human life. Throughout, in the context of Lonergan’s discussion, because the proper object of our human cognition is not to be equated with the final or formal object of human cognition,6 inner words are to be regarded as provisionally necessary for our human cognition if our human knowing is to move from point A to point B in the reach or the progress of human understanding and knowing (if human knowing is to move from limited acts of understanding toward more comprehensive acts of understanding).
In conclusion thus, at this point, it can be said that the completeness of divine understanding (the absence of any discursiveness in the manner of its operation) precludes identifying any reason or consideration which would suggest that, in divine understanding, some kind of inner word must be postulated to exist if divine understanding is to exist and function in its own proper way. In divine understanding, no gap needs to be bridged, no movement or shift needs to occur in moving from a proper object of understanding toward any final object of understanding. Everything already exists within God since, within God, an absolute identity exists between God’s intentional, cognitive being and God’s natural, ontological being.7 The absence of any discursiveness in divine knowing reflects a perfect identity in divine understanding which, in turn, reflects a perfect identity in the nature of God’s being, God’s existence. The simplicity of God’s understanding points to the simplicity of God’s being (God’s being who exists as an unrestricted act of understanding). From God’s unrestricted self-understanding, everything else flows. Everything is understood. God’s being as an unrestricted act of understanding primarily exists as divine self-understanding since, in the life and being of God and unlike how human beings think and understand, nothing exists outside of God which God must first understand before he can then attend to the possibility of having any self-understanding. In the self-understanding which God has of himself and because God exists as the first principle or point of origin of every other thing that exists or can exist, everything which can possibly emerge from God is already fully understood. A knowledge of the latter (the secondary objects of God’s understanding) is given or subsumed within God’s knowledge of the former (God’s understanding of himself).8 In an explanation which can be gleaned from Aristotle’s reflections: in understanding something which is most intelligible, easily and immediately, we understand everything that possesses lesser degrees of intelligibility.9 If, on the one hand, our human self-understanding typically begins with an understanding of external things (external objects) and then, from there, we move more inwardly toward our self-understanding, a converse movement typifies the kind of understanding which refers to God.