Lonergan and the Shift to Method

by David Fleischacker


Method can be looked at as technique. This of course entirely misses the meaning of method as Lonergan conceived of it. For Lonergan, method is a set of heuristic conceptions that morally guide human self-transcendence, and hence are based on the structure of self-transcendence.

Historically, the cultural need to articulate method arises from the breakthroughs of modern science. It is a great wonder how such a stream of breakthroughs was possible. The answer was the discovery of a fruitful method. To articulate this, even imperfectly as an inductive method (see Bacon for instance), has its fruits.

It is imperfect because it tends to attend only to a few elements of the human subject, most of which are organs that look out onto the world for sensory experiences.  A more comprehensive understanding of the human person will lead to a more profound method. Lonergan makes this shift from an account of the human subject as one of self-transcendence to a resulting transcendental method.  His comprehensive understanding of the human subject is the source of this shift.

Key in his understanding of the human subject are the transcendental notions and their unity. These notions articulate the heart and soul of human presence but we only begin to glimpse the scope of these through a long sequence of steps that Lonergan calls self-appropriation. It requires a heightening of attention to one’s own conscious operations, and when we begin to attend these operations, we begin to discover patterns and overarching structures that ultimately  1) spring from the transcendental notions, and 2)  unite to form a capacity for self-transcendence.  And unless you are going to live for 3000 years, I would suggest you need a guide, and INSIGHT is a good place to start.

If you start with INSIGHT, you should either have already been actively doing math and science, or you will need to do so. Also, you will need to exercise a great deal of common sense and if you have not really done so in life by building and using technologies, building and participating in family, civic, or ecclesiastical economies, or participating in civic or ecclesiastical polity, you should be prepared to do so or at least watch and explore others who do.  Likewise, you will need to study history, and even master one or two of its major trends.  The history of philosophy is a good one. In other words, you need to become more in order for the kind of self-appropriation to take place which is necessary to become an authentic philosopher in the vein called for by Lonergan.

If you do, then such things as a heuristic notion, implicit definition, inverse insight, the empirical residue, higher and lower genera of things, emergent probability, the integral heuristic structure of proportionate being, functional specialization, transcendental method, and dialectic will all come to make perfect sense.  So will notions like isomorphism.   These are explanatory articulations that arise through the kind of self-transcendence that happens when you do math, science, and common sense, then you attend to the interiority of these doings, discover that interiority, and formulate it, and affirm it.  Then, with this self-discovery in mind, you can develop precepts that guide you and others in your existential unfolding.

As you explore the interiority of a scientist, a philosopher, a theologian, an artist, a man or woman of common sense, and you discover how these are united, you will discover more and more the profundity of the transcendental notions and the capacity for self-transcendence.   As you discover the unity of correlations and probabilities into schemes of recurrence and schemes of development, you will discover more and more the profundity of the meaning of central and conjugate potency, form, and act, and the entire nature and character of metaphysics.  Furthermore, you will grasp with greater significance the relationship of interiority and the universe of being.  And as this opens up into human freedom and the free participation of the unfolding of this universe of being and of the unfolding of the human subject in that being, you will discover the existential isomorphism that exists between a self-transcending subject and the entire order of the universe.

Link this existential isomorphism to a divine entrance into the world mediated by meaning and regulated by value, by both unpacking the interiority of this entrance (sanctifying grace, the theological virtues) and the sublation of the world of proportionate being into a transcendent order, then one moves into a supernatural existential isomorphism.  Such individuals provide us with precepts for eternity.

Now that is the kind of method for which Lonergan would call. And it is not a technique, but really an attunement to mystery.


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