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preface || intro || 1 ||  2 || 3 || 4 || 5 || 6 || 7 || 8 || 9 || 10 || 11 || 12 || Conclusion

Transforming Light


I met Bernard Lonergan for the first time in the fall of 1960 soon after I arrived in Rome to study for the priesthood. At that time Lonergan was fifty-six years old, a Jesuit professor of theology at the Gregorian University. The first time I caught a glimpse of him was in one of the Roman restaurants, Il Buco, where some of the older American students had invited him for a meal.  He seemed to enjoy it, but he also seemed to be a quiet retiring man.

But my major exposure came in the classroom.  There I listened for two years as Lonergan's pronounced English-Canadian twang combined with a classical Latin in an effort to bring some light to the Christian mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  To this day some graduates of the North American College in Rome bring howls of laughter to their confreres by imitating Lonergan's sing-song Latin cadences. 

There were about six hundred of us from all over the world in the great aula of the Gregorian, and so - by tradition and necessity - the only pedagogical method was the lecture.  Years later Lonergan referred to those teaching conditions as "impossible:" so many people from many different countries listening to a professor lecturing in Latin about the mystery of the Trinity! (1)

And it was obvious that Lonergan was definitely over the heads of most of us.  Only the bravest students - and there were a few - approached the brilliant professor outside the classroom to quiz him on his exact meaning.  Those who did so, and followed out his thought, seemed to be "caught" by something. 

But the rest of us were not sure what that "something" was.  The name of his 785-page philosophical work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, was on our horizon and many of us at least owned our own copy.  But in the midst of the many classroom and seminary demands, few of us had broached it.  I remember at one point getting lost in the introduction! 

It was the early 1960's and Rome was an exciting place. Many Catholic theologians were making the headlines in the world's newspapers and new subjects and topics were in vogue. Historical studies, especially Scripture and patristics, liturgical studies, various types of psychology, were all becoming the focus of interest. And of course, it was the time for "involvement," the American Peace Corps, and (welcome relief!) pastoral work outside of the seminary.  "The Church in the world," with a concern for issues of social justice, was just beginning to emerge into our consciousness.

During the summer of 1964, after my ordination in Rome and my return to the United States, I was asked by my bishop to return to Rome in the fall to study philosophy in preparation for teaching in the local seminary.  At the time I wondered whether I might not be compromising my "activist" principles in agreeing to this use of my time. And indeed, I wondered whether there was anything to philosophy at all.  The neo-scholastic philosophy that we had been taught in our early seminary days seemed quite discredited and its vocabulary not just significantly absent from the documents of Vatican II, but rapidly disappearing from the horizon of most Catholics. In its place, personalist categories had entered into our vocabulary.  The documents of Vatican II were purposely couched in the non-scholastic and interpersonal language of the Bible. (2)

Nevertheless, in spite of misgivings, I agreed to the study of philosophy. As a graduate student, I had much more time to follow out my own interests, and the encouragement of the people I trusted pointed me in the direction of Lonergan. One was a classmate from seminary days, David Tracy, now a well known teacher and writer at the University of Chicago. But there were others as well intently studying Lonergan's thought.

I spent a good part of one whole year working through Insight. In a little room at the back of the library of the Casa Santa Maria, the graduate house of the American College, I spent day after day poring over that book.  I often remember studying as the lights dimmed in the early evening when Rome's electric power was especially taxed - a fitting symbol, I thought, of the search for enlightenment.

I was reminded of the pain and effort in reading Insight when I read the story George Huntston Williams recounts of the young seminarian, Karol Wojtyla, as he worked nights in the Solvay Iron Works during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He too struggled with one book, a philosophical work influenced by the school of Louvain.

Wojtyla ...remembers that the most difficult book for the future Pope, and perhaps the one that started him out on a career in philosophy, was one given him to study by Father Klosaka.  It was entitled Ontology or Metaphysics and was written by Rev. Prof. Kazimierz Wais (1865-1934) of Lwow....Workers saw Wojtyla puzzling over it while he awaited the periodic purification of water used in the boiler room he tended in Solvay.  Fellow seminarian Mieczyslaw Malinski remembers Wojtyla, in his blue-grey overalls and clogs without socks, carrying the book on his way to the Solvay chemical factory and responding to an enquiry about the Metaphysics of Wais thus: "Yes, it's hard going.  I sit by the boiler and try to understand it - I feel it ought to be very important to me." That was in September 1942...Years later, in his pontifical garb, he would say to his priestly friend of so many years something more:  "For a long time I couldn't cope with the book and I actually wept over it.  It was not until two months later, in December and January (1942/43), that I began to make something of it, but in the end it opened up a whole new world to me.  It showed me a new approach to reality, and made me aware of questions I had only dimly perceived... (3)

That was the way I felt about Insight.  Though I do not remember crying over it, I have a vivid memory of struggling and paining over it.  Pages would go by with hardly a glimmer  of understanding.  Then, slowly, connections began to be made.  Flipping pages, I would compare later sections with earlier ones.  I would spend hours going over just one short passage.

I spent time consulting books on mathematics, physics, relativity theory, etc., to check out some of the scientific examples Lonergan was using.  To the extent that I read and searched, I came to realize that he was penetrating into the fundamental questions of the sciences.

In fact, the very fact that I did not understand and was seeking to understand was the key to the whole thing.  For Lonergan's main point was the centrality of the human act of understanding.

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding. (4)

The promise was extraordinary, but the basic issue was eminently experiential and personal. Just prior to  embarking on Insight I had been reading some works of contemporary psychology and I was particularly intrigued by Carl Rogers' On Becoming A Person.  I was especially impressed by Rogers' insistence on being "experiential" in one's efforts at self-knowledge: letting one's words flow from  one's feelings.  Rogers aimed at refining the ability to identify levels of present feelings and at helping people to find the words that express those feelings. Rogers called appropriated truths "significant learnings." (5) There was a truth here I wanted to maintain and I remember saying to myself something like:

Lonergan can't contradict any of the truths I know or I'll know he's wrong.  Anything he says will have to take into account and develop the truths I've already experientially appropriated or he won't be worth my while.

And I doubted he could do it. His work appeared so patently intellectual and all my leanings - and the leanings of the culture around me - were "experiential." By that term I understood chiefly the in's and out's of human feelings.  Lonergan's work seemed too "cold," too intellectual, to acknowledge all those levels of feelings. And besides, anything that seemed "scholastic" had, for the most part, been omitted by the Second Vatican Council then taking place in Rome.

But strangely, there was an experiential aspect to Insight.  In fact, it began to appear that the whole aim of the work was the appropriation of human experience: not just the experience of one's feelings, but also the experience of the subtle acts of understanding.

The crucial issue is an experimental issue, and the experiment will be performed not publicly but privately.  It will consist in one's own rational self-consciousness clearly and distinctly taking possession of itself as rational self-consciousness.  Up to that decisive achievement, all leads.  From it, all follows.  No one else, no matter what his knowledge or his eloquence, no matter what his logical rigor or his persuasiveness, can do it for you. (6)

Fortunately, at the time there were others in Rome, mostly at the North American College, who were wrestling with the same book.  This community acted as a check on the adequacy and accuracy of my own understanding.  And indeed, that community continues as there is a Lonergan journal, newsletter, workshops, Lonergan Centers in numerous countries, etc..

Gradually, I moved from an adversarial relationship to to the conviction that there was indeed "something there."  What is there is the subject of this book.

In 1965 I began work on a doctoral dissertation on an American philosopher of art, Susanne K. Langer. Lonergan had highly praised Langer's early work on aesthetic and artistic consciousness, but her later work, especially her Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, consisted in the reduction of all "higher" human activities to feelings and feelings to electro-chemical events. (7) Langer represented the whole empiricist tradition in philosophy. As I studied her work, I gradually discovered that there was an unbridgeable gulf separating what Langer was saying about science and human consciousness and what Lonergan was saying. As Lonergan once wrote of the various major schools of philosophy:

Empiricism, idealism, and realism name three totally different horizons with no common identical objects. An idealist never means what an empiricist means, and a realist never means what either of them means. (8)

Of course, the issue between these basic schools of philosophy had real implications. On a strictly logical level, the empiricist horizon has no room either for the existence of God or for an immortal dimension of the human person. As Langer once wrote, spelling our the implications of her view of the human mind and spirit:

That man is an animal I certainly believe; and also that he has no supernatural essence, "soul" or "mind-stuff," enclosed in his skin. He is an organism, his substance is chemical, and what he does, suffers, or knows, is just what this sort of chemical structure may do, suffer, or know. When the structure goes to pieces, it never does, suffers, or knows anything again. (9)

This conflict in underlying philosophies became a conflict in myself. I remember one evening in particular. I was studying in my room in Rome in the mid-1960's as twilight spread over the city. I remember saying to myself quite clearly:

Who's right here - Lonergan or the empiricists? Both can't be right - between them there's a basic conflict about the human person, the human mind, indeed about reality.

I questioned my own motivation:

If you come down on Lonergan's side of this issue, is that because he's religious, a Jesuit priest and you yourself are a life-long Catholic and a priest as well?

I could admit all the underlying motivations that might incline me toward a more religiously amenable answer; but the question itself was not directly a religious one. In the first instance it was a question about the meaning of the whole modern development of the natural sciences. But it was also a question about the meaning of human consciousness in general and the meaning of my own self. It was a question about what I was doing then and there. It was a question whose adequate answer I could find only within my own self. As Newman once wrote: "in these provinces of inquiry egotism is true modesty." (10)

Previously, in various philosophy courses, I had learned many things about what the great philosophers had said about the mind. But those facts had tended to pass through my own mind and on to test papers without connecting with my own basic self-knowledge. I could repeat from memory the various positions on knowledge and the various schools of philosophy. But my convictions were not clear. They were vulnerable to the many challenges coming from the contemporary sciences and philosophies. The challenge I faced at the moment was the challenge of modern empiricism that invoked science in its own defense.

In some ways the latter was easy to understand - or at least imagine. The empiricist emphasis on feeling, imagination and electro-chemical events was rather obvious. What was not so easy to understand was Lonergan's position. I sensed there really was something to his emphasis on the centrality of understanding - for how else explain all that transcends the merely biological: all of human culture and civilization?

Still, Lonergan seemed to imply that there was a residual materialism, or "naive realism," even in someone like myself who had studied six years of Catholic philosophy and theology. Moreover, such naive realism could be found even in the scholastic philosophy I had been taught. It was that residual materialism that was at the basis of much conflict and division in the Church as well as in the world at large. (11)

What Insight called for was a radical change of mind about mind. Later he would write of that radical change as an intellectual conversion:

Intellectual conversion is a radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity, and knowledge. The myth is that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not there, and that the real is out there now to be looked at. (12)

As I wrestled with Lonergan's writings, I found this myth in myself. The myth is rooted in the world of immediate experience, "the world of immediacy," and it confuses that immediate world with the far larger world, the world Lonergan calls "the world mediated by meaning." This latter world is the world we grow into as we grow up: it is the "real world" that is far larger world than the world of immediacy and it is brought to us through the language and memories of other people, the pages of literature, the labors of scholars and scientists, the reflections of saints, the meditations of philosophers. It is the world filled with meaning.

This larger world, mediated through meaning, does not lie within anyone's immediate experience. It is not even the sum, the integral, of the totality of all worlds of immediate experience. For meaning is an act that does not merely repeat but goes beyond experiencing. What is meant is not only experienced but also somehow understood and, commonly, also affirmed. It is this addition of understanding and judgment that makes possible the larger world mediated by meaning, that gives it its structure and its unity, that arranges it in an orderly whole of almost endless differences; partly known and familiar, partly in a surrounding penumbra of things we know about but have never examined or explored, partly in an unmeasured region of what we do not know at all. It is this larger world mediated by meaning that we refer to when we speak of the real world, and in it we live out our lives. It is this larger world, mediated by meaning, that we know to be insecure, since besides truth there is error, besides fact there is fiction, besides honesty there is deceit, besides science there is myth. (13)

The myth of naive realism overlooks the fact that the "real world," is not known by childish procedures. Our human tendency is to think that we get at the real world just by "taking a good look." On the other hand, intellectual conversion takes place when we understand that reality is attained, not just by experiencing, but by the addition and development of the properly human activities of understanding, judging and believing. (14)

The myth of knowing as looking is at the core of philosophical issues. (15) In Insight Lonergan speaks of the "startling strangeness" one experiences as one makes the breakthrough from the residual materialism of naive realism, to the "critical realism" of thinking about our minds on their own terms. It is a breakthrough to a whole new world. It is a discovery that one has not yet made "if one has no clear memory of its startling strangeness." (16) Compared to the rest of life this "startling" breakthrough is as distinctive an experience as the difference between winter twilight and the summer noonday sun. (17) One has not yet experienced it if one has not yet made the discovery

that there are two quite different realisms, that there is an incoherent realism half animal and half human, that poses as a halfway house between materialism and idealism, and on the other hand that there is an intelligent and reasonable realism between which and materialism the half-way house is idealism. (18)

I never realized the autobiographical character of Lonergan's above statement until I did this study. As a student in England in the late 1920's, Lonergan rejected a version of scholastic realism and, under the influence of English empirical thought, he identified himself as a "nominalist." Later, after reading Plato and Augustine, he came to a "theory of intellect as immanent act" and, as he later confessed, experienced the fear of becoming an idealist. Finally, under the influence of the Jesuit writers, Joseph Maréchal and Bernard Leeming, he came to realize the meaning of the scholastic teaching on the "real distinction between essence and existence," and that was the key to what he later called his own intellectual conversion to a "critical realism."

At the conclusion of this work I will describe one very vivid moment in my own intellectual biography as I wrestled with Lonergan's work. Let me just now mention that in the 1960's, after reading through Insight, I went back and read Lonergan's previous major work on Saint Thomas Aquinas, Verbum: Word and Idea in Saint Thomas. There I discovered that what Lonergan was calling for in Insight did not hang in mid-air. It came out of a dialogue with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. I have since discovered that Lonergan's roots in Aquinas' thought have their own roots in his early philosophical development: in an interest in modern logic and mathematics, in the writings of John Henry Newman, in the early dialogues of Plato and Augustine, in his own encounter with some Thomistic writers while studying in Rome. It was through his encounter with all these influences that he came to the major breakthrough in his own intellectual development and his invitation for others to share in that breakthrough in Insight.

And that is what this book is about: Lonergan's early development leading to his own intellectual conversion in the mid-1930's and the expression of that conversion in his writings up to the completion of Insight in 1953. It is about his intellectual life during the twenty-eight years he mentions in the Preface to Insight.

Now I have to make a brief acknowledgement of my manifold indebtedness, and naturally I am led to think in the first place of the teachers and writers who have left their mark upon me in the course of the twenty-eight years that have elapsed since I was introduced to philosophy. (19)

There he mentions his "more palpable benefactors," mostly brother Jesuits, who encouraged him in his work. Here we tell the story of his "less palpable benefactors," mostly the classic writers who influenced him on the way to his own intellectual conversion. My aim has not been to write a Lonergan biography. Others are working on and will work on that great project. (20) My aim has been to ask specifically about the sources of that great "change of mind" that took place in Lonergan in the mid-1930's and to show how that conversion found expression in his writings up to Insight.

Lonergan was aware of the possibility of interpretative biographies that attribute mysterious and fictitious motivations to historical figures. And yet he left a record of his own early days: some early articles and letters as well as later testimonies to the teachers and writers who profoundly influenced his thought: his mathematics teacher at Heythrop, Fr. Joseph O'Hara, S.J., H. W. B. Joseph's Introduction to Logic, John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent, J. A. Stewart's Plato's Doctrine of Ideas, Augustine's early dialogues written at Cassiciacum in northern Italy, the Jesuit scholastic writers, Peter Hoenen, Joseph Maréchal and Bernard Leeming. All of these writers contributed to "the great change of mind" that was Lonergan's intellectual conversion in 1935-1936. All contributed pieces to the puzzle of human knowledge until the whole picture fell into "a unique explanatory perspective." (21)

The first part of this book chronicles Lonergan's early intellectual journey. Regarding the writers who influenced him, I have concentrated on the sections of their writings that obviously became an integral part of Lonergan's own future thought. My question has been:

What did Lonergan understand in the works that made such a great impression on him - Newman's Grammar of Assent, Stewart's book on Plato, Augustine's Cassiciacum dialogues, etc.? What is the key to the influence each of these writings had on his thought?

It has often occurred to me that reading these works through the eyes of Lonergan's later writings is a liberal education in itself. For one can repeat all the words of the great thinkers - as so many "survey" courses in school do; but unless one means what those great writers meant, then "one will not be raising oneself up to their level but cutting them down to one's own size." (22)

The second part of the book chronicles the early expressions of Lonergan's intellectual conversion in his unpublished writings on the philosophy of history and, especially, in his writings on Thomas Aquinas. There is no doubt that his years of study of Aquinas represented a tremendous deepening of his own personal intellectual conversion.

After years reaching up to the mind of Aquinas, I came to a two-fold conclusion. On the one hand, that reaching had changed me profoundly. On the other hand, that change was the essential benefit. (23)

The third part of the book brings the story up to 1953, the publication of Insight. No adequate account of what happened in Lonergan's own mind in the 1930's could omit this developing expression of the meaning of intellectual conversion. It culminates in the fullest expression of his position in Insight. This period is marked by Lonergan's growing focus on the nature of scientific method. It is also marked by a growing concern to invite others to share in the same intellectual breakthrough he himself had experienced.

Since Lonergan's Insight can be quite daunting, I have thought that one way to introduce people to some glimmer of its meaning is to point out the course of Lonergan's own development. At the same time it is important to remember a caution he gave when he summarized his view on human knowing in the beginning of Method in Theology.

Please observe that I am offering only a summary, that the summary can do no more than present a general idea, that the process of self-appropriation occurs only slowly, and usually, only through a struggle with some such book as Insight. (24)

The present writer has undertaken this work in the hope of setting out the historical context in which intellectual conversion took place in Lonergan's own life in the context of some classic philosophical texts. It is, in a way, a "Companion to Insight."

I could think of no more profound benefit from "reaching up" to the mind of Bernard Lonergan than a change in the reader's knowledge of his or her own mind. And I can think of no greater tribute to Bernard Lonergan than to say that he helped me to know myself. As Peter Brown wrote of the influence of Platonic thought on Saint Augustine:

For the Neo-Platonists provided him with the one, essential tool for any serious autobiography: they had given him a theory of the dynamics of the soul that made sense of his experiences. (25)

Presently the University of Toronto is publishing the twenty-two volumes of The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan. Hopefully that will address, to some degree, the relative neglect of Lonergan in the academic community. As Hugo Meynell wrote of him:

Of all the contemporary philosophers of the very first rank, Bernard Lonergan has been up to now the most neglected. (26)

My own experience of the immense value of wrestling with Lonergan's work has been confirmed by the women and men from many countries and from many walks of life whose lives have been significantly enriched through the effort of appropriating his thought. My experience has been that this has opened them up to understanding the true meaning of their own lives. In their lives the philosophy of knowledge has come to have an "existential" import.

1. Lonergan felt the challenge. Years later he would say: "They were about six hundred and fifty strong and between them, not individually but distributively, they seemed to read everything. It was quite a challenge." Second Collection, 276.

2. The most graphic example of this transition took place in the context of the Council's debate over the document on divine revelation. A highly scholastic schema prepared by a preparatory commission was scrapped entirely to make way for a text that the Council fathers felt was more biblical, more personal, more pastoral.

3. George Huntston Williams, The Mind of John Paul II (New York: Seabury Press, 1981) 86-87.

4. Insight, 22 (xxviii).

5. Lonergan later adverted to the parallel between Rogers' appropriation of feelings and his own appropriation of understanding. Cf. Second Collection, 269.

6. Insight, 13 (xviii - xix).

7. Cf. Richard M. Liddy, Art and Feeling: An Analysis and Critique of the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1970). Also my review of Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol I, in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 10,n.3 (1970) 481-484.

8. Method in Theology, 239.

9. Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: New American Library, 1948) 44.

10. John Henry Newman, A Grammar of Assent (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1913) 384. In spite of oppositions and conflicts among people on matters philosophical, ethical and religious, still a serious inquirer: "brings together his reasons and relies on them, because they are his own, and this is his primary evidence;  and he has a second ground of evidence, in the testimony of those who agree with him.  But his best evidence is the former, which is derived from his own thoughts; and it is that which the world has a right to demand of him; and therefore his true sobriety and modesty consists, not in claiming for his conclusions an acceptance or scientific approval which is not to be found anywhere, but in stating what are personally his grounds..."

11. Lonergan often recommended E. I. Watkin's The Catholic Centre (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1939) for its analysis of the implicit materialism in much Church life and thought.

12. Method in Theology, 238.

13. Collection, 233.

14. Method in Theology, 238.

15. Ibid., 238-239.

16. Insight, 22 (xxviii).

17. Insight, 13 (xix).

18. Ibid., 22 (xxviii).

19. Insight, 9 (xv).

20. Cf. the works of Crowe, Mathews and Rice in our bibliography.

21. Insight, 3 (ix). In many ways the present work is a commentary on Lonergan's article of 1971, "Insight Revisited," Second Collection, 263-278. There he outlines the intellectual influences that went into the writing of Insight and the new context that emerged in his writing of Method in Theology. The reader is advised to read "Insight Revisited" as a succinct statement of what is spelled out in detail in this book.

22. "Method in Catholic Theology," Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, vol. 10, n. 1 (Spring 1992), 10-11.

23. Insight, 769 (748).

24. Method in Theology, 7.

25. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969) 168.

26. Hugo Meynell, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, second edition, 1991, 1.


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