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

Transforming Light




"Intellectual conversion, I think, is very rare." 
Foundations of Theology, 234


In 1940 Lonergan finished his doctoral studies in Rome.

He had barely finished these when the May days of 1940 broke upon the world, and he had to tuck his thesis under his arm and head for a boat at Genoa, just escaping the boiling caldron that Europe was to become.

From 1940 to 1953 Lonergan taught theology at Jesuit seminaries in Canada: first, from 1940 to 1946 at the College of the Immaculate Conception, the Jesuit seminary in Montreal, and then, in 1947 at Regis College, the Jesuit seminary in Toronto. In the extant notes from his theology courses during the 1940's it is evident that Lonergan's underlying concern is method: a focus on the nature of theological understanding. The seeds of what will emerge many years later as his Method in Theology can be seen in those early class notes. Still, underlying his interest in theological understanding is his interest in understanding as such.

At this point Lonergan begins to focus more explicitly on the nature of modern scientific consciousness. After so many years in the study of the ancients, particularly Thomas Aquinas, Lonergan begins to take the methodologies of the sciences as the explicit focus of his reflection.


Well, for one reason, one could not just ignore the all-pervasive presence of the sciences in the modern world. Science was - and is - the paradigm for what it means "to know" in our world. Lonergan often quoted the following words from Herbert Butterfield, the historian of science, on the massive importance of the scientific revolution.

It outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and the Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.

Indeed, the very success of the modern sciences was due to their declaring their independence from the ancient Aristotelian science that so penetrated into the warp and woof of Aquinas' thought, the very thought Lonergan had spent so many years studying.

The world of Aquinas was very different from our own. His was a world of Babylonian and Ptolemaic ancestry, with the earth as its center, with its fixed species sustained by the benign influence of the heavenly spheres, with its short history of less than ten thousand years. How completely and intimately the thought of Aquinas was embedded in that world barely appears in summary accounts of his doctrine or in selected readings recommended to students. Modern science declared its independence from philosophy in general and from Aristotelian philosophy in particular.

In the early 1970's Lonergan would write:

For centuries the Christian's image of himself and of his world was drawn from the first chapters of Genesis, from Jewish apocalyptic and Ptolemaic astronomy, and from the theological doctrines of the creation and immortality of each human soul. That image has been assaulted by novel scientific traditions stemming from Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Heisenberg. It has been the great merit of Teilhard de Chardin to have recognized the Christian's need of a coherent image of himself in his world and to have contributed not a little towards meeting that need.

Lonergan's focussing on scientific consciousness in the early 40's had the same end in mind. In addition, the rise of modern science was accompanied by post-Enlightenment philosophies that interpreted scientific consciousness in such a way as not to allow for the divine or for divine revelation.

The basic issue was the nature of truth. As Lonergan noted some years later:

Thus I should maintain that the crop of philosophies produced sine the Enlightenment are not open to revealed truths because they possess no adequate account of truth.

In Method in Theology, after outlining the cultural changes brought about during the last four centuries by science, scholarship and philosophy, Lonergan states:

These changes have, in general, been resisted by churchmen for two reasons. The first reason commonly has been that churchmen had no real apprehension of the nature of these changes. The second reason has been that these changes commonly have been accompanied by a lack of intellectual conversion and so were hostile to Christianity.

In other words, it is the presence or absence of intellectual conversion that is the core issue in the Church's understanding of what is going on in the world and the world's understanding of the meaning and realm of divine revelation.

In order to appreciate Lonergan's growing focus on the empirical sciences it is helpful to have at hand a schema he created years later in his Method in Theology on the three stages of human meaning: the stages of common sense, theory and interiority. These stages can help us specify more clearly the cultural significance of Lonergan's own intellectual conversion and the further working out of that conversion in Lonergan's later writings. It has helped me to understand what was happening as I struggled with his Insight in the 1960's.

The stages in question are ideal constructs, and the key to the constructing is the undifferentiation or differentiation of consciousness. In the main we have in mind the Western tradition and we distinguish three stages. In the first stage conscious and intentional operations follow the mode of common sense. In a second stage beside the mode of common sense there is also the mode of theory, where the theory is controlled by a logic. In a third stage the modes of common sense and theory remain, science asserts its autonomy from philosophy, and there occur philosophies that leave theory to science and take their stand on interiority.

All of Lonergan's early study and his intellectual conversion of the mid-1930's had familiarized him with the breakthrough from the stage of common sense to the stage of theory. It was the breakthrough epitomized by Plato's dialogues that moved people beyond the realm of ordinary language and prepared the way for the systematic language of Aristotle. Because in these writers the "word," the activity of intellect, could effectively "challenge the evidence of the senses," the way was open for the world of theory: in the ancient world, the world of philosophy. To this world Stewart's book on Plato explicitly introduced the young Lonergan.

Aristotle and Aquinas and the mathematical procedures of modern science represent the epitome of this second stage of meaning, the stage of theory. It is a world constituted by the relationships of elements, not to the sensing, emotional subject, but to all other elements in the context of a universal viewpoint. Thus, Aristotelian philosophy relates potency and act, matter and form, substance and accident, essence and existence, etc., in a total view of the constitutive principles of the universe. So the individual chemical elements of modern science are defined by their mathematical relations to each other in the total perspective that is the periodic table of chemistry.

Lonergan was well aware of the modern world's breakthrough to the second stage of human meaning, the stage of system and theory, through his own early studies in mathematics and logic and later through his immersion in the Aristotelian thought of Aquinas.

As we noted, however, in Aristotle and Aquinas philosophy and natural science are almost inextricably bound up with each other. The discoveries of the modern sciences, on the other hand, to a large extent consisted in the emancipation from Aristotelian and medieval physics and consequently from Aristotelian philosophy. Modern scientists from Galileo on focussed on the empirical universe in an exclusive way. Science took over completely the theoretical treatment of the sensible world. It was a revolution in the world of theory.

With the rise of the modern sciences the situation of human philosophy was radically threatened. If modern science owes its success to its breaking free from Aristotelian physics and its exclusive taking over the explanation of the empirical world, what role is left for philosophy?

Now the emergence of the autonomous sciences has repercussions on philosophy. Since the sciences between them undertake the explanation of all sensible data, one may conclude with the positivists that the function of philosophy is to announce that philosophy has nothing to say. Since philosophy has no theoretic function, one may conclude with the linguistic analysts that the function of philosophy is to work out a hermeneutics for the local variety of everyday language.

For Lonergan, however, philosophy has not at all disappeared. It has its own realm and that is the realm of human interiority,

The exploration of that realm was prepared for by many of the very philosophers who had influenced Lonergan as a young man, among whom, Augustine and Newman.

Once consciousness has been differentiated and systematic thought and speech about mental acts have been developed, the capacities of ordinary language are vastly enlarged. Augustine's penetrating reflections on knowledge and consciousness, Descartes' Regulae ad directionem ingenii, Pascal's Pensees, Newman's Grammar of Assent, all remain within the world of commonsense apprehension and speech yet contribute enormously to our understanding of ourselves. Moreover, they reveal the possibility of coming to know the conscious subject and his conscious operations without presupposing a prior metaphysical structure.

In their own way, though separated by centuries, both Augustine and Newman prepared the way for a "third stage of meaning," that is, a stage consequent upon the successes of the modern sciences. This third stage of human meaning is the stage in which the dynamisms of human interiority are analyzed in a systematic way.

The Greeks needed an artistic, a rhetorical, an argumentative development of language before a Greek could set up a metaphysical account of mind. The Greek achievement was needed to expand the capabilities of commonsense knowledge and language before Augustine, Descartes, Pascal, Newman could make their commonsense contributions to self-knowledge. The history of mathematics, natural science, and philosophy, and, as well, one's own personal reflective engagement in all three are needed if both common sense and theory are to construct the scaffolding for an entry into the world of interiority.

Certainly this is the reason why in the 1940's Lonergan began to turn his attention to an analysis of scientific consciousness. In his own way, on the level of his own scientific culture, he was doing what Augustine had done in the fourth century and Newman in the nineteenth.

Here we will chronicle some of Lonergan's writings during the 1940's, and among them is found his own "personal reflective engagement" with mathematics, science and philosophy. It was the working out of his own personal intellectual conversion on the level of his own times. In him the third stage of meaning was being born.



As we noted previously, Lonergan was interested in mathematics and the methodology of the sciences from his earliest years. The pedagogical methods of Fr. Charles O'Hara at Heythrop and his own work on logic had introduced him to the basic problematics of modern mathematics and science. That this interest remained with him is evident from an article he published in 1943 in Thought on "The Form of Inference." The title of the article is similar to his first Blandyke Paper and its content is the development of his second paper, "The Syllogism."

Lonergan takes as his starting point the fact that two of his mentors, H.W.B. Joseph in his Introduction to Logic and Cardinal Newman both are opposed to the idea of reducing knowledge to any particular form of syllogistic reasoning. On that basis, Lonergan asks if there is any general form of human thinking:

Is the human mind a Noah's ark of irreducible inferential forms? Is there no general form of all inference, no highest common factor, that reveals the nature of the mind no matter how diverse the materials on which it operates? Is everything subject to measure and order and law except the mind which through measurement and comparison seeks to order everything with laws?

His question is whether there is "some type of formally valid inference that possesses both the radical simplicity and indefinite flexibility necessary to embrace all other types of reasoning within itself." Through an detailed account of the various syllogistic and non-syllogistic types of reasoning, Lonergan finds the one underlying and common form of inference in the simple hypothetical argument of the type:

If A, then B

But A

Therefore B.

The body of the article consists in a very minute and detailed tracing of this form of inference throughout all the various types of syllogisms and logical thinking. In the conclusion to the article Lonergan relates his concern in this article to his over-riding concern to articulate the basic structures of mind:

We have not considered inductive conclusions. To correlate the movement from data through hypothesis to verified theory with the movement from implier through implication to implied, and both of these with the more ultimate process from sensa through intellection to judgment, is indeed a legitimate inquiry; but it is more general than the present and presupposes it. For the same reason we have not aimed at explaining inference but rather at finding the highest common factor of inferences no matter how they are explained. Indeed, it is precisely in our attitude towards the explanation of inference that we differ from the approach of the more traditional manuals of logic; the latter presupposes an explanation of conceptualization and of inference; we on the contrary have aimed at taking a first step in working out an empirical theory of human understanding and knowledge.


Since Lonergan's interest was an "empirical" theory of knowledge, he turns his attention increasingly to the empirical sciences. Fortuitously, in the early 1940's he was joined in Montreal by Fr. Eric O'Connor, a mathematician who had just finished his studies in mathematics at Harvard, a person who proved to be an invaluable resource for Lonergan in the years to come.

When I began teaching at L'Immaculee Conception [in 1940], Fr. Eric O'Connor returned from Harvard with his Ph.D. in mathematics and began teaching at Loyola College in Montreal. Later in a conversation it transpired that he was having difficulty in his efforts to teach; I asked him whether he was using the highly formalized methods then in vogue. He said that he was and I suggested that he concentrate on communicating to his students the relevant insights and that on this basis the students would be able to figure out the formalizations for themselves. My suggestion worked. The result was that I had an expert mathematician who also knew his physics (during the Second World War he helped out at McGill University and taught quantum theory there) whom I could consult when writing the earlier chapters of Insight.

In 1943 Lonergan published an article in Theological Studies entitled "Finality, Love, Marriage" in which he presented an understanding of marriage in terms of an ascending order of sciences revealing different levels of the person (physical, chemical, biological, sensitive psychological and intellectual) corresponding to ascending orders of human love: sexual attraction, friendship, human and divine love. There is a horizontal or essential priority of lower levels; but concomitantly, there is a vertical finality of lower levels toward higher realizations. Scientific perspectives are integrated into a personalist and religious thrust.

In the recent fermentation of Catholic thought on the meaning and ends of marriage, the basic component of novelty would seem to be a development in biological science. Quite other factors, no doubt, account for the intense and widespread interest aroused; but the ground of the intellectual problem must be placed, I think, in a new scientific insight. To this Dr. H. Doms has given full prominence, and I cannot but agree that, if Aristotelian biology was aware of a distinction between fecundity and sex, it did not admit any systematic elaboration and application of that distinction. On the other hand, modern biology makes such elaboration and application inevitable. There results more than a suggestion that as fecundity is for offspring so sex has a personalist finality of its own.

Into a systematic account of the relationship of the various scientifically discovered levels of reality Lonergan weaves an account of the vertical finality of lower levels to higher realizations. Modern thought discovers such finality operative in the statistical laws that allow "the fertility of concrete plurality" to open up to ever higher levels of realization. The whole is an almost "Teilhardian" view of the universe:

Just as the real object tends to God as real motive and real term, just as the essence of the real object limits the mode of appetition and of process, so a concrete plurality of essences has an upthrust from lower to higher levels. But just as this fact is shrouded in the mists of Aristotelian science...so it is most conspicuous to one who looks at the universe with the eyes of modern science, who sees subatoms uniting into atoms, atoms into compounds, compounds into organisms, who finds the pattern of genes in reproductive cells shifting...to give organic evolution within limited ranges, who attributes the rise of cultures and civilizations to the interplay of human plurality, who observes that only when and where the higher rational culture emerged did God acknowledge the fullness of time permitting the Word to become flesh and the mystical body to begin its intussusception of human personalities and its leavening of human history.

In an article written in the late 1940's on "The Natural Desire to See God" Lonergan contrasts the essentialist and conceptualist view of world order with the open intellectualist view he espouses. The essentialist view, rooted in a conceptualist view of mind as a "cerebral logic machine" grinding out conclusions, posits the ideas of finite natures as prior to world-orders. On the other hand, for an open intellectualism,

the world-order is an intelligible unity mirroring forth the glory of God. Because of this intelligible unity lower natures are subordinate to higher natures, not merely extrinsically, but also intrinsically, as appears in chemical composition and in biological evolution. Again, because of this intelligible unity finite natures are sacrificed for the greater perfection of the whole; thus there are extinct species and the toleration of many physical evils.

The whole analysis in "Finality, Love, Marriage," aided by the analysis of the modern sciences, has a personalistic thrust:

Now towards this high goal of charity it is no small beginning in the weak and imperfect heart of fallen man to be startled by a beauty that shifts the center of appetition out of self; and such a shift is effected on the level of sensitive spontaneity by eros leaping in [and] through delighted eyes and establishing itself as unrest in absence and an imperious demand for company. Next company may reveal deeper qualities of mind and character to shift again the center from the merely organistic tendencies of nature to the rational level of friendship with its enduring basis in the excellence of a good person. Finally, grace inserts into charity the love that nature gives and reason approves.


We could not chronicle Lonergan's writings in the 1940's without mentioning his work on macroeconomics. That work will not come to fruition until the last years of his life.

From his early years Lonergan had been interested in the analysis of economic activity. That interest resulted in 1944 in a manuscript on the circulation of money in a dynamic economy.

My interest in economics goes back to the course on ethics when I was a student of philosophy at the Jesuit House of Studies at Heythrop in Oxfordshire...I returned to Canada in 1930 to find the country in the pit of a depression. Theories and fads about what was wrong were current. In particular, there was a theory called Social Credit that argued that purchasing power was systematically deficient and that banks should issue and distribute money to make up for the deficiency...The argument for Social Credit was clear and simple; the fallacy in the argument could be uncovered only through dynamic analysis. I tinkered with the problem of working out a dynamic analysis off and on; and finally about 1943 or '44 I had a 128 page manuscript.

That manuscript, "An Essay in Circulation Analysis," with additions and revisions through the 1970's and early 80's, will soon be published posthumously in the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan. In 1944 he could find no one who could understand it and so he put it away for some years, that is, until after he had completed his Insight and Method in Theology. In 1977 he said:

I worked on one question for fourteen years, getting nowhere. I wrote one hundred and twenty pages, but didn't find anyone who could see any sense in it. Six or seven years later a colleague read it, found it extremely interesting and helpful, and agreed to collaborate -- but he went off to Zambia to teach. The question is still genuine and authentic. Next term I shall be attacking it publicly.

Lonergan's aim was a "systematic" analysis of economic phenomena. "Booms and slumps" are recurrent, and Lonergan's analysis seeks to show how they derive from an inadequate understanding of the nature of the productive process in an industrial economy. The dynamics of that productive process involve the relations between the three elements of production, exchange and finance. In the first section he distinguished between the production of consumer goods, clothes, for instance, and producer goods, sewing machines. Concomitantly, he distinguished between a consumer goods money circuit and a producer goods money circuit, cross-over paths linking those circuits, and a redistributive area, the realm of banking and finance. The third section consisted in the analysis of the circulation of money in the different circuits. In this section there was a basis for a critique of the financial procedures which had caused the depression. As he once said to me, referring to many government economic policies:

People are stepping on the accelerator and braking at the same time!

For our purposes, these analyses represent Lonergan's effort to allow his own personal intellectual conversion to flow into his analysis of the human world of economics. That intellectual conversion led him to seek to understand that world in systematic terms. The present writer is still trying to "reach up to" Lonergan's analysis of macroeconomics.



In the fall and spring of 1945-46 Lonergan taught a course in the Thomas More Institute for Adult Education in Montreal entitled "Thought and Reality." Years later he remarked on the receptiveness of his students to the course and on the encouragement it gave him to continue on the track he had begun.

In September there were about forty-five students coming; at Easter there were still forty-one. It seemed clear that I had a marketable product not only because of the notable perseverance of the class but also from the interest that lit up their faces and from such more palpable incidents as a girl marching in at the beginning of class, giving my desk a resounding whack with her hand, and saying, "I've got it." Those that have struggled with Insight will know what she meant.

An incident such as this, recalled many years later, was revealing to Lonergan the powerful effect of sharing with others the fruits of his own intellectual development. This "feed-back" was important to him.

Schematic student notes of this course are extant and they reflect much of what is present in the Verbum articles which he was working on at the time. The language and formulations are often Thomistic, but at the same time it is obvious that Lonergan is engaged in analyzing scientific understanding.

Science represents the "value of the spirit of inquiry." Scientific understanding is "luminous." It is also pleasurable: it is "explosive when it changes your viewpoint." It has a synthetic power of grasping "all parts together in a simple view." Scientific understanding "puts in new rules and throws out old ones." This section ends with the following schematic jottings:

Reflection on History of Scientific Development.

Accuracy of Relevant Data (Which apply to the "why").

Use of a Working Hypothesis - Constant Cross-dialectic running.

Scientific work largely a matter of Collaboration.

Exploring the Sub-Conscious - Helps to get the right phantasm.

Science is Relative - Best theories are what is most probable at the present time (i.e. as the data are known) as it squares with the data. Does not follow that Scientific Method is relative or that understanding is relative.

Those familiar with Insight will see in these jottings his developing understanding of the nature of empirical science. There is also the use of the term, "naive realism," with a dash next to it and the words, "first step in Philosophy." Next there appears to be a definition of naive realism:

You know real objects (sensibly) before you understand and before you think - as the animal knows.

Next he lists a whole series of philosophies that flow from a naive realism: phenomenalism, Kantian criticism, Idealism, pragmatism, Platonism. With all of these he contrasts Aristotle:

Truth is the correspondence of judgment and reality. Reality is what corresponds to true judgment. It is what is.


Lonergan's growing focus on scientific method is complemented by a continuing interest in geometrical questions. This is evident in an article published in The Modern Schoolman of 1949-1950, "A Note on Geometrical Possibility." The article is an analysis of Euclidean geometry from the viewpoint of metaphysical possibility. Lonergan mentions that Fr. Peter Hoenen had contended that, even in the light of non-Euclidean geometries and the modern developments of logic, only Euclidean three-dimensional extension is known as actually possible. Lonergan's aim in the article is to arrive at an understanding of Euclidean geometry from the viewpoint of intelligibility, since "intelligibility grounds possibility." Towards the end of the article he states:

We would meet with a distinction Fr. Hoenen's claim that we do not know whether or not N-dimensional spaces are possible: we do not know whether they are possible simpliciter, but it would seem that we do know that they are possible secundum quid.

He concludes the article with the confession that he suspects that in the article there are a number of failures to hit things off with complete accuracy. It is in Insight that he will treat more fully the issues of relativity theory that are here touched upon from the viewpoint of geometrical possibility. Nevertheless, a number of issues that will reappear in Insight are first sounded in this article. For example,

Our basic assumption is that science primarily is understanding, that only secondarily in virtue of self-scrutiny and self-appraisal is scientific understanding expressed in definitions, postulates, deductions.

There follows the distinction between what he calls nominal and essential definitions. In Insight the latter will be called explanatory definitions.

It follows that definitions are expressions of understanding and may be divided by differences in what is understood. But it is one thing to grasp the language proper to a science; it is quite another to grasp the nature of the object investigated in the science. Hence, definitions will be of at least two kinds, namely nominal and essential. Nominal definitions express one's understanding of a linguistic system, of how terms are to be employed, of what employed terms must mean. Essential definitions express one's understanding of a real system, of the necessary and possible and impossible relations of things, of why things are just the way they are. In both cases the understanding itself is real; but in nominal definitions the understood has only the reality of names; while in essential definition the understood has the reality of what names mean.

The function of nominal definitions in relation to essential definitions is illustrated by the human ability to create symbolic images of what transcends imagination. The issue is central to Insight.

It may be well to indicate at once an incidental function of nominal definitions. It has been noticed that one cannot imagine a Euclidean point: one can imagine a minute speck, but if the speck really has no parts and no magnitude, then one's image disappears. Similarly, one cannot imagine a Euclidean line; one can imagine a very, very fine line, but if one imagines length from which all breadth is eliminated, one imagines nothing at all. Again, one cannot imagine the indefinitely produced straight lines of the definition of parallels: insofar as they are actually imagined, they are not indefinitely produced. On the other hand, one cannot do geometry without imagination and solely by using concepts. For the abstract straight line is unique; there are not two of them to run parallel to each other; and similarly whenever there is a question, and perpetually there is a question, of more than one geometrical entity of a kind, it is necessary for intellect to convert to phantasm. The solution to this anomaly is the symbolic image, that is, the image that stands for things it does not resemble. The geometer boldly imagines blobs and bars but understands them and thinks of them as Euclidean points and lines. The geometer does not bother producing lines indefinitely; he produces them a bit but understands them and thinks of them as indefinitely produced. He can do this because in between his images and his understanding there intervene his definitions, which settle for understanding and thought what the images stand for, no matter what they resemble.

Next he turns to essential definitions. They presuppose nominal definitions of common matter at least symbolically represented in imagination. They proceed from acts of understanding in which is grasped the intelligible form of the common matter. The essence that is defined is the compound of form and common matter. The point that he had made in the Verbum articles is that the form is the propter quid that functions as the middle term between common matter and essence.

Why are these bones and this flesh a man? What is the middle term between the empirical data of bones and flesh and the conceived essence, man? It is the formal cause of a man, his soul.

His next example is central to the first chapter of Insight:

Or, to take an illustration from geometry, why is this symbolically imagined uniformly round plane curve a circle? What has to be grasped to effect the transition from empirically given uniform curvature to the essentially defined circle? It is the formal cause of the circle, what grounds both the circularity of the circle and, as well, all its demonstrable properties. But such a formal cause is the equality of all radii in the circle.

He explains:

If all the radii are equal, the plane curve must be round; if any are unequal, it cannot be round; and similarly for the other properties of the circle. The 'must' and 'cannot' reveal the activity of understanding; and what is understood is not how to use the name, circle, but circularity itself. Further, not only does understanding intervene, but it intervenes with respect to sensible data; the necessity results from the equality of all radii, but only sense knows a multiplicity of radii; the abstract radius is unique. Finally, from the understanding of sensible data, there results the definition: without understanding one can repeat the definition like a parrot; but one cannot discover the definition, grasp what it means, without understanding equality of radii as the ground of circularity.

Finally for our purposes, he aims at a definition of understanding itself, a definition of what of its nature grounds all definitions:

Understanding itself is an irreducible experience like seeing colors or hearing sounds.It is what is rare in the stupid and frequent in the intelligent. It is the goal of inquiry, emerging upon the empirical, grounding the formation of concepts, definitions, hypothetical systems, pure implications. It is the grasp of unity (Aristotle's intelligentia indivisibilium) in empirical multiplicity, and it expresses itself in systematic meaning.





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