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

Transforming Light



Throughout his life Lonergan's major intellectual interest was the nature of human knowing. Eventually that interest would find expression in Insight and Method in Theology. But first he sought to research Aquinas' own cognitional theory. This he did in a series of articles published in Theological Studies between 1946 and 1949, eventually published in one volume under the title, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas. Remembering Augustine, he says:

He was talking about intelligere [understanding] all the time, you see.  Later, after I had finished my dissertation on gratia operans, I remembered that Thomas too talks a lot about intelligere and he hasn't much to say about universals! So I went to work on that.

He began this work in the early 1940's, after he had returned from Europe, published his dissertation and was teaching theology at Immaculee Conception in Montreal. Lonergan's continuing research on Aquinas confirmed his conviction that the latter's philosophy was grounded in self-awareness.  St. Thomas was too accurate in his metaphysical theory not to have been a superb psychologist.  Lonergan shows that Aquinas' metaphysics of the human person is rooted in Thomas' knowledge of the human person, beginning with his knowledge of himself. That self-knowledge was the basis of Aquinas' development of the traditional psychological analogy in the theological understanding of the Trinity.

The contention of this paper will be that Aquinas was speaking of understanding and that an interpretation in terms of general metaphysics misses the point; to follow Aquinas here, one must practice introspective rational psychology; without that, one no more can know the created image of the Blessed Trinity, as Aquinas conceived it, than a blind man can know colors.



Conjoined to Lonergan's deepening study of Aquinas was a deepening appropriation of Aristotelian psychology. For example, as we noted previously, Aristotle pointed out that there are two types of questions: those that ask "What is it?" or "Why is it so?" and those that ask "Is it?" or "Is it so?" Questions of the first type can not be answered by a "Yes" or "No." Questions of the second type can only be answered by a "Yes" or a "No," or a "Probably yes" or "Probably no."

Through the years Lonergan will emphasize that these two types of questions reflect two different levels of consciousness: the level of intelligence with its central act of understanding; and the level of reflection with its expression in judgement.

To focus on the first type of question, questions of the type, "What is this?" can be transposed to the type, "Why is this so?" by understanding them to be about the "form" of a thing. In this Aristotle was clarifying the nature of the insight towards which questioning heads.

What do you mean by "What?" asks Aristotle in the last chapter of the seventh book of the Metaphysics.  What does "What is it?" (ti esti) mean?  He says it means "Why is it?" (dia ti). "What is an eclipse ?" means "Why is the moon darkened in this fashion?" How do you change "What is a man?" into a "Why?"  Ask: why is this flesh and bones a man?  It is because of the soul, the form.  The form is the insight.  In the eight book he says: of course, in material things, the answer to "what?" is form and common matter; in this man, it is form and particular matter. That is the Aristotelian essentialism. But Augustine spoke of veritas and corresponding to veritas, Thomas added on esse.

All of this corresponds to what Lonergan says elsewhere about the course of his own intellectual conversion: from Plato to Augustine to Thomas. But to understand Aquinas, he had to understand Aristotle. And Aristotle had it right on insight into the phantasm. The following extensive quote from Verbum pin-points one debt of Aquinas to Aristotle as well as the distinction between Aristotle, Aquinas and Lonergan on the one hand, and other schools of philosophy on the other.

...Why was Aquinas able to affirm that intellect penetrates to the inwardness of things?  Only because Aristotle had made his point, against the old naturalists and with some help from number-loving Pythagoreans and defining Platonists (Met. A), that what is  known by intellect is a partial constituent of the realities first known by sense.  For the materialist, the real is what he knows before he understands or thinks: it is the sensitively integrated object that is reality for a dog; it is the sure and firm-set earth on which I tread, which is so reassuring to the sense of reality; and on that showing intellect does not penetrate to the inwardness of things but is a merely subjective, if highly useful, principle of activity.  To the Pythagoreans the discovery of harmonic ratios revealed that numbers and their proportions, though primarily ideas, nonetheless have a role in making things what they are; and for Aristotle the ratio of two to one was the form of the diapason.  Socratic interest in definition reinforced this tendency, but the Platonist sought the reality known by thought, not in this world, but in another.  Aristotle's basic thesis was the objective reality of what is known by understanding: it was a common sense position inasmuch as common sense always assumes that to be so; but it was not a common sense position inasmuch as common sense would be able to enunciate it or even to know with any degree of accuracy just what it means and implies...When, then, Aristotle calls the soul a logos he is stating his highly original position, not indeed with the full accuracy which his thought alone made possible, but in a generic fashion which suited his immediate purpose; and it is that generic issue that remains the capital issue, for the denial of soul today is really the denial of the intelligible, the denial that understanding, knowing a cause, is knowing anything real.

But Lonergan's fundamental interest was not Aristotle, but Aquinas. The latter's Aristotelian metaphysics did not hang in mid-air.  Lonergan's interest in the dynamism of consciousness led him to ask how that dynamism is present in Aquinas. The first point is that, according to Aquinas, the act of human understanding takes place with regard to images, phantasms. As he says, describing the act of insight:

Anyone can experience in himself that when he tries to understand something, he forms for himself some images as examples in which he can, as it were, grasp what he is trying to understand.

One is reminded of Hoenen's article in the Gregorianum which Lonergan read in the early 30's. Images when exposed to the light of intelligence become intelligible. The agent intellect, our human questioning, the wonder that Aristotle placed at the origin of all science and philosophy, moves images from the potentially to the actually intelligible.

Thus, pure reverie, in which image succeeds image in the inner human cinema with never a care for the why or wherefore, illustrate the intelligible in potency. But let active intelligence intervene: there is a care for the why and wherefore; there is wonder and inquiry; there is the alertness of the scientist or technician, the mathematician or philosopher, for whom the imagined object no longer is merely given but also something-to-be-understood...Further, this illumination of the imagined object, this reception of it within the field of intellectual light, has the characteristic of being abstractive; for it is not the imagined object in all its respects that is regarded as a something-to-be-understood; no one spontaneously endeavors to understand why "here" is "here" and why "now" is not "then;" effort is confined to grasping natures, just as explanation is always in terms of the character of person, the nature of things, the circumstances of events, but never in terms of their being then and there.

In both Aristotle and Thomas, then, Lonergan found an awareness of the inner act of understanding that grasps in sensible imagery the ratio of things whence it is able to pivot and express in concepts the content of that act of understanding.  The point is present in Aristotle where the key to his understanding of the function of syllogisms is the act of grasping the intelligible form in the properly disposed or configured imagery. All this takes place prior to words, even the "inner words" that are concepts. Concepts and definitions proceed from acts of insight.

Because the act of understanding - the intelligere proprie - is prior to, and cause of, conceptualization, any attempt to fix the act of understanding, except by way of introspective description, involves its own partial failure; for any such attempt is expression, and expression is no longer understanding and already concept.

Thus, one of Lonergan's perennial examples, the definition of a circle, is a set of interrelated concepts rooted in an insight into an image.

A plane curve that possesses neither bumps nor dents, of perfectly uniform curvature, cannot be had if not all radii are equal but must be had if all radii are equal; one sees the curve, the radii, their equality, the presence or absence of bumps or dents by one's eyes or imagination; one cannot know them in any other way, for there is only one abstract radius, and it does not move; but the impossibility or necessity of perfectly uniform curvature is known by intellect alone in the act of insight into the phantasm.

In Verbum, after working through the evidence from Aquinas, Lonergan sets out the characteristics that distinguish our human process of knowing from any other processes in the natural world.  In the first place, the intelligibility of the natural processes of the universe is passive and potential; it is not the conscious active intelligibility of dynamic intelligence.  It is not the stuff of conscious intelligence itself. Secondly, the intelligibility of natural processes is expressed in the intelligibility of some specific law or correlation; it is not the intelligibility of the very idea of intelligible law.  Intelligence defies formulation in any specific law and the principles of logic are themselves rooted in intelligence.  Thirdly, the intelligibility of natural processes is imposed from without.  On the other hand, it is of the very nature of the procession of "the inner word" from the act of understanding to be actively intelligent.  Intelligence in act does not follow laws imposed from without, but rather it is the ground of the intelligibility of law; it is constitutive and, as it were, creative of law.

Intelligence always involves some abstraction: several circles of differing size involve the same intelligibility. The abstractive character of intelligence means grasping what is significant as significant and leaving aside the insignificant because it is known to be insignificant.

The Aristotelian and Thomist theory of abstraction is not exclusively metaphysical; basically, it is psychological, that is, derived from the character of acts of understanding. On the other hand, it is in the self-possession of understanding as the ground of possible conceptualization that one may best discern what is meant by saying that the self-expression of understanding is an emanatio intelligibilis, a procession from knowledge as knowledge, and because of knowledge as knowledge.



This latter character of knowledge, which makes it possible not only for something to be known but to be known to be known, is most fully present in what Lonergan would later call the third level of consciousness, the level of judgment. Not only is understanding a constitutive increment in the process of human knowing, but Lonergan found in Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Newman the materials for distinguishing clearly between direct understanding and a further constitutive activity in human knowing, the activity of judging.

Such judgment itself proceeds from an act of understanding, this time a reflective act of understanding that answers to a reflective questioning: Is it? Is it so? That is, Is my direct understanding correct?

Again, both acts of understanding have their instrumental or material causes, but the direct act has this cause in the schematic image or phantasm, while the reflective act reviews not only imagination but also sense experience, and direct acts of understanding, and definitions, to find in all taken together the sufficient ground or evidence for a judgment. Hence, while the direct act of understanding generates in definition the expression of the intelligibility of a phantasm, the reflective act generates in judgment the expression of consciously possessed truth through which reality is both known and known to be known.

According to Lonergan, for St. Thomas our human knowing is not some kind of automatic and unconscious "metaphysical sausage machine," slicing off concepts in a mechanical way.  Rather, it is, first of all, intelligence consciously and luminously seeking the intelligibility of things. The action of human understanding in response to human questions for intelligence is a grasping in the data of sense or imagination the patterns of relationships, the "forms" of things; and upon such a grasp, human understanding pivots and expresses to itself in inner words - concepts - the intelligibility it has grasped. But "bright ideas are a dime a dozen" and consequently there is evident in Aquinas, more clearly than in Aristotle, the centrality of the third level of consciousness, the level of judging. 

This is the level on which existence, esse, is attained.  Judgment is not a mere composition or division of concepts.  It is an absolute positing of such a mental synthesis as true or false and as such mediating reality.

Such an operation is conscious.  Just as the Platonic Socrates in the Meno asked how the young boy could recognize an answer as an answer, Aquinas saw in the very nature of human intelligence the response to that question.  For since our spirits are "quodammodo omnia," somehow open to all things, there is within us, in our very ability to question, the notion of being: the notion of what any answer will have to live up to in order to qualify as the answer - in order to be known as the answer. Speaking of the metaphysical concept of being, Lonergan remarks.

I think much less ink would be spilt on the concept of ens [being], were more attention paid to its origin in the act of understanding.  Tell any bumpkin a plausible tale and he will remark, "Well now that may be so." He is not perhaps exercising consciously the virtue of wisdom which has the function of knowing the "ratio entis et non entis." But his understanding has expressed itself as grasp of possible being.  Intelligibility is the ground of possibility, and possibility is the possibility of being; equally, unintelligibility is the ground of impossibility, and impossibility means impossibility of being. To affirm actual being, more than a plausible tale is wanted; for experience, though it is not as such the source of the concept of being ...still it is the condition of the transition from the affirmation of the possibility to the affirmation of the actuality of being. Hence, the first operation of intellect regards quiddities, but the second, judgment, regards esse, the actus essendi.

In addition - again reminiscent of Hoenen - the metaphysical principles of being, of unity, of identity and non-contradiction, etc., all flow from the conscious nature of our intelligence and reason. Such intellectual light can be known by intellectual light.

There is, then, a manner in which the light of our souls enters within the range of introspective observation. The most conspicuous instance seems to be our grasp of first principles. Scientific conclusions are accepted because they are implied by first principles; but the assent to first principles has to have its motive too, for assent is rational; and that motive is the light that naturally is within us. Again, the light of agent intellect is said to manifest first principles, to make them evident. In that light the whole of science virtually is ours from the very start. Just as conclusions are convincing because principles are convincing, so our intellectual light derives its efficacy from the prima lux which is God.

It is particularly in judgment that the human spirit effects the self-transcendence to reality and being.

Inasmuch as the act of understanding grasps its own conditions as the understanding of this sort of thing, it abstracts from the irrelevant and expresses itself in a definition of essence. But inasmuch as the understanding grasps its own transcendence-in-immanence, its quality of intellectual light as a participation of the divine and uncreated Light, it expresses itself in judgment, in a positing of truth, in the affirmation or negation of reality.

Reflective understanding, prior to judgment, involves the grasp of "the native infinity of intellect," the potens omnia facere et fieri by which the human intellect is open to all of being. There is no intrinsic limit to our human questioning.

The native infinity of intellect as intellect is a datum of rational consciousness. It appears in that restless spirit of inquiry, that endless search for causes which, Aquinas argued, can rest and end only in a supernatural vision of God. It appears in the absolute exigence of reflective thought which will assent only if the possibility of the contradictory proposition is excluded. Just as Thomist thought is an ontology of knowledge inasmuch as intellectual light is referred to its origin in uncreated Light, so too it is more than an embryonic epistemology inasmuch as intellectual light reflectively grasps its own nature and the commensuration of that nature to the universe of reality.



Lonergan's research on Aquinas in the Verbum articles represents the consolidation of his own intellectual conversion.  For these articles evidence a clear articulation of the two incommensurate criteria of reality present in our human consciousness.  These  criteria of the real are the fundamentally determining factors in the distinction between the perennial schools of philosophy: materialism, idealism and realism.

A useful preliminary is to note that animals know, not mere phenomena, but things: dogs know their masters, bones, other dogs, and not merely the appearances of these things.  Now this sensitive integration of sensible data also exists in the human animal and even in the human philosopher.  Take it as knowledge of reality , and there results the secular contrast between the solid sense of reality and the bloodless categories of the mind.  Accept the sense of reality as criterion of reality, and you are a materialist, sensist, positivist, pragmatist, sentamentalist, and so on, as you please.  Accept reason as a criterion but retain the sense of reality as what gives meaning to the term "real," and you are an idealist; for like the sense of reality, the reality defined by it is non-rational.  In so far as I grasp it, the Thomist position is the clear-headed third position: reason is the criterion and, as well, it is reason - not the sense of reality - that gives meaning to the term "real."  The real is what is and "what is," is known in the rational act, judgment.

Parenthetically, it was Augustine's move from conceiving the divine as some kind of body to realizing that the real transcends imagination that illustrates the presence and influence of these two incommensurate criteria of the real.

Materialism, idealism and naive forms of realism all see knowledge as primarily confrontational.  How do we get from "in here" to "out there?"  But for Aristotle and Aquinas knowledge is primarily by identity: sensible in actu est sensus in actu, et intelligibile in actu est intellectus in actu.  Knowledge is primarily union and only secondarily does the human mind, through understanding and accurate judgment, come to distinguish the trees from the forest in the being it grasps - and by which it is grasped.

The critical problem...is not a problem of moving from within outwards, of moving from a subject to an object outside the subject. It is a problem of moving from above downwards, of moving from an infinite potentiality commensurate with the universe towards a rational apprehension that seizes the difference of subject and object in essentially the same way it seizes any other real distinction. Thus realism is immediate, not because it is naive and unreasoned and blindly affirmed, but because we know the real before we know such a difference within the real as the difference between subject and object.

Lonergan contrasts the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of knowledge primarily by identity with the confrontationism of materialism and even with Platonic dualism.  So also does he point out the distinction between the Aristotelian-Thomistic position and the ultimate Augustinian "vision of eternal truth."

For it is the light of the intellect that replaces the Augustinian vision of eternal truth; and regularly one reads that we know, we understand, we judge all things by a created light within us which is a participation, a resultant, a similitude, an impression of the first and eternal light and truth.

Still Aquinas owes a great deal to Augustinian introspection. From Augustinian speculation on the procession of the inner word, he was led to distinguish far more sharply than Aristotle did between intelligence in act and its products of definition and judgment. But his greater debt was to Augustinian theory of judgment with its appeal to eternal reasons; Aquinas transposed this appeal into his own "participatio creata lucis increatae" to secure for the Aristotelian theory of knowing by identity the possibility of self-transcendence in finite intellect. On his own, Aquinas identified intelligible species with intellectual habit to relate species to intelligere as form to esse, a parallel that supposes a grasp of the real distinction between finite essence and existence.

This "real distinction" between essence and existence, ultimately rooted in the real distinction between understanding and judgment, was the core of Lonergan's own "intellectual conversion" in Bernard Leeming's course on the Incarnate Word in Rome in the mid 1930's. By the mid-forties and his studies of Aquinas he was arriving at expressing that distinction ever more clearly. The culminating step would be his writing of Insight.

For an intellectual conversion is needed to grasp all this. So pervasive is "the native tendency to extroversion" that it appears in a multiplicity of guises. Typically it is found in conceptualist philosophies that are so focussed on concepts that they miss the intellect from which they emerge.

For intellectual habit is not possession of the book but freedom from the book. It is the birth and life in us of the light and evidence by which we operate on our own.

On the contrary,

Conceptualists conceive human intellect only in terms of what it does; but their neglect of what intellect is, prior to what it does, has a variety of causes. Most commonly they do not advert to the act of understanding. They take concepts for granted; they are busy working out arguments to produce certitudes; they prolong their spontaneous tendencies to extroversion into philosophy, where they concentrate on metaphysics and neglect gnoseology.

The Aristotelian-Thomist program is not the simple matter of conceiving understanding as some kind of a "spiritual look" in the tradition of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

We can have no knowledge of our intellects except by reflecting on our own acts of understanding. Evidently, the Aristotelian and Thomist program is not a matter of considering ocular vision and then conceiving an analogous spiritual vision that is attributed to a spiritual faculty named intellect. On the contrary, it is a process of introspection that discovers the act of insight into the phantasm and the definition as an expression of the insight, that almost catches intellect in its forward movement towards defining and its backward reference to sense for the concrete realization of the defined.

Toward the end of Verbum Lonergan pays tribute to Aquinas' transposition of Aristotle, instead of taking up as his working philosophy the various forms of Platonism that were available.

Least of all could Aquinas have lost himself in the Platonist fog and at the same time steadily progressed from the Sentences toward the clear and calm, the economic and functional, the balanced and exact series of questions and articles of the via doctrinae in the Summa, in which the intellectualism of Aristotle, made over into the intellectualism of St. Thomas shines as unmistakenly as the sun on the noonday summer hills of Italy.

In conjunction with these emphases in the Verbum articles, we can also point to some other brief statements in book reviews written in the late 1940's. For example, regarding a collection of commentaries on medieval issues, including the real distinction between essence and existence, Lonergan writes:

George Klubertanz, S.J., deals with the smae question in St, Bonaventure, to find that esse and essentia do not differ, while existere, in its technical sense, meant for St. Bonaventure esse hic et nunc; it would seem that there is a patron saint for the naive epistemologists who are concerned exclusively with the real as "something out there."

In another review of Dom Illtyd Trethowan Certainty: Philosophical and Theological, Lonergan criticizes the author's "dogmatic intuitionism." For Trethowan knowledge is intuitive apprehension of certainty, whether in the natural or supernatural order.

Unfortunately the postulated intuitions do not seem to exist. In its first moment on each level, knowledge seems to be act, perfection, identity; such identity of itself is not a confrontation; confrontation does arise, but only in a second moment and by a distinct act, of perception as distinct from sensation, of conception as distinct from insight, of judgment as distinct from reflective understanding. On this showing confrontation is not primitive, but derived; and it is derived from what is not confrontation, not intuition, nor formal and explicit duality.

Lonergan goes on to admit the difficulty of accepting the view he is proposing. It demands a momentous personal change.

Admittedly it is difficult to justify such derivation. Overtly to accept such difficulty is a basic and momentous philosophic option.

Even the eminent historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson, is not spared the critique of intuitionism. In a generally favorable review Lonergan adds the reservation:

Finally, the insistence upon a "return to sense" and the affirmation of an intuitive experience of acts of existing (pp. 206 f.) are strangely reminiscent of something like Kierkegaard's esthetic sphere of existential subjectivity.




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