Bernard J.F. Lonergan (1904-1984)*

Giovanni B. Sala, S.J.


1.       Biographical Notes

Lonergan was born on December 17, 1904, at Buckingham near Ottawa, the capital of Canada.  At age 13 he entered Loyola College of Montreal, which was administered by the Jesuits, leaving in 1922 to enter the novitiate of that Order.  To the novitiate were added two years’ study in the humanities and then, from 1926, the study of philosophy at Heythrop College near Oxford, England.  After three years of study dedicated primarily to Scholastic philosophy, there followed a fourth year for the completion of a diploma at the University of London.  The subjects of this further study were classical (Greek and Latin) letters, French, and mathematics.  After three more years of educational activity and teaching, again at Loyola College, Lonergan began in 1933 the study of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, which ended in 1940 with the doctorate in theology.  His teaching of theology over 25 years is divided into two periods: from 1940 to 1953 in Canada (first in Montreal, and then in Toronto), from 1953 to 1965 at the Gregorian University in Rome.  Returning to Toronto for reasons of health, he dedicated himself to completing the project he had long pursued, publishing in 1972 his Method in Theology.  In the academic year 1971-72 Lonergan taught at the Harvard Divinity School; from 1975 to 1983 he was at Boston College in Massachusetts as Visiting Distinguished Professor.  He died at Pickering near Toronto on November 26, 1984.   

In this article I propose to bring out in particular the specifically philosophical contribution of this theologian.  It is characteristic of Lonergan’s philosophy that, while it was worked out with theology in view (more precisely, with a theological method at the “level of the times” in view), it was also wholly faithful to the requirements of reason, so that it is possible to identify in Lonergan’s writings a thought that is strictly philosophical.  The order I shall follow will be chronological, the order best suited to a thought that, while basically continuous, shows notable development in the course of its author’s life.

2.       Heythrop College: The Seeds of Future Thought

Contrary to a widespread opinion among students of Lonergan, though the beginning of his philosophical thought is to be found in the Scholastic philosophy (“neo-Scholasticism”) then commonly taught in the scholasticate of the Society of Jesus, it was not specifically in St. Thomas.  Lonergan himself was to say in 1974 that his interest in St. Thomas came late[1].  Apart from “obligatory” readings, the interest of the young Lonergan was turned, and the ferment for his philosophical development was due, to Newman, Augustine, and Plato.  Later Hegel and Marx were added for their interpretation of history and for social problems.

Of particular significance for tracing the origins of Lonergan’s thought are two studies prepared for an “internal” journal during the years at Heythrop, and thus at a date when Lonergan did not yet have direct knowledge of St. Thomas.  In the first, “The Form of Mathematical Inference”, Lonergan examined Euclid’s theorem about an exterior angle of a triangle being equal to the sum of the two opposite interior angles.  This study shows that he had already grasped the act of understanding in the image presented by sense that later, in his study of St. Thomas, he would call “insight into phantasm”.  In working out the second study, “True Judgment and Science”, Lonergan, who already knew of Newman’s “illative sense” through repeated reading of the Grammar of Assent, was put on the trail of the act that grounds judgment.  He later would call this act “reflective understanding”.  In this second study he opposes “the mind itself”, as an “alternative criterion”, to science and syllogistic method.  The mind has a mode of operating that cannot be reduced to logical inference.  It is of no small importance to learn this, in the light of the investigation of subjectivity that later would be at the center of all of Lonergan’s thought[2].

3.       The Dissertation: The Encounter with St. Thomas

The real encounter with St. Thomas happened later, almost by chance, in 1938. Charles Boyer, S.J. proposed to Lonergan as the subject for his doctoral thesis an article in the Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 111, a. 2, on the division of grace into “operans” and “cooperans”.  For Lonergan, this was the beginning of eleven years of intense study aimed at “reaching up to the mind of Aquinas”.  Hence, if it is true that Lonergan did not begin his intellectual career as a neo-Thomist, it is no less true that his direct study of St. Thomas’ writings “changed [him] profoundly”, as Lonergan himself was to confess at the end of his greatest work (Insight, 748 | 769).  This research brought Lonergan a twofold fruit.  First of all, some key ideas in Thomas’ teaching on grace.  St. Thomas’ original thoughts on divine transcendence and human freedom, on the nature of sin as an absolute irrational, have lost none of their freshness and liberating force after seven centuries.  The second fruit that Lonergan gathered was his being confronted, in a well-documented case, with the evolving character of theological speculation and of human knowledge in general.  This must have struck Lonergan most of all, directing him definitively to the study of human knowledge and theological method.  Knowing is not only, or mainly, a matter of universal and necessary concepts or of syllogistic deductions.  Essentially, knowing is understanding the data correctly.  This already implies the two theses that would become central for Lonergan: that human knowledge is a structure of experiencing, understanding, and judging; and that the key moment in this structure is understanding. 

4.       The Study of the “Verbum": The Discovery of the Subject

This position was deepened in Lonergan’s later study of the concept of the “verbum” in Aquinas, which was published in five parts in the journal “Theological Studies” from 1946 to 1949.  The purpose of this study was theological: to examine in what, according to St. Thomas, the traditional analogy consists that sees in the human spirit an image of the triune God, i.e., an image of the proceeding of the Son from the Father, and of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.  This extremely analytic study of the texts of St. Thomas, just in order to bring out what Lonergan was after, proved to be an exquisitely philosophical study of Thomas’ theory of knowledge and, at the same time, of his teaching on the soul and on metaphysics.  We have here that “turn to the subject” that definitively fixed the direction of Lonergan’s intellectual path.  

The Augustinian origins of the Trinitarian analogy suggested to Lonergan that the image of the procession of the Word (and of the Holy Spirit) could not—contrary to the most recent interpretation in Scholastic theology—reside in the metaphysical structure of the human spirit as knowing and willing.  A structure of that kind was outside the interests of Augustine, who was intent on sounding the depths of the human spirit by an introspective kind of investigation.  If, on the other hand, St. Thomas’ teaching on the verbum is presented in the context of Aristotelian metaphysics, one must suppose—this was Lonergan’s working hypothesis—that St. Thomas uses metaphysical categories and theorems to interpret and express systematically operations and realities that are conscious, and thus are to be identified through an introspective analysis.  At the end of his first article, Lonergan already states: “I have begun, not from the metaphysical framework, but from the psychological content of Thomist theory of intellect…  The Thomist conception of inner word is rich and nuanced: it is no mere metaphysical condition of a type of cognition; it aims at being a statement of psychological fact, and the precise nature of those facts can be ascertained only be ascertaining what was meant by intelligere.”[3]

The perspective under which Lonergan had studied St. Thomas was new and different from what was then customary among Thomists.  One thinks of Geist im Welt from a few years earlier, in which Karl Rahner had reconstructed St. Thomas’ “Metaphysik der endlichen Erkenntnis [metaphysics of finite knowledge]”, or of the later Metaphysica operationis humanae [metaphysics of human operation] of Johannes B. Lotz.  This new way of studying St. Thomas produced results significantly different from those that were shared by most scholars and that were summarized in manuals of “Logic” and “Rational Psychology”.  Neglect of the psychological data proper to the human spirit had resulted in an impoverishment, if not an actual deformation, of the metaphysics of St. Thomas.

Lonergan first of all examines the teaching on the “prima mentis operatio [first operation of the mind]”.  The central moment in this is the “intelligere in sensibili [insight into the sensible]”—the Thomist counterpart of the “noein en tois phantasmatis” of the Peri Psyches [Aristotle’s On the Soul], III, 7.  Understanding is grasping how the data of sense (or of consciousness) are interrelated; it is adding to the manifold of the mere presentation a complex of relations, a meaning, that reduces the manifold to unity.  When this happens, the mind is able to pronounce the interior word that the tradition calls the concept.  This means that the verbum is produced intelligently according to that causality proper to the spirit that St. Thomas calls intelligible emanation[4].  The origin of the concept is therefore empirical and intelligent at the same time, being based both on sentire [sensing] and on intelligere [understanding].

Lonergan regards as one of the most serious failings of Scholastic philosophy the fact that in it Scotist conceptualism had prevailed over Aristotelian-Thomist intellectualism.  For conceptualism, the key moment in knowledge is the concept seen as universal and necessary.  But since nothing universal exists in reality, the first activity of the mind, according to Scotus, consists in providing universal contents to the intellect by way of a spontaneous and unconscious abstractive activity.  But once the pre-conceptual intelligere has disappeared, the Kantian final outcome is not surprising: the replacement of the metaphysical mechanism of abstraction by a very precise set of a priori syntheses.

St. Thomas conducts his analysis of the second operation of the mind, the operation that terminates in the judgment, along the same lines.  Here too the pivot is an act of understanding, this time reflective understanding.  Direct insight adds an intelligibility to the data, but establishing whether this intelligibility really represents a component immanent in the data belongs to the next phase of the cognitive process, the critical phase.  When the mind has assured itself of the correspondence between concept and data (both of which are moments immanent in the cognitive process!) it is in a position to judge rationally.  This is because it then possesses a justification that is proportionate to the absolute positing that is expressed in the judgment.  And in judgment reality is known.         

In Lonergan’s study of the verbum the procession of the Holy Spirit is treated only marginally.  But here too the psychological datum used for the comprehension of the divine mystery is borrowed from the conscious activity of our spiritual dynamism, in this case the dependence of the virtuous act of our will on a previous judgment of value.

In his movement from the metaphysical doctrine on the soul to his doctrine of the subject, Lonergan went beyond St. Thomas, but in so doing he brought to fruition seeds that were at work in the medieval thinker.  His discovery of subjectivity did not represent for Lonergan only the recovery of what is most precious in St. Thomas; it also permitted him to go beyond the vetera [old things] of his master so as to integrate them with the nova [new things] that Western culture had harvested in the following centuries, thanks to seeds planted in it by St. Thomas[5].

These new things, that take up again and carry forward the valid things from our cultural past, were presented by Lonergan in Insight. A Study of Human Understanding, published in 1957.

5. Insight: A Modern Version of the ГΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ [“Know Thyself”]

5.1   Genesis and structure of the work.

As soon as he had completed his apprenticeship in the school of St. Thomas, Lonergan started out to draft what turned out to be his most significant work.  His original intent had been to write a book on theological method.  He began by exploring the methods employed in the sciences and in philosophy because the advanced state of those fields of knowledge today, particularly in the experimental sciences, implies that the methods they employ are the most developed and the most precise.  His transfer to Rome in 1953 led him to set aside for the moment his true purpose as a theologian, so that he completed what should have been only the preliminary part and published it as a self-standing philosophical work.

The book’s subtitle clearly sounds like a reprise of the English tradition, in which the Essays of Locke and Hume Concerning Human Understanding have become classical texts.  This was all the more natural for Lonergan once he had realized that St. Thomas’ theory of knowledge is based on the conscious performance of knowing.  But the empirical character of Lonergan’s theory of knowledge does not mean empiricism.  This is for two reasons.

First, because attention to the performance of knowing leads to the recognition that human knowledge is the result of a series of operations that are conscious and therefore verifiable.  These begin with sense, but they go beyond the capabilities of sense.  Lonergan thus considers it appropriate to broaden the concept of empirical method as employed in the sciences of nature (which deal with laws that are verifiable in the data of sense) and establish a method that is valid for the whole range of human knowledge, i.e., generalized empirical method.  This embraces not only the data of external experience (the data of sense) but also the data of consciousness (Insight, 72, 243 | 96, 268).  Second, because in the movement from the operations as merely experienced (i.e., conscious) to the same operations as known—a movement that is necessary for working out a theory of knowledge—a normative element emerges.  That is our intentionality with its dynamism, its structure, and the laws that are immanent in it.

In a preface written in 1953 but later replaced with another, Lonergan characterized the work he had just completed with a sentence borrowed from Ortega y Gasset, “one must strive to rise to the level of one’s time”[6].  His intent was to bring Catholic thought to the level of the 20th Century, just as St. Thomas had done in the 13th Century with regard to the new ideas that Greek and Arabic culture had introduced into Western Christianity.  This intent was realized in Insight above all (though not exclusively) through his attention to the sciences of nature and to modern philosophy, in the first place to Kant.  These were the two privileged partners in the dialogue of this Catholic thinker with the culture of our time.

Since it is not possible to discuss this work in detail here, I will simply indicate its contents and then discuss systematically its three main themes.  The study of insight, the act of understanding that the verbum articles had unearthed from under the age-old blanket of conceptualism, opens with insight in mathematics.  In Chapters 2 to 5, this study then moves on to the sciences of nature.  Chapters 6 and 7 examine the characteristic mode of operation of understanding in “common sense”, while Chapter 8 is devoted to the world of “things”, which concern both the sciences and common sense.  The object of Chapters 9 and 10 is the reflective understanding that is expressed in the judgment.  Chapters 11-13 gather the fruits of the study of what St. Thomas called the “duplex mentis operatio [twofold operation of the mind]”, which for Lonergan are two distinct levels of intentional consciousness.  These fruits are an explanation of how we come to know ourselves as knowers, and an explanation of the notion of being operative in our intentionality and also of the objectivity proper to human knowledge.  There follow four chapters (14-17) dedicated to metaphysics.  Chapter 18 studies the free and responsible action of man, while Chapter 19 traces our mind’s road in ascending to God.  A chapter on the problem of evil outlines a philosophy of history in which philosophical thought is transcended in theology.

In his Introduction Lonergan divides the entire volume into two parts: The first ten chapters study insight as activity, i.e., as an event that occurs within very precise patterns of operations.  The following ten chapters study insight as knowledge, i.e., as an event that under determinate conditions reveals a universe of being (Insight, xxii | 16).  Later, during a symposium in 1967, he would explain that the procedure he followed in Insight was to treat three interconnected questions: “What am I doing when I am knowing?  Why is doing that knowing?  What do I know when I do it?  The first was the question of cognitional theory, the second the question of epistemology, the third the question of metaphysics.”[7]  This later understanding of the work allows us to grasp the basic themes of Insight and their mutual connections more clearly than the order of the chapters in the second part does.  These are the themes of knowledge, objectivity, and reality that are brought up many times in the course of the book (Insight, 388, 425, 484, 624, etc. | 413, 449f, 509, 647, etc.).

Once the importance of these three problems is recognized, we must also note that, in Lonergan’s eyes, the true meaning and the ultimate purpose of Insight do not lie in these philosophical positions.  In the Introduction he states that he intends to investigate human knowledge, but not in order to set forth a list of its abstract properties.  Rather, it is to “assist the reader in effecting a personal appropriation of the concrete, dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in his own cognitional activities” (Insight, xvii | 11).  And at the end of the volume he confirms this purpose when he characterizes Insight as “an essay in aid of a personal appropriation of one’s own rational self-consciousness” (Insight, 748 | 769).  Insight therefore is intended more to be implemented than to be read.  This implementation is a strictly personal effort to discover and make one’s own one’s subjectivity, i.e., the intelligent, rational, and responsible dynamism that makes us persons.  This dynamism requires that we take up for ourselves the labor of understanding what is gradually falling within our experience, that we do not flee from the ascesis required by a reason that is satisfied with nothing less than the true and the real, that we accept the challenge of a freedom invited to perform the good, that we do not reject the divine solution to radical evil that invites us to go beyond pure humanism by submitting ourselves to a rationality and a goodness that redeem the evil in man by making him more than man. 

5.2   The theory of knowledge

We saw above that Lonergan formulates the question of knowledge as a question about the operations that we perform.  With this formulation he moves away from the customary question that begins with Descartes and above all with Kant, which is whether our knowledge has objective value in the sense of being knowledge of reality in itself.  The reason is that the usual formulation is laden with unclarified presuppositions that often lead to a negative solution to the so-called critical problem.  Lonergan therefore proposes to begin by bringing out the nature of our knowing, since two different kinds of knowledge exist in man.  There is a knowledge that is already complete at the level of experience, a knowledge that man has in common with the higher animals.  And there is a knowledge in which experience is only the first component, the presentation of the data.  These data must be promoted to properly human knowledge through understanding and critical reflection.

To avoid confusing these two kinds of knowledge, Lonergan starts with an examination of the cognitive process in order to grasp distinctly each of the acts that compose it, in their specific character, in their mutual relations, and in the laws immanent in them.  The result of this phenomenology of knowing is the recognition that human knowledge is made up of a multiplicity of different acts, whose concrete configuration varies according to the domain of reality to be known and the kind of knowledge intended.  But in every case the different acts fall into three distinct levels, each of which constitutes a proper and irreducible dimension of intentional consciousness.  Consequently, knowledge consists in a triadic structure of experiencing, understanding, and judging, so that only by the reciprocal integration of all three moments (each of which is a cognitive activity in its own right) is there human knowledge in the proper sense as knowledge of being[8].  The levels of the structure are the implementation of a single conscious dynamism.  The implementation of any one stage occurs according to its own norms, but it prompts the next stage as that which must be added in order to constitute gradually the dynamic whole that is knowledge in the full sense, which culminates in rational judgment.

Knowledge starts out with a receptive moment, the receptivity of sense.  However, the operation of sense normally is under the anticipatory influence of the intellectual dynamism that is grafted onto it, so that sense becomes the source from which intellect receives the material for its own operations.  In the face of the data we spontaneously pose the question for understanding, “What is it?”  The investigation launched by this question leads us to grasp relations among the data as possible explanations of them.  This insight is expressed in that inner word that is the concept, which in turn prompts the critical question, “Is it really so?”  This question for reflection engages the subject in the search for a reason sufficient to answer it.  Only a grounded affirmation is true and, as such, makes us know things as they are.   

Lonergan’s movement from the primarily historical study in the verbum articles to the systematic investigation in Insight permitted him to clarify exactly what the sufficient reason is for making a judgment.  Since judgment consists in the absolute positing of the mental synthesis expressed in a concept, this reason must have the character of absoluteness.  Customarily this reason is called “sufficient evidence”, a metaphorical term that corresponds to the conception of knowing as seeing.  In accordance with his program of working out a theory of knowledge that is verifiable in the conscious operations we perform, Lonergan leaves aside the misleading image of “evidence” and finds the basis of judgment in a reflective act that grasps the virtually unconditioned, i.e., a conditioned whose conditions in fact are fulfilled.  The conditioned is the intelligibility that is grasped in the data as, in itself, only a possibility of being.  The conditioned becomes unconditioned when the subject recognizes that all the relevant data are in fact given and that there are no other data that might put that intelligibility into question[9].         

With this theory of knowledge Lonergan takes up again the fundamental intuitions from his time at Heythrop, which were confirmed by his later study of St. Thomas.  The specific contribution of Insight in working out this theory is twofold.  First, the examination of mathematics and the sciences of nature in the first chapters, to which he added the examination of common sense, enabled Lonergan to see at close range the many configurations that the act of direct insight can assume.  Second, while at the stage of direct insight the active role of the subject, its capacity to think up possible explanations of the data, is especially evident, the reflective moment that leads to judgment shows that this role does not imply that the subject is “the author of experience” in a Kantian sense[10], i.e., in a creative-idealist sense.  By examining scientific procedures[11] Lonergan clarified the role of judgment as the moment subsequent to anticipatory understanding.  The experimentation characteristic of modern science shows that the interpretation of the data is not an intelligibility that the subject creatively projects onto reality, but rather the anticipation of an intelligibility that, if verified, proves to be an element constitutive of reality itself.  

5.3   The objective value of our knowledge

It is again phenomenological analysis that provides the elements for answering the question about the objective value of our knowledge.  There are two decisive elements that Lonergan invokes in order to answer this question and at the same time to clarify the notion of objectivity that operates in every human being who has attained the use of reason[12]. 

First, the unlimited range of the conscious, intelligent, and rational dynamism (or intentionality) that underlies the whole cognitive process.  There is no closed inner space of subjectivity, since consciousness is characterized by a tending toward the transcendent.  The very fact that we are able to inquire beyond every limit means that we ask about the object to be known within an unconditioned perspective.  We ask what it is and whether it is, where the “is” that is intended excludes any restrictive qualification.

Second, judgment.  The proper contribution that judgment brings to the cognitive process is not, as the current definition of it suggests, in performing a synthesis of subject and predicate, but in positing that synthesis absolutely with the “est [it is]” of rational affirmation.  Judgment consists in the absolute positing of an intelligible content that at first is grasped as a term immanent in our thinking.  By virtue of the judgment, this content is known as removed, in its status as being, from its relativity to the judging subject and from any extrinsic restrictive condition.  The meaning of the answer in the judgment corresponds to the meaning of the question.  But the question is transcendent, and so the answer must also be transcendent.  

The fact that objective knowledge is knowledge of being and that this knowledge occurs in a judgment that is grounded and therefore true shows the connection between subjectivity and objectivity.  Rational judgment is the performance of a subject that attends to all the relevant data, gives free rein to its curiosity so that it asks all the intelligent questions it can, and reflects dispassionately on the correspondence between its mental synthesis and the data.  It overcomes any tendency to make that correspondence seem adequate when it suits its personal interests, and it submits itself to a self-corrective process that only gradually reaches a judgment that is balanced in every aspect.  Now all this does not happen without a morality of knowing that engages the subject personally.  If the objectivity of knowledge is the achievement of an individual who is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, then we can understand the pregnant meaning of an assertion that the later Lonergan pens often: “Genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity” (Method in Theology, 265, 292, 338).  Judging involves the responsibility of the one who judges, a responsibility that cannot be replaced by any method or any system of logic.

5.4   The theory of reality

From the answer to the first two questions follows the answer to the third: What do we know when we perform the operations examined above?  The answer rings out: being, reality.  Being is the objective of our cognitive dynamism (Insight, 348 | 372); it is “whatever is to be known by intelligent grasp (= insight!) and reasonable affirmation” (Insight, 391, 444, 640, and passim | 416, 470, 663 and passim).  This is an operative definition, in that it defines being in terms of the operations necessary for knowing it.  It is fundamental to all of Lonergan’s thought that the correspondence between mind and beings implies an intelligent and rational conception of reality.  Reality is intrinsically intelligible; it is neither apart from the intelligible nor beyond it (cf. the important text at Insight, 499 | 522f). 

This is the stumbling block for not a few readers of Insight.  To recognize the intrinsic intelligibility of reality is to affirm that we do not know reality through an unproblematic experience, or by allowing reality to “show itself” by itself.  Rather, we know reality only through a judgment as the conclusive answer to our questions for understanding and for reflection, and thus only with the active mediation of the subject.  “The impalpable act of rational assent is the necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge of reality” (Insight, 538 | 561).  Making this discovery one’s own, Lonergan tells us, is a discovery that “one has not made … yet if one has no clear memory of its startling strangeness” (Insight, xxviii | 22).  It is no exaggeration when Lonergan speaks in his later writings of an intellectual conversion (cf. Method in Theology, 238) that consists in moving from the conception of reality as the objective of an extroverted tendency on the model of sense (reality as “already out there now”) to the conception of reality as what is known by understanding correctly[13]. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this rational conception of reality, which only thematizes what is operative in our every performance of knowing.  It resolves at the root a whole series of questions that have been debated for centuries in modern philosophy.  Let it suffice here to mention the phenomenalism of Kant, which has no other basis than an irrational conception of reality.  For Kant, “true” reality is not the counterpart of the operations of intellect and reason, but rather the counterpart of an intellectual intuition conceived in terms of the extroversion proper to the “Anschauung [intuition]” of sense.  In other words, true reality is entirely disparate from the intelligence and rationality of our minds, and therefore is inaccessible to them.

On the basis of the correspondence between being and the dynamism of intentional consciousness Lonergan is able to work out a verifiable metaphysics—verifiable in terms of that knowledge that makes us know being in its totality, its components, and its structures.  We are “to reduce every dispute in the field of metaphysical speculation to a question of concrete psychological fact” (Insight, 423 | 448).  The distinction between proportionate being and transcendent being is an implementation of our intentionality, which on the one hand starts out from the data, but on the other hand has a range that goes beyond the realm of experience.  The metaphysical elements of potency, form, and act are defined as corresponding to the three components of cognitional structure. And again, relations, distinctions, and the development and finality of the universe of being are defined by indicating the operations by which we come to know these aspects and components of reality.  The conception of metaphysics as the integral heuristic structure of the universe (Insight, 483, 391 | 507f, 416) allows us to identify the continuity, and at the same time the distinction, between metaphysics and science.  Metaphysics anticipates the general structures of reality by formulating the way our knowing operates.  Science actually works out the explanation of the data by a never-ending process of research.        

6.   Lonergan, St. Thomas, Maréchal, and Kant

We have seen the extent to which Lonergan’s thought was influenced by his study of St. Thomas.  We have also seen that Kant was a privileged dialogue partner of his in Insight.  The three themes that the whole volume develops around are obviously a reprise of the characteristic themes of transcendental philosophy.  It has therefore seemed to more than one scholar that Lonergan’s work should be placed within the current of Thomism known as the Maréchallian School or transcendental Thomism.

a) The designation “neo-Thomist” no doubt is applicable in one important respect, in view of the long period that Lonergan dedicated to the direct study of the writings of Aquinas.  Lonergan appreciated and adopted the “intellectualism” of St. Thomas[14].  The act of “intelligere [insight]” stands at the center of Thomas’ theory of knowledge, and precisely because it acts as a pivot between the sensibility and the inner word it is no less at the center of his teaching on the soul and hence at the center of his conception of man.  Moreover, Lonergan recognized the value of the neo-Thomists’ historical studies of St. Thomas and of medieval Scholasticism, which “have created a climate of opinion that has made it increasingly difficult to substitute rhetoric for history, fancy for fact, abstract argument for textual evidence” (Insight, 747 | 769).

But even though he admitted his debt to St. Thomas and to neo-Thomism, Lonergan did not consider himself a neo-Thomist in the classical sense of the term.  I think there are two reasons for this.  First, his direct return to St. Thomas was guided in no small measure by his own questions (especially in his study of the verbum), which kept him outside the Scholastic debates.  Let it suffice here to recall the debate that was always renewed from one neo-Thomist to another about our knowledge of the external world.  That kind of debate is quite understandable in terms of the line of thought that goes from Descartes to Kant.  But Lonergan for his part refuses to tackle the problem of knowledge in that way, because this formulation of the problem is based on the myth of knowing as an extroverted dynamism.  Lonergan, with his analysis of our cognitive operations, intends to demolish that myth.  Second, the way in which Lonergan sought to bring the heritage of St. Thomas to fruition is notably different from what the neo-Thomists generally proposed and accomplished.  Lonergan’s interest in Insight, and afterward, moved more and more decisively in the direction of an appropriation of modern thought, in particular an appropriation of natural science and of historical consciousness.  For Lonergan, bringing the thought of St. Thomas to fruition meant continuity in change.  It thus meant a creativity based on the constant elements of the human spirit, which are brought to light by that “turn to the subject” to which St. Thomas guided him.     

b) In a paper he presented in 1973, Lonergan recalled the influence that Maréchal had had on him.  It goes back to the time of his studies in theology, and it came through a colleague who had studied philosophy at Louvain.  “It was through Stafanu by some process of osmosis, rather than through struggling with the five great Cahiers, that I learnt to speak of human knowledge as not intuitive but discursive with the decisive component in the judgment”[15].  It is true that the role attributed to the intentional dynamism and the role of judgment as the properly truth-attaining moment are elements that Lonergan has in common with Maréchal (but not through exclusive dependence on Maréchal!).  But it is no less important to stress the elements that distinguish Lonergan from Maréchal and do not permit us to see in Lonergan’s thought a specific form of so-called transcendental Thomism.  For Maréchal the metaphysical interpretation of our intellectual dynamism is decisive for proving the objective character of human knowledge, i.e., for proving that this dynamism has as its ultimate goal an objective reality, absolutely transcendent being.  Only on this condition is the immanent object of our intellectual assimilation established in its status as transcendent reality.  The metaphysics of knowledge that Maréchal develops is thus designed to bring out the ontological conditions implied in objective affirmation.

On the other hand, the primum [starting point] in Lonergan’s enterprise is not a metaphysics of knowledge, but a theory of knowledge worked out by an introspective analysis.  On the basis of that theory it is then possible to clarify what, in the performance of knowing, we mean by reality.  This leads to the rational conception of the real.  We can thus recognize why our cognitive operations are able to mediate reality.  Once the value of our knowledge is established as knowledge of being, it is possible, indeed necessary, to go beyond the “world” and arrive at that Absolute in which being and knowing are unum et idem [one and the same].  God is thereby disclosed to us as the ultimate metaphysical condition for our being able to know the real through our intelligent and rational operations.

c) And again, Lonergan’s position toward Kant is notably different from Maréchal’s. Maréchal accepts the so-called “transcendental method”, with an intent to “dépasser le kantisme à partir du kantisme même [go beyond Kantianism on the basis of Kantianism itself]”[16].  Lonergan, however, is not looking for the conditions of the possibility of knowledge.  Rather, he wishes to examine the conception of knowledge, knowing as a sort of intuition, that Kant makes the basis of his Critique without discussing it.  Starting out from the products of knowing, which are universal and necessary concepts, Kant deduces the conditions in the subject that explain those products.  This deduction is a matter of logic, not a matter of attending to our cognitive operations so as to thematize the proper content of each one.

Lonergan recognizes the merit of Kant’s thought because of the problems it raises (Insight, 641 | 664).  At the same time, he is very severe in his judgment of Kant’s Copernican revolution because it is “another more complicated manner of confusing things.  He combines the operations of understanding and reason, not with the data of sense, but with sensitive intuitions of phenomena” (Method in Theology, 264).  The judgment quoted here from Lonergan’s 1972 publication formulates exactly the nucleus of his criticism of the Critique of Pure Reason in Insight.  Kant makes sensible intuition the principle of (phenomenalist!) objectivity.  He ignores the function of the intellect and reason, precisely in moving from the experience of data (which is not the same as an intuition of phenomena!) to the knowledge of being.  It is no wonder that in the lectures on Insight given a year after its publication, Lonergan asserted “my thinking has not been a function of Kant’s thinking, an any sense at all”[17].      

7.   Reflection on the Human World

The phase of Lonergan’s thought that followed Insight and culminated in Method in Theology can be characterized as the phase of reflection on the human world, i.e., the world constituted by meaning and motivated by value.  Two themes therefore came to the fore, the theme of meaning and the theme of value.  Both of these launched a reflection on aspects of the subject that until then had remained on the fringe of Lonergan’s attention, which was centered instead on the cognitive moment of intentional consciousness.

The human world, or the world of culture, is the arrangements of life and the interpretations of the world that man intelligently, rationally, and responsibly is creating.  But since man is “spirit in the world”, his intelligence, reasonableness, and morality require a suitable “matter” in which to realize themselves.  The distinction between the sciences of nature and the sciences of the spirit introduced by Dilthey has its justification in the different ontological statuses of nature and of culture.   

Lonergan’s researches in this field had as their object the origin of meaning in human consciousness, its multiple functions, and its differentiation because of differences of place and the passing of time.  In particular, Lonergan’s investigation turned to the historical dimension of the human reality, which is due to the historicity of meaning itself.  In this period, the theme of history was the main object of Lonergan’s reflections.  These were aimed at a method appropriate for theology, a theology that today can neither ignore the historicity of the human world nor relegate the study of history to the domain of “auxiliary disciplines”.  In a retrospective reflection on the theological labor that had engaged him for decades, Lonergan was to say: “All my work has been introducing history into Catholic theology”[18]. 

For this reason, Lonergan went beyond Dilthey.  Among the sciences of the spirit, he considered it necessary to distinguish those that seek universal knowledge on the model of natural science from those that consider what is individual and historical in the human world.  He thus introduced the further distinction between “Human Sciences” and “Human Studies”, or “Scholarship”.  In the latter group belong historical-interpretive studies like literature, exegesis, history, and theology.  In the same way, Lonergan was led to reflect on the problem of dialectics, inasmuch as the construction and historical evolution of the human world are due to principles that are mutually opposed.  Intentional consciousness is not only the origin of sense, truth, and value, but also of nonsense, errors, and disvalues that also enter into and form part of the human world.

The study of the human world brought Lonergan’s attention to that supreme expansion of the human spirit’s dynamism that is introduced by the moral question: “What should I do?”  He had already devoted a chapter of Insight to the problem of ethics.  But there, in accordance with the theme of Insight, which is knowledge, he had concentrated on the need for coherence between responsible acting and rational knowing.  In the period after Insight Lonergan stressed more clearly that moral intentionality has its own object, which corresponds to its own question.  He therefore examined the field of morals in the whole range of its operation, which incorporates and gives its own configuration to the cognitive moment.  This operation extends from the question for decision to practical understanding to the judgment of value and, finally, to the free and responsible decision.  The cognitive moment incorporated in the moral moment is in search of its own proper object, value, which is being as something that is worthy of being respected and promoted and that will be realized only if the subject freely decides in favor of it.  In this movement of the moral consciousness toward value, our feelings have their own specific and irreplaceable role in bringing about a moral life that will integrate all the multiple dimensions of human existence.  Feelings are our affective apprehension of value, and so are intrinsic to our judgment of value and to the efficacy of our decision.

In his search for a theological method, Lonergan recognized in the basic structure of intentional consciousness, as normative and unrevisable, a method that grounds the particular methods of the various fields of knowledge; this is transcendental method (Method in Theology, 13-25).  This method, revealed by intentionality analysis, does not consist in a collection of determinate concepts that our mind is supposed to be endowed with once and for all, and it does not consist in a complex of specific operations fixed a priori.  Rather, it consists in the all-embracing (and therefore transcendental in the Scholastic sense) notions of the intelligible, the true, being, and the good. These constitute the very dynamism of our conscious intending.  For this reason, Lonergan did not find himself involved in the difficulty that troubled the “transcendental” Thomists, i.e., the difficulty of reconciling the transcendental foundation with the historical dimension of the human reality, in particular of the reality that concerns theology.  On the contrary, the transcendental notions are at the origin of every categorial system and of every culture, in the limitless variety of their contents.  For the same reason, every particular method can be nothing but a specific instance of those norms that are the very operation of the transcendental notions.         

8.   Method in Theology

The thematizing of the subject was at the center of Lonergan’s reflections, and it unfolded in parallel with his activity as a teacher of theology.  We should recall in particular that in his Roman period Lonergan was able to concentrate his teaching on two treatises, “De Deo Trino [On God as Three in One]” and “De Verbo Incarnato [On the Incarnate Word]”.  This allowed him to reflect more intensely on his own doing of theology and to sketch possible new paths, especially in the introductions and the excursus in the papers that he drafted for the use of his students.  The seminars on method that he held over many years moved in the same direction. 

Lonergan was opening the way for a method in theology at the level of his time on two fronts.  On the one hand there was his attention to the subject (the theologian) in order to uncover the structures and laws operating in his intentional consciousness.  On the other hand there was his analysis of the modern cultural context in order to grasp its significant elements.  Lonergan identified three such elements: a new conception of science in place of the Aristotelian conception, a new philosophy based on the analysis of subjectivity, and “scholarship”, i.e., the historical-hermeneutic studies that have as their object the human world as a world of meaning that undergoes historical development.

It was in February of 1965 that things came together and Lonergan found the clue that would permit him finally to draft the work that had been in process for decades.  It was to be expected that this clue would be based on his intentionality structures: The four levels of intentional consciousness provided the principle for distinguishing and at the same time connecting the numerous areas in which theologians operate today. In the complex that is theology Lonergan recognized two distinct phases: encountering the past of the Christian community (theology in oratione obliqua [in indirect discourse]) and taking a personal position toward what that past has transmitted to us in order to guide that community toward its future (theology in oratione recta [in direct discourse]).

There thus resulted eight “functional specializations”.  In each one the theologian, while operating on all four levels of consciousness (since we are dealing with human operations!), proposes for himself a goal that is characteristic of one of the levels.  In the first phase, these goals are: discovering the data in “research”, grasping their meaning in “interpretation”, establishing the facts in “history”, and analyzing conflicts in “dialectic”.  In the second phase, in reverse order from that in which the levels of consciousness follow one another: objectifying the horizon of precomprehension implied in the existential event of conversion in “foundations”, expressing judgments of fact and of value in “doctrines”, seeking an appropriate understanding of them in “systematics”, and providing data suitable for the faithful and effective spreading of the Christian message in “communications’.  

This division corresponds, at least in part, to disciplines that already exist.  What is new in Lonergan’s methodology is that these eight components are defined as interdependent, continuous, and cumulative processes that borrow their arrangement and their norms from the very structure of our intentionality.  They are eight different tasks that have different proximate ends and are to be performed according to different rules.

Of particular significance are the two specializations that Lonergan connects with the existential level of consciousness.  This is the truly innovative element in Lonergan’s proposed method.  The method of theology, while it must take into account the rational requirements of “human studies”, cannot neglect the subject in its existential dimension, i.e., in its moral and religious life.  This is because that dimension operated in a decisive way in the concrete subjects of the past, in what they said about God and the economy of salvation.  And it operates today in the theologians who are engaged in establishing what the revealed truths are [doctrines], in working out an understanding of them [systematics], and in communicating them to our contemporaries [communications].  Thus, it is true that the scholar who works in the first phase of theology performs an inquiry of an empirical nature, and therefore must employ procedures similar to those adopted by other students of human sciences.  But this theologian will not be able to recover the past in its relevance for the following functional specializations if he does not perform a work of discernment and critical evaluation of that past, taking into account the intellectual, moral, and religious horizon within which those past generations appropriated the saving reality.  This is the task that Lonergan assigns to the specialization of dialectic.

Just as the recovery of the Christian past is not possible without taking into account the existential dimension of the protagonists of that past, so too the mediation of the saving reality today—stating the Christian truths, understanding them, and communicating them—does not occur independently of those concrete subjects that are the theologians.  Their subjectivity is the real foundation of the theological work that they do in these last three functional specializations.  “Foundations” therefore has the task of reflecting on this foundation and thereby thematizing the intellectual, moral, and religious conversion (or lack of such conversion) that operates in the subject, the theologian, as the horizon within which the meaning, truth, and value of revelation can be grasped, affirmed, and lived. 

To say that religious conversion (together with the moral and intellectual conversion implied in it) is the basis for doing theology in the last three specializations is to identify the point of juncture between Christian life and reflection on the Christian mystery, the point at which an authentically Christian life is carried over into a theology that is adequate to the object of its concern.  It is true that cultural and speculative problems have their own laws and must be resolved by their own scientific means, but scientific means are in the service of the human mind, and they do not give any results independently of the concrete subject’s horizon of truth and value.  The transcendence of Christian truth—its supernatural character—requires the transcendence of Christian life; otherwise, it degenerates into an ideological superstructure employed to give a Christian veneer to a conception of the world and of life whose matrix is not the Gospel.

The final result that Lonergan reached with his Method in Theology brings to completion the reflection on the subject that was at the center of all of his thought.  If it is true that the philosophical question is a question about the reality that surrounds us, and about the meaning of human life in that reality, it is no less true that arriving at the right answer is the work of an authentic human subject, one who has made his own the imperatives that operate in his intentional consciousness.  This is the direction in which Lonergan’s philosophical thought developed.  The direction of Lonergan’s development as a theologian is analogous.  Here too the study of the Christian reality in its objective dimension led him to recognize that the center and the basis of theological work are not particular doctrines—the doctrines with which classical fundamental theology was concerned—but the theologian himself in his human and Christian authenticity.  This is because the Christian truth is the truth of an appeal made to each one personally: “Be converted and believe the Gospel”.  Only the person who is converted to the Gospel is able to do theology; only the “spiritual” person bears in himself the criterion for “judging” truly the Christian mystery (1 Cor 2, 15) and for keeping under control the historical development of theology as “intellectus fidei [the understanding of faith]”. 


Selected Bibliography

1.       Works by Lonergan

a)       Philosophical Works

Insight. A Study of Human Understanding, London 19571, 19582.  [Republished as Collected    

  Works of Bernard Lonergan 3. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, F.E. Crowe and R.M.

  Doran (eds.), University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1992.  Page references will be given to both  

  editions, separated by a vertical line.]

Collection. Papers by Bernard Lonergan, F. Crowe, ed., New York 1962.  [Republished as

  Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 4. Collection, F.E. Crowe and R.M. Doran (eds.),

  University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1993.  Page references will be given to both editions,

  separated by a vertical line.]

Verbum. Word and Idea in Aquinas, D. Burrell, ed., Notre Dame 1967. [Collected Works of

  Bernard Lonergan 2. Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, F.E. Crowe and R.M. Doran (eds.),

  University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1997.  Page references will be given to both editions,

  separated by a vertical line.]

A Second Collection, W. Ryan and B. Tyrrell, eds., Philadelphia 1974. [Reprinted edition

  University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996.]

Understanding and Being. An Introduction and Companion to Insight, E. and M. Morelli, eds.,    

   New York 1980.  [Reprinted edition University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1990.]

A Third Collection, F. Crowe, ed., New York 1985.

b) Theological Works   

De Constitutione Christi ontologica et psychologica, Rome 1956.

De Deo Trino, I. Pars dogmatica, Rome 19611, 19642, II. Pars systematica, Rome 19571, 19642.

De Verbo Incarnato, Rome 19601, 19643.

Grace and Freedom. Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, J.P. Burns, ed.,

   London 1971.  [Reprinted edition University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2000.]

Method in Theology, London 1972. [Method in Theology, Herder and Herder 1972 and 1973;

   Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1972; Seabury 1979.  Reprinted edition, University of

   Toronto Press, Toronto 1990.]

Philosophy of God and Theology. The Relationship between Philosophy of God and the Functional Specialty, Systematics, London 1973.

2.       Writings about Lonergan

Crowe, F.E. (ed.), Spirit as Inquiry. Studies in Honor of B. Lonergan, Chicago 1964.

___, The Lonergan Enterprise, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1980.

___, B. Lonergan’s Thought on Ultimate Reality and Meaning, in “Ultimate Reality and Meanings”,

   4 (1981) 58-89.

___, Lonergan (Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series), London 1992.

Doran, R.M., Theology and the Dialectics of History, Toronto 1990.

Fluri, P., Einsicht in “Insight”. B. Lonergans kritische-realistiche Wissenschafts- und

   Erkenntnistheorie, Frankfort a. M. 1988.

Lamb, M.L. (ed.), Creativity and Method. Essays in Honor of B. Lonergan, Milwaukee 1981.

Lawrence, F. (ed.), Lonergan Workshop, Atlanta.  Eight volumes have appeared so far.

Lonergan Research Institute, Lonergan Studies Newsletter, Toronto 1980ff (quarterly news about

   Lonergan studies).

McShane, P. (ed.), Foundations of Theology: Papers from the International Lonergan Congress   

   1970, Dublin 1971.

___, Language, Truth and Meaning: Papers from the International Lonergan Congress 1970,

   Dublin 1972.

Meynell, H.A., An Introduction to the Philosophy of B. Lonergan, London 1976.

Morelli, M.D. (ed.), Method. Journal of Lonergan Studies, Los Angeles 1983ff.

Sala, G.B., Das Apriori in der menschlichen Erkenntnis. Eine Studie über Kants Kritik der reinen

   Vernunft und Lonergans Insight, Meisenheim am Glan 1971.

___, La métaphysique comme structure heuristique selon B. Lonergan, in ArPh 33 (1970), 47-71;

   35 (1972), 443-467, 555-570; 36 (1973), 43-68, 625-642.

___, B. Lonergan: il contributo di un teologo per una filosofia cristiana, in “Rassegna di Teologia”,

   26 (1985) 529-562.

___, B. Lonergans Methode der Theologie. Ein Theologie hinterfragt seinen eigenen Verstand,

   in ThPh 63 (1988), 34-59.

Tekippe, T. (ed.), Primary Bibliography of Lonergan Sources, New Orleans 19883.

___, Secondary Bibliography of Lonergan Sources, New Orleans 1988.

Tracy, D., The Achievement of B. Lonergan, New York 1970.

Tyrrell, B.J., B. Lonergan’s Philosophy of God, Notre Dame 1974.

[Translation by Donald E. Buzzelli]

* Originally published in Italian in G. Mura and G. Penzo (eds.), La Filosofia Cristiana nei Secoli XIX e XX, II: Ritorno all’Eredità Scolastica  (Rome: Città Nuova Editrice, 1994), pp. 843-863.

[1] A Second Collection, 38.  The works for which no author is indicated are by Lonergan.

[2] Crowe, Lonergan, 16.

[3] Verbum, p. 46 | 59; see also 94f | 104f.

[4] STh I, q. 27, aa. 1 and 2.

[5] Lonergan quotes many times the phrase with which Leo XIII formulated in his encyclical Aeterni Patris the task he was entrusting to the reborn Thomist movement: “vetera novis augere et perficere [to add to and perfect the old by means of the new]”.  Cf. Verbum,  215 | 222; Insight, 747 | 768f.

[6] Quoted from Crowe, Lonergan, 58.

[7] A Second Collection, 37.  Cf. also Method in Theology, 25.

[8] See the extremely illuminating paper “Cognitional Structure” in Collection, 221-239 | 205-221.

[9] This recognition ultimately is a personal performance of the subject that nobody else can replace.  In this reflection the subject must take into account all the knowledge already acquired about the realm of reality in question, not without the decisive influence of his cognitive “morality”.

[10] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B 127.

[11] Without, however, making the resulting theory of knowledge a Wissenschaftstheorie in an exclusive sense, a theory valid only for scientific knowledge.  The triadic structure is the structure of human knowledge in general!

[12] This clarification consists in recognizing the ambiguity in the conventional term “objectivity”, an ambiguity connected with the intuitionist conception of knowing that Lonergan intends to overcome.  The so-called objective value of human knowledge does not lie in its capacity to grasp an “ob-iectum”, something distinct from and placed opposite the subject.  It lies in its capacity to know being, what “is”, be it other than the subject or the subject itself (cf. Insight, 377 | 401f). 

[13] Lonergan maintains a “critical” realism (where critical means verifiable in our cognitive activity), and he points out many times the conformity of this  with “Christian” realism.  Christian realism is the realism implied in the Christian faith: The true meaning of the divine revelation and of the proclamation of the Church that is received in the affirmation of faith transmits the saving reality to us.  Cf. “The Origins of Christian Realism”, in A Second Collection, 239-261; De Deo Trino, I. Pars dogmatica, Rome 19642, 105ff, 153f and passim.

[14] Verbum, 217ff | 224ff.

[15] A Second Collection, 265.

[16] J. Maréchal, S.J., Le point de départ de la Métaphysique. Cahier V. Le Thomisme devant la Philosophie critique, Brussels 19492, 589.

[17] Understanding and Being, 350.

[18] Quoted by Crowe, Lonergan, 98.  See also 114 and 54.