The Unrestricted Desire to Know’ – Unity and Differentiation in Bernard Lonergan’s Cognitional Theory

The Unrestricted Desire to Know’ – Unity and Differentiation in Bernard Lonergan’s Cognitional Theory

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In the mid-1940s the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan concluded that Catholic theology needed to come to terms with modern thought not only in terms of its content but with its methods and procedures. The immediate trigger was a year-long series of lectures on “Thought and Reality” to lay people in Montreal, where he was then teaching. His previous scholarly work had been primarily devoted to technical issues in the thought of Aquinas, although as a student he had taken a degree in mathematics and in the 1930s in the wake of the great depression he worked on economics.

From 1949 on he wrote and rewrote until 1953, when he was sent to Rome to teach theology at the Gregorian University. The result was Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.1 That publication and reports of his students soon created “buzz” in some circles about a challenging and ambitious thinker, and collections of his articles and journals dedicated to him began to appear. Both Time and Newsweek covered an International Lonergan Conference in 1970, at which theologians and philosophers were joined by scholars from other disciplines.

Although his work was relevant to the renewal in Catholicism around Vatican II (1962-1965), Lonergan did not become a public advocate for change like many other theologians of the period. His Method in Theology which appeared in 1972 was intended as the completion of the project he had conceived a quarter century earlier. Lonergan continued to teach, speak, and write in Toronto and Boston until the early 1980s and died in 1984. The University of Toronto Press is publishing his collected works projected eventually to reach twenty-five volumes, and several academic institutes and annual meetings are devoted to his thought and its implications.

His contribution to the themes around which this conference is organized is not in the area of content: he does not adjudicate between science and revealed religion, nor did he propose a “universe story” harmonizing the Big Bang, Darwinism, and the scriptures. His initial concern was the need to bring Roman Catholic intellectual life into the twentieth century, but to do so he had to inquire into what human knowing (and human endeavor more broadly) is all about, i.e., with what might be called meta-questions. He engaged with issues similar to those raised in the Metanexus “Call for Papers” (relationship between academic specialization and a comprehensive view of reality; scientific vs. humanistic inquiry and their criteria or grounds; human transcendence; even “emergence”). He did so, however, from the standpoint of his own time, thirty to fifty years ago, and addressing primarily the Catholic church of his time.

From Insight to Method

Before presenting some aspects of his thought, I will characterize the two works that are like the bookends of his production.2 Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Lonergan’s Insight is a large, sometimes intimidating book which when actually read can be surprisingly pleasurable. His Anglo-Saxon temperament is expressed in prose with both long periodic sentences, and short punchy statements. Although he states his positions vigorously and sometimes with a relentless logic, he is generous in spirit, even toward thinkers with whom he disagrees.

The book is odd, perhaps unique, and a reader can get lost in the detail. Although Lonergan has much to say about mathematics, physics, biology and other sciences, social theory, psychology, history, Insight is not primarily about any of these. It is, as the subtitle states “a study of human understanding”—what it means to know. The many particular examples are intended as exercises enabling readers to examine and reflect on their own insights and their own knowing.

Early on he tells the story of the “Eureka” of Archimedes in the baths, and what this tells us about the common (or not so common) experience of insight. Soon, however, he is exploring what a circle is, what Galileo and Newton and Einstein were doing, in what he calls “classical” methods in science, and then he takes up statistical methods (e.g., death rates in a population). The argument suddenly seems to shift gears with Chapters Six and Seven, which move to ordinary common sense. Lonergan insists that common sense is intellectual, but unlike science and mathematics, it seeks not the universal, not what is true at all times and under all circumstances, but what is true here and now for the individual or for the group. Much of the discussion is devoted to how individuals and social groups resist insight.3

The next step and a crucial one for Lonergan is that of judgment. Just as scientists gather data, formulate hypotheses, test them, and eventually reach a (generally qualified) conclusion, so in ordinary life we get a grasp of a situation, an insight, but we then ask: is it so? It is one thing to have an “Aha!; it is yet another to have tested it and come to a warranted (and often qualified) judgment.

In the next stage Lonergan seeks to have the readers reflect on their own knowing, i.e., to verify whether or not their own experience of knowing squares with his account. This he calls the “self-affirmation of the knower,” meaning not some sort of instant intuition or inner look at oneself, but rather an examination of what we are doing when we have an insight and when we reach a judgment or conclusion.

In the second half of Insight, Lonergan rethinks traditional areas of philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, the existence of God, and the possibility of religion) in the light of his cognitional theory. No separate chapter is devoted to epistemology, but epistemological points are made often throughout the entire work. It must be repeated, the aim of Insight is not to propose yet another philosophical system but to propose a cognitional theory and explore its implications.

Insight stopped short of what Lonergan had originally conceived in the mid-1940s, namely to bring Catholic thought up to the level of the times. Over the next decade and a half as he taught in Rome and then returned to Canada for health reasons, his thinking expanded as he drew in more influences, and developed the implications of his earlier work. When Method in Theology4 finally appeared in 1972 seemed in some ways the work of a different person. The relentless style of argumentation of Insight had been replaced by a more phenomenological approach.

Where Insight explores the question of knowledge from the standpoint of the individual, and indeed addresses the reader (although certainly common sense is a group phenomenon and science is pursued by a scientific community), Method takes up the issue of the relationship of various scholarly specializations and their relationship to each other. Theology, like other academic fields, is increasingly the work of specialists doing different operations: some establish critical editions of ancient texts, others interpret the text, others do specialized history, others do larger histories, others examine doctrines, others deal interpreting the faith to believers and to the world in general. How do these disciplines and activities relate to one another?

Lonergan’s answer is what he calls “functional specialties”: using his structure of human knowing (discussed in the next section) he proposes that the work of theology be divided into eight such specialties (research, interpretation, history, etc.) and devotes the better part of the book to what they do. His aim was not only to suggest a way of viewing a scholarly division of labor, but to propose how theologians and other scholars could collaborate fruitfully. This proposal, it should be noted, has not had much influence in schools of theology.5 However, in Method and elsewhere Lonergan has much to say on a question that many of us must consider at least from time to time: how are we to make sense of the proliferation of human knowledge into more and more disciplines, fields, and subfields, being pursued with an ever growing number of methodologies? In addition to Method the “later” Lonergan can be found in several volumes of collected essays.

Structure of Human Knowing (and Doing)

Lonergan’s key proposal is that human knowing (and doing) is not a single operation but a pattern of interrelated operations which form a structure. The first half of Insight is a kind of strategic pedagogy to bring the reader to experience and reflect on these operations and their structure.

To illustrate let me consider several examples (not from Lonergan himself):

  • In the morning I find that the coffeemaker won’t go on. I check the device itself: is it plugged in? Is the lid on tight enough to make a connection? Or is the problem the circuit? I test a light which doesn’t go on; that’s it, I conclude, and head down to the basement to flip back the circuit breaker.
  • In a criminal court, evidence is presented, witnesses are brought forward by the prosecution and the defense, and they testify and are submitted to cross examination. In the end, the judge or jury weighs the evidence, and renders a decision.
  • Traveling on the Beagle, Charles Darwin at the Galapagos and elsewhere finds close similarities and differences between animals of different species. After years of further study and research he writes The Origin of Species.
  • A woman in Greenwich Village is disturbed at the grand efforts of planners to remake cities by bulldozing neighborhoods and running freeways through them. She spends a great deal of time mulling over her concern and observing how things work in her own neighborhood and elsewhere. The result is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she challenges prevailing orthodoxies and changes the way many people think.6
  • Evidence of rising temperatures on earth’s surface is gathered in myriad places (evidence from ice cores, weather station data, shrinking glaciers, migratory patterns of animals). Possible causes are considered (normal periodic variation or human causation?) Climatologists come to a broad consensus that the rise is due to human activity, even while continuing to pursue many individual questions

Some of these examples are simple and involve a single individual and take place almost instantaneously; some involve many people and take place over a long period of time. In some cases the procedures involve scientific measurement and verification, in some professional expertise, in some common sense. In some instances one knows what one is looking for at the outset (the judge or jury must render a verdict); in others it is the data that seem to cry out for explanation (Darwin in the Galapagos). In all instances human beings either individually or jointly are seeking to answer questions, sometimes a single one (the coffee maker), sometimes a hierarchical series of questions (natural selection, climate change).

Lonergan finds here a common pattern. Taking the first and last examples above:

Coffee machine Global Warming



Coffee maker not working; plugged in; other devices not working

Many measurements indicate warming of air and water – ice retreating; growing and migration patterns changing



Not getting current

Possibly due to human activity


Circuit breaker off

Human activity is in fact the major cause of global warming

Insight is into data (or experience). It is the flash of discovery, the “Aha!” But insights needed to be tested, evaluated, weighed. Contrary explanations have to be considered. Only then can a judgment be rendered. Early in the trial the case may seem evident: it all seems to fit together; the alleged perpetrator was observed at the crime scene and had a motive. But then other witnesses complicate the picture and his attorney undermines the credibility of key witnesses. Charles Darwin returns from his travels with a strong hunch that species have descended from common ancestors, but he then spends a decade and a half pursuing the idea, not ready to present it publicly (until spurred by the possibility of being preempted by Alfred Wallace).

The role of judgment is crucial. “Insights are a dime a dozen,” Lonergan says repeatedly, but we must ask “Is it so?” They must be tested. There comes a time, however, when the further relevant questions have been answered, and we must judge. Being neither rash nor indecisive is what characterizes a person with good judgment.

None of these operations by itself amounts to knowing: not experience (seeing, hearing etc.), not understanding, not even judging. Each requires the others, e.g., understanding is insight into data; judgment is on understanding. Lonergan frequently notes that human inquiry is dynamic. Insights and judgments lead to further questions.

This description rings a bell with those of us who have had the experience of formulating a research question, pursuing data, puzzling over problems, getting an “Aha!” or a series of them, then testing what we have come up with, and deciding that it is time to present our results. It also seems to work for ordinary circumstances (e.g., the coffeemaker). But on what grounds can we say that it is in fact a structure of human understanding, even an “invariant” structure as claimed by Lonergan?

His answer is that we must reflect on our own knowing. If we do so we will carry out these operations. We will



understand our




In other words, to inquire into whether knowing is a matter of these operations we will have to engage in these operations. In Insight, Lonergan is naming them and setting up pedagogical exercises to reflect on that account of knowing.

In Insight Lonergan is most concerned with knowing. In subsequent writings he considered more explicitly the relationship between knowing and doing and added a fourth stage called decision.

These he came to see as imperatives built into human knowing and doing, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Be attentive! => experience
2. Be intelligent! => understanding
3. Be critical! => judgment
4. Be responsible! => decision7

My aim here is simply to present in encapsulated form Lonergan’s proposal that human knowing (and doing) is not a single operation but a pattern of operations, not to persuade anyone that he is correct–after all, he spends several hundred pages in Insight making his case. Lonergan insists that only the reader can decide whether or not the account is true, and only by reflecting on his or her own knowing.

However, I will note that it does contrast with some contemporary views and the difference is not trivial. In some accounts human beings are essentially mammals with some peculiar habits: wearing clothes, cooking food, using their vocal apparatus in ways more complex than those of chimpanzees. All human activity from hunting and gathering to writing books, composing symphonies, sending astronauts into space, and using the Internet, are to be understood as survival devices. Lonergan does not deny the animal element in human knowing, but insists that insight and judgment transcend and transform data from sense.

Likewise, today human knowing is often portrayed as simply the brain in action, and the brain is understood as a peculiar kind of computer or perhaps many computers operating in parallel. A computer program can indeed perform computations, indeed far beyond the capacities of an individual human. But can a computer have an insight or make a judgment?

Differentiations – Science, Common Sense, and Scholarship

If there is something common to human knowing—an invariant structure, Lonergan calls it—it is also obvious that there are varieties of human knowing, e.g., consider the contents of an issue of the New York Review of Books: reviews of books on cosmology or biology, wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, economics or anthropology, biographies and histories, new novels or collections of poetry. The type and layout are the same but the activities they describe are very different. Likewise, in a university despite the superficial appearance of similarity–students and professors are entering and exiting classrooms on a schedule–the type of learning varies a great deal: calculus, physics, history, anthropology, business, nursing, law, criminal justice. Differentiating between these types of knowing is central to Lonergan.

He spends the first two hundred pages of Insight illustrating the procedures of scientists. “The pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of an unknown.” As in algebra where the procedure is to call the unknown x and then to set up an equation to solve for it, in science the unknown is “the nature of …” i.e., what we would know if we understood a given set of data. Naming the unknown is part of a heuristic structure. Crucial to this procedure is the principle that “similars are similarly understood.”

An emblematic case is that of Galileo who found such a similarity through measurement, and particularly through measurements of distance and time of a falling body: when time is 1 distance is 1, when time is 2, distance is 4, when time is 3, distance is 9, and so forth. He accordingly derived the formula: distance is proportional to the square of the time. One has to prescind from interferences, e.g., friction. The crucial point for procedure is that

all the relations to us of a free fall are forgotten. You forget about what happens when something freely falling hits you, or what you would lose if you dropped your watch or your glasses. … By a rather complex dealing with distance and time, we arrive at something that is similar in every case of a free fall. That step by means of which we arrive, through measurement, at the relations of things to one another is the fundamental step in the whole of the development of science from Galileo to the present day. Modern science employs the procedure of withdrawing from relations of things to us, considering the relations of things to one another, and attending to the similarities there, in order to determine the nature of …”8

Scientists are seeking relationships that will be universal: a hydrogen atom will be similar anywhere in the universe. The periodic table denotes relationships that will be the same in any galaxy and regardless of the system of notation.

However, insights are not limited to scientists and mathematicians. There are “intelligent farmers and craftsmen, intelligent employers and workers, intelligent technicians and mechanics, intelligent doctors and lawyers, intelligent politicians and diplomats.” There is intelligence

in the home and in friendship, in conversation and in sport, in the arts and in entertainment. In every case, the man or woman of intelligence is marked by a greater readiness in catching on, in getting the point, in seeing the issue, in grasping implications, in acquiring know how.9

The point is not simply that non-scientists and non-mathematicians can be bright; it is that their operations are similar. Learning is a matter of accumulating insights.

Just as the mathematician advances from images through insights and formulations to symbols that stimulate further insights, just as the scientist advances from data through insights and formulations to experiments that stimulate further insights, so too the spontaneous and self-correcting process of learning is a circuit in which insights reveal their shortcomings by putting forth deeds or words or thoughts, and through that revelation prompt the further questions that lead to complementary insights.10

This practical intelligence—which Lonergan calls common sense—“is a matter of concrete insight into concrete situations. It builds up into a nucleus, and that nucleus is such that with minimal additions a person is ready to deal with any of the situations that arise in his life.”11For that very reason common sense will vary from one country to another from one time to another (e.g., the rules of thumb for how to act in public are different in Philadelphia and Baghdad).


Like science, common sense “is an accumulation of related insights into the data of experience… is the fruit of a vast collaboration… and has been tested by its practical results”

Still, there is a profound difference. For the sciences have theoretical aspirations and common sense has none. The sciences would speak precisely and with universal validity, but common sense would speak only to persons and only about the concrete and particular. The sciences need methods to reach their abstract and universal objects; but scientists need common sense to apply methods properly in executing the concrete tasks of particular investigations, … 12

This is then a first differentiation, between the world of theory, seeking an understanding of things in themselves, abstracting from particulars, and using technical language, and the world of common sense, which deals with the concrete and particular in relation to particular persons and groups and has no aspirations to complete universality.

They are exemplified in Eddington’s two tables, the solid heavy brown one in front of me, and the one that is largely empty space constituted by particles (or wavicles) that cannot really be conceived at all. Which is the real one? From the viewpoint of common sense, it is the heavy brown object. From the standpoint of physics, which abstracts specifically from the particulars of this table or that one and seeks theoretical understanding, it is the second one. Common sense understanding is descriptive; theoretical understanding seeks to be explanatory. The value of this proposal is that it gives due weight to the intelligence in each; the table of common sense is not the product of ignorance but of one way of knowing.13

Where do the social sciences and the humanities fit in? They share some of the features of both common sense and the natural sciences, in varying degrees. In Lonergan’s later work the category of “meaning” assumes greater importance. He contrasts the “world of immediacy” of a newborn child to the “world of meaning” to which the child is introduced particularly after he or she learns to speak. Speaking at Marquette in 1965 he evoked this world:

So we come to live, not as the infant in the world of immediate experience, but in a far vaster world that is brought to us through the memories of other men, through the common sense of the community, through the pages of literature, through the labors of scholars, through the investigations of scientists, through the experience of saints, through the mediations of philosophers and theologians. …


We imagine, we plan, we investigate possibilities, we weigh pros and cons, we enter into contracts, we have countless orders given and executed. From the beginning to the end of the process we are engaged in acts of meaning; and without them the process would not occur or the end be achieved. The pioneers in this country found shore and heartland, mountains and plains, but they have covered it with cities, laced it with roads, exploited it with their industries, till the world man has made stands between us and a prior world of nature. Yet the whole of that added, manmade, artificial world is the cumulative, now planned, now chaotic product of human acts of meaning.14

The object of the social sciences and the humanities is this world of meaning or these worlds of meaning. Their methods are interpretative or hermeneutical. A historian is seeking to understand the common sense of a society from a different time and place. The skill required is like that of common sense, but it has a systematic aspect insofar as one is integrating one’s findings into a larger body of accumulated knowledge of past societies. The task is to understand that community—its common sense—in its own terms, as much as possible, and then make it intelligible to the community of scholars or ordinary readers today.15

This work has much in common with common sense; it is about particulars not universals, it is bound by a particular time and place. On the other hand, this historian is not alone in this pursuit, but is part of a community of scholars. The text is independent of any particular one and its meaning can be ascertained through a collective progressive, self-correcting process that is at least akin to that of the sciences.

Thus we have three types of knowing, broadly speaking: that of common sense, that of mathematics and science, and that of the social sciences and humanities.

In practice, types of knowing are mixed. Although scientists are pursuing theory and understanding the relationships of things in themselves rather than their relationships to us, they need to employ common sense in their research, e.g. to know which techniques to use. That is all the more true of practitioners, such as physicians, lawyers and engineers. In dealing with a patient a physician will draw on years of specialized study, but her common sense, what is appropriate for this patient here and now, is crucial.

I would like to illustrate why I find Lonergan’s account of knowledge attractive by comparing it to that of Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience.” Wilson and Lonergan have a number of things in common: both are generous in spirit, and are concerned about the full breadth of human knowing; they are both concerned about the relationship between specialization and a grasp of the whole. Both see reality as a scheme moving upward from elementary particles through complex structures, plants, animals, human beings, and complex human societies. Both insist that science seeks an understanding of things in themselves; both have little patience with obscurantism. 16 Both single out the importance of the Greek achievement. When Wilson says, “even today people know more about their automobiles than they do about their own minds” Lonergan would certainly agree.

But what they mean by mind is quite different. Wilson equates it to the brain “a helmet-shaped mass of gray and white tissue about the size of a grapefruit…” “All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive.”17 Wilson’s argument proceeds from the natural sciences, through biology, to the mind, culture, religion and ethics, ending with considerations on the environmental crisis. Along the way there are many important observations. Certain themes are recurring: his unapologetic defense of reductionism as the way to reach truth; evolutionary adaptation as a key for explaining life, including life in human societies.

Wilson scarcely conceals his contempt for social scientists and humanist scholars. He seems to have a condescending benevolence toward them as university colleagues, but as hopelessly muddled in their thinking and methodology, unable to produce any truly causal explanation with predictive power. By contrast, Lonergan does not attempt to force the social sciences onto the procrustean bed of a single methodology. Science and scholarship are differentiations of the same basic intelligence and they enhance it and human possibilities.

In short, I find Lonergan’s account more persuasive than that of the proposed “consilience”:

  • It is an account that seeks to base its account of knowledge on instances of knowing rather than an a priori reduction of human knowing to the activity of an organ.
  • It seeks to understand the various kinds of intelligibility sought rather than to compress them into a single scheme in which evolutionary adaptation is the explanatory principle.

Differentiations and the role of philosophy

The basic differentiation is between the world of common sense (understanding things as related to us) and the world of theory (understanding things as related to one another). In different contexts, however, Lonergan elaborates further on differentiations, often seeing them as a progression through history. In one of the most elaborate such presentations, he notes the following “differentiations of consciousness”.18

  • the linguistic differentiation (the move from simpler to more complex languages)
  • the religious differentiation
  • the literary differentiation (from oral recitals to ever more self-conscious written literature)
  • the systematic differentiation: logic, reasoning by principles, as systems for organizing knowledge are devised (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas)
  • the scientific differentiation (in the modern sciences the aim is not to construct permanent systems but to understand data ever better in an ongoing process)
  • the scholarly differentiation – “a specialization of intelligence that grasps the manner in which people with a different brand of common sense dealt with the concrete and particular in their place and time”
  • the modern philosophical differentiation.

For human beings the “default situation,” as we might call it today, is that of non-differentiation: ritual, science, politics, and production are united in a single way of life, i.e., the Kayapó shaman in the rainforest uses both (what we would call) medicinal plants and ritual for healing a wound. This is true of traditional societies and of ancient civilizations, including the medieval world. In the west a differentiation of theory begins in ancient Greece e.g., in the dialogues reported by Plato in which Socrates forces his companions to seek universally valid definitions, e.g., of justice. They know justice and injustice when they see it but are hard pressed to come up with a definition that would be universally valid. A crucial step is the emergence of the scientific method (Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc.). A further significant differentiation is the development of explicit historical and hermeneutic methods in the nineteenth century.19

In the Middle Ages philosophy was part a larger explanatory worldview into which everything seemed to fit. In the later middle ages, philosophy became autonomous and then the individual sciences became autonomous, thereby seeming to produce a crisis for philosophers by the mid-twentieth century. Lonergan notes

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 clarification of the local variety of everyday language.20

Lonergan’s own proposal is that the role emerging for philosophy is to serve as cognitional theory, that is, to provide an account the differentiations of knowledge. In one of his later formulations he describes cognitional theory as telling “just what one is doing when one is coming to know. It includes the whole genesis of common sense, of the sciences, of exegetical and historical studies, of the philosophies. It will be radical enough to leave room for future scientific, scholarly, and philosophic developments.”21

In explaining “the modern philosophic differentiation” he uses an analogy,

Just as clinical psychology…aims at helping people advert to feelings they have and experience but have not identified, objectified, named, brought out into the open, so too the cognitional theorist may direct his efforts to helping people advert to their mental operations, distinguish them from one another, name them precisely, relate them to one another, combine them in various groups, come to grasp the procedures of common sense, of systematizers, of modern science, of scholarship. Next, on the basis of knowing what one is doing when one is knowing, one can go on to explain why doing that is knowing, and finally to outline what one knows when one does it.22

This process of becoming explicitly conscious of one’s knowing he calls “self-appropriation.”

On another occasion he explained:

The basis of philosophical system for me is cognitional theory, and the basis of cognitional theory is performing cognitional operations and working at what’s going one…
I wrote… [Insight]…to give people the opportunity to experience their own understanding, their own ability to get the point, and to be able to stand on their own feet. ….. Cognitional theory depends on your own experience of your own knowing. Epistemology depends on cognitional theory. Metaphysics comes out of both. What are you doing when you are knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do you know when you do it? These are the three fundamental philosophical questions.23

Although epistemological questions are very much on Lonergan’s mind, they are not treated separately. The first move is to get readers or hearers to reflect on their own operations of knowing, and in the light of that to recognize inadequate epistemologies.

…differences in cognitional theory can be resolved by bringing to light the contradiction between a mistaken cognitional theory and the actual performance of the mistaken theorist. To take the simplest instance, Hume thought the human mind to be a matter of impressions linked together by custom. But Hume’s own mind was quite original. Therefore, Hume’s own mind was not what Hume considered the human mind to be.24

Lonergan frequently contrasts his account of knowing with those that conceive of knowing as “taking a good look,” or looking at the “already out there now.”

This concern is no doubt why Lonergan emphasizes examples from physics, particularly in the early chapters of Insight. In Galileo and Newton science are moving beyond what is directly open to sense perception. An illustration is the difference between “weight” and “mass”: weight is experienced on the level of common sense; put a heavy metal ball in my hand and I have to make an effort to hold it up. However, the concept of mass used in classical mechanics (“the amount of matter and energy in a given object”) cannot be experienced directly; it is the product of an act of understanding. It can be measured and can be depicted in diagrams, but it is not an object of sense experience; its intelligibility must reached by understanding. That is even truer of further developments through Einstein, which are quite removed from sense experience, even if they can be illustrated with thought experiments about elevators, and even confirmed by highly sophisticated measurements of light waves.

My aim in these few remarks about Lonergan’s approach to epistemology has been only to characterize it very briefly, not to persuade any reader.

Religion and the Question of God

It may seem strange that this exposition of the work of a theologian is coming to an end and God has been barely mentioned. Lonergan’s properly theological works are journal articles and the Latin textbooks he wrote for his teaching in Rome. His writings do not touch on the topics that one would expect from a theologian nor do people read him for spiritual guidance. As indicated in the title of his second key book, his aim was not theology itself but the method(s) of theologians.

Not surprisingly, his writings have to do with how God is known, and they derive from his observations on human knowing. Relatively early in Insight he makes the point that scientific observation is not simply a matter of “seeing just what there is to be seen,” because the observation itself is under a “guiding orientation” namely “a pure, detached, disinterested desire simply to know. For there is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder.”

Actually this paean to the desire to know is a bit of a diversion from the argument at that moment, but it is very much an expression of Lonergan’s conviction about the drive for understanding and where it heads. Hundreds of pages later, in a chapter on “general transcendent knowledge” (i.e., of God) he says “The immanent source of transcendence in man is his detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know. As it is the origin of all his questions, it is the origin of the radical further questions that take him beyond the defined limits of particular issues.”25

He then develops his form of the traditional scholastic proof for the existence of God. With its feel of relentless logic it can be rather off-putting.26 However, his procedure is a reflection on the implications of human questioning, what is known through questioning, and where that questioning points. Earlier he has established that the object of the unrestricted desire to know is being. Being is “all that is known, and all that can be known.” In Insight the impression is created that if readers have followed the argument, if they have examined the structure of their own knowing, and if they can follow his procedure step by step, they should come to affirm the existence of God.

Lonergan did not entirely repudiate this argumentation but years later by hindsight, he noted that it “treated God’s existence and attributes in a purely objective fashion. It made no effort to deal with the subject’s religious horizon.”27 In Method and later writings he takes a more phenomenological approach while continuing to root the question of God in the dynamism of human questioning. Whereas earlier that questioning was posed in largely intellectual terms, in his later writings Lonergan speaks in more existential terms.

[I]s the universe on our side or are we just gamblers, and if we are gamblers, are we not perhaps fools, individually struggling for authenticity and collectively endeavoring to snatch progress from the ever mounting welter of decline? The questions arise, and clearly, our attitudes and our resoluteness may be profoundly affected by the answers. Does there or does there not necessarily exist a transcendent intelligent ground of the universe? Is that ground or are we the primary instance of moral consciousness? Are cosmogenesis, biological evolution, historical process basically cognate to us as moral beings or are they indifferent and alien to us?

Such is the question of God … It … rises out of our conscious intentionality, out of the a priori structured drive that promotes us from experiencing to the effort to understand, from understanding to the effort to judge truly, from judging to the effort to choose rightly. In the measure that we advert to our own questioning and proceed to question it, there arises the question of God.28

Whereas earlier he had spoken of “self-appropriation” primarily in intellectual terms, as understanding the operations of cognitional structure, he now speaks of “self-transcendence” which is intellectual, moral and religious.

[S]elf-transcendence becomes moral. When we ask whether this or that is worth while, whether it is not just apparently good but truly good, then we are inquiring, not about pleasure or pain, not about comfort or ill ease, not about sensitive spontaneity, not about individual or group advantage, but about objective value. Because we can ask such questions, and answer them, and live by the answers, we can effect in our living a moral self-transcendence. That moral self-transcendence is the possibility of benevolence and beneficence, of honest collaboration and of true love, of swinging completely out of the habitat of an animal and of becoming a person in a human society.

Whereas in Insight Lonergan was giving an account of human cognition, here he is incorporating that questioning within a larger conception of human life as a striving for authenticity. At this later stage he seems to make a leap.

…our questions for intelligence, for reflection, and for deliberation, constitute our capacity for self-transcendence. That capacity becomes an actuality when one falls in love.

When one is in love, love becomes “the first principle. From it follow one’s desires and fears, one’s joys and sorrows, one’s discernment of values, one’s decisions and deeds.” There are various kinds of love (husband and wife, parents and children, one’s fellow human beings), and “love of God with one’s whole heart and whole soul, with all one’s mind and all one’s strength.”

I have reproduced this procedure here, because it illustrates how the later Lonergan approaches the God-question. Where he once spent fifty pages arguing syllogistically, he now proceeds in a few sentences from human knowing to human moral questioning and moral deliberation to human loving to be in love with God.

As the question of God is implicit in all our questioning, so being in love with God is the basic fulfillment of our conscious intentionality. That fulfillment brings a deep-set joy that can remain despite humiliation, failure, privation, pain, betrayal, desertion. That fulfillment brings a radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give. That fulfillment bears fruit in a love of one’s neighbor that strives mightily to bring about the kingdom of God on this earth. 29

One wonders whether between Insight and Method Lonergan had had something like a mystical experience—although he himself always spoke of mysticism as something that happened to others—in which this sense of God fell into place. He describes being in love with God using the same few expressions from scripture30 as though the reader can be expected to share the same rock-hard assurance from experience.

Lonergan is obviously not addressing a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, or those for whom they speak.

Concluding Observations

Bernard Lonergan’s world was not ours: he died in 1984, around the time many of us were getting our first personal computers and before the advent of mobile phones. Nevertheless, today, fifty years after the publication of Insight a sizeable group of scholars has continued to do work inspired by him. This June the thirty-fourth annual Lonergan Workshop will meet for a week in Boston. As might be expected Catholic philosophers and theologians make up the largest group, but there are some from physical sciences, psychology, history, and practical disciplines like the law. Phyllis Wallbank, a major figure in British Montessori education for half a century, is a regular participant in the workshops. I have met a young woman from Cleveland engaged in education for dropouts, and a Philippine newspaper publisher who uses Lonergan in development projects in the rural areas, as well as participants from Colombia and Japan. A quarterly online publication of Lonergan related journal articles typically has dozens of entries.31 Some are devoted primarily to extending the work of Lonergan himself, such as his fellow Canadian Jesuits Frederick Crowe and Robert Doran.32 Many more have found Lonergan to be helpful in their scholarly or professional pursuits.

A kind of mystique continues to surround the figure of Bernard Lonergan. Throughout this paper I have sought to communicate some of his major proposals. In writing it I have been trying to formulate why some of us regard Lonergan as so significant.

In the introduction to Insight Lonergan recognizes a problem in giving an “account of knowing,” namely that its content “mocks encyclopedias and overflows libraries” (decades before the World Wide Web!). Nevertheless, we can have an anticipatory grasp of it to the extent we have a grasp on the various ways of knowing: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, history, sociology, art, and so forth. Through the work of specialists we learn of the “basic components of the various departments of knowledge” which of course are ever open to revision. He goes on to say:

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding. 33

The “to be understood” is what is potentially intelligible.

That prospect was exciting to me when I first read those passages in 1960 as a seminarian, dissatisfied and frustrated with the insular and defensive theology dating to the Council of Trent that we were getting in the classroom. It implies a program for one’s own learning throughout life. It still helps me understand why I have dozens of books scattered in my office and along my bed: certainly it attests to my lack of discipline and focus, but it may also be a sign of my “unrestricted desire to know.”

Although he spent years in formal education, Lonergan was largely self-taught. Insight, Method, and his other works are a record of the questions he set for himself and his evolving answers, really a progression of insights, which he then arranged to lead readers pedagogically toward similar insights. But is not the aim of formal education to make us all autodidacts, self-starting learners? Certainly we learn in a community of learners. Again, I think Lonergan’s work is helpful toward that end.

In a course on Latin America that I teach at Temple University, I do not conceive of the process as primarily presenting a given body of material, which must then be mastered and presented back to me in class discussion, papers, and examinations. Rather, the aim is for the students to understand some aspects of Latin America and form their own judgments. To do so, they need data in the form of readings, lectures, films and so forth. Certainly I hope that at the end of the semester they have some knowledge of Latin America through the lenses of history, sociology, political science, and so forth. But just as important, I hope they have learned from the process of trying to understand a particular region of the world and have become better learners, more skilled at working with information, grasping issues, reaching conclusions (i.e., data, insights, judgments).

This is an illustration of a “higher viewpoint,” an important notion in Lonergan not developed in this paper. Early in Insight he shows how the operation of multiplication represents a development of addition, and hence a “higher viewpoint.” For learning and pedagogy, the process may be likened to learning to play the piano: one moves from learning individual notes, to playing one line melodies, to playing with both hands, chords, key changes, increasingly complex rhythms. Eventually one reads not notes by measures and whole lines, until one is thinking of the expression of the entire piece. Similarly, in history, for example, one grasps individual facts and events, histories of an age or of a nation, one compares one history to another, in an ever “higher viewpoint.” At the same time one continues to do detailed specific history, but the attainment of a “higher viewpoint” affects that work (as the pianist’s advancing skill enhances the execution of individual chords and phrases).

I would like to think that that course I teach—one out of thirty some that the students in the class will have taken by graduation—is not simply fulfilling a requirement for the students and the satisfaction of the administration but is aiding each student in acquiring practices of inquiry and judgment. I would also like to think that by experiencing different kinds of learning they are getting a sense of the differentiation between theory, scholarship, and practical intelligence, and the value of each. I would moreover like to think that all the courses, including my own, are a kind of apprenticeship for a lifelong habit of inquiry, that, say, my attempt to use Latin American history to shed light on Latin American societies today, will fan a spark in them so that if they go somewhere in the future—Buenos Aires, Bucharest, or Buffalo—they will be curious about history as a key to what they are seeing in the streets.

That last paragraph was put in the conditional mode, because I strongly suspect things don’t work that way. I fear that much formal education rather than spurring such curiosity is viewed as credentialing, and acts to close inquiry except in those areas related to earning a living. In short, I think that taken seriously Lonergan’s proposals would be relevant not only to his own fields of philosophy and theology but to how we conceive of learning and formal education.34

Even though his work is conditioned by his own time and his particular concerns, Bernard Lonergan’s can help us make sense of our world. His treatment of differentiation offers a way of understanding different approaches to knowing that are irreducible to one another, and yet does justice to each, and makes the proliferation of knowledge into ever greater specialization the result of the unrestricted desire to know and the development of appropriate methodologies. To attempt to collapse them into a single explanatory scheme (e.g., “consilience”) is to shortchange the dynamism of human knowing.

The unity of knowledge lies in each of us individually as we pursue our own specializations and as we ask questions, come to provisional answers, and try to respond to the larger questions of meaning. And we do so collectively for each of us is dependent on others for most of what we know, and our own pursuit of knowledge and meaning is part of a larger collective search.



1 Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992 – volume 3 of Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan; first publication London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1957).

2 source?

3 To use a contemporary example, government intelligence agencies can spend millions while resisting insights that would entail questioning commitments already made to an ideology or a war.

4 Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972). (in Collected Works ref.

5 Why that is so is an interesting and important question that cannot be pursued here.

6 Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961). Lonergan appreciated her work and called her “Mrs. Insight.” Three years after his death, Jacobs participated in a conference by Lonergan scholars organized around her work. Cf. Fred Lawrence (ed.) Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

7 Cf. John Haught, Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 33. See Lonergan, Method p. 231.

8 Bernard Lonergan, Understanding and Being: The Halifax Lectures on Insight (Collected Works) (Elizabeth A. Morelli and Mark D. Morelli, eds.) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), p. 96

9 Insight, p. 196.

10 Ibid. p. 197.

11 Understanding and Being, p. 91.

12 Insight, p. 202.

13 Lonergan’s cognitional theory would seem to have some affinity with the work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983) found a number of types of intelligence (linguistic, logico-analytic, musical, interpersonal, kinesthetic, etc.). Gardner was spurred by his dissatisfaction with assumption that there existed a single “intelligence” that could be measured by an IQ or other test.

14 “Dimensions of Meaning,” in Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (eds.), The Lonergan Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 388, 389. (Like most others of his generation, in this passage Lonergan is oblivious of the people who inhabited the lands that the pioneers “transformed.”)

15 Some procedures of social sciences could be closer to those of physical sciences, e.g., an epidemiologist studying disease patterns, or an archaeologist using carbon dating. The findings can be quantified and are independent of the observer.

16 Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). (Chapter 1 of Consilience is “The Ionian Enchantment”) which Wilson defines as a “belief in the unity of the sciences, ” p. 6. Wilson says that the “greatest enterprise of the mind is… the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities.” p. 8.

17 Consilience

18 “The World Mediated by Meaning” in Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980 (Collected Works Vol. 17, Robert Croken, Robert Doran eds.) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 112-116.

19 Lonergan ref. ///

20 Method, p. 94.

21 Lonergan source //?//

22 “World Mediated by Meaning” p. 116.

23 Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980 p, 69. In response to a question after a lecture.

24 Method p. 21

25 Insight pp. 97, 659.

26 The reasoning is through syllogisms and at one point begins to line up what God must be, “In the first place, and continues to “In the twenty-sixth place.”

27 “Philosophy of God,” in Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, p. 172.

28 Method in Theology pp. 102-03.

29 Method, p. 104-5

30 Loving God with one’s whole heart and soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30); God’s love flooding in with the Holy Spirit –(Rom. 5.5); nothing being able to separate us from God’s love—(Rom 8.38 ff.).

32 See Frederick Crowe, In The Lonergan Enterprise (Cambridge, MA, 1980), and Lonergan (Collegeville MN: Michael Glazier, 1992 – part of Outstanding Christian Thinkers series).

33 Insight p. 12, p. 22 (Italics in original).

34 In his series of lectures, Topics in Education. The Cincinnati Lectures of 1959 (Collected Works 10)Lonergan himself does not draw radical consequences for institutions and assumes schooling systems more or less along present lines.