Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Bernard Lonergan

At my request, Dr. Bahnsen sent me a photocopy of the typescript of this article.  “Modern Philoso-phy and Apologetics” appears (without the quote marks) in parentheses in the upper right corner of the typescript’s first page.  No date is given, but it was written no earlier than 1970, when the third edition of Lonergan’s Insight, which Bahnsen cites, was published; and probably not later than 1972, when Lonergan’s Method in Theology was published, which Bahnsen does not cite, but almost certainly would have had it been available to him. (See Bahnsen’s 1973 review of Lonergan’s Method.)  I have taken the liberty of breaking up long paragraphs.

See also a critique of Insight and Method in Theology by Cornelius Van Til, one of Bahnsen's most important intellectual influences, elsewhere on this site.

Anthony Flood

First posted September 1, 2009

Van Til reference added February 23, 2013



The Epistemology of Bernard Lonergan

Gregory Bahnsen


If one has become accustomed to the more or less prevailing opinion that nothing of substantial or serious philosophic challenge can be expected to emerge from contemporary Roman Catholicism, the writings of Bernard J. F. Lonergan could well be the disquieting anomaly which alters that outlook.  Professor Lonergan has developed throughout his career an epistemological viewpoint which presents the persistent significance of medieval thought in the light of modern science, psychology, and philosophy; Lonergan’s epistemology is definitively expressed in his astute, though ponderous, volume Insight, A Study of Human Understanding (Third Edition, New York: Philosophical Library, 1970; originally 1958). Insight is the first mature philosophic product of the reconstruction called for by Pope Leo XIII, a project wherein old scholasticism would be re-stored and completed by current day thought.  The epistemological position set forth in Insight is of interest and significance also because of the rami-fications Lonergan sees it as having in other fields, especially metaphysics and theological method.

The aim of the book is to present a critique of various methods of thought (both in science and in common sense) and to lead the reader through the maze of dense argumentation to understand the nature of insight as a cognitional event within his own rational self-consciousness; from this point Lonergan would examine the implications of a proper view of method for metaphysics and would point out the universe which is disclosed by the characteristics of insight.  In all this Lonergan’s hope is to demonstrate the resilience of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition by purging it of its antiquated science and presenting a new philosophy of science in its place, a philosophy from which he can extrapolate to the world structure that is presupposed in the effective operation of the many fields of human inquiry.  

The overall development of thought through the book, then, is from psychologism to metaphysics (and God): from the question, What is happening when we are knowing?, to the question, What is known when we are knowing?  In good Thomist style, Lonergan aims to proceed from an indepen-dent analysis of rational-scientific human knowing to a demonstration of the existence of God Himself. An exposition of Lonergan’s epistemology and its entailed metaphysical implications should properly precede an appraisal of the same.



In Part I (“Insight as Activity”) of Insight Lonergan sets out the theory of cognitional structure which shall undergird Part II, the practice of making correct judgments (“Insight as Knowledge”).  Four levels of development are discernable throughout parts I and II, the first level representing Part I itself while Part II is subdivided into three further levels.  

The first step of his argument is the endeavor to grasp the key occurrences in learning math, advancing science, developing common sense, and forming judgments in order that we might see cognitional activity as an activity (chapters 1-10). 

Secondly, Lonergan would discuss cognitional activity as cognitional, pointing out that self-affirmation is objective knowledge (chapters 11-13).  

From here Lonergan advances to the third level of development and presents his general case for proportionate being; in this case self-affirmation is the key act.  The case for proportionate being is used by Lonergan to establish a general dialectical theorem, which in turn will make possible a metaphysics of proportionate being and consequent ethics (chapters 14-18).  

Thus far the first three steps of Lonergan’s argument have sought to present autonomous thought as the lower story for the climactic fourth step of development wherein human knowledge of transcendent being (that is, the possibility of intelligibly grasping and reasonably affirming a being which lies outside of man’s experience) is proved by the fact that such intelligent grasp and reasonable affirmation occur.  This logic of natural theology is plainly expressed Lonergan himself:

It was to give concrete expression to the sincerity of Catholic thought in affirming the essential independence of other fields that our first eighteen chapters were written solely in the light of human intelligence and reasonableness and without any presuppo-sition of God’s existence, without any appeal to the authority of the Church, and without any explicit deference to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas.  At the same time, our first eighteen chapters were followed by a nineteenth and twentieth that revealed the inevitability with which the affirmation of God and the search of intellect for faith arise out of a sincere acceptance of scientific presuppositions and precepts (p. 744).

Keeping this broad outline of the argument in mind as well as the goal toward which Lonergan is moving, we can engage in a more detailed analysis of the various levels in the development of Lonergan’s case.  It should be clear from the overview of Insight presented just now that step one (i.e., Part I or chapters 1-10) is of seminal importance for the entire treatise. 

The first task that Lonergan sets before himself in that section is to clarify the nature of insight; this he does in chapters 1-5.  In chapter 1 Lonergan discusses the insights which are sought by the knower.  This chapter is crucial in Lonergan’s program to demonstrate the possibility of having a philosophy which is methodological, critical and comprehensive (cf. p. xii); the chapter lays the groundwork for a study of human understanding, its philosophic implications, and the cure for flights from understanding.  If Lonergan succeeds in showing the power of his method (p. 488), he will accomplished his goal of finding “a common ground on which men of intelligence might meet” (p. xiii).

The crucial issue in his argument is an experimental issue from which everything else follows; that issue will be the decisive achievement of rational self-consciousness taking possession of itself as such (p. xviii) and thereby gaining the ability to discriminate between existential concerns and purely intellectual activity (p. xix). Thus the question, as Lonergan sees it, pertains to the precise nature of knowledge and the relations between its two diverse forms, rational and empirical (p. xvii).  His purpose in answering this question is to provide a discriminate of cognitive acts, effecting a personal appropriation of the concrete, dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in cognitional activities (p. xvii); this self-appropriation cannot take place in a single leap but must be painstakingly developed (p. xxiii).

To conclude, our aim regards:

(1)     not the fact of knowledge, but a discrimination between two facts of knowledge,

(2)         not the details of the known but the structure of knowing,

(3)  not the knowing as an object characterized by catalogues of abstract properties but the appropriation of one’s own intellectual and rational self-consciousness,

(4)         not a sudden leap to appropriation but a slow and painstaking development, and

(5)  not a development indicated by appealing either to the logic of the as yet unknown goal or to a presupposed and as yet unexplained ontologically structured metaphysics, but a development that can begin in any sufficiently cultured consciousness, that expands in virtue of dynamic tendencies of that consciousness itself, and that heads through an understanding of all understanding to a basic understanding of all that can be understood (p. xxviii).

The recurrent structure Lonergan here speaks of is identified with the process of knowing itself, in contrast to the extensive area of the known (p. xviii); this structure is always the same (p. xxvi), and thus it is the essence of knowledge and that which unifies empiricism, rationalism, and common sense.  Knowing (this one and the same recurrent structure) is understanding (p. xxix).  To say that Lonergan is seeking to get to the heart of these essential epistemological questions is identical with saying that his aim is to reveal the nature of insight and to indicate its basic role in human understanding (p. 269).

Therefore, it is quite evident why chapter 1 of Lonergan’s book, wherein he discusses insight as sought by the knower, is the central nail on which his whole position hangs.  Lonergan expresses himself most simply when he declares that “An insight is no more than an act of’ understanding” (p. 45).  It is different from sensation (p. 5), being a function of the inner conditions of one’s mind and enters its habitual texture (pp. 3, 4).  Insight is not methodological but creative in character (p. 4), depending upon one’s natural endowments, alertness, and habitual orientation, as well as an accurate presentation of definite problems (p. 5). Lonergan sees it as the key to practicality (p. xiv), the sudden release of inquiry-tension which pivots between the concrete and abstract (p. 6).  

It is helpful in grasping Lonergan’s notion of insight to understand the genesis of insight.  Prior to insight altogether, and presupposing experiences and images, there is found in man an unrestricted, driving desire to understand which constitutes the primordial “why?” (p. 9).  Man awakens to intelligence, having this driving desire to understand; with the coming of a clue the imagination process is triggered and leads to the insightful achievement of an answer to the question posed (an answer in the form of a patterned set of concepts—p. 10).  An insight provides the pivot between images and concepts in one’s thinking; it is the act of catching on to a connection, an act which is facilitated by images and which results in concepts (pp. 8-10).  As such insight is a “preconceptual event” (p. 59) which occurs as a leap of constructive intelligence (pp. 64f.), a “lightening flash of illumination” (p. 201). An insight unifies, organizes and draws into intelligible relations the various particulars which are known.  Hence Lonergan views it as “the supervening act of understanding,” the act of organizing intelligence, a constituent of human knowledge which apprehends relations and meaning by a process of unification and organization (pp. ix-xi); this psychological aspect of human intelligence, this insight, is the a priori synthetic after which philosophers have sought, and it is that which Lonergan believes can take him to a verifiable metaphysic.  

He points out that the reader of a detective story can be given all the clues and still fail to spot the criminal; the solution is only reached when the apprehended clues are intelligently organized as a distinct activity.  This activity is what he labels “insight.”  Having explained his central notion, Lonergan turns to geometrical definitions as examples of the product of insight; from these he goes on to explain the emergence of higher viewpoints and redefinitions which result from a complex shift in the whole structure of insights (p. 13) and vast extension of the initial deductive expansion (p. 15).  The emergence of such a higher viewpoint consists in an insight which arises upon the operations performed according to old rules and yet expressed in the formulation of new rules.

At this point Lonergan’s discussion twists to the unusual type of insight which grasps that the only understanding to be had of certain data is that there is nothing to be understood, there is no point or solution; Lonergan calls this an “inverse insight” which, in the context of a positive empirical object, denies the expected intelligibility (p. 19).  In the process of abstraction which acts of insight call for there is an unavoidable “empirical residue” which possesses no immanent intelligibility of its own (pp. 30, 31).  The higher intelligibility of a fully developed science leaves certain positive (empirical) data which is particular and incidental (thus irrelevant) unexplained; however, by going beyond the sensible field, the enrichment of abstraction allows one to grasp that which is essential, significant, and important (rather than individual).  Lonergan generalizes and says that in all data there is this empirical residue, the notion of “oversight”; this is a flight from understanding which results from an incomplete development of intelligence and reasonableness (p. xi).   It can unconsciously produce a scotoma or blind spot on the understanding; the production of an aberration of understanding is designated “scotosis” (p. 191), the cure for which is found in insight (p. 201).

In recapitulation, Lonergan views an insight as the prevailing and defining form of the human cognitional process.  An insight is the mental act of apprehending intelligibilities logically distinct from, though psychologically conveyed by, sense data and images; because these intelligibilities bear witness to entities which are unimaginable, knowing cannot be identified with the process of mere looking.  Instead, knowing goes beyond the empirical presentations to grasp intelligible meanings and to reflectively judge their truth-status; as we shall soon see, the rational self-consciousness affirms a proposition in view of its sufficient reason, thereby rendering the condi-tioned “virtually unconditioned” by linking it up with its called for conditions—a linkage which is effected by structures immanent and operative within the cognitional process.  In the background of that cognitional process characterized by insights is a pure, detached, disinterested desire to understand or know, a desire which gives rise to inquiry and wonder (cf. p. 74).  This desire is seen by Lonergan as central to human nature (pp. 331, 474).   In Lonergan’s estimation, this driving desire to understand will climax in metaphysical theology, indeed the singular goal of Thomistic philosophy and theology.  However, he recognizes that the polymorphism of consciousness and the dialectic of various philosophies reveal that this driving desire can be channeled into different (aberrational) streams from that of Roman Catholicism.

In chapter 2 of Insight Lonergan introduces the heuristic structures which inform the knower’s search for insight, showing that the methodological origin and production of insight lies in a heuristic structure (p. 44).  For instance, symbolism is a heuristic technique (cf. p. 18).  However, the insights discussed in chapter 2 are taken by Lonergan from the field of empirical science; having contrasted the scientific developments of understanding with those of mathematics (such as discussed in the preceding chapter), he probes into the origin of those clues that facilitate the initial insight.  He maintains that in the act of inquiring human intelligence already anticipates the act of understanding after which it is striving.  The content which is anticipated has properties which serve as the heuristic clues that lead into insight situations.  Lonergan isolates two separate groups of heuristic structures: the classical (the abstract and systematic which is the convergence point for concrete particulars) and the statistical (the boundary norm of systematic abstraction from which the concrete cannot consistently and pervasively diverge).  

In chapters 3-5 Lonergan uses a deepened study of math and science to consolidate his position with respect to insight, classical and statistical heuristic structures.  Statistical laws, according to Lonergan, deal with particular events and frequencies thereof (p. 53), while classical laws (formed by the abstraction from similarities in data) state either the relation of things (i.e., the concrete unity-identity-whole grasped in data as individual, cf. p. 339) to our senses (thus a descriptive conjugate, the thing being a thing-for-us) or to one another (thus explanatory conjugates, the thing being a thing-itself) (p. 79). However, all heuristic structures are of themselves empty and anticipate a filling.  The anticipation of this filling process itself is used by Lonergan to demonstrate the canons of empirical method (e.g., selection, operations, relevance, parsimony, and complete explanation).  Due to the presence of inverse insights Lonergan sees the inevitability of statistical residues in our scientific explanations.  

In chapter four Lonergan attempts to deal with the complementarity of classical and statistical investigations, having recognized the duality involved in the intelligibility he takes to be immanent in positive data and the domination of the concrete by the abstract and systematic.  He sees a complementarity between them as types of knowing: in their heuristic anticipations (i.e., either of the systematic or the non-systematic), procedures, formulations, methods of abstraction, verification, and data explained.  Beyond the fact that classical and statistical methods complement each other as cognitional activities, Lonergan believes that the results of both can be combined into a single world view (which incidentally contrasts with those of teleology, determinism, evolution, and indeterminism all alike), a world view which is determined precisely by this simultaneous affirmation of both classical and statistical investigations.  Lonergan asserts: “. . . heuristic structures and canons of method constitute an a priori.  They settle in advance the general determinations, not merely of the activities of knowing, but also of the content to be known” (pp. 104f.).  

In chapter 5 Lonergan shows us the result of his bringing classical and statistical methods together; it is his notion of “emergent probability”: the successive realization in accord with successive schedules of probability of a conditioned series of schemes of recurrence (pp. 125f.).  It is the immanent intelligibility which is aimed at by empirical method and which exhibits the inner design of the world process (p. 128).  Emergent probability is the successive realization of the possibilities of concrete situations in accords with their probabilities (p. 171), the world of scientific expectation.  According to Lonergan’s philosophy of science, space is the ordered totality of concrete extensions, and time (just as simply) is the ordered totality of concrete durations (p. 143). The concrete intelligibility of both is found in their function of grounding situations and successive realizations in accord with probabilities (respec-tively—p. 172).  Thus Lonergan’s view of emergent probability is founded upon his view of concrete space and concrete time. One can best understand it by thinking of concrete extensions and durations (i.e., space and time) as the matter of which emergent probability is the intelligible form—being immanent in the matter (cf. p. 172). Cosmology has come within the range of empirical science alone!

In chapters 6 and 7 Lonergan turns to the activities of intelligent common sense, and then in chapter 8 he brings common sense together with his previous discussion of science.  Chapter 6 sets out the pure theory of common sense, and chapter 7 discusses its dialectical involvements.  As an intellectual development, common sense is seen by Lonergan as a spontaneous inquiry, accumu-lation of related insights (i.e., the process of leaning) and collaboration advanced by commu-nication (p. 175).  It is characteristic of common sense to remain incomplete as a specialization of intelligence, waiting for one key insight into a situation at hand (pp. 175, 177).  The concerns of common sense are concrete and particular, have no use for technical language, and are concerned with things for us (pp. 176-178); therefore, Lonergan sharply distinguishes common sense from theoretical science (pp. 178f.).  He maintains that the development of practical common sense entails a change in its subject, and as well a change in its object: the making and doing which common sense aims at involve a transformation of man and his environment (p. 207). 

In chapter 6 Lonergan had discussed the various patterns of experience known in common sense (e.g., the biological, the aesthetic, the intellectual, the dramatic), and this led him into a survey of the individual’s problems as connected with dramatic bias (the oversights caused by psychological undercurrents and which is fostered by repression and inhibition, characterized by a failure of smooth performance—pp. 191-196); the counterpart to this discussion in chapter 7 is Lonergan’s analysis of intersubjectivity and the tension plus dialectic of social order (pp. 211-218), flowing from which is his detailing of individual bias (stopping of man’s intellectual development at the egoistic level, cf. pp. 219f.), group bias (the self-serving reluctance of society to move toward the changes dictated by intelligence, cf. p. 223), and general bias (the universal lag of intelligence occasioned by a generalized empirical method (parallel to the empirical method as it relates to sense data) which, as applied to the data of consciousness, consists in determining patterns of intelligible relations that unite the data explanatorily. 

Such generalized method deals with a multiple of conscious subjects and their milieu as well, and this brings in the instrumentality of the dialectic (a pure form with general implications which enables a general form of a critical attitude, applicable to any concrete unfurling of linkerd but opposed principles that are modified cumulatively by the unfolding: cf. p. 244).  Lonergan has now reached the point where he can, in chapter 8, draw the necessary distinction between things and bodies—only the former are intelligible unities to be grasped within the intellectual pattern of experience, the latter being as significant for animals as they are for common sense.  A body is the “already out there now real” (p.  251), but a thing is an intelligible unity which need not be bodily at all (p. 268); the failure to reach this critical position accounts for the endless chain of philosophic positions according to Lonergan, and he thinks that only a dialectical analysis which is based on this critical position will allow one to go on to a “philosophy of philosophies.”

Things are concrete, intelligible unities.  As such, all are alike.  Still they are of different kinds, not merely when described in terms of their relations to us, but still more so when explained in terms of their relations to one another.  For there is a succession of higher viewpoints; each is expressed in its own system of correlations and implicitly defined conjugates; and each successive system makes systematic what otherwise would be merely coincidental on the preceding view-point . . . Moreover, emergent probability is extended to realize cumulatively, in accord with successive schedules of probabilities, a conditioned series not only of schemes of recurrence but also of things (p. 268).

We can now summarize Lonergan’s view of science and common sense.  According to him they are separate and incomplete cognitional proces-ses.  While common sense investigates things in relation to us, science investigates things in relation to each other.  The objective of science is complete explanation which can be verified in descriptions of direct experience having formalized scientific method, Lonergan explicates its structure and points out the kind of world which it presupposes—thereby showing the application of an a priori within knowledge and experience, and proposing that one’s method legislates the types of answers which he will deem admissible. 

There are three basic methods in science, each having its own peculiar heuristic structure.  The classical method assumes that similars are to be similarly understood, and these similarities are amenable to mathematical expression; its objective is to ascertain the unspecified correlation which must be specified.  The statistical method is used to detect probabilities since the coincidental aggregates or particular individuals do not neatly conform to the expectations of classical method. The genetic method discovers intelligible patterns, allowing for the subsumption of the histories or significantly dissimilar individuals under common genetic principles.  Lonergan sees the advantage or investigating methods (instead of synthesizing facts and laws) as being the elimination of any need or constant revision contingent upon new scientific discoveries; the methods will persist in that they determine beforehand which data and principles may count as scientific advances.  

Turning then to common sense, Lonergan sees this understanding of things as related to us as dominated by practical concerns which can in the long run obstruct the pure, detached, unrestricted desire to know.  Certain biases can lead to scotosis (the unconscious closing off of an insight) which become evident in psychological breakdowns, soci-etal disruptions, and world crises. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that common sense does validly yield insight into concrete situations; it is just that the shortcomings of common sense must deprive it of any central position in the solution to philosophical problems.

Now as to the relation holding between science and common sense, Lonergan sees them as complementary.  This thesis is tested against the issue of thinghood, for therein science and commons sense would appear to conflict: science seeing things as wavicles which are verified by sense data yet ontologically distinct for them, while common sense simply takes things to be concrete, publically accessible.  The reconciliation between these positions is found (through a critical use of dialectic) in the higher viewpoint of metaphysics which draws proper and necessary distinctions.  Lonergan says that the scientist is in error by supposing that intelligible objects, since things must be related to each other, must be imaginable objects existing out there; on the other hand, common sense mistakes everyday appear-ances for the intrinsic natures of things them-selves.  Lonergan overcomes the standoff here by integrating the insights of both science and common sense in the intellectual pattern of experience which takes the “knowable” to be the “real.”  Thus science and common sense are equally forms of knowledge which can come up against and understand reality.

In chapters 9-10 Lonergan comes to the point; chapters 1-8 are given as a communication of the necessary prior insights which lead into the last two chapters of Part I, the area of critical judgment.  In terms of the cognitional structure which Lonergan discusses in chapter 9 as the final outcome of his previous analyses, chapters 6-7 set forth the “level of presentations”: that is, the empirical raw materials for intelligence which are ineffable by themselves; chapters 1-5 set forth the “level of intelligence” (which follows the level of presentations in the cognitional process): that is, the acts of inquiry, understanding, and formula-tion.  In chapters 9-10 Lonergan comes to the point of asking whether the preceding discussion is so, is representative of the actual state of affairs; this question is handled through his analysis of the cognitional process as such and of reflective judgment.

Chapter 9 deals with the notion of judgment and the overall cognitional structure.  The content of a judgment is a proposition (p. 271) and involves a personal commitment (p. 272); being the answer to a question for reflection (p. 272), a judgment (in terms of Lonergan’s scheme, to be discussed presently) is the final and total increment in the cognitional process (p. 276).  This process moves on three successive levels.  First there is the level of presentations, the level of empiricism and common sense wherein the raw materials for intelligence are supplied; this level cannot yield understanding of itself.  This level is presupposed by, and complements, the second level in the cognitional process, which is the level of intelli-gence; here the acts of inquiry, understanding and formulation take place (e.g., what? why? how often?).  Then because we conceive in order to judge, every question on the level of intelligence leads invariably on to questions for reflection.  This is the third level of the cognitional process; this level calls for a further kind of insight and judgment which relate to the notions of truth or falsity, certitude or probability (though not here in the sense of frequency).  Thus each level of the cognitional process is distinguished by the addition of a new dimension in man’s thinking; the attitude of an inquiring mind which effects the transition from one level to the next does so by means of questions. 

Overall the cognitional process is a cumulative affair (cf. p. 275) wherein the human mind goes about its proper business of, not contemplation, but adding increments to its habitual knowledge.  Lonergan’s idea of a cognitional structure is actually quite a bit simpler than it might sound.  What he is essentially setting forth is this pattern: the knower is confronted with certain empirical situations (i.e., presentations) which raise ques-tions of intelligence in his mind; having formulated an initial answer by means of an insight, he then asks whether his formulation is true or whether he can have certitude about it; upon reflection of these questions on the rational level he finally makes a judgment (answers “yes” or “no”).  Lonergan schematizes his analysis of the cognitional process in the following way (each Roman numeral represents an advanced level, and on each level the progression moves from left to right and moves onto the next level by means of questions):

I. Data. Perceptual Images. Free Images. Utterances.

II. Questions for Intelligence. Insights. Formulations.

III. Questions for Reflection. Reflection. Judgment.

Thus, the knower moves from empirical conscious-ness onto intelligent consciousness, and finally onto rational consciousness; in all this he is impelled forward by the driving desire to under-stand.  The last thing which we need to add to this exposition is the tenet that this triple-level cognit-ional process operates in two different modes.  The direct mode begins with the data of sense (i.e., empirical science) and proceeds through the three steps; the results of anyone level in the cognitional process in the direct mode can supply data of consciousness (the experienced work of inquiry, insight, and formulation, etc.) which become the starting point for the introspective mode of the cognitional process (which completes the transi-tion from level to level).  Hereby Lonergan ac-counts for all kinds of thinking and presents know-ing as a dynamic structure (facilitated by insight).

The only thing that remains now is for Lonergan to explain in chapter 10 his notion of reflective understanding.  He takes it to be an insight which meets questions for reflection and which leads on to judgments (thus is formally parallel to the acts of direct or introspective understanding discussed just previously).  In grasping unity, or system, or ideal frequency, a reflective understanding also grasps the sufficiency of the evidence for a prospective judgment (p. 279).  When certain evidence is taken to be sufficient, the prospective judgment is seen as virtually unconditioned.  Thus the reflective understanding transforms a prospective judgment from a conditioned status to that of being virtually unconditioned; this it does by seeing what the conditions of that prospective judgment are and noting their fulfillment (p. 280). A reflective insight grasps this pattern and by a rational compulsion the judgment follows; hence Lonergan maintains that the judgment is implicit in the cognitional process even before the judgment actually comes about (p. 281).  Lonergan next goes into an extended examination of the various types of judgments that knowers make, and he summarizes his discussion in chapter 10 thusly:

Prospective judgments are propositions

(1) that are the content of an act of conceiving, thinking, defining, considering, or supposing,

(2) that are subjected to the question for reflection, to the critical attitude of intelligence, and

(3) that thereby are constituted as the conditioned.

There is sufficient evidence for a prospective judgment when it may be grasped by reflective understanding as virtually unconditioned.  Hence sufficient evidence involves

(1) a link of the conditioned to its conditions, and

(2) the fulfilment of the conditions.

These two elements are supplied in different manners in different cases.

In formal inference the link is provided by the hypothetical premise, If the antecedent, then the consequent.  The fulfilment is the minor premise.

In judgment on the correctness of insights, the link is that the insight is correct if there are no further, pertinent questions, and the fulfilments lies in the self-correcting process of learning reaching its limit in familiarity and mastery.

In judgments of fact the link is the correct insight or set of insights and the fulfilment lies in present and/or remembered data.

In generalizations the link is the cognitional law that similars are similarly understood and the fulfilment lies in such similarity that further, pertinent questions no more arise in the general case than in the correctly understood particular case.

In probable judgments the link is that insights are correct when there are no further pertinent questions and the fulfil-ment is some approximation of the self-cor-recting process of learning to its limit of familiarity and mastery.

In analytic propositions the link lies in rules of meaning that generate propositions out of partial terms of meaning and the fulfilment is supplied by the meanings or definitions of the terms (pp. 315f.).

This then completes a broad outline of Lonergan’s basic epistemological position.  Through chapters 1-10 he has laid out a psychologism which centers in the event of insight, relates the various methods of knowing, and expands into a general cognitional structure.  This is cognitional activity as activity in Insight.

These first ten chapters represent the first step in Lonergan’s overall argument in Insight; they are followed by three subsequent steps in chapters 11-20.  Therein Lonergan develops his view of the self-affirmation of the concrete subject (knower) as a transcendental condition implicit in cognitional acts, his method and content of metaphysics, his view of proportionate being, the implications all this has for ethics, and then finally his view of transcendent knowledge (general and special).  It is quite clear that Lonergan sees his cognitional theory as exercising a fundamental influence in metaphysics, ethics and theology (cf. p. 389).  However, in consideration of time, space, and the specific scope of this paper (the epistemology of Lonergan), only an abbreviated exposition of these secondary developments would be appropriate.  Moreover, if the epistemology previously expunded turns out to be faulty, the foundation underlying the later metaphysics and theology will be dissolved and thereby leave any extended consideration of these aspects of Lonergan’s thinking useless.

Based on his analysis of heuristic structure and the place it has in cognition as an activity aiming at truth and oriented toward objects, Lonergan renders the unusual definition being as whatever is known and remains to be known (p. 350).  Being may be known either by experience, intelligent grasp, or reasonable affirmation; and because these three ways all disclose distinct aspects of reality, being should be viewed as proportionate.  Metaphysics, then, becomes the integral heuristic structure of proportionate being (p. 431). 

Combining his cognitional structure with a Thomist ontology, Lonergan identifies potency with experience, form with intelligence, and act with affirmation.  At the level of common sense and science things have simple potency, form, and act; at the higher standpoint of metaphysics, though, the thing has a central potency, central form, and central act.  The views of thinghood in science and common sense parallel Aristotle’s substantial form, while in metaphysics all contradictions are resolved by an integrating principle of viewpoint-unification (the intrinsic intelligibility of being and the central form of reality being perceived in metaphysical thinking).  

Because knowing is more than just taking a look at the world, and due to man’s unnrestricted desire to understand completely, levels of further questions take him on to the realm of the transcendent (pp. 635ff).  His limited capacities will mean that the range of possible questions will always be larger than the range of possible answers for man (p. 639).  The content of the unrestricted act of understanding would be the idea of being; as such it would have to be absolutely transcendent (pp. 644ff.)—not just things, but the general idea of being which lies behind things.  However, Lonergan feels that to understand being is to understand God (p. 658), for they have the same properties.  In this case the conception of God is the most meaningful concept to man since being in the core of meaning (p. 669). To say that “God is real” is to say that “He is the object of a reasonable affirmation,” which amounts to saying “God exists.”  Therefore, Lonergan feels that our restricted understanding extrapolates back to an unrestricted act, i.e., God (p. 670).  His basic theistic proof then is: “If the real is completely intelligible, God exists.  But the real is completely intelligible.  Therefore, God exists” (p. 672).  

The higher level of supernatural knowledge (with its conjugate forms of faith, hope, and love) was anticipated, then, all along in the lower con-text of cognitional theory; from the psychologism of insight Lonergan has mounted to a universal viewpoint.  As he sees it, the inner dynamism of inquiry has brought the knower from an autonomous science to a universally relevant theology; indeed, grace does perfect nature after all!  On page 748 of Insight we find an assertion also given on p. xxviii of the preface; thus as the brackets of Lonergan’s study, this assertion shows us the significance of insight according to his theory: “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.”



The fact that Lonergan’s epistemology is staked on the psychologism he sets forth in Insight leaves his position in a weak and vulnerable condition from the outset; he would have to possess privileged access to all human psychological-intelligent processes in order to argue as he does, but he clearly does not have such an ability “to know whether I reach all my conclusions via the pattern of data-presentation, insight, and reflec-tive judgment or not.  He is merely arguing from the similarity of outward acts when humans are intelligently engaged in thought to an assumed identity of cognitional structure; at best this is an argument from silence (seeing that nothing is known about the internal mental acts of others), and at worst it is the fallacy of false cause (attributing the wrong cause to the similarity of outward responses in a variety of knowers).

Lonergan’s viewpoint pivots on his notion of the unrestricted, driving desire to understand, for it is this desire which initiates and sustains the cognitional process.  This drive prompts further and further questions, mounting onward from one level to the next; it inevitably leads to God as the unrestricted act of understanding, the absolutely unconditioned condition of all being.  So then, the driving desire of man’s mind demands for its fulfilment the complete intelligibility of the universe, a premise necessary for Lonergan’s theistic proof.  However, it is not at all clear why an argument which moves from the human desire for intelligibility to the putative existence of an objective intelligibility does not amount to simple wishful thinking.  

Moreover, by admitting that there is mystery in the natural world, Lonergan precludes the possibili-ty of man’s driving desire for understanding being satisfied; in this case the complete intelligibility of the world rests ultimately on faith: Therefore, Lonergan’s autonomous proof of God’s existence turns out to be no proof whatsoever.  Indeed, even if Lonergan’s odd God did exist, the intelligibility of the universe would only be from a supernatural standpoint and thus irrelevant to human science and philosophy. Again. we must question whether this supposed driving desire to understand actually leads inevitably to the Roman Catholic God when in terms of the manifest results of the history of philosophy we find a motley array of systems which commonly oppose the scholastic position.  

Furthermore, one does not have to search very long to find someone within his own community or neighborhood who does not seem to have a very strong desire to learn or understand at all; indeed, in terms of the revelation of God in Scripture we should maintain that no one at all seeks to understand God: Throughout his discussion Loner-gan has committed the customary “normalist” fallacy; consonant with his Romanist training, Lonergan does not appear to take the noetic effects of the fall of man into sin very seriously at all.  So much is this the case that he even attributes unethical acts to oversights of intelligence rather than to any depraved nature and corrupted mind-set.  In terms of what the Bible describes in man, and in terms of what we actually find in man, the driving desire to know which men are said to have by Lonergan is far from detached and pure; it is resistive to God and lustful throughout.  That is why behavioral aberrations are not simply caused by flights from insight (cf. p. 191) and certainly are not cured by intellectual insights (cf. p. 201)!  It would appear that Lonergan’s psychologism actually embodies a false psychology of man, an erroneous view of the primacy of man’s intellect, and an inadequate view of sin.

Lonergan’s idea of cognitional insight is also beset with difficulties.  His idea of discerning Platonic-like relations between the particulars of empirical presentations falls short of taking account of the phenomenological orientation of man’s knowing process.  In fact, men do not encounter isolated, brute facts of sensation (e.g., spherical red) which they put together into intelligible unities (e.g., apple); all of man’s experiencing is controlled by interpretations which he already possesses and brings to the facts.  The facts which man encounters, moreover, are themselves expressions of the divine interpre-tation of the cosmos and fit into the intelligible pattern of the divine plan; thus insight into the relations holding between various “clues” cannot even get off the ground if one is going to insist on an autonomous attitude from the start.  In the case of autonomous intellectual process there could be nothing into which an insight might be had, for no presentation could stand alone without at least an initial interpretation assigned to it; since this is the case, an insight can never be genuinely indepen-dent of outside considerations.

Next, we would ask if the simple insight into a patterned coherence of elements, traits, or clues says anything at all to us about the truthfulness of that point of view.  Through any given number of points there are an infinite number of geometric designs which could accommodate the point locations; of themselves these points do not determine a right or wrong pattern of explanation. So also, an insight might draw all the disparate elements of presentation together into an interpre-tation or formulated law, but any nominalist will be quick to challenge the normativeness of this one insight among many. Lonergan simply assumes that we will recognize the truth when we reach it (p. 3OO)—an assumption which begs the question throughout the gamut of the history of philosophical dispute! If men recognize the truth when they reach it, Lonergan has a lot of explaining to do as to why men never reach it or why they so pervasively will refuse to recognize or acknowledge it.  

If Lonergan’s notion of insight appears to have the rationalist cast about it (man’s mind is normal and able to attain to ultimate truth in its own ability), it contrawise also has an irrationalist cast about it. As noted above, Lonergan thinks that insights are preconceptual events likened to a leap and to a lightening flash; this all sounds strangely like a mystical experience, an unpredictable, unteachable, unstructured process of irrational achievement of rational outlook!  Finally, we would ask if it is actually true that images are necessary to having insights; must all discoveries and scientific or philosophic formulations be arrived at pictorially?  It certainly seems that the laws of logic are discernable without pictures, and one can have an insight into a musical score without conjuring up an image in his mind can he not?  If Lonergan expands the idea of image to include all symbolic representations (e.g., logical signs, musical notes), then his point about insights leading to formulations can readily be reduced to a trivial declaration that one must use formulation-symbols if he is going to arrive at a formulation of intelligence.  This same general line of criticism applies to Lonergan’s idea that insights are pre-conceptual; it certainly seems possible (and not altogether uncommon) for people to have insights which are occasioned by the proper and suggestive correlation of certain concepts themselves.

With respect to Lonergan’s views on science and common sense it would seem that he has assumed that methods of science themselves are constant through all changes in content; however, even the methods of science have developed and changed over the years.  The arbitrariness of Lonergan’s views is perhaps evident in the fact that he refuses to assimilate classical and statistical method to each other, a task which is logically conceivable and which has been attempted before; by keeping these two methods separate Lonergan is able to go on to his view of emergent probability, etc., but he fails to show why these two should be accepted as diverse and irreconcilable methods.  Why should random behavior not be treated as a conjunction of classical laws instead of as statistical law, for instance?  

Furthermore, Lonergan does not show why the emergent probability from classical and statistical methods is not merely a temporary inadequacy in human understanding rather than the objective structure of the world (as he propounds).  Even if the structure of emergent probability were an accurate representation of the world itself, it is most difficult to see how Lonergan gets from this point to his cosmology grounded in God and comprised of necessarily dependent beings; this movement of thought has all the signs of being dictated by a preconceived goal rather than moved along by the natural logic of the subject matter and discussions.  Earlier we had noted the weak tenability of Lonergan’s position because of his failure to have private access to all cognitional activities; the same weak tenability is evident when we realize that the only thing which is necessary for a refutation of Lonergan’s extended case is for the heuristic structures of existing scientific methods to change (thereby showing that they are not final)—a possibility which is highly likely if we listen to the renown philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.  

Turning to Lonergan’s views on common sense, it would appear that he is confronted with the horns of a dilemma: either the driving desire to know may be engaged as much by practical problems as by disinterested inquiry, or common sense insights are of inferior truth value than scientific ones.  Lonergan cannot accept the latter view because he affords common sense the status and ability of insight; yet the former alternative endangers the very disinterestedness and detachment of the driving desire to understand (fragmentation into mere practical questions would arrest intellectual development).  We must wonder, also, as to the real value of common sense when, after seeing its downfalls and dangers, Lonergan says that it must be refined and corrected within the dialectic of the community—which is itself admittedly biased as well!  Similar to the case of classical and statistical method, we need to ask Why Lonergan draws a sharp distinction between common sense and theoretical science instead of trying to combine them into a common approach; there are prima facie indications that common sense and science enter into all of man’s reasoning experiences (with different emphases dependent upon the subject matter and investigator at hand). The implication of arbitrariness again suggests itself in Lonergan’s argument.

There are problems to be found also in Lonergan’s notion of a cognitional structure. The idea of a “structure of cognitional process” is a metaphor built up from a misleading view of mental substance (which can take on structural properties and distinctives) that can be easily confuted from either modern philosophy or the Scriptural view of man’s soul (heart, mind).  If there is no substance inherent to mind, then the idea of a cognitional structure is nothing more than a “way of seeing” things; it certainly cannot be made the basis for a far-reaching metaphysical theory!  Moreover, in what sense are we to think of a cognitional process as isomorphic to the metaphysical structure?  Why should we assume that it is so?  Would a variety of cognitional structures commit Lonergan to a variety of metaphysical situations? 

Finally, because Lonergan reverts to a dialectical scheme to handle all disagreements of philosophical outlook at the metaphysical level, he apparently has precluded the possibility of antinomies inherent in man’s knowledge as he tries to probe to the ultimate metaphysical truths of the world.  However, he could only make a successful go of his dialectical method, then, if he were to demonstrate the complete intelligibility of reality; if he does not present cogent reasons for assuming this complete intelligibility, then his theistic p roof also falls by the way as something less than an argument along with the credibility of his dialectical method.

Finally we must call into question the overall possibility and validity of Lonergan’s argumen-tative logic.  He claims to be autonomous in his discussion of epistemology, and he claims that his epistemology entails and drives him on to his views of metaphysics and theology.  However, it is quite apparent that one cannot draw this mislead-ing line between epistemology and metaphysics; the epistemological and methodological stance assumed by a philosopher is assumed for some reason and in order to best arrive at true conclusions about the states of affairs, and these reasons as well as the ability to compare the success of competing positions for engendering true conclusions depend upon a modicum of metaphysical understanding of the world already. Therefore, one’s metaphysics informs his epistem-ology as much as his epistemology informs his metaphysics.  

The idea of a completely neutral method or epistemology is a completely egoistic fiction of rationalism.  An autonomous epistemology is not able to theoretically ground the laws of logic which it employs or the canons of uniformity upon which it depends; an autonomous epistemology cannot intelligently explain the successful interaction of synthetic facts and analytic laws in man’s thinking. Thus an autonomous epistemology amounts to either sheer arbitrariness (and therefore should not command our serious attention) or to the denial of a theoretically justified doctrine of knowledge (in which case the position is self-vitiating and should be rejected on the most elementary level of consideration).  In accepting the logic of natural theology, Lonergan implicitly undermined his whole study of epistemology and metaphysics; in his attempt to explain the groundings of epistemology on an autonomous basis he precluded the success of his endeavor.  And because he founds his metaphysic and theology in his epistemology, those two outlooks must be rejected with the same stringency that demands the rejection of his problem-laden theory of knowledge.

Before closing our consideration of Lonergan we can briefly sketch some specific difficulties in his metaphysic and theology.  In common with all unscriptural thinking, Lonergan is pulled apart by the opposite poles of rationalism and irrationalism: for instance, he tries to combine the determinism of classical laws with the indeterminism of statistical method, he hold to the rationalistic doctrine that man must drive toward the limit of omniscience while simultaneously believing the irrationalist tenet that it is impossible to know all things due to the inevitability of mystery and distortions.  In his metaphysics Lonergan dubiously stretches the potency-form-act motif which was helpful in analyzing common sense to apply it to the thing itself (a semi-Kantian thing-in-itself which is outside ordinary human experience and the reach of normal science); it is questionable whether the fact that cognitional theory influences metaphysics logically justifies inferences from the “structure of cognitional processes” to the constitution of ontological structures.  

And yet such argumentation dominates the viewpoint of Lonergan’s Insight.  Lonergan’s infer-ence would be valid if and only if he could show that no other cosmology or metaphysic can account for the structures of the cognitional pro-cess, and such a universal negative argument simply cannot be adduced (especially on Loner-gan’s autonomous platform).  Consequently, the argument of his book must be seen as faulted.  Lonergan could only see methods and cognitional processes as the foundation for inference to cosmology and metaphysics (rather than specific instances of them) if he were a Kantian (i.e., holding that the knowing subject imparts the very structures to knowledge, experience and nature); yet Lonergan is the diametric opposite of a Kantian since, instead of limiting his conjectures to human experience, he goes after the things in themselves, even applying the structure of the cognitional process to God!  In the case of Lonergan we find a most radical subjectivism, a case wherein epistemology, cosmology, and theology all collapse into a psychologism of the knower as subject. 

It is clear that Lonergan has abandoned any truly transcendent starting point which would ground philosophic thinking in the word revelation of a transcendent God; Lonergan’s position is com-pletely immanentistic (despite his intentions!).  By means of his analogy of Being Lonergan forces the knowing subject to become God projected, and this in order to prove the existence of this God who is man’s image!  Professor Lonergan’s investigations and study were never truly independent of theological commitment as he had claimed; all along he was working on a scheme which of necessity worships the creature rather than the Creator—a most definite, and erroneous, theological commitment.  There would, advancing to other difficulties, seem to be a few contradictions in Lonergan’s view of being which need resolution: he says being is the knowable, yet a state of affairs (cf. pp. 348, 358); he says being is univocal, yet analogical (cf. pp. 361f.); he maintains that being is, and is not, a genus (p. 367).  

Lonergan’s thinking becomes completely obscure when he holds that the core of meaning is the intention of being (p. 359); what sense is to be made of that?  Turning finally to Lonergan’ s own theology we observe that, along with all the past scholastics, he thinks that he knows that God is but not what God is (cf. p. 634).  When Lonergan identifies Being with God he begs the crucial question of his study; why, after all, should one just assume a Thomistic notion of God?  In a strange form of argumentation Lonergan thinks that the problem of evil (a problem which he had not taken very seriously in his first seventeen chapters we would note) pushes us to affirm God’s existence (in the egoistic sense that we need a grounding for explanation and rationality); how-ever, the problem of evil is usually taken to dictate against God’s existence, and it is not clear why Lonergan’s autonomous theology does not suitably collapse under, that problematic.  Lastly we would indicate that Lonergan, just as his Thomistic predecessors, constructs a proof of God as an unrestricted act of understanding and thereby makes Him as isolated and irrelevant to the world as Aristotle’s unmoved mover and entails that He has the same difficulty in contacting the created world as the God of Aquinas did.




Despite all its encumbering fallacies, arbitrari-ness, and philosophic difficulties, the writings of Bernard Lonergan are not devoid of formally helpful insights.  If his credible points were to be taken and placed upon a presuppositional and Scriptural foundation there might be a prospect for Christian epistemology being advanced in some areas.  Two areas where Lonergan comes close to offering significant aid to the Christian apologist are: his position that one’s method determines the content of his conclusions (cf. pp. 104f.) and his more or less transcendental proof of God’s existence (cf. p. 672).  In both of these cases the important insights would have to be taken out of the problematic and immanentistic context of Lonergan’s Thomistic thought and replanted in a Biblical world-view.  

Lonergan might also be the formal jumping off point for genuinely Christian philosophers to explore the significance of that process of coming to understand which is designated “insight.”  This notion should profitably be used for comparison and contrast with the noetic operations of the Holy Spirit in inspiration, inward testimony and illumination of the believer, and common grace operations whereby even the unbeliever is enabled to come to some fundamental understanding of his world.  If the notion were purged of its mystical connotations and qualified with ethical consider-ations, insight might be a valuable didactic cate-gory for Christian philosophy.  But again, if it were to become so it would have to be reworked within the presuppositional viewpoint of Scriptural thinking.

As noted in the introduction to this paper Bernard Lonergan’s philosophy is an anomaly if one is not expecting anything of serious philosophical import from the Roman Church today.  The preceding exposition hopefully demonstrated that. However, the subsequent appraisal and rehabilita-tion suggestion should have also made manifest that in the long run Lonergan has really not presented anything new to us; what we have in his case is simply a redressed form of medieval Thomism.  As the Reformation vigorously opposed such a position, so also reformed thinkers today must challenge this persistent heresy so that we do not become like unto it and so that its proponents will not be wise in their own conceits (Proverbs 26:4-5).


Greg L. Bahnsen page