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Essays by Me

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Process, Insight, and Empirical Method 

An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan and Its Implications for Foundational Theology.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School, The University of Chicago, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 1983

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

Chapter I:

Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Empirical Scientific Method and Philosophic Method [continued] 


Lonergan’s Interpretation of Scientific and Philosophic Method


Philosophic Method 

Whitehead’s analysis of scientific method and its fundamental assumptions grew out of a long career in the philosophy of science and a consistent concern to ground science by illustrating the reasonableness of its method and its assumptions.  Bernard Lonergan’s analysis of empirical scientific method grew out of a quite different context.  In the course of his lengthy study of philosophy, Lonergan became interested in Aquinas’ views on understanding and, as a result of his research, concluded that for Aquinas the key to cognitional theory was to be found in acts of understanding, not in concepts. 

Lonergan’s studies of Aquinas on this topic were published in a series of five articles entitled “The Concept of Verbum in the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Theological Studies 7 (1946): 349-392; 8 (1947): 35-79; 404-444; 10 (1949): 3-40; 359-393.  These were subsequently reprinted as Bernard J. Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, ed. David B. Burrell (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967).

Immediately after this extended study of Aquinas, Lonergan began work on ,his major inquiry into human understanding, Insight.  

Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957; revised edition, 1958).  Hereafter cited as Insight.

According to his own testimony, the analysis of human understanding contained in Insight was intended to serve as a groundwork or foundation for a study of method in theology.

See “An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.,” in Bernard J. F. Lonergan, A Second Collection, ed. William F. J. Ryan and Bernard J. Tyrrell (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), p. 213; and “Insight Revisited,” ibid., p. 268.  The latter article contains an autobiographical account of Lonergan’s studies in philosophy and theology which led to the writing of Insight; see ibid., pp. 263-268.  This collection of articles will hereafter be cited as Second CollectionInsight was the groundwork for Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972; 2nd [corrected] edition 1973). Hereafter cited as Method.

Thus it was not an immediate interest in science itself which provoked Lonergan’s analysis of empirical scientific method, but rather a desire to arrive at a formulation of theological method for the modern period by means of a study of the structure and dynamic of human understanding in general.

Lonergan himself, in the Introduction to Insight, has explained why he undertook a lengthy analysis of empirical scientific method, and he offers three reasons.  First, Lonergan states, if his account of the levels of consciousness is to be intelligible, the different kinds of activity that constitute the successive levels of consciousness must be clearly stated.  For this task he chose to work with illustrations from the mathematical and empirical sciences because they offer the clearest, most precise, and most successful examples of the use of insight and its structural pattern to govern the method of inquiry.  [Insight, p. xx.]

A second reason for dealing with mathematics and mathematical physics so extensively is to be found in “the significance of the transition from the old mechanism to relativity and from the old determinism to statistical laws.” [Ibid., p. xxi.] This involves a complex of three related issues.  First, Lonergan notes that the experiment which is modern science began in Galileo with “the blending of scientific principles and philosophic assumptions,” but has ended in our day “with their sharp segregation.” [Ibid.] Hence today we are faced with a “duality” in our knowledge, an apparent dichotomy between the highly precise and successful empirical sciences on the one hand, and the suspect mode of philosophic thought on the other.  Yet the developments in physics in the twentieth century offer hope for a resolution of this “duality,” and Lonergan is convinced that an analysis of the structure and dynamic of human knowing will yield a philosophy capable of unifying and organizing all departments of knowledge, resulting in a metaphysics that unifies and organizes all that is known.  

See Ibid., p. xi, xxviii-xxix, for introductory statements of this conviction.  I will address this issue in some detail below.

In other words, he is convinced that by a careful examination and analysis of the nature of our knowing, we can arrive at an understanding of knowing that will dissolve the apparent duality in our knowledge.  It will accomplish this by demonstrating the unity of “scientific principles” and “philosophic assumption,” even while recognizing and respecting the proper reason for their “sharp segregation” in our time (namely, the legitimate autonomy of the empirical sciences).

Involved in the demonstration of the unity of “scientific principles” and “philosophic assumptions” are two specific characteristics of the transition from the “old” to the “new” physics.  The transition from mechanism to relativity marks the abandonment of naive realism and the adoption of critical realism as the dominant scientific interpretation of reality.  In modern physics, the real is not the “already out there now,” and objectivity does not consist in “taking a good look” at the “already-out-there-now-real.”

For the technical meaning of the phrase “already out there now real” see ibid., p. 251.  Perhaps the best summary of this is to be found in Lonergan’s treatment of empiricism, ibid., pp. 411-416.  For a fuller treatment consult the Index, ibid., entries “Real: ‘Already out there now’”; “Knowing-Objectivity-Reality-Truth”; “Knowing and looking”; “Objectivity: Extroversion as model of”; “Objectivity and imaginable.”

It ought to be noted that there is a correlation between Lonergan’s epistemological critique of naïve realism and Whitehead’s critique of the classical notion of “simple location” and his attack on the “sensationalist” basis of positivistic epistemology.  I will return ‘to this correlation later in my study.

The real in modern physics is not the sensible, not the imaginable, but the intelligible, that which is to be verified in the data; and objectivity consists not in “taking a good look at the already-out-there-now-real,” but in faithfully submitting oneself to the discipline of empirical method in the conduct of scientific inquiry.  Lonergan will attempt to demonstrate that this modern understanding of the real and of objectivity springs from the very structure and dynamic of knowing and is an illustration of the basic unity of scientific principles and philosophic assumptions.  One other characteristic of the transition from the “old” to the “new” physics is also of great importance in Lonergan’s view, the transition “from the old determinism to statistical laws.”  This marks an abandonment of dogmatic certitude and, instead, a dependence on probable judgments as the basis of scientific knowledge.  Our knowing in science, in common sense, and in philosophy alike, Lonergan will argue, rests on the making of probable judgments, not on any intuitive and certain grasp of the true and the real.  The process of our knowing does not lead us to absolute certitudes grasped once and for all, but by making probable judgments we guide ourselves along an asymptotic approach to the truth.  For all these reasons, the evidence about human knowing contained in the transition to modern physics must be considered.

But there is yet a third reason for making an extensive analysis of empirical scientific method.  Lonergan’s purpose is to come to an understanding of all human understanding, and by means of this to arrive at “a basic understanding of all that can be understood.” [Ibid., p. xxviii.] As he states his programme: “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 will you possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.” [Ibid. The entire sentence is italicized in Lonergan’s text.]  Analysis of empirical scientific method, then, will well serve Lonergan’s purpose.

For such thought is methodical and the scientist pins his faith, not on this or that scientific system or conclusion, but on the validity of scientific method itself.  But what ultimately is the nature and ground of method but a reflective grasp and specialized application of the object of our inquiry, namely, of the dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in human cognitional activity?  It follows that empirical science as methodical not merely offers a clue for the discovery but also exhibits concrete instances for the examination of the larger, multiform dynamism that we are seeking to explore. [Ibid., p. xxi-xxii.]

Lonergan is interested not in the particular content of scientific theories or conclusions, but in the structural and dynamic features of empirical method which are illustrations of the structure and dynamism of human understanding at work.

Thus for three reasons, Lonergan begins his study of human understanding with an extensive analysis of empirical scientific method: for clarity and precision in stating the kinds of activity that constitute the successive levels of consciousness; because the transition to modern physics contains a good deal of evidence about the nature of human knowing; and because the faith of the scientist is based on the validity of the method the scientist uses to pursue understanding, and that method is a specialized application of the same dynamic structure that underlies and guides all human knowing.  


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