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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] 


A Comparison of Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Scientific and Philosophic Method


Having seen Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations of empirical scientific method in some detail, and having seen the main outlines of how science and scientific method are related to philosophy and philosophic method in their understandings, there remains the task of comparing these interpretations.  The similarity between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations of empirical scientific method is so manifest that in the first section I will simply review that similarity in a brief treatment.  In the second section I will discuss their interpretations of the relation between empirical scientific method and philosophic method, and the relation between philosophy and the sciences.  This will lead to an awareness of the similarities between Whitehead and Lonergan that might prove to be grounds for my thesis that there is some degree of compatibility between their philosophies.  It will also lead to an awareness of the differences between them that my thesis must confront.


The Method of Empirical Science

Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s descriptions of empirical scientific method are essentially identical. Whitehead describes that method as consisting of three major stages, connected into a continuum by two “movements” or activities of the mind:


        I.    Observation; description; “insight;” induction;

      II.    Hypothesis formation (Imaginative Generalization); “foresight;” deduction; prediction; forecast;

    III.    Testing; experimentation; renewed observation; verification.


Lonergan describes empirical scientific method as consisting of four major moments linked in a dynamic structure:


        I.    Observation; description; questions and problems;

      II.    Insight; urge for expression of insight;

    III.    Hypothesis formulation; deduction; prediction; forecast;

     IV.    Testing; experimentation; renewed observation; verification.

But Lonergan later assigns moments II and III to the same level of human consciousness, so that his generalized schematization ends up having three stages that correspond exactly with Whitehead’s. The reason Lonergan initially assigns insight to a moment of its own in his description of empirical scientific method is because of the centrality insight has for Lonergan’s whole analysis.  It is, in short, worthy of distinction because it serves as the initial clue for Lonergan’s analysis of the whole cognitional process.  Structurally, then, with regard to the dynamic of the entire process, Whitehead and Lonergan offer identical interpretations of empirical scientific method.  I will now review the various elements of the method individually and compare their interpretations.

First of all, Whitehead and Lonergan agree that experience provides the data for the first moment of observation.  Both are also in basic agreement concerning the necessity and the role of observation and description. [Compare ibid., pp. 11-12, 18-19, 57-58.] One difference in their accounts is that Whitehead stresses and analyzes the influence of hypothesis or theory on observation, while Lonergan does not devote much attention to this point; yet it must be noted that Lonergan does allude to this in passing. [Compare ibid., pp. 20-21, 86.]

Concerning the activities or operations connecting the first stage to that of hypothesis formation, Lonergan analyzes the cognitional act of insight and its elements much more closely and precisely than does Whitehead.  But Whitehead does speak of this activity and, as we saw, even the term “insight” can be applied to it in Whitehead’s description. [Compare ibid., pp. 15-16, 25-26, 63-68.]

Both Whitehead and Lonergan agree that the next major moment in empirical scientific method is the formulation in an hypothesis of the understanding grasped in insight.  Also, they agree that such a formulation is intended by the inquirer to be explanatory. [Compare ibid., pp. 1 18-19, 23-26, 58-59.]

The cognitional activities which follow upon the stage of hypothesis formation are deducing the implications of the hypothesis, forecasting or predicting what will take place under controlled conditions if the hypothetical understanding is correct, and the devising of experiments with which to test the hypothesis.  Both Whitehead and Lonergan discuss all these activities, but Lonergan’s account of the cognitional operations that occur in this transition to testing and of the relation of these operations is a far more detailed and precise study. [Compare ibid., pp. 15-16, 21-23, 60-61, 81, 84-92.]

Finally, both Whitehead and Lonergan describe the final stage or moment of empirical scientific method as testing and experimentation.  Both note that this involves renewed observation, and that verification (or falsification) consists in a judgment on the hypothetical understanding once that understanding has been confronted with the facts of experience.  Again, however, Lonergan’s analysis of the cognitional operation of judgment is far more detailed and precise than is Whitehead’s. [Compare ibid., pp. 15-16, 23-26, 84-92.]

It is significant that both Whitehead and Lonergan locate understanding and knowing at precisely the same stages of empirical method.  Understanding is initially achieved in insight, but formulated publicly in hypothesis; and knowing takes place in and following upon the judgment once the hypothesis has been confronted with the facts in renewed observation. Both regard this commitment to testing as essential to empirical scientific method.  Both stress that scientific knowledge is not certain, but limited and only probable, always remaining open to future revision by the same method that produces it.  Both also note that scientific knowledge is cumulative and progressive.

Finally, it is significant that neither Whitehead nor Lonergan is trying to draw up a model of empirical method designed to fit the requirements of some previously conceived philosophical scheme.  Rather, they both follow the method they are describing. They arrive at their accounts of empirical scientific method by studying examples of its application, and they intend their accounts to be descriptive of the actual practice or performance of scientists with regard to the general procedures scientists follow, the general method by which they operate.

Thus Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations of empirical scientific method are virtually identical. They are also complementary.  Lonergan’s interpretation offers a very precise, careful, and detailed account of the various cognitional operations and their structured relationship that complements and fills out Whitehead’s account of these activities.  On the other hand, in the one instance of the influence of hypothesis on observation in scientific inquiry, Whitehead’s account complements and fills out Lonergan’s account.

However, when we turn to their interpretations of the relation of empirical scientific method to philosophy and philosophic method, things are not so simple.


The Method of Empirical Science and Philosophy

The first obvious similarity between Whitehead and Lonergan when we consider their interpretations of the relation of scientific method to philosophy is that in both thinkers the structure of philosophic method is essentially the same as that of empirical scientific method.  In fact both Whitehead and Lonergan understand themselves to be operating philosophically with a generalized empirical method. That is, the method each proposes for philosophy has the same essential features and structure as empirical scientific method but without its specializations.  It differs from scientific method in being more general.  Also, for both Whitehead and Lonergan one of the major differences between empirical scientific method and philosophic method is that these methods are applied to different data.

There is a difference between Whitehead and Lonergan on the nature of the data to which philosophic method is applied, a difference I shall discuss below.  But both are agreed that philosophic method is not applied to the data that the empirical sciences investigate (at least not initially, in Whitehead’s case). 

But the initial observation I wish to make is that in the philosophies of both Whitehead and Lonergan the structure of philosophical method is essentially the same as the general structure of empirical scientific method.  Further, one can say that both interpret empirical scientific method to be a specialized application of the basic method of philosophy.

Now as soon as one has said this, a host of qualifications and distinctions clamor for attention. For instance, it does not appear that Whitehead and Lonergan mean at all the same thing by “philosophy.”  From Lonergan’s point of view Whitehead might be accused of leaping immediately to metaphysics without first working out the necessary cognitional theory and epistemology to ground his metaphysics.  Whitehead might be accused as well of attending to the wrong data: the ideas and concepts of the sciences and other disciplines instead of the data of cognitional process. On the other hand, from Whitehead’s point of view Lonergan might be accused of overlooking the fact that every scientific statement has metaphysical implications and that the first requirement of philosophy is an ontology.  Lonergan might further be accused of centering his attention on a highly specialized sort of experience (the higher levels of human consciousness), whereas if we hope to understand reality the proper focus of philosophy ought to be on eliciting the general characteristics present in all experience.

See, for example, the following statement by Whitehead: “. . . we know of events whose connection with any mental process, as we it, appears to be doubtful, incomplete, and extremely unessential to them.

“That is my reason for being very shy of leaning too heavily on mind in any endeavor to express the general character of reality. . . . I am haunted by the seeming indifference of nature to mind . . .” (“The Idealistic Implications of Einstein’s Theory,” IS, pp. 145-146, 148.)  But note that such statements are criticisms of idealism, and do not really affect Lonergan’s critical realism.

Yet lest these apparently major philosophical differences between Whitehead and Lonergan blind us to the similarities that do exist in their analyses, I will suspend discussion of the differences until I have noted the similarities between their interpretations. Thus for the moment, in spite of the troubling qualifications at hand, I want to emphasize that the structure of the philosophic method employed by Whitehead and Lonergan is essentially the same, and that it is essentially the same as the general structure of empirical scientific method.  This fact suggests the possibility that there may be some degree of compatibility between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s philosophies.  The possibility may have been overlooked because attention has been focused on the apparent differences between them rather than on their similarities.

If we ignore the differences for a moment, there are other similarities between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s philosophies that begin to surface.  For example, it is significant that both Lonergan and Whitehead understand the general or essential structure of empirical scientific method to be the underlying general structure of all human cognitional knowing, not just the scientific and philosophic forms. Lonergan establishes this in his analysis of “common sense” and Whitehead implicitly accepts this in his discussion of poets.  How is it that poets give “evidence” for metaphysical analysis?  It can only be because their “intuitions” are observations of and insights into aspects of experience ignored or inadequately expressed by scientific explanations, which cause the poet (and the metaphysician) to judge those explanations incomplete.  Thus one can say that for both Whitehead and Lonergan the general and essential structure of empirical method underlies and guides all human cognitional knowing.

Next, it is significant that both Whitehead and Lonergan argue for a philosophical position we can name “critical realism.”  There is a correlation between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s critiques of the philosophical tradition.  Whitehead criticizes the “sensationalist” basis of modern epistemology and separates his position from both Newton and Kant on the basis of his analysis of abstraction and the notion of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  Lonergan is critical of naive realism and separates his position from both Newton and Kant on the basis of his analysis of knowing, the real, objectivity, and the notion of “thing” versus “body.”  For both Whitehead and Lonergan the real is what is to be known by verification in the data of experience (mediated by the operation of judgment).  There are, to be sure, differences in their interpretations, but there is at least this much similarity between them.

Another similarity between them is that both understand metaphysics to operate on data supplied by the empirical sciences (as well as other sources), and both agree that metaphysics cannot generate this data for itself.  Thus both agree on the fundamental and necessary autonomy of the sciences.  Further, in both Whitehead and Lonergan the appropriation of the data provided by the sciences is critical appropriation.  In both thinkers this critical appropriation is guided by the basic scheme of interpretation developed by philosophy, and it establishes both the applications and limitations of the heuristic structures or generalizations of the sciences.

Also, both Whitehead and Lonergan insist that if philosophy is to pursue and accomplish its task, latent metaphysics must be made explicit.  Again, there is a difference on the exact meaning of this statement for the two thinkers, but if we suspend consideration of those differences for a moment, it is possible to grasp a functional similarity between their conceptions of the role and task of metaphysics.

With regard to the empirical sciences, both Whitehead and Lonergan affirm that by its critical appropriation of the data of the empirical sciences, metaphysics brings the sciences coherence, unifies them with each other, and integrates them with other disciplines and with what is learned from human life as lived.  Again, there appears to be a difference between the specific meanings of this statement for Whitehead and Lonergan, but there is at least a functional similarity in their thought on this issue.

Finally, both Lonergan and Whitehead assert that a properly constructed metaphysics both grounds the sciences and completes them by producing a general understanding of the world.  The sciences are ungrounded and incomplete so long as metaphysics has not accomplished its task.

By now, however, the reader will no doubt object that most of the similarities I have pointed to are nothing more than abstract similarities of metaphysical function.  For example, while both Whitehead and Lonergan argue that metaphysics grounds the sciences and completes them, what this means in each of their philosophies appears to be quite different.  For Lonergan, the grounding of the sciences occurs because metaphysics is able to root the methods of the sciences in the dynamic structure of human knowing that impels and guides scientific inquiry.  

In one place Lonergan states that the “real presuppositions” of science “are not a set of propositions but the dynamic structure of the human mind . . .” Insight, p. 508.

The completion of the sciences occurs because metaphysics is also able to work out the general characteristics (or the integral heuristic structure) of proportionate being.  For Whitehead, on the other hand, the grounding of the sciences occurs because metaphysics is able to exhibit the reasonableness of the fundamental assumptions of scientific method, and it does this precisely by developing a cosmological scheme of interpretation that makes explicit the presuppositions about the cosmos inherent in scientific thought.  However, I hope to be able to show in Chapter III, where such argumentation properly belongs, that this difference between Whitehead and Lonergan is not as great as it initially seems.  There is, I will argue, a fundamental similarity between these two positions. In rooting scientific method in the dynamic structure of human knowing, Lonergan is explaining how the empirical sciences can explain.  But this is exactly what Whitehead is also doing in exhibiting the reasonableness of the notions of order, causality, and induction (and induction, after all, is just a shorthand word for the first two stages of scientific method). [Compare Thesis, pp. 31-44, 103-110.] And so I will attempt to show that there are grounds for arguing a fundamental compatibility between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s understandings of metaphysics, a compatibility that goes beyond a mere abstract similarity of function.

Having pointed out some similarities, however, I must now consider the real differences that do exist between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations. The major difference between them, the difference that seems to dominate and be the source of all others, is that Lonergan consistently focuses his inquiry on the knowing process and the subject who is inquiring, while Whitehead—assuming the unity of the inquiring subject with the world of experience in which that subject is enmeshed—focuses his analysis on the object of the knowing process.  Though Lonergan is careful to distinguish his position from Kant’s by pointing out the real differences between their approaches, the Kantian influence on Lonergan is nonetheless evident, whereas Whitehead characterizes his analysis as “a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought.”

PR, Preface (M, p. vi; C, p.xi).  Whitehead, of course, feels justified in his “recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought” because he is able to exhibit (to his satisfaction) the deficiencies of Hume’s account of experience, and Kant’s philosophy in a sense begins with a radical acceptance of Hume’s account.  For Lonergan’s careful distinction of his positions from those of Kant, see Insight, pp. 339-342.

This basic difference in focus accounts for almost all the differences between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s analyses of particular topics.  One major example of this is their very different analyses of the problem of induction.  I did not discuss Lonergan’s solution to the problem of induction above, but can do so here very briefly.  In the course of his discussion of reflective understanding, Lonergan discusses the form of arguments from analogy and generalization, and states that at work in both cases “is the law, immanent and operative in cognitional process, that similars are similarly understood. Unless there is a significant difference in the data, there cannot be a difference in understanding the data.”  He goes on to note that this point has already been established in his analysis of the heuristic procedure of classical empirical method, and that it applies as well for statistical method. He then says,

In the simplest possible manner, then, our analysis resolves the so-called problem of induction.  It makes the transition from one particular case to another or from a particular case to the general case an almost automatic procedure of intelligence.  We appeal to analogies and we generalize because we cannot help understanding similars similarly. This solution, be it noted, squares with the broad fact that there is no problem of teaching men to generalize.  There is a problem of teaching them to frame their generalizations accurately; . . . There is, above all, a problem of preventing men from generalizing on insufficient grounds . . . [Insight, p. 288.]

Thus Lonergan’s solution to the problem of induction is to appeal to the structure of the knowing process and its “immanent and operative law” of understanding similars similarly.  On the other hand, Whitehead’s approach to the problem of induction is from the side of the object of knowing.  As we saw, he argues that if induction is to be shown to be a reasonable presupposition of science, what is needed is an ontological analysis that can discover in the immediate occasion grounds for knowledge of past and future.  That is, the metaphysical analysis must be able to exhibit the essential connectivity of the occasion, its relations to both past and future. [See Thesis, pp. 31-35.] Thus in order to resolve the problem of induction Whitehead proposes a metaphysical analysis of the object of human knowing.  These two approaches to the problem could hardly seem more different.

Another example of this difference of focus accounting for their diverse treatments of particular topics can be found in their discussions of abstraction.  Since Whitehead’s focus is on the object of knowing, he stresses the fullness of the concrete data of experience.  The major point he makes is that abstraction operates by attending to only a few aspects of the data while ignoring numerous other aspects.  He clearly states that abstraction is necessary for conscious experience and thought, and that progress in understanding is made by dealing with the data of experience in this way.  He insists, however, that abstraction always deals with only some aspects of the data, and that reality is far more than we can capture in our abstractions.  There is a strong sense in Whitehead’s writing that while abstractions are necessary and the only tools with which we can work, abstractions are impoverished in comparison to the experience of reality. [See ibid., pp. 35-42.] Lonergan, on the other hand, because his focus is on the process of knowing, speaks of abstractions as fundamentally enriching.

So far from being a mere impoverishment of the data of sense, abstraction in all its essential moments is enriching.  Its first moment is an enriching anticipation of an intelligibility to be added to sensible presentations; there is something to be known by insight.  Its second moment is the erection of heuristic structures and the attainment of insight to reveal in the data what is variously named as the significant the relevant, the important, the essential, the idea, the form. [Insight, p. 88; see also p. 89.]

Because one’s goal is understanding and at the initial moment of inquiry all one has is sense data, abstraction can be interpreted as an enrichment since it gives one something to be understood, erects ways of going about reaching an understanding, and stimulates the occurrence of insights.  One began with only sense data, and now one has understanding.  There is throughout Lonergan’s writing a strong sense of the thrill of understanding, the enrichment it brings to the inquiring subject.  This difference between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s accounts of abstraction reflects their difference of focus.

One could go on listing such differences of treatment on special topics, but the point seems fairly clear.  There is, however, another major difference between Whitehead and Lonergan which does not appear to be the result of a difference in focus alone, and I must call attention to it here. Whitehead makes no claim for permanence for his metaphysical system.  In fact he expects it to be revised in the future as knowledge, even though ever partial and limited, draws asymptotically nearer the truth.  Lonergan, on the other hand, because his focus is on the dynamic structure of knowing rather than any particular content of knowing, asserts that the basic structure not only of his cognitional theory and epistemology but also of his metaphysics cannot be revised.  The terms he uses and the way in which he describes the structure might be improved upon, but any improvement would have to use the same basic structure his analysis has discovered, and so that structure itself cannot be revised.  This difference between Whitehead and Lonergan over the issue of permanence in metaphysical interpretation is a problem I will have to confront in Chapter III of my study.

Thus far in the discussions and employment of the philosophies of these two seminal thinkers, the differences between them have for the most part dominated.   Most theologians employing the thought of one or the other seem to regard these differences as irreconcilable.  Lonergan himself apparently perceives the difference between his philosophy and Whitehead’s to be irreconcilable.

In discussing how transcendental method leads to metaphysics, Lonergan says that this would be “a metaphysics where, however, the metaphysics is transcendental, an integration of heuristic structures, and not some categorial speculation that reveals that all is water, or matter, or spirit, or process, or what have you.” Method, p. 25.  If this statement is intended to refer to Whitehead’s “process” metaphysics, then I hope to show that this remark is an example of how even the most acute of inquirers can occasionally fail to understand.

Yet in this section I have found that there are a number of similarities between Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s interpretations of empirical scientific method and of philosophic method.  It is my suspicion that at least some of these similarities are not insignificant.  Using these as clues, and entering more fully into Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s philosophic discussions, I hope to show in Chapter III that there are grounds for establishing that their philosophies are at least in some respects compatible.


Forward to

Chapter II: The Tenability of Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Empirical Scientific Method: Karl Popper on Scientific Method and Knowledge

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