Philosophy against Misosophy



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Review of Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956 [sic: 1957]. From Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jun., 1958), pp. 548-549.

Posted October 9, 2013


Quentin Lauer, S.J.

Seldom has a great book been recognized as such by its immediate contemporaries.  The present reviewer, then, may be excused for admitting that he doesn’t know whether or not the present volume is a great book.  Its theme is unquestionably great: not merely an inquiry into the nature of human understanding but an inquiry into the nature of human inquiry.  What is the nature of the process and of the act in which human beings understand? The act, the author tells us, is that of insight, an act which gives structure to the process of inquiry, terminating it, so to speak, only to initiate further inquiry.

The fascination of the book, however, is not so much in its theory of insight as in its attempt to illustrate it on every level of human knowing.  At the same time this is one of the book’s great weaknesses; it can scarcely fail to induce intellectual indigestion.  The author is a polymath and seems unwilling to leave out of consideration anything he knows, even when bringing it in means being so cryptic that only his peers (if there be such) will be able to follow him through close to eight hundred pages.  The details are intelligible enough—if one is willing to meditate on every sentence—but the total effect is overwhelming.  The thought is not necessarily new, but the synthesis is, and the freshness of the terminology may well engender a new respect for old theories.  But here again there arises a difficulty: under the guise of concreteness the whole is really distressingly abstract.  It is certainly not a book to be read for relaxation; it is either to be studied carefully or not read at all.

The theme of the inquiry is aptly expressed in the author’s own words: “An otherwise coincidental manifold of data or images is integrated in insights; the effort to formulate systematically what is grasped in insight or, alternatively, the effort to act upon it gives rise to further questions, directs attention to further data, leads to the emergence of further insights, and so the cycle of development begins another turn.  For if one gives free rein to the detached and disinterested desire to know, further questions keep arising.  Insights accumulate into viewpoints, and lower viewpoints yield to higher viewpoints” (p. 458).  The whole, then, becomes systematic, when the matter of asking further questions is imposed by the very structure of human intelligence.  The desire to know may begin in common sense, but, says the author, it is untrue to itself if it does not carry through the various sciences, through metaphysics, and ultimately to the urge for transcendence, which reaches out for God.  The process, however, is not unidirectional, since the very orientation toward ultimates demands a return to the proximate for further clarification: “Just as the scientist has to raise ultimate questions and seek the answers from a metaphysics, so the metaphysician has to raise proximate questions and seek their answers from scientists” (p. 509).  The author is to be congratulated for having sought a synthesis of science and metaphysics in these terms—only a very close study of his book will reveal to what extent he has been successful.


Lonergan Page