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Bias, Liberation, and Cosmopolis

Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J.

8.1 The Longer Cycle 

This general bias of common sense combines with group bias to account for certain features of the distorted dialectic of community. 

As has been noted, at each turn of the wheel or insight, proposal, action, new situation, and fresh insight, the tendency of group bias is to exclude some fruitful ideas and to mutilate others by compromise. 

Now fruitful ideas are of several kinds.  They may lead to technical and material improvements, to adjustments of economic arrangements, or to modifications of political structure. 

As one might expect, technical and material improvements are less subject to the veto of dominant groups than are changes in economic and political institutions. 

Again, when we shift to the second phase of the distorted dialectic, the resonant demands of the unsuccessful are for material well-being; and when the clamour goes up for economic or political change, such change is apt to be viewed simply as a necessary means for attaining more palpably beneficial ends. 

Accordingly, there arises a distinction between the shorter cycle, due to group bias, and the longer cycle, originated by the general bias of common sense. 

The shorter cycle turns upon ideas that are neglected by dominant groups only to be championed later by depressed groups. 

The longer cycle is characterized by the neglect of ideas to which all groups are rendered indifferent by the general bias of common sense. 

Still, this account of the longer cycle is mainly negative; to grasp its nature and its implications, we must turn to fundamental notions. 

Generically, the course of human history is in accord with emergent probability; it is the cumulative realization of concretely possible schemes of recurrence in accord with successive schedules of probabilities. 

The specific difference of human history is that among the probable possibilities is a sequence of operative insights by which men grasp possible schemes of recurrence and take the initiative in bringing about the material and social conditions that make these schemes concretely possible, probable, and actual. 

In this fashion man becomes for man the executor of the emergent probability of human affairs.  Instead of being developed by his environment, man turns to transforming his environment in his own self-development. 

He remains under emergent probability, inasmuch as his insights and decisions remain probable realizations of concrete possibilities, and inasmuch as earlier insights and decisions determine later possibilities and probabilities of insight and decision. 

Still, this subjection to emergent probability differs from the subjection of electrons or of evolving species.  For, in the first place, insight is an anticipation of possible schemes, and decision brings about the concrete conditions of their functioning instead of merely waiting for such conditions to happen; moreover, the greater manís development, the greater his dominion over circumstances and so the greater his capacity to realize possible schemes by deciding to realize their conditions. 

But there is also a second and profounder difference.  For man can discover emergent probability; he can work out the manner in which prior insights and decisions determine the possibilities and probabilities of later insights and decisions; he can guide his present decisions in the light of their influence on future insights and decisions; finally, this control of the emergent probability of the future can be exercised not only by the individual in choosing his career and in forming his character, not only by adults in educating the younger generation, but also by mankind in its consciousness of its responsibility to the future of mankind. 

Just as technical, economic, and political development gives man a dominion over nature, so also the advance of knowledge creates and demands a human contribution to the control of human history. 

So far from granting common sense a hegemony in practical affairs, the foregoing analysis leads to the strange conclusion that common sense has to aim at being subordinated to a human science that is concerned, to adapt a phrase from Marx, not only with knowing history but also with directing it. 

For common sense, is unequal to the task of thinking on the level of history.  It stands above the scotosis of the dramatic subject, above the egoism of the individual, above the bias of dominant and of depressed but militant groups that realize only the ideas they see to be to their immediate advantage. 

But the general bias of common sense prevents it from being effective in realizing ideas, however appropriate and reasonable, that suppose a long view or that set up higher integrations or that involve the solutioní of intricate and disputed issues. 

The challenge of history is for man progressively to restrict the realm of chance or fate or destiny and progressively to enlarge the realm of conscious grasp and deliberate choice. 

Common sense accepts the challenge, but it does so only partially.  It needs to be guided but it is incompetent to choose its guide.  It becomes involved in incoherent enterprises.  It is subjected to disasters that no one expects, that remain unexplained even after their occurrence, that can be explained only on the level of scientific or philosophic thought, that even when explained can be prevented from recurring only by subordinating common sense to a higher specialization of human intelligence. 

This is not the whole story.  The general bias of common sense involves sins of refusal as well as of mere omission.  Its complacent practicality easily twists to the view that, as insistent desires and contracting fears necessitate and justify the realization of ideas, so ideas without that warrant are a matter of indifference. 

The long view, the higher integration, the disputed theoretical issue fall outside the realm of the practical; it mayor may not be too bad that they do; but there is no use worrying about the matter; nothing can be done about it; indeed, what could be done about it, probably would not be done. 

Now I am far from suggesting that such practical realism cannot adduce impressive arguments in its favour.  Like the characters in Damon Runyonís stories, politicians and statesmen are confined to doing what they can. 

None the less, if we are to understand the implications of the longer cycle, we must work out the consequences of such apparently hardheaded practicality and realism.

Next: Implications of the Longer Cycle

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