Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Bias, Liberation, and Cosmopolis

Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J.

8.2 Implications of the Longer Cycle 

Already we have explained the nature of the succession of higher viewpoints that characterize the development of mathematics and of empirical science. 

Now we must attend to the inverse phenomenon in which each successive viewpoint is less comprehensive than its predecessor.  In each stage of the historical process, the facts are the social situation produced by the practical intelligence of the previous situation. 

Again, in each stage, practical intelligence is engaged in grasping the concrete intelligibility and the immediate potentialities immanent in the facts. 

Finally, at each stage of the process, the general bias of common sense involves the disregard of timely and fruitful ideas; and this disregard not only excludes their implementation but also deprives subsequent stages both of the further ideas, to which they would give rise, and of the correction that they and their retinue would bring to the ideas that are implemented.  Such is the basic scheme, and it has three consequences. 

In the first place, the social situation deteriorates cumulatively.  For just as progress consists in a realization of some ideas that leads to the realization of others until a whole coherent set is concretely operative, so the repeated exclusion of timely and fruitful ideas involves a cumulative departure from coherence. 

The objective social situation possesses the intelligibility put into it by those that brought it about.  But what is put in, less and less is some part of a coherent whole that will ask for its completion, and more and more it is some arbitrary fragment that can be rounded off only by giving up the attempt to complete the other arbitrary fragments that have preceded or will follow it. 

In this fashion social functions and enterprises begin to conflict; some atrophy and others grow like tumours; the objective situation becomes penetrated with anomalies; it loses its power to suggest new ideas and, once they are implemented, to respond with still further and better suggestions. 

The dynamic of progress is replaced by sluggishness and then by stagnation.  In the limit, the only discernible intelligibility in the objective facts is an equilibrium of economic pressures and a balance of national powers. 

The second consequence is the mounting irrelevance of detached and disinterested intelligence.  Culture retreats into an ivory tower.  Religion becomes an inward affair of the heart.  Philosophy glitters like a gem with endless facets and no practical purpose. 

For man cannot serve two masters. 

If one is to be true to intellectual detachment and disinterestedness, to what can be intelligently grasped and reasonably affirmed, then one seems constrained to acknowledge that the busy world of practical affairs offers little scope to oneís vocation. 

Intelligence can easily link culture, religion, philosophy to the realm of concrete living only if the latter is intelligible.  But concrete living has become the function of a complex variable; like the real component of such a function, its intelligibility is only part of the whole. 

Already we have spoken of an empirical residue from which understanding always abstracts; but the general bias of common sense generates an increasingly significant residue that (1) is immanent in the social facts, (2) is not intelligible, yet (3) cannot be abstracted from if one is to consider the facts as in fact they are.  Let us name this residue the social surd. 

The third consequence is the surrender of detached and disinterested intelligence.  There is the minor surrender on the level of common sense.  It is an incomplete surrender, for common sense always finds a profoundly satisfying escape from the grim realities of daily living by turning to men of culture, to representatives of religion, to spokesmen for philosophy. 

Still the business of common sense is daily life. Its reality has to be faced.  The insights that accumulate have to be exactly in tune with the reality to be confronted and in some measure controlled.  The fragmentary and incoherent intelligibility of the objective situation sets the standard to which common-sense intelligence must conform. 

Nor is this conformity merely passive.  Intelligence is dynamic.  Just as the biased intelligence of the psychoneurotic sets up an ingenious, plausible, self-adapting resistance to the efforts of the analyst, so men of practical common sense become warped by the situation in which they live and regard as starry-eyed idealism and silly unpracticality any proposal that would lay the axe to the root of the social surd. 

Besides this minor surrender on the level of common sense, there is the major surrender on the speculative level. 

The function of human intelligence, it is claimed, is not to set up independent norms that make thought irrelevant to fact but to study the data as they are, to grasp the intelligibility that is immanent in them, to acknowledge as principle or norm only what can be reached by generalization from the data. 

There follow the need and the development of a new culture, a new religion, a new philosophy; and the new differs radically from the old.  The new is not apriorist, wishful thinking.  It is empirical, scientific, realistic.  It takes its stand on things as they are.  In brief, its many excellences cover its single defect. 

For its rejection of the normative significance of detached and disinterested intelligence makes it radically uncritical.  It possesses no standpoint from which it can distinguish between social achievement and the social surd.  It fails to grasp that an excellent method for the study of electrons is bound to prove naive and inept in the study of man. 

For the data on man are largely the product of manís own thinking; and the subordination of human science to the data on man is the subordination of human science to the biased intelligence of those that produce the data. 

From this critical incapacity, there follow the insecurity and the instability of the new culture, religion, philosophy.  Each new arrival has to keep bolstering its convictions by attacking and denouncing its predecessors. 

Nor is there any lack of new arrivals, for in the cumulative deterioration of the social situation there is a continuous expansion of the surd and so there is an increasing demand for further contractions of the claims of intelligence, for further dropping of old principles and norms, for closer conformity to an ever growing man-made incoherence immanent in man-made facts. 

It is in this major surrender of intellectual detachment that the succession of ever less comprehensive viewpoints comes to light. 

The development of our western civilization, from the schools founded by Charlemagne to the universities of today, has witnessed an extraordinary flowering of human intelligence in every department of its activity. 

But this course of human progress has not been along a smooth and mounting curve.  It has taken place through the oscillations of the shorter cycle in which social groups become factions, in which nations go to war, in which the hegemony passes from one centre to another to leave its former holders with proud memories and impotent dreams. 

No less does it exhibit the successive lower viewpoints of the longer cycle.  The medieval synthesis through the conflict of Church and State shattered into the several religions of the reformation. 

The wars of religion provided the evidence that man has to live not by revelation but by reason.  The disagreement of reasonís representatives made it clear that, while each must follow the dictates of reason as he sees them, he also must practise the virtue of tolerance to the equally reasonable views and actions of others. 

The helplessness of tolerance to provide coherent solutions to social problems called forth the totalitarian who takes the narrow and complacent practicality of common sense and elevates it to the role of a complete and exclusive viewpoint. 

On the totalitarian view, every type of intellectual independence whether personal, cultural, scientific, philosophic, or religious, has no better basis than non-conscious myth.  The time has come for the conscious myth that will secure manís total subordination to the requirements of reality.  Reality is the economic development, the military equipment, and the political dominance of the all-inclusive State.  Its ends justify all means.  Its means include not merely every technique of indoctrination and propaganda, every tactic of economic and diplomatic pressure, every device for breaking down the moral conscience and exploiting the secret affects of civilized man, but also the terrorism of a political police, of prisons and torture, of concentration camps, of transported or extirpated minorities, and of total war. 

The succession of less comprehensive viewpoints has been a succession of adaptations of theory to practice.  In the limit, practice becomes a theoretically unified whole, and theory is reduced to the status of a myth that lingers on to represent the frustrated aspirations of detached and disinterested intelligence.

Next: Alternatives of the Longer Cycle

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