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In this essay David W. Aiken argues that Bernard Lonergan’s contribution to recent Christian thought continues to be undervalued despite its depth, integrative scope, and relevance to contemporary issues. One such issue concerns whether methodological naturalism in the natural sciences warrants a reductionistic metaphysics, anthropology and epistemology. Lonergan’s holistic account of human intelligence and its situating world-order provides a remarkably cogent rejoinder to certain reductionistic tendencies in recent philosophies of mind and of nature. In this essay, Aiken proposes to show why Lonergan intends his trenchant critique of reductionism to serve not only as a basis for establishing a theistic worldview, but also as an incentive to intellectual conversion. Mr. Aiken is Professor of Philosophy at Gordon College.

Reductionism is not only a potentially seductive ideology; it is also an intellectual habit to which many in late modernity have become increasingly disposed. Among recent Christian thinkers, Bernard Lonergan was one of the most cogent critics of reductionism; and he was eminently suited to this task given the astonishing scope of his erudition, which included an exact knowledge of mathematics, natural and social science, history and economics in addition to philosophy and theology, his twin academic specialties. Given the remarkable acuity, depth, and integrative range of his thought – to say nothing of its massive relevance to current debates in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind – it is surprising that Lonergan remains such an underappreciated figure, particularly (but not exclusively) in Protestant philosophical circles.

In this essay, I propose to explore Lonergan’s critique of reductionism as articulated in his two best-known works, Insight (1957) and Method in Theology(1972). Since his critique extends to matters methodological, psychological, epistemological, and cosmological, I cannot attempt an exhaustive exposition in a paper of this scope. Instead, I will focus on how his full-orbed account of cognitional dynamics prefigures a holistic view of the subject as situated in an unfolding world-order characterized by “sublation” rather than “reduction.” I will argue that Lonergan’s chief concern is not simply to refute an ideology, but instead to provide an incentive to resist one of the most pervasive intellectual vices of our age. This incentive takes the form of a call to intellectual conversion—that is, to a radical reorienting of how we conduct ourselves as thoughtful inquirers. But what, exactly, do I mean by “reductionism”?

What I do not mean, nor wish to call into question, is a crucial aspect of modern scientific method that seeks to explain complex wholes in terms of their simpler parts. This procedure functions admirably when confined to first-order scientific investigations; it becomes mischievous only when extended to second-order methodological considerations, or to normative questions of being, truth, and value. Promoting reductive strategies of explanation legitimately employed by the empirical sciences to the status of metaphysical postulates inevitably results in an unwarranted exclusion of relevant data (such as intentionality and finality) when investigating the ontological constitution of persons, historical processes, and the world as “mediated by meaning.”1 That the significance of all higher-order realities must be exclusively and exhaustively explained by appeal to lower-order causes, and that, as a consequence, meanings of greater significance must be understood in terms of those less determinate, constitutes the reductionistic mentality Lonergan’s critique was designed to forestall.

Some examples may provide further elucidation. Physicalism is one influential species of reductionistic thinking, according to which reality is normatively conceived to be whatever the physical sciences currently regard as the fundamental particles, forces, or processes; everything else – including the physicalist as conscious agent – is at most virtually real. So defined, this view must not be confused with, or understood as a direct consequence of, any first-order scientific consideration. Physicalism is in fact a metaphysical theory, and as such its formu-lation and confirmation exceed the scope of scientific method.2

Scientism is a reductionistic mentality that treats normative questions of truth in a manner closely resembling physicalism’s approach to issues in fundamental ontology. Indeed, these two perspectives are often linked. Scientism counts as objectively true all and only those beliefs warranted by well-accredited scientific methods; and for this reason more ultimate issues of meaning and value must be decided largely on the basis of taste and temperament, since there is (presumably) no rigorous method for adjudicating them. By thus restricting the condi-tions under which beliefs are legitimated, scientism could be viewed as a kind of methodological imperialism. But a problem emerges for those who embrace this position: since scientism’s own epistemic priorities, as value-laden, exceed the scope of scientific confirmation, ex hypothesi their legitimation will depend entirely on taste and temperament. This incoherence must be counted as one of scientism’s besetting sins.3 There are others, as we shall see.

Finally we must reckon with diverse forms of anthropological reductionism, all of which endeavor to explain persons exclusively and exhaustively by appeal to non-personal processes, events, and mechanisms. The events in question may be physico-chemical, the processes environmental, the mechanisms genetic, or neurological, or perhaps economic. It makes little difference, for in each case, the reductionist is endeavoring to explain the entire significance of a complex whole in terms of parts or aspects taken to be more primitive, a procedure which will yield misleading results when parts and whole belong to diverse genera of being.4 Like physicalism and scientism, anthropological reductionism is often accorded empirical-scientific status, even though its theories tend to be normative, speculative, and indeed metaphysical in nature.5

Toward a Holistic Account of the Subject

Reductionistic tendencies in the philosophy of mind and of nature were well established by the time Lonergan wrote Insight in the early 1950s, and were even more firmly entrenched when Method in Theology appeared in 1972. In these works, Lonergan engages reductionism (among other topics) under the banner of a “campaign against the flight from understanding.”6 This expression highlights the critical aspects of Lonergan’s project, and thereby serves to underscore how truncated views of the human subject undermine our capacity for authentic self-understanding. For Lonergan one activates this capacity by reflecting on certain conscious and intentional operations in which one engages every day, but which for this very reason might go unacknowledged.

As intentional, human intelligence is directed toward being, truth, and value – indeed, toward anything of actual or potential significance – but because intentional operations are by their very nature conscious operations, one can become aware of them and reflexively grasp their significance, singly and in relation to one another.7 Furthermore, these operations and their situating fields of conscious activity form a flexible, dynamic, and indeed normative pattern, the rudiments of which are always and already operating in all of our distinctively human projects. Lonergan’s “cognitional theory” (as elaborated in Insight) and his “intentionality analysis” (as set forth in Method in Theology) are designed to identify this pattern, to encourage his readers to appropriate it, and thereby to reverse the deleterious effects of the flight from self-understanding. These effects are indeed wide-ranging, as Lonergan suggests in the following passage from the Preface to Insight:

No problem is at once more delicate and more profound, more practical and perhaps more pressing. How, indeed, is a mind to become conscious of its own bias when that bias springs from a communal flight from understanding and is supported by the whole texture of a civilization? … How can human intelligence begin to deal with the unintelligible yet objective situations which the flight from understanding creates and expands and sustains? At least we make a beginning by asking what precisely it is to understand, what are the dynamics of the flow of consciousness that favor insight, what are the interferences that favor oversight, and what, finally, do the answers to such questions imply for the guidance of human thought and action?8

Lonergan’s path to self-understanding begins by observing that human beings have a penchant for raising questions.9 So what else is new, one might ask? Indeed, the seeming triviality of this observation serves to underscore its importance. For, as Aristotle rightly affirms, human beings are inherently predisposed to wonder about the nature of things. We engage in this activity from earliest childhood, regardless of cultural differences or historical context. Our natural inquisitiveness even survives dysfunctional educational systems designed to crush it.

A moment’s reflection will confirm this assessment. In ordinary wakeful consciousness we are rarely content just to let the world go by, to let the stream of sensory data wash over us. Instead, we become puzzled by whatever appears potentially significant. We ask ourselves what is occurring and why; and our questioning anticipates certain kinds of answers. Thus if I am wondering why my bank account is overdrawn, I anticipate a commonsense answer, not a discourse on macroeconomics. On the other hand, if I am wondering whether the Fed will continue to lower interest rates in coming months, then I may well anticipate not only a more technical answer, but also a rigorous theoretical investigation of some kind. If I ask how I might keep a particular weed from growing in my garden, I am looking for a commonsense solution to an everyday problem; but if I ask how that same plant came to proliferate outside its native habitat, then I am asking for a scientific solution to a problem in botany or ecology. So there are many kinds of questions anticipating a plurality of investigations preparatory to discovering a range of possible answers, from the most commonsensical and banal to the most recondite and specialized. Indeed, human consciousness tends to become increasingly differentiated as questions diversify and investigations proliferate.10

Where does intelligent questioning lead? What is intended in our wondering about “the nature of things”? How does our desire to understand manage both to prompt seeking and anticipate finding? For what kinds of conscious operations does it predispose us? According to Lonergan’s analysis of the situation, the fact that we wonder about the what, how, and why of our experience shows that we are always and already embarked on a quest for understanding. What Lonergan means by “understanding” must not be identified with a merely notional grasp of how to solve a problem or with a facility in employing conventional linguistic signs upon receiving certain behavioral cues. For a student may “know” how to repeat a formula accurately or how to apply certain rules reliably, while still failing to “catch on.” Being a genuine learner is not simply a matter of scrupulously following directions. One may still lack an essential ingredient—namely, insight. To gain insight is precisely to catch on, to get the point, to see the light, to un-derstand for oneself, or even to be emboldened, like Archimedes in a rapture of enlightenment, to run naked through the streets of Syracuse crying, “Eureka!”11 Even though insights may arise in response to pedagogical cues or on the occasion of reading a textbook, they are characteristically preceded by intelligent questioning and prompted by a “spirit of inquiry.” Indeed, what makes insight an act of intelligence is that it grasps an intelligible pattern, a potentially significant correlation in the data.12

To cry “Eureka” is of course not the same thing as knowing, for that exclamation may just as readily accompany an oversight (that is, a simulacrum of genuine understanding that discerns an apparent but specious pattern) as a genuine act of understanding. For this reason, our native wondering is not satisfied with just any bright idea, but invites us to consider whether the potentially significant pattern in question has been identified accurately, formulated adequately, expressed clearly, combined appropriately with other insights, and confirmed by sufficient evidence.

The process of confirmation inaugurates a new field of cognitional activity that Lonergan calls “critical reflection.”13 Just as questioning the data prompts intelligent understanding, so questioning the veracity of what one has understood heads for an act of judgment whereby, if all goes well, factual truth is affirmed. This realization affords new insight into our status as subjects. Our primordial wondering is a quest for something more than clever understanding, for we also want to determine whether our bright ideas are so, and whether the evidence for their truth is favorable. Otherwise we would have no basis for discriminating between alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy, the latest conspiracy theory and legitimate historical scholarship.14 Humans are by nature truth-seekers no less than meaning-makers.

The activity of weighing evidence leads to another kind of insight, a reflective understanding that discerns the point at which no further relevant questions arise with respect to the matter at hand.15 With this realization, the process of investigation, set in motion by wondering about a potentially significant pattern in experience, has come to term. An intelligible correlation has been intelligently grasped and clearly defined. This formulated insight (or cluster of insights) has subsequently been framed as a hypothesis expressing some specifiable evidential connection between certain conditions and a factual state of affairs representing their fulfillment. Now let us suppose that the relevant data are sufficient to establish that these conditions have indeed been fulfilled. One is then fully warranted in affirming that the intelligibility under consideration is in fact the case, for it has now acquired the status of being “virtually unconditioned,” which means that it has passed from the potentiality of pure thought to the actuality of objective existence.16 By thus judging the matter to be so, one takes a stand with some degree of epistemic confidence (from probability to certainty).17 Since the act of judgment draws upon, and sums up, the entire repertoire of cognitional activity, Lonergan regards it as the “full increment in knowledge.”18

Just as the phenomenon of “direct” insight at the level of intelligent consciousness cannot be adequately explained according to external linguistic behavior, so also “reflective” insight at the level of rational consciousness cannot be reduced to any mechanical algorithm, such as the routines of formal logic. Nor can the act of judgment be equated with drawing the conclusion of a syllogism. As an activity of the concretely existing subject that heads beyond affirmation to commitment, judging entails a certain measure of accountability for how the relevant evidence has been sifted and weighed. Thus rational judgment is neither a matter of rigidly applying rules nor unquestioning obedience to deontic norms, but is rather a function of that intellectual “phronesis” which results from acquired expertise within a given field.19

Though the cognitional process may have reached a temporary hiatus with the act of judgment, there is still food for thought. The human mind is restless because our wondering knows no limits; indeed, it is totally unrestricted, aiming to understand nothing less than everything about everything.20 Even though the scope of our questioning is intrinsically unlimited, the questioner is finite, and for this reason there will always be something further to understand as long as we continue to wonder, and thereby to fulfill a central aspect of our vocation as humans.

One further inquiry concerns what one should do in response to what one has intelligently understood and correctly judged. This new line of questioning opens up another and higher operational field – that of responsible agency – which, in turn, affords further opportunities for self-understanding.21 If first-order questions – “What is it? Why is it? How is it?” – prompt intelligent understanding of what might be the case, and reflective questions – “Is it so? Are there good reasons for affirming it?” – give rise to rational judgments of fact, then questions for deliberation – “Is it worthwhile? Is it the responsible thing to do?” – head for evaluation, decision, and action. Just as understanding includes the data to be understood and critical reflection includes properly formulated insights, so responsible agency assimilates factual knowledge to ethical praxis. Thus only at the fourth operational level, according to Lonergan’s mature understanding of the human person, does the full subject emerge as an attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible agent participating in the ongoing historical drama of progress, decline, and redemption.22 Furthermore, every mature, wakeful adult is always and already operating at this fourth level—even when fleeing the burden of responsibility imposed by acknowledging this fact.

A surprising conclusion follows. From the standpoint of responsible agency it becomes possible to read the entire pattern of cognitional operations in two complementary ways: from “below upwards,” as I have been doing thus far in my exposition, and also from “above downwards.”23 The first rendering yields a developmental account of the subject according to which successively higher functions unfold as the operative range of primordial wondering expands; according to this perspective, higher meanings and more specialized functions arise as lower-order potencies are fulfilled. The second rendering regards the subject as situated within overlapping historical, cultural, and social contexts and animated by ethico-religious concerns, thus interpreting these lower-order potencies from the vantage of their fulfillment at higher and more specialized levels of functioning. From this latter perspective we attend to data, raise questions, achieve understanding, affirm matters of fact, and make decisions primarily within a context of prior experiences, questions, insights, judgments, and valuations—including those beliefs we have come to accept on the basis of reliable testimony and those convictions we have inherited from our cultural milieu.24 What makes knowing a distinctively human enterprise is that as historically situated beings we find ourselves under something like an ethical mandate to operate and co-operate attentively, intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly. Thus it could be said that responsible agency makes cognitional performance a matter of conscience.25

This is the point at which the theistic orientation of Lonergan’s quest for self-understanding becomes explicit. Since the highest operational field comports the ultimate direction, meaning, and value of our existence, it is also the site where the human drive toward self-transcendence finds or forfeits its authenticity. But insofar as this dynamism intends nothing short of inexhaustible being, truth, and value, it reaches out not only horizontally toward the human other with whom we co-operate but also vertically toward the transcendent Other. For Lonergan, it is ultimately God’s unrestricted self-understanding that grounds both the unfolding operational dynamics of finite intelligence and an emergent world-order of potentially inexhaustible intelligibility—as well as their evident (but otherwise inexplicable) correlation.26 The human subject, then, is radically open to encountering a Being of unlimited intelligence and generosity, by whose gracious initiative one is enabled to move beyond bias, indifference, and self-deception, through primordial wondering, toward a disposition to love without limits and conditions.27 Thus at the fourth level of consciousness the eros of human inquiry encounters divine agape and discovers therein the gentle power which elicits and fulfills our multiple capacities for self-transcendence. From this vantage, it becomes evident that God is both the alpha and omega of our quest for being, truth and value. I shall have the occasion to reflect more deeply on this crucial point toward the conclusion of this essay.

Toward Intellectual Conversion: Reorienting One’s Worldview

Now clearly Lonergan’s holistic account of the human subject as knower, doer, believer, and lover provides a remarkably cogent rejoinder to reductionism in its various forms. Since his critique of empiricism is both intrinsically cogent and paradigmatic for what follows, I will examine it at some length before exploring his response to anthropological reductionism, physicalism, and scientism. These critical concerns will then provide a springboard for appreciating Lonergan’s treatment of intellectual conversion and the radical reorientation of heuristic priorities this new perspective demands.

Modern empiricism characteristically regards direct acquaintance with sensedata as the paradigm instance of knowing, and more complex cognitive states as derived by psychological association or logical inference from this empirical basis. More recent versions of this theory tend to favor externalistic over internalistic accounts of how true judgments are formed and justified, so that the emphasis now falls on the immediacy of believing in the presence of the right kinds of perceptual stimuli (as with Alvin Goldman and other reliabilists) rather than on the vivacity of certain sensory qualia (as with David Hume and other classical modern empiricists). On Lonergan’s account of knowledge, however, the data of sense acquire their potential significance through spontaneous acts of selective attention, imaginative schematizing, and intelligent questioning as motivated by the primordial desire to know. Though the presentations of sense and imagination provide an essential point of departure for higher cognitional operations – such as understanding, conceiving, and reflecting – it is only in and through a deliberate act of correct judgment, on the basis of sufficient evidence, that factual truth is acquired and cognition achieved. Thus by grasping the intelligible in the sensible, intelligence shifts empirical consciousness to the qualitatively higher operations of understanding; and by raising questions for reflection, intelligent consciousness becomes critically rational. Finally, by deliberating on the value or ethical significance of what one has intelligently grasped and reasonably affirmed, rational consciousness comes to understand itself from the highest perspective of responsible agency.

Now if Lonergan’s account of cognitional structure is correct, sense-experience represents only one element in a complex pattern of operations the sum of which constitutes knowledge (in its full and exemplary sense). A crucial implication follows: the data to which we attend at the first level of consciousness must not be equated with factsaffirmed on the basis of intelligent understanding, critical reflection, and sufficiently warranted judgment. Hence, it would be incorrect to say that facts are directly presented to us through some avenue of intuition, empirical or otherwise; and it is precisely for this reason that perceptual awareness cannot be regarded as the paradigm instance of knowing. Nor can the immediate deliverances of sense – that which confronts us “already out there now” – be upheld as the criterion of what counts as objectively real.28

Furthermore, by overlooking the complexity of the knowing process, empiricism also tends to ignore its dynamic and developmental aspects. As the pattern of cognitional operations unfolds from empirical through intelligent, rational, and evaluative consciousness, the characteristic functions of any given stage will prove insufficient to account for: (i) the emergence of its successors; (ii) how these further levels assimilate and transform their predecessors; and (iii) the “vertically”-directed dynamism responsible for the unfolding. To put the matter in more general terms, one could say that the full significance of a lower-order system may be grasped only from the vantage of a higher-order system; for occurrences that appear merely coincidental when approached “from below” coalesce into an intelligible structure when understood “from above.” “Sublation” is Lonergan’s term for this process of directed development in which more advanced systems of richer significance and greater operational range emerge from the gradual expansion, and, at the limit of their capacity for optimal functioning, the eventual breakdown of prior systems.29

Sublation is the key to understanding not only how the range of cognitional functions expands through a dynamic, self-actuating sequence, but also how the content of human knowledge develops within a particular field of investigation. In mathematics, for instance, sublation occurs in the emergence of algebra from arithmetic, analytic geometry from algebra, calculus from analytic geometry, and group theory from calculus.30 In each case, to grasp the more inclusive meanings of the higher system, as one gains facility with its wider scope of operations, is also to recognize the impossibility of accounting for those meanings and operations from within the lower system’s more restricted frame of reference. Thus (to employ a hermeneutical analogy) one could say that the point at which marks on a page are seen to incarnate meaning is the point at which one can never return to seeing just marks.31 A qualitative Rubicon has been crossed.

Now what holds for Lonergan’s critique of naive empiricism also holds for other forms of reductionism: sublation trumps reduction wherever more inclusive operations and meanings cannot be adequately accounted for or expressed in terms of a more primitive system. Moreover, if we allow that being is apprehended and understood through the lens of meaning, the same can be said both for the ontological status of the subject as meaning-mediator and of the world as meant.32

With respect to the operating subject, then, higher-order functions are irreducible to lower insofar as the significance of valuation cannot be adequately expressed in terms of factual judgment, nor judgment in terms of intelligent understanding, nor understanding in terms of receptivity to data. As identifiably and distinctly empirical, intelligent, critically reflective and evaluative, human consciousness is inherently complex.33 But if the variegated pattern of conscious operations through which subjects participate in being resonates intrinsically with the rhythm of an unfolding universe (as Lonergan endeavors to show), then physicalism cannot do justice to the complexity of the known any more than anthropological reductionism can do justice to the complexity of the knower.34 Nor is any particular scientific method equal to the task of explaining the interwoven correspondence of developing subject with evolving cosmos. Such an ambitious venture would require something like an “integral heuristic structure” for adumbrating a synthesis of evolutionary cosmology (as informed by ongoing scientific developments) with authentic cognitional and moral self-understanding. The task of developing and applying an interpretive structure of this scope would accordingly fall outside the purview of the special sciences; it would, in fact, be the proper pursuit of metaphysics.35

Lonergan’s rationale for rejecting anthropological reductionism, physicalism, and scientism hinges on his distinctive account of how the very procedures of scientific inquiry anticipate a sublational world-order. Lonergan explores this topic at great length, and with considerable ingenuity, in Insight. For our present purposes, a brief and drastically simplified overview will have to do. Lonergan observes that when a more inclusive system arises from a coincidental aggregate of more primitive systems interacting over large spans of time and space, the new system will tend to sublate its predecessors, given favorable probability schedules.36 A world-order thus characterized by the exigencies of “emergent probability” must not be regarded as some arbitrary metaphysical construct. For these very exigencies are intrinsic no less to the dynamics of an evolving universe, as prescribed by the intersection of classical and statistical scientific methods, than to the intelligent inquirer’s self-actuating and self-correcting process of learning. Since the morphology of the subject’s cognitional operations reduplicates a universal pattern, it would be a serious oversight to regard the knower as radically separated from the known (as has been the case in many modern epistemologies since Descartes). Indeed, if Lonergan’s cognitional theory is correct, human intelligence may be regarded as participating in a world-order that sustains our efforts to understand, rather than one wholly indifferent to conscious intentionality.37

Situated within a universe whose developmental dynamics are structurally isomorphic with those of human intelligence, the inquirer may anticipate that higher-order genera will sublate those lower-order systems from which they have emerged, just as more inclusive cognitional functions assimilate, while transcending, their predecessors. Consequently, the more complex the form, the more determinate and efficacious will be its intrinsic operations. This pattern can be traced throughout the macro-level development of the cosmos: once chemical processes have emerged from subatomic events, they cannot be understood exclusively in physical terms; once biological systems are in place, they cannot be explained entirely in relation to their physico-chemical antecedents; and once the psychic dimension of animal life has come into being, its distinctive conative and sensitive operations exceed the explanatory range of biology; nor can the existence of intelligent thought and responsible agency be reduced to its psychic, biotic, and physico-chemical preconditions.38

Beyond these cosmological considerations, which provide a substantial rationale for rejecting physicalism and other reductionistic accounts of world-order, lies the deeper question of why such theories continue to exert an influence far out of proportion to their philosophical cogency. Indeed, why have reductionistic habits of explanation engendered such seductive plausibility structures in our time, and how is one to extricate oneself from their widespread influence? The issue in question is one of intellectual conversion, which, for Lonergan, signifies a decisive turning away from what he calls “an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth,” to the effect that “knowing is like looking … objectivity is [like] seeing what is there to be seen, and … the real is what is out there now to be looked at.”39

St. Augustine underwent this conversion when he came to realize that his difficulties in accepting Christian belief hinged on a subtle but all-pervasive mis-conception concerning what counts as objectively real. This oversight – by which Augustine confesses that he deceived himself – led him to affirm only that which he could imaginatively represent as having some measure of physical bulk; and for this reason he found it difficult to accept scriptural teachings about God’s nature and purposes expressed in anthropomorphic terms. The limitations inherent in corporeality seemed to him unworthy of divine status; and yet, impeded by a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, he could envision God only in such terms. Once Augustine came to understand that reality cannot be held hostage to the imaginable, he began to appreciate the role of metaphor in bespeaking that which eye has not seen nor ear heard; for scriptural anthropomorphisms cease to offend when regarded as pointers to a Being whose spiritual nature is at once Transcendent Mystery and Supreme Intelligibility. As a result of this breakthrough, Augustine’s objections to Christian belief began to evaporate. Thus may intellectual conversion mediate religious conversion.40

Though preparing the way for intellectual conversion is clearly a crucial aspect of Lonergan’s campaign against reductionism, we have not yet reached the heart of the matter—the point at which reductionistic habits of thought can do the greatest damage to our self-understanding. According to Lonergan, the inquiring subject’s successive operational fields unfold according to a dynamism which may be variously denominated as primordial wondering, unrestricted desire, or spiritual eros. This nisus constitutes a radical openness to being in every register – as factuality, truth and value – and for this reason is unrestricted in scope if not in accomplishment. Its uninhibited provocations turn biological sense receptors into attentive perceivers, attentive perceivers into intelligent questioners, intelligent questioners into insightful interpreters, insightful interpreters into critical thinkers, and critical thinkers into responsible agents. As such, it is also the measure of our capacity for self-transcendence, and the very root of our spontaneously self-assembling and self-actuating pattern of cognitional operations.41 Lonergan’s account of the subject must accordingly show, above all, that this dynamism is indeed spiritual—and as such irreducible to biological and other preconscious drives. This is an extraordinarily tall order after Freud, behaviorism, and some recent philosophical trends allied to cognitive science. Suffice it to say that Lonergan’s resistance to reductionistic habits of thought is at its strongest and most convincing just at the point where it needs to be.

Toward Appropriating One’s Capacity for Self-Transcendence

To confirm this estimation it suffices to consider certain texts, all notable for their incisiveness and eloquence, in which Lonergan explicates his understanding of the “pure and unrestricted desire.” First, a key passage from chapter one of Insight, in which Lonergan is concerned to adumbrate the intrinsic features of human understanding as concretely experienced:

Deep within us all, emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain. Just what is wanted has many names. In what precisely it consists is a matter of dispute. But the fact of inquiry is beyond all doubt. It can absorb a [person]. It can keep [one] for hours, day after day, year after year, in the narrow prison of [one’s] study or laboratory. It can send [one] on dangerous voyages of exploration. It can withdraw [one] from other interests, other pursuits, other pleasures, other achievements. It can fill [one’s] waking thoughts, hide [one] from the world of ordinary affairs, invade the very fabric of [one’s] dreams. It can demand endless sacrifices that are made without regret though there is only the hope, never a certain promise, of success.42

In this passage, Lonergan is explicating the first in a series of propositions articulating the most salient characteristics of insight—namely, that the act of understanding arises spontaneously “as a release to the tension of inquiry” into potentially significant data.43 The tension in question is elicited by a drive whose exigent demands surpass, and at times eclipse, our biological appetites, even to the point of requiring a certain asceticism. Indeed, the very possibility of pursuing scientific inquiry – to say nothing of its flourishing – depends on the capacity of its practitioners to cultivate habits of self-restraint sufficient to transcend, regularly and habitually, those self-centered perspectives which spring from immediate biological demands and practical concerns. Thus the very practice of science bespeaks – indeed requires – a human capacity for self-transcendence that may be aptly denominated “spiritual.”

In a later chapter, Lonergan expands this preliminary analysis from the higher viewpoint of its ontological significance:

Being, then, is the objective of the pure desire to know.

By the desire to know is meant the dynamic orientation manifested in questions for intel-ligence and for reflection. It is not the verbal utterance of questions. It is not the conceptual formulation of questions. It is not any insight or thought. It is not any reflective grasp or judgment. It is the prior and enveloping drive that carries cognitional process from sense and imagination to understanding, from understanding to judgment, from judgment to the complete context of correct judgments that is named knowledge….

Because it differs radically from other desire, this desire has been called pure. It is to be known, not by the misleading analogy of other desire, but by giving free rein to intelligent and rational consciousness. It is, indeed impalpable, but it is also powerful. It pulls [us] out of the solid routine of perception and conation, instinct and habit, doing and enjoying. It holds [us] with the fascination of problems. It engages [us] in the quest of solutions…. It is the absorption of investigation, the joy of discovery, the assurance of judgment, the modesty of limited knowledge. It is the relentless serenity, the unhurried determination, the imperturbable drive of question following appositely on question in the genesis of truth.43

Several features of this remarkable passage deserve comment. In the first place, Lonergan links intellectual eros not only with the occurrence of insight (which was his concern in the text previously cited), but with the unfolding, or “self-assembling,” of the entire operational pattern from experiencing through understanding to reflecting and judging. In other words, just as a growing tree articulates its increasingly differentiated systems by putting forth roots, cambium, leaves, flowers, and fruit, so also the developing subject “grows” the functions it requires to observe, interpret, affirm, and evaluate its world effectively. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to compare the unfolding cognitional and moral subject to the way a determinate musical form (such as a “sonata-allegro” movement) emerges from its primal elements (pitches, meter, rhythms, phrases) while remain-ing irreducible to those particular constituents. In the second place, Lonergan places renewed emphasis on just how “radically” this desire differs from drives which promote biological survival or satisfy the demands of inter-subjectivity (e.g., “fitting in” with prevailing schemes of social interaction).44 For those engaged in the “serene” yet “relentless” pursuit of explanatory understanding might well find themselves obliged to curtail other entirely legitimate human interests, to break with the conventional routines and utilitarian concerns of common sense, or even to suffer ostracism and persecution (as in the case of Galileo).45 Even in the teeth of such constraints, the problem to be solved continues to fascinate—and primordial wondering exerts its inexorable pull. In the third place, Lonergan correlates intellectual eros with an “objective” that transcends the immediacy of sensation and conation. Both the force and the terminus of this desire, though evidently real, remain impalpable. Unlike physical bodies, such realities do not appear in anyone’s immediate perceptual field; and for this reason we can neither affirm the “pure desire” nor discover its “objective” simply by “taking a look” at some putative perceptual object.

One potentially surprising consequence of this view is that reality – or at least those aspects of the real sought by explanatory understanding – cannot be pictured. For that which the theoretical disciplines intelligently understand through methods of scientific explanation and reasonably affirm through methods of scientific verification will characteristically transcend anything that can be directly perceived or imaginatively represented. Even though diagrams and scale models may suffice for illustrative and pedagogical purposes, such devices inevitably mislead to the extent that they are taken literally. Does reductionism perhaps trade on oversights of this kind? Could a penchant for reducing complex intelligibilities to imaginable or palpable dimensions account for the “prima facie” plausibility of some reductionistic strategies—such as explaining (away) intellectual eros entirely as an evolutionary survival mechanism, or depicting the objective of this desire (the real as intelligible) as a collection of tiny corpuscles akin to miniature billiard balls?46

In later years, Lonergan became increasingly dissatisfied with what he came to regard as an overly “intellectualistic” rendering of this “unrestricted desire”—on that privileges theoretical thinking and ratiocination (as understood in the traditional philosophical psychology of Aristotle and Aquinas) over affective, symbolic, volitional, and interpersonal dimensions of the human person. By thus attempting to fit a complex phenomenon of potentially unlimited scope into the straitjacket of an outmoded “faculty psychology” that views the human mind as divisible into certain static “compartments” (rather than a “dynamic” view that emphasizes inter-animating functions of conscious intentionally), Insight’streatment of spiritual eros could be read – ironically – as a reductionistic gesture! Thus by the time he wrote Method in Theology, Lonergan was prepared to give a more ample and convincing account of the dynamism that animates our quest for understanding:

[T]he many levels of consciousness are just successive stages in the unfolding of a single thrust, the eros of the human spirit. To know the good it must know the real; to know the real it must know the true; to know the true, it must know the intelligible; to know the intelligible, it must attend to the data. So from slumber, we awake to attend. Observing lets intelligence be puzzled and we inquire. Inquiry leads to delight of insight, but insights are a dime a dozen so critical reasonableness doubts, checks, makes sure. Alternative courses of action present themselves and we wonder whether the more attractive is the truly good. Indeed, so intimate is the relation between [these] successive transcendental notions, that it is only by a specialized differentiation of consciousness that we withdraw from more ordinary ways of living to devote ourselves to a moral pursuit of goodness, a philosophic pursuit of truth, a scientific pursuit of understanding, an artistic pursuit of beauty.47

Having thus extrapolated from our multiple capacities for self-transcendence toward their distinct transcendental horizons (goodness, truth, intelligibility, beauty), Lonergan proceeds in a subsequent section to consider the religious significance of the dynamism by which these potencies are activated. In this new context, our primordial wondering takes on the aspect of a quest for transcendent Holiness, for a summum bonum corresponding to the unrestricted scope of spiritual desire:

[The question of God] is not a matter of image or feeling, of concept or judgment. They pertain to answers. It is a question. It arises out of our conscious intentionality, out of the a priori structured drive that promotes us from experiencing to the effort to understand, from understanding to the effort to judge truly, from judging to the effort to choose rightly. In the measure that we advert to our own questioning and proceed to question it, there arises the question of God. … The question of God, then, lies within [our] horizon. [Our] transcendental subjectivity is mutilated or abolished, unless [we are] stretching forth towards the intelligible, the unconditioned, the good of value. The reach, not of [our] attainment, but of [our] intending is unrestricted. There lies within [our] horizon a region for the divine, a shrine for ultimate holiness. It cannot be ignored. The atheist may pronounce it empty. The agnostic may urge that he finds his investigation has been inconclusive. The contemporary humanist will refuse to allow the question to arise. But their negations presuppose the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine.48

When read sequentially, the foregoing texts from Insight and Method provide a crucial link between the cognitional and theological significance of spiritual eros. Not only does the unrestricted scope of this desire prefigure the existence of God whose unlimited intelligence grounds the inexhaustible intelligibility of the cosmos;49 it also evinces our intrinsic openness to God, and to a Word from God, should one be spoken interiorly or historically.50 Lonergan is not claiming that any specifically Christian doctrines follow from this effort at transcendental “extrapolation,” for that would be to confuse the Divine Word spoken with our intrinsic capacity to receive it. We must keep in mind that in these passages Lonergan is not doing theology, but rather method in theology. Yet the very fact that our primordial wondering always and already orients itself toward an unlimited intelligibility, goodness, and generosity speaks volumes about who we are and how we are situated within an unfolding universe of being. In other words, as the scope of our questioning expands, so does our capacity for self-transcendence—and thus for encountering God as the term of all vertically-directed finalities.

Of course, to encounter God is to comport oneself toward One who is vastly more (though by no means less) than the term of a quest for self-transcendence or the answer to our most radical questioning. In language both apostolic and existential, Lonergan accordingly adds a decisive qualification to his understanding of the divine-human encounter:

As the question of God is implicit in all our questioning, so being in love with God is the basic fulfillment of our conscious intentionality. That fulfillment brings a deep-set joy that can remain despite humiliation, failure, privation, pain, betrayal, desertion. That fulfillment brings a radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give. That fulfillment bears fruit in a love of one’s neighbor that strives mightily to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, the absence of that fulfillment opens the way to the trivialization of human life in the pursuit of fun, to the harshness of human life arising from the ruthless exercise of power, to despair about human welfare springing from the conviction that the universe is absurd.51

Ultimately, then, the dynamics of nature must yield to the initiatives of Grace, as the eros of the human spirit finds its fulfillment in divine agape. Lonergan’s final response to reductionism is properly theological—namely, to remind us, with Aquinas, that Grace does not abolish nature, but rather preserves its integrity while eliciting its complexity. This is a startling conclusion to an inquiry whose point of departure was the seemingly banal observation that human beings have a propensity for questioning their experience! How did Lonergan manage to pull such a capacious rabbit out of such a seemingly modest hat?

To think along these lines is also to wonder whether Lonergan’s holistic worldview is something more than just a clever theory. Could it possibly be true? This reflective question demands a critical examination of the evidence for his account of human consciousness as a complex and dynamic pattern of intentional operations. For upon this self-understanding hinges his entire critique of reductionism, and subsequent extrapolation toward theism. But where might one expect to uncover such evidence?

If Lonergan’s analysis of the situation is correct, one should not expect to encounter the relevant data in any palpable or imaginable “place” denoted by the locative adverb “where.” For the evidence under consideration may be found only by examining the data of consciousness, and to give such data a specifiable location (e.g., along certain neural pathways) might well beg the question of self-understanding in favor of physicalism or some other form of reductionism. So while prescinding from any potentially mischievous assumptions about where intelligence is located, let us advert to how we experience certain cognitional operations and the pattern of their emergence. For assistance in this final confir-matory exercise I will let Lonergan give us the appropriate cues:

…[D]oes this many-leveled subject exist? [One] has to answer that question for oneself. But I do not think the answers are in doubt. Not even behaviorists claim that they are unaware whether or not they see or hear, taste or touch. Not even positivists preface their lectures and their books with the frank avowal that never in their lives did they have the experience of understanding anything whatever. Not even relativists claim that never in their lives did they have the experience of making a rational judgment. Not even determinists claim that never in their lives did they have the experience of making a responsible choice. There exist subjects that are empirically, intellectually, rationally [and] morally conscious. Not all know themselves as such, for consciousness is not human knowing but only a potential component in the structured whole that is human knowing. But all can know themselves as such, for they have only to attend to what they are already conscious of, and understand what they attend to, and pass judgment on the correctness of their understanding.52

By following the gist of this exercise and thoughtfully engaging the insight it is designed to provoke, the reader may expect to make an important discovery—namely, that there is an attestation within one’s own consciousness of the operational pattern Lonergan has identified. Since this attestation may be regarded as fulfilling the essential evidential conditions for affirming Lonergan’s holistic ontology of the subject (and, by extension, his non-reductionistic cosmology), it calls for an affirmative judgment. But to make this judgment is also to take a stand—for intellectual conversion and against reductionism.


  1. See chapter 3 of Lonergan’s Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990 [1972]) for his discussion of this topic. The unwarranted exclusion of relevant data to which I refer in the main text is precisely what tends to happen in “eliminative materialism”; see, for instance, Paul Churchland, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” Journal of Philosophy 77.2 (1981): 67. For a helpful distinction between reductionism per se and eliminativism, see Andrew Melnyk, A Physicalist Manifesto: Thoroughly Modern Materialism(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003). I wish to thank my departmental colleague, Brian Glenney, for his assistance in researching this section of my paper.
  2. See, for instance, J. J. C. Smart, “The Content of Physicalism,” Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1978): 239-241. For an epistemological application of physicalistic reductionism, see W. V. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 69-90.
  3. For relevant contemporary examples, see Melnyk, op. cit., and Sahotra Sarkar, “Models of Reduction and Categories of Reductionism,” Synthese 91 (1992): 167-194. For a locus classicus of scientism, see Alfred Jules Ayer, Language Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1946).
  4. For Lonergan’s explanation of why it would be an oversight to reduce the properties and characteristic operations of higher-order genera entirely to those of a lower order, see Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 3, eds. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993 [1957]), particularly sections 8.6 and 15.7.
  5. Examples of more extreme versions of physicalistic reductionism may be found in Melnyk, op. cit., and John Bickle, Philosophy and Neuroscience: A Ruthlessly Reductive Account (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Press, 2003).
  6. Lonergan, Insight, 5-6.

  7. For Lonergan on the reflexivity of consciousness, see Insight, 344ff; see also Method in Theology, 13-20.
  8. Insight, 9.
  9. The significance of our primordial wondering is central to Lonergan’s understanding of the human person and omnipresent in his writings. See, for instance, Insight, 28-39, 371-373; Method in Theology, 103, 105.
  10. Another vast topic in Lonergan’s writings; for a sampling, see Insight, chapter subsections 15.6-7; Method in Theology, 29, 139, 257-262, 303-305.
  11. Insight, 27-28.

  12. Ibid., 31ff, 57, 101, 259.
  13. Ibid., 296-300, 332-333.
  14. Thus, according to Lonergan’s mordant dictum, “Bright ideas are a dime a dozen.” See Method in Theology, 13.
  15. Insight, 305-306, 308-312, 340.

  16. Ibid., 305-306.
  17. Ibid., 301.
  18. Ibid., 297.
  19. Ibid., 296-297. See also Bernard Lonergan, Understanding and Being, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 5 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 113.
  20. Insight, 371-373, 375-376, 659-662.
  21. In Insight, Lonergan had assigned the operations of deliberation and decision to a practi-cal employment of rational consciousness (the “third level”); but further reflection on the distinct quality of evaluative understanding prompted him to acknowledge a fourth level of operation, ordered to deliberation, action, and interpersonal encounter (of the human and the divine Other). The distinctive functions of this fourth level are adumbrated in chapter 1 of Method in Theology, but fully elaborated in chapters 2 and 4 of that work. For Lonergan’s own account of why he changed his mind on this and other matters, see “Insight Revisited,” in Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection, eds. William F. J. Ryan, S.J., and Bernard J. Tyrrell, S.J., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996 [1974]), 277; see also “The Subject,” Ibid., 79ff.
  22. Lonergan, Method in Theology, 52-55, 102, 117. For a comprehensive study of the Christological significance of historical process in Lonergan’s work, see Frederick E. Crowe, S.J., Christ and History: The Christology of Bernard Lonergan from 1935 to 1982 (Ottawa: Novalis, 2005). For a more general study of Lonergan’s philosophy of history, see Thomas P. McPartland, Lonergan and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001), particularly chapter 3.

  23. This key distinction arises in Lonergan’s later work and forms the basis for distinguish-ing two “phases” of theology’s “functional specialties.” See chapter 5 of Method in Theology; “Christology Today” and “The Ongoing Genesis of Methods,” in Bernard Lonergan, A Third Collection, ed. Frederick E. Crowe, S.J. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 75-80, 159-163. See also Frederick E. Crowe, S.J., Old Things and New: A Strategy For Education (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), 1-29.
  24. Lonergan’s understanding of convictional belief and its role in the articulation of our noetic structures anticipates certain aspects of Reformed Epistemology; see especially Insight, chapter subsection 20.4.
  25. Lonergan, Method in Theology, 34-35, 122.
  26. This topic will be expounded more fully in the third section of this essay. See below, “Toward Intellectual Conversion: Reorienting One’s Worldview.”
  27. Lonergan, op. cit.,104-107, 215ff.
  28. For extensive discussions of the “cognitional myth” and the “counterpositional” tendencies in modern empiricism, see Insight, 275-279, 344-348, 437-431, 450, 603-606; Method in Theology, 213-214, 238-239; Understanding and Being, 187, 336.
  29. See “The Subject,” op. cit., 80, 84; Method in Theology, 316, 340.

  30. Insight, 37-43. For a helpful discussion of this crucial aspect of sublation as “assimilation to a higher viewpoint,” see Joseph Flanagan, Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan’s Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 32-46.
  31. Insight, 604-605.
  32. Lonergan’s fullest treatment of the human subject as meaning-mediator is found in chapter 3 of Method in Theology, particularly 73ff. See also Insight, 371-383, 494-504.

  33. See Insight, chapter subsection 11.1-4.
  34. For Lonergan’s treatment of cognitional-ontological isomorphism, see Insight, 138-140, 424-425, 470-474, 509-511, 522-526, 535-536, 575-576, 599.
  35. For Lonergan’s distinctive account of metaphysics as an “integral heuristic structure” for understanding “proportionate” (finite) being, see Insight, 415-421.
  36. Some of the more important passages in which Lonergan adumbrates his “heuristic cosmol-ogy” are found in Insight, 138-161, 280-295, 484ff. For helpful commentary, see Flanagan, op. cit., chapters 4 and 6.
  37. For Lonergan’s detailed exposition of these topics, see the following chapter subsections in Insight: 2.4-5; 8.5-6; 13.1; 15.6-7.
  38. Ibid., 484ff, 538-543.
  39. Method in Theology, 238.
  40. See St. Augustine, Confessions III: 4, 10; V:10, 14; VI:1,3,4; VII:1,3. See also Hugo A. Meynell, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, 2nd ed., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 81; and Richard M. Liddy, Transforming Light: Intellectual Conversion in the Early Lonergan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 50-73.
  41. Method in Theology, 13; see also 95, 114, 122, 233, 243, 252, 289.
  42. Insight, 28-29. I have taken the liberty, in this and subsequent citations, of substituting gender-neutral expressions for Lonergan’s gender-specific nouns and pronouns. Otherwise, I have quoted extensively in this section from the primary sources in order to give the reader a flavor of Lonergan’s distinctively compelling – and pedagogically effective – style.
  43. Ibid., 372-373.
  44. For Lonergan’s account of inter-subjectivity, see Insight, 240, 268-269, 237-239, 240-242; Method in Theology, 59-61, 66, 73-74.
  45. The tension between the utilitarian and subject-centered orientation of commonsense, and the open-ended, “decentered” perspective of explanatory-theoretical understanding is, for Lonergan, a significant element in the etiology of bias and sundry cognitional dysfunctions. See Insight,chapter subsections7.6-8, 10.3, 15.7.3-4. For an incisive and detailed exposition of this topic as it emerges throughout Lonergan’s writings, see Gerard Walmsley, Lonergan onPhilosophic Pluralism: The Polymorphism of Human Consciousness as the Key to Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), particularly ch. 2.
  46. Lonergan suggests that such literalism may be one significant factor in the rise of deterministic-reductionistic strategies of explanation; see Insight, 111-117.
  47. Method in Theology, 13.
  48. Ibid.,103.
  49. Lonergan’s argument for God’s existence from the inexhaustible intelligibility of the idea of Being, found in chapter 19 of Insight, could indeed be read as an extrapolation from the human person’s native wondering about Being to God as the ultimate telos of this “pure and unrestricted desire.” Later in his career, however, Lonergan had second thoughts about the efficacy, if not the cogency, of this celebrated argument. Thus in the chapter on “Religion” in Method in Theology, Lonergan adopts a phenomenological approach to the question of God in preference to the traditional speculative approach of “natural theology.” This phenomenology endeavors to establish only that God’s existence is a legitimate and meaningful question, and that, for this reason, the human person is intrinsically open to a specifically religious form of self-transcendence. Compare Insight, 659ff and 680-699 with Method in Theology, 101-103. Yet even in this later period, Lonergan never renounced the legitimacy or importance of natural theology; see “Philosophy of God, and Theology” in Bernard Lonergan, Philosophical and Theo-logical Papers 1965-1980, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 17 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 162-178.
  50. Method in Theology, 112-115, 118-119.
  51. Ibid., 105.
  52. Lonergan, “Cognitional Structure,” in Collection, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 210-211.

David W. Aiken

Gordon College
Mr. Aiken is Professor of Philosophy at Gordon College.