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Reaching Up to the mind of Aquinas
by Daniel Monsour

One of the greatest Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century was the Canadian Jesuit priest and Professor of Theology, Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan was born in Buckingham, Quebec, in 1904, and died eighty years later in Pickering, Ontario. In the course of an academic career spanning more than forty years, he lectured and wrote not just on theology, but also on theological method, philosophy, and economics. Some consider his investigations and articulation of the nature, procedures, and objectivity of human cognitional activity as a way, an instrument of apprenticeship that can mediate and lead one gradually to acquire knowledge of the structure of one's own cognitional activities; furthermore, that this self-knowledge throws a startling integrating light upon the entire range of human inquiry and all that comes to be understood through it. Today, while Lonergan's writings remain less well-known in the wider culture, they are exercising a gradually growing influence in Catholic intellectual life.

At the time of Lonergan's death, a considerable amount of his writings remained unpublished or available only in Latin. In 1985, two of his former students and long-term associates, Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, established the Lonergan Research Institute of Regis College, Toronto, replacing an earlier Lonergan Centre. In the early seventies, the Lonergan Centre had begun the formal work of collecting and cataloguing primary and secondary source materials to facilitate scholarly research on Lonergan's thought, a task that had been carried on informally for some twenty years. The new Institute continued to perform this work. However, with a view to eventual publication, priority was now given to preparing critical editions, with translations where necessary, of both the unpublished and already published materials.

Discussions over several years between the Institute and the University of Toronto Press formally concluded in 1988 with the signing of a memorandum of agreement to co-operate in publishing the entire Lonergan corpus as a series in a Collected Works. Crowe and Doran became the general editors. Initially, they envisaged that the series would consist of twenty-two volumes, but it now seems likely that this number will be exceeded. To date, seven volumes have appeared, and it is anticipated that two more will be published within the next twelve months. ***

"Whatever else Lonergan's lifework may be, however penetrating his analyses and however impressive his ideas, his thought is ultimately oriented to the practical and is programmatic for the future. He has provided us with an instrument that is to be used, not just contemplated, and the real Lonergan of history is not so much the Lonergan studied and analyzed, discussed and debated, located and evaluated, but the Lonergan whose achievement is still to be applied to the urgent tasks of the new age that we are facing." (Father Frederick Crowe)

Although much detailed work remains to be done, there is ample information available to trace the course of Lonergan's intellectual development in broad outline.

Lonergan's formal education began around the age of six at the École Saint Michel in Buckingham. Shortly before his fourteenth birthday, he left Buckingham to board at Loyola College, the Jesuit high school and junior college in Montreal. In 1922, he entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Guelph, Ontario, after which he was sent to Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, England, to study philosophy. In addition, he prepared for a B.A. degree at the University of London, taking classics, French, and mathematics.

At Heythrop College, Lonergan was introduced to a form of Scholastic philosophy that was heavily influenced by the writings of the Renaissance Jesuit, Francisco Suarez. Philosophy struck a chord in him. In a letter he wrote to a friend shortly after arriving, he described himself as being stung with a monomania for philosophy, and added that the theory of knowledge would likely be his special interest. Despite this, the Suarezian-influenced philosophy did not take root. To the young Lonergan, it seemed to have "absolutely no method"-it "wasn't going anywhere." He considered it as paling in comparison with mathematics, and as placing an excessive emphasis on immobile and abstract universal concepts.

Looking back on this period in later years, Lonergan remarked that his youthful study of mathematics had impressed upon him a respect and enthusiasm for intelligence, the concrete ability to figure things out, and had even enabled him to form "some idea" of what it is to understand. The major formative philosophical influence was John Henry Newman. In his third year, Lonergan began reading and labouring over Newman's Grammar of Assent. In the book's attention to the concrete workings of human intelligence, to "the mind as it moves in fact", and to the significance of the personal equation in such movements, Lonergan found a suggestive richness that the formulaic treatments of reasoning in logic textbooks could not match. Newman's presentation provided Lonergan with a fertile source from which he would later draw to clarify some of his inchoate convictions regarding human cognitional process. And Newman's method of attending to the concrete working of human intelligence suggested to him something of the manner in which philosophical investigations in this area could be fruitfully conducted.

On his return to Canada in the summer of 1930, Lonergan was assigned to teach a variety of courses at Loyola College. The country was in the grip of an economic depression. One proposed solution that was gaining adherents was Social Credit, which advocated that banks should issue and distribute money to offset the systematic deficiency in purchasing power. Lonergan's ethics professor at Heythrop had been particularly interested in the relation between morality and the economic process, and he had successfully communicated his interest to Lonergan. Now, back on Canadian soil, Lonergan's active pursuit of this interest was precipitated by the Social Credit movement.

The goals Social Credit sought-namely, to redress a current ruinous economic situation and prevent similar situations from arising in the future-were laudable. But Lonergan regarded the remedy as inflationary because it was not based on an accurate understanding of the dynamics of economics. And this occasioned a more general question for him, which, perhaps, was already present in Pope Leo XIII's advocacy of a living wage in the encyclical, Rerum Novarum: how does one intelligently apply moral precepts to the economic process? At least, he thought, by first attempting to understand accurately the dynamics involved in the process itself. And so for well over a decade Lonergan devoted snatches of free time and summer vacations to studying and writing on economic theory.

Probably in his second year of teaching, Lonergan read J.A. Stewart's polemical book, Plato's Doctrine of Ideas. Stewart proposed to begin with the psychological basis for the doctrine, with the experience that expresses itself in the doctrine. He argued that Plato was both a connoisseur of scientific method and a great artist, and that the psychological basis has both a methodological and an aesthetic aspect. In published comments, Lonergan refers especially to the methodological, remarking that his reading of Stewart's book precipitated a "great release", though he also indicates that at the time there were aspects of the release that remained unclear.

One clear effect, however, was to unsettle his attachment to nominalism. If universal concepts are Ideas, as Stewart interprets the term, then at least operationally, they are the expressive end-product of developing understanding. And developing understanding is the successful, continuous outcome of one's scientific or philosophic questioning of concrete data.

For the rest, Lonergan sought to explore the implications of the release by reading the early Platonic dialogues. He followed this up in the summer of 1933 with the early dialogues of Augustine, where Platonic influences are especially prevalent. To his surprise, he found that while Augustine places great emphasis on understanding (intelligere) and truth (veritas), he places little emphasis on universal concepts. Shortly after, Lonergan began dipping into parts of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae; and though it was not an in-depth study, it was sufficient for him to conclude that the prevailing low opinion of Aquinas' thought was unwarranted. Lonergan sought to develop a viable theory of intellect to replace the common Scholastic doctrine, placing the emphasis, not on the instruments of understanding (i.e., concepts), but on the act of understanding itself.

In the autumn of 1933, Lonergan was sent to study theology for four years at the Gregorian University in Rome. Told he would eventually be teaching philosophy, he maintained an active interest in philosophical issues while pursuing theological studies. His focus quickly became the philosophy of history. There was a connection between this and his interest in the dynamics of economics, for in both cases the underlying concern was for, what he would later call, the human good. The interest in the philosophy of history extended this concern beyond the limited perspective of economic activity and embraced the dynamics involved in the entire historical process of human progress and decline. Lonergan's goal was to commence a process that would eventually articulate in detail a Christian philosophy of history that would be of sufficient intellectual rigour to overturn the philosophy of history found in Hegel and Marx. Not surprisingly, then, all of the ideas he began to develop concerning the theoretical analysis of the historical process, and his discussions of the fundamental intertwining principles that give rise to human progress and decline, are placed explicitly within the context of the Christian understanding of the redemptive restoration brought about in human history by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By 1938, Lonergan had completed the normal course of Jesuit formation. Unexpectedly, the plans for his future academic career shifted. He was informed that he would be teaching theology at the Gregorian University. To prepare, he returned there to begin doctoral studies in theology.

Lonergan's respect for Aquinas had grown steadily during the years he had spent in Rome and he accepted his dissertation director's suggestion to examine a disputed issue of divine grace in Aquinas' writings.

The choice marked a turning-point in Lonergan's life. Not only did it require that he grapple directly with a precise point in the development of Aquinas' theological thought; it also required that he undertake a subsidiary philosophical analysis of Aquinas' theory of the human will, of its freedom and the limit to its freedom, and of how God operates on the will without detriment to its freedom. For Lonergan, the choice was the beginning of what would prove to be eleven years devoted to "reaching up to the mind of Aquinas". And those eleven years, he remarked later, changed him profoundly.

In 1940, the war in Europe precipitated Lonergan's return to Canada, where he was assigned to the Collége de L'Immaculée-Conception, the Jesuit scholasticate in Montreal. During his first years, he recast his dissertation into a series of four articles and published them in the journal, Theological Studies. He followed this up between 1946 and 1949 with a series of five articles which investigated what Aquinas meant by the term "understanding" (intelligere), and by the claim that there are two intelligible emanations in human rationality relevant for achieving some theological understanding of the Trinity: one, that of an "inner word" (verbum) from understanding; the other, that of love from understanding and an "inner word". The context for the entire discussion is the theological understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and Aquinas' contribution to it. As with the first series of articles, so here, philosophical investigations served theology.

From 1947 to 1953, Lonergan taught theology at Regis College, Toronto. It was there in 1949 that he began writing what was to be his biggest and arguably his greatest work. He intended to write on theological method and to include a more general exploration of cognitional procedures. However, the shape of the work changed in 1952 when he was informed that he would be teaching theology at the Gregorian University. He curtailed the planned work by omitting the investigation of theological method and then rounded off what he had written at the philosophical level. The result was eventually published as a book in 1957, under the title, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. That book, now in its fifth edition, has remained in print ever since.

For the next twelve years, Lonergan taught theology at the Gregorian University. He published several Latin texts on Trinitarian theology and Christology. But the issue of theological method continued as a nagging undertow of concern.

The central difficulty Lonergan grappled with in these years concerned acknowledging and systematically introducing and integrating the notion of human historicity into Catholic theology. This involved a struggle to enlarge the concept of theology beyond what was implied in its common description as simply faith seeking understanding. In 1959, he began giving courses which focused on the new questions historicity poses for theology. One of the key notions concerned the differentiations of consciousness. However, it was not until February of 1965 that he achieved the fundamental breakthrough that would inform his thinking on theological method for the rest of his academic career.

In the introduction to Insight, Lonergan had asked rhetorically, "...what ultimately is the nature and ground of method but a reflective grasp and specialized application of...the dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in human cognitional activity?" The dynamic structure itself now became the primary meaning of method for Lonergan: method refers not to any set of rules, but to the "normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results." These operations are conscious and intentional. To conceive theology according to this sense of method, therefore, is to conceive theological investigation as a pattern of recurrent conscious and intentional operations that can yield cumulative and progressive results.

Lonergan envisaged the fundamental role of theology to be to mediate "between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of religion in that matrix." And he offered his methodical restructuring of theology as a framework that would promote collaborative co-operation and responsible creativity among theologians, and thereby enable theology to perform its fundamental role more effectively. In 1972, his published statement finally appeared in book form under the title, Method in Theology.

Lonergan retired from the Gregorian University in 1965 because of ill-health and returned to Regis College. Apart from the 1971-72 academic year when he was the Stillman Professor at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he spent the next ten years at Regis College as Research Professor of Theology. He continued to lecture and write on theology and theological method, and on related philosophical issues. Naturally, with the breakthrough of 1965, and the publication of Method in Theology in 1972, much of his academic activity was directly or indirectly related to that work.

In 1975, Lonergan became the Visiting Distinguished Professor at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A surprising feature of these final years of his academic career was his return to issues in economics and the dynamics of history. In 1944, he had completed a manuscript, entitled An Essay in Circulation Analysis. At the time, Lonergan showed it to several economists and received a less than enthusiastic response, and so he laid it aside. This manuscript, together with some material from earlier work on the dialectic of history, now became the basic texts for the course he gave at Boston College, entitled "Macroeconomics and the Dialectic of History". Failing health finally forced him to retire from academic life early in 1983. These last years of teaching did, however, provide him with an opportunity to revise, update, and add to his 1944 manuscript, and to communicate his thoughts to a new generation of students.

*** "Bernard Lonergan's Collected Works suggest radical refinements and profound enrichments of our late twentieth-century culture that could emerge from following with utmost seriousness the advice given to Socrates by the oracle of Delphi, `Know thyself.'" (Michael Vertin, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, University of Toronto)

The seven volumes of Lonergan's Collected Works published thus far by University of Toronto Press draw from the years 1942 to 1965. Three of these-Verbum, Insight, and Understanding and Being-are closely connected.

Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Volume 3, 875 pages, $35 paper), is the centre-piece and Lonergan's major philosophical work. By any standard it is a formidable work. But the difficulty it poses for the reader is not simply of the kind associated with any major philosophical work. The principal challenge is to read it in the way the author intends: "...the aim is not to set forth a list of the abstract properties of human knowledge but to assist the reader in effecting a personal appropriation of the concrete dynamic structure immanent and recurrently operative in his own cognitional activities." The book's aim is to aid a process of development. To read it in the way Lonergan intends, then, is to take up his invitation and refer continually to one's own experience of one's cognitional activity, all the while testing whether one can identify and affirm Lonergan's statement of the dynamic cognitional structure; and if so, whether one can accept whatever implications and shifts in orientation such an affirmation may involve. The principal challenge of the book, then, is what it asks of the reader.

Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Volume 2, 320 pages, $65 cloth, $24.95 paper), indicates the historical lineage of Insight. It presents the five articles published between 1946 and 1949 and deals, in part, with what Aquinas meant by "understanding" and by the intelligible procession of an "inner word" from understanding.

Aristotle's thought, and in particular his metaphysical psychology, provides the basic framework. But Lonergan argues that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, that framework, though couched in metaphysical terms which do not expressly refer to the data of consciousness, is nonetheless informed by a remarkably skillful attentiveness to the concrete workings of the mind. Thus, Lonergan argues that both were aware of the act of understanding. And in the case of Aquinas, Lonergan marshals and synthesizes an impressive array of textual evidence in support of the claim that not only was Aquinas aware of the act of understanding, he was also aware of the two distinct kinds of understanding-one consciously expressing itself in conception, the other consciously expressing itself in judgement-and that he made the act of understanding central in his psychology. Lonergan argues, this is essential to make sense of Aquinas' claims that only rational creatures offer an analogy for the trinitarian processions and that the analogy lies precisely in their rationality.

Understanding and Being, edited by Elizabeth A. Morelli and Mark D. Morelli, revised by Frederick E. Crowe et al. (Volume 5, 467 pages, $60 cloth, $21.95 paper), started as a series of ten lectures on Insight that Lonergan gave in August 1958 at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. The text, based on tape-recordings augmented by listeners' notes, is an edited version of these lectures, together with five sets of evening discussions in which participants question Lonergan on Insight and the content of the lectures.

Lonergan reflects on what he wrote in Insight for an audience whose mentality is formed by Scholastic philosophy. The particular hurdle he faced was the tendency of some audience members to consider his position infected with Cartesian or Kantian presuppositions. Lonergan, therefore, thought it useful to start with a discussion of the development he was attempting to facilitate in the reader in writing Insight, and its significance for philosophy. This initial discussion provides the framework for the remaining lectures.

The style of Understanding and Being is less that of an author writing a book and more that of a teacher talking and instinctively using a variety of approaches to communicate his meaning. It does not have the unrelenting intellectual intensity of Insight. Although most readers today probably do not share the mentality of the original audience, the text is valuable precisely because of its less forbidding style. It eases one into the more difficult and more precisely expressed discussions of Insight. Often Lonergan makes the same or similar points in a slightly different way or from a different perspective; often he clarifies why precisely he expressed himself in Insight in the manner he did. Understanding and Being, then, is valuable as an ancillary and more accessible text to be read as one struggles with Insight.

Topics in Education, edited by Robert M. Doran and Frederick E. Crowe (Volume 10, 308 pages, $24.95 paper), presents for the first time in published form a series of lectures on the philosophy of education that Lonergan gave in August 1959 at Xavier University, Cincinnati. Applied to the field of education, Lonergan contends, a philosophia perennis needs to develop to the point where it can systematically account for and integrate the notions of individual and social development and speak specifically to the present milieu in which individuals are educated. Only then would it become a philosophy of education with "a vision, an understanding, a principle of integration and judgment", and one able to replace purely secular philosophies of education.

Collection, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Volume 4, 349 pages, $19.95 paper), gathers together sixteen of Lonergan's papers from 1943 to the mid-sixties. The selection was originally made by taking Lonergan's shorter writings, excluding those that belonged to certain categories, and publishing what remained. It is hardly surprising, then, that no single theme runs through them all.

Three of the papers, however, can be singled out. "Finality, Love, Marriage" is a somewhat neglected "preliminary speculative outline" of the place of marriage in "the general field of human process", its contribution to human flourishing, and the Catholic understanding of its redemptive role. Originally published in 1943, the essay is remarkable for the way in which it manages to present and enrich a traditional Catholic understanding of the meaning and purpose of marriage. "Christ as Subject: A Reply", first published in 1959, is Lonergan's vigorous response to a vigorous critical evaluation of his speculative Christology. The value of the discussion for the general reader lies not in the particular issues of Christology it treats, but in the paper's exceptionally clear discussion of consciousness and the difference between a correct and a common but mistaken understanding of consciousness. "Cognitional Structure", finally, is a seventeen-page summary of key positions concerned with human knowing and objectivity advanced in the central chapters of Insight.

The eleven lectures brought together in Philosophical & Theological Papers, 1958-64, edited by Robert C. Croken, Frederick E. Crowe, and Robert M. Doran (Volume 6, 306 pages, $60 cloth, $19.95 paper), are drawn from the period when Lonergan taught at the Gregorian University in Rome. They capture well the transitional phase in Lonergan's intellectual development, as he struggled with the issue of theological method and the integration of human historicity into the methodological restructuring of theology.

For a New Political Economy, edited by Philip McShane (Volume 21, 346 pages, $70 cloth, $24.95 paper), is the most recent volume of Lonergan's Collected Works to appear. It will be followed soon by a companion volume entitled, Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis. For a New Political Economy makes available for the first time Lonergan's finished texts and extensive fragmentary explorations on economics from the early forties, in which his explicit concern is for "a new world order of culture and economics in the enlightened self-interest not of the few but of the many."

*** Early in his career Lonergan took to heart the programme of intellectual renewal initiated by Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Aeterni Patris: to augment and perfect the old by means of the new. The old referred to here is an inheritance that stretches back centuries. Against such a background, the new need not be understood as referring just to new discoveries or to new knowledge, but, more fundamentally, to the new methods of investigation, from which discoveries and new knowledge emerge. It refers, namely, to the shift away from the Aristotelian to the modern notion of science, and to the emergence of modern historical scholarship and the other human sciences such as economics, psychology, and sociology.

It is from this perspective that the manner in which Lonergan went about implementing the programme announced in Aeterni Patris can be considered as uniquely comprehensive. Philip McShane, the editor of For a New Political Economy, and someone conversant with all facets of Lonergan's thought, once posed the simple-sounding question: "What is Lonergan getting at?" He did not respond by mentioning some foundational or core set of propositions, or some basic intuition from which all else flows. His answer, somewhat uncomfortably, is that what Lonergan is getting at is you and me. Part of what he meant is that Lonergan is intent on facilitating in people their own self-discovery of what they themselves are. Lonergan's greatest work, Insight, has been described as "the log of a voyage of discovery in the realm of mind." But it is not a log in which the reader is meant merely to observe someone describing events as strange and as unfamiliar as Plotinus' vision of the One. It is a log that invites every reader to participate in the same voyage of discovery. It seeks to facilitate in every reader a capacity to identify and objectify the various kinds of conscious and intentional operations they themselves engage in, and the normative pattern in which they occur, and so come to an understanding and affirmation of what they themselves are.

Such explicit self-knowledge can function as a fixed base that underpins and integrates every special method. "Thoroughly understand what it is to understand," Lonergan wrote in the introduction to Insight, "and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding." Nor is this self-knowledge of purely theoretical significance. In a discarded preface to Insight, Lonergan remarked that in the midst of the widespread disorientation in the twentieth century brought about by the advance of human knowledge, the problem of self-knowledge ceases to be the individual concern inculcated by the ancient sage and takes on the dimension of a social crisis. If human intelligence and reasonableness, human responsibility and freedom are to prevail, he wrote, "then they must be summoned from the dim and confused realm of latent factors, and they must burst forth in the full power of self-awareness and self-possession."

In later years, Lonergan would achieve a greater concrete precision of expression and speak of the self-knowledge that underpins all special methods as including the following: cognitional theory, which tells what one is doing when one is coming to know; epistemology, which explains why performing the operations set forth in cognitional theory is knowing; metaphysics, which sets forth what in general one knows in performing cognitional operations; and existential ethics, in which one comes to the concrete realization that one has to decide for oneself what one is to do with one's life. For the later Lonergan, the compound of cognitional theory, epistemology, metaphysics, and existential ethics constitutes the total and basic science that underpins all special methods and provides the criterion for identifying and criticizing all departures from intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility.

Bernard Lonergan's contribution to implementing a programme of intellectual renewal is unequalled for its comprehensive significance, its potential to integrate, and its validity for the future. He is undoubtedly among the greatest Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century. 

Originally from Australia, Danniel Monsour is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He is writing his dissertation on Lonergan.


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