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The Joseph Flanagan Interview

Conducted by Peter Monette and Paul Allen, © 1997, The Lonergan Web Site, All Rights Reserved.

We sat down with Fr. Joe Flanagan, SJ, during one of the lunch breaks at the Lonergan Workshop at Boston College, June 1997. Flanagan is a professor in philosophy at Boston College and director of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College. The basic context of the interview emerged from the recent publication of Flanagan's new book, The Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan's Philosophy (Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 1997). (For a review of this book go to our Book Review page.) The forty-five minutes we requested for the interview quickly became ninety minutes by virtue of Joe's friendly style of intermeshing wonderful stories amidst his well thought out answers. We at the Lonergan Web Site are pleased to provide the following interview with Joe Flanagan.


When were you first introduced to Bernard Lonergan and at what point did you discover the significance of his work for your own?

I was in the first class of Jesuits at Weston College being taught Thomism by order of Rome. Up until that point most of the Jesuit professors at Boston College were what we called Suarezians in the pejorative sense of the term. They were referred to as conceptualists and accidentialists--all those kinds of words that were popular back in the fifties to put people down if you didn't particularly approve of their philosophy. We felt ourselves as young Turks who were on the cutting edge of a revolution. So we got involved in all sorts of endless discussions (that was the time in our lives when we would stay up late at night talking philosophy. It all seems so funny now.) That was the time of youthful rebellion and it was a rather vital intellectual environment among a group of students that were there. I got involved with two who were particularly gifted (All my life I found that it is very important that, if you have only ordinary abilities, to find people who have unusual abilities because they can continually provide you with challenges and norms and help to you move ahead.) There were these two fellas who were extremely gifted. One was Walter Greenwood. He had been at Harvard and was an extraordinary gifted person, a couple of years later predicted to us what Insight was going to be before it was ever written! The other person was Bob Richards. Bob went to Rome and did his thesis under Bernie Lonergan. We got involved in the famous discussion about the difference between the analogy of proportionality and the analogy of attribution (that was a very important philosophical problem to us [laughter]). I didn't have the slightest idea at that time that the difference between those two is really the difference between descriptive knowing and explanatory knowing. I can't think of a more important distinction to try to communicate to people in order for them to get a hold of what Lonergan is doing; to move from a descriptive pattern of knowing into an explanatory pattern. It took me along time to figure out what Lonergan meant by nominal definitions to move to descriptive definitions then on to explanatory and implicit definitions. At any rate this was high drama, this great debate that we thought we were involved in and it was somewhat important. So we had divided the world into essentialists, who were analogy of attributions, and the real intellectuals, who appreciated the importance of the analogy of proportionality. We would share articles and things like that with one another. One day a friend threw an article on my bed and said, "Read this. This guy has something to say!". It was the first of the Verbum articles. We all got terribly interested in the Verbum articles. So that was my introduction to Lonergan. (For a review of Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas vist our Book Review page.)

At any rate, I met Bernie at Boston College when Freddie Appleten brought him to here to do a workshop in Math/Logic. And another week on his notes on Existentialism which everyone was interested in. We were very much taken by his interpretation of Jaspers, Heidegger, Hussel. So the conversation kept going. Then we gradually became friends.

What would you say is the most valuable contribution that your students have received over the years from Lonergan's work?

Well the nicest compliment I ever received was from Walter Conn in the preface of his first book, Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender, where he said that he wanted to thank me that I had been introducing students to themselves for the last twenty years. And that's what Bernie does. He introduces you to yourself. So anyone who teaches Lonergan is introducing people to themselves and if you get to chapter nineteen of Insight, you introduce the person to God.

What motivated you to write your new book Quest for Self-Knowledge?

My main reason is the fact that chapters 1-5 of Insight were written at most to 5 percent of the human population that can do math and science with facility and comfort. My experience is that most students when they have the chance, choose never to take a math course. They may choose to take a science course, but it is usually not going to be physics. It might be biology they will choose because it's not mathematical the way in which physics and chemistry are. That seemed to me to be a major stumbling block in getting readers to get involved with Insight. I was one of those people. I remember the time when Pat Byrne got an insight into what Lonergan meant by "etc." in the number sequence.[See pages 13 and 14 of Insight or page 38 of the Collected Works volume 3.] That "etc." means that you have discovered that there is an operation behind the numbers and that the operation can go on. Pat was all excited as anyone is when we get an insight. So we were discussing the insight and he was sharing it was with us--we had not got the insight at that time--so Pat was saying "Well how could you read Insight without this insight?"[laughter]

Take the examples of an inverse insight from chapter one of Insight. There are two from physics and two from math. The two from math are the square root of two and non-countable multitudes--that's the history of mathematics. And the two from physics are Newton's inverse insight and Einstein expanding of that insight--two of the great moments in the history of science. But to understand those four examples requires a considerable facility in mathematics and physics. I started teaching in the sixties the philosophy of (in a paper somewhere Bernie writes that Insight is a philosophy of...) history, education, law, sociology, art, science because it seemed to me that this was the way of somehow getting hold of what was going on in Insight.

Here at Boston College we got involved in interdisciplinary programs which proved another ground for understanding what Lonergan was doing. We developed this program Perspectives at Boston College. One of the most important parts of the Perspectives Program is Perspective Four. They really are philosophy of... courses. It's philosophy of theology--history of the great theological and philosophical thinkers. Perspectives Three is the social sciences which complements Perspective One. Perspective Two is about art, literature, poetry, music, sculpture. But, Perspective Four (and they are not in any sequence so that students can take them at any level) is the history of math and science. I taught the Perspective Four course. Gradually, by teaching this course I forced myself to figure out what the history of math and science was about.

Now, chapter two of my book Quest for Self-Knowledge (which took me 10 years to write, because it's the history of math and physics) aims to help people get into chapters one to five in Insight. I started teaching Insight here at Boston College in 1964, I would give a little bit about chapters one to five but I would drop out all the tough stuff. As soon as you get to chapters 6 and 7, the students say "Oh, this is great!". It's common sense--appropriate what you're doing--that's descriptive knowing and deals with concrete particulars. If you don't get into these chapters in Insight you can never come to a full appreciation of the tremendous significance of the shift from descriptive knowing to explanatory knowing. So I think that this was the major purpose in writing the book Quest for Self-Knowledge--to move people, who are not mathematically gifted, from descriptive knowing to explanatory knowing.

Can you say some more about Lonergan's role in the critique of contemporary Western society and, therefore, what your thoughts are on Lonergan's significance for the next century?

Let me answer both questions with one word: method--that's the key. Lonergan liked to quote Herbert Butterfield's statement that the single most important event in the last two thousand years since the birth of Christ was the emergence of 17th century science. Now, it took me a little while to realize that he didn't think that the development of Newton's physics was the significant event, because certainly for the Enlightenment culture that was the great moment, but rather the significant event was the emergence of a new method of doing physics and mathematics. The statement I think you can learn a lot from--if you think about it--is that scientists don't put their trust primarily in Newton's theory, or Einstein's theory, or Darwin's theory. Fundamentally they trust the method by which Newton developed his physics, or Darwin developed his theory of evolution. This is so, because the method by which you develop physics is going to be the method you correct Newton's theory or Darwin's theory. The method is the pattern of operations that the physicist use to develop theory. Those same operations, because they have an unrestricted objective, are always open to further questions about any theory that is developed. Therefore, they will always be open to correcting prior theories and moving on.

I remember that Bernie made the statement in Halifax that if you want to know what life is, then be a biologist. That shook me up because in the scholastic tradition everyone assumed that the metaphysician has this very special role in the university, that they know deep down, underneath, what reality really is. Whereas the physicist and the chemist and everyone else, only know how reality appears to them. They don't really know what being\ reality is, whereas, the metaphysician does. That's why it's terribly important to get some idea of the meaning of the word heuristic. An heuristic orientates you towards an unknown. One of the easiest ways to get at the difference between traditional metaphysics and Bernie's metaphysics is that you don't know what being is in Bernie's metaphysics. In the traditional metaphysics you already knew what being was--it's out-there-now-real, it's existential--all the usual ways of describing it.

I think that it's very important to realize what Bernie means by a method and the definition he gives. You know he takes all of chapter three of Insight--the canons of empirical method--and he gives this nice neat definition in Method in Theology; a method is a normative set of operations that lead to cumulative and progressive results. Now, that meaning of the word method can be the method of the biologist, or the physicist, or the sociologist. But the importance is the term normative pattern. The method has built in norms to it that direct and guide you towards an objective. (As I discuss in my second chapter of Quest for Self-Knowledge, Francois Vieta, the mathematian who was only discovered twenty or thirty years ago, is the key figure before Descartes. Everyone thinks that Descartes is the key figure in mathematics, but the first person to say, "Let x equal the unknown" was Vieta. So the shift from knowns to unknowns is a crucial step.) But even more important for mathematics was that once it discovered the method to approaching problems it took off. And it's been cumulative and progressive results ever since. Mathematics is just moving steadily ahead. Physics has moved steadily ahead.

We at Boston College are going to spend 78 million dollars to double the space of the biology and physics building. I can't think of a better way to spend the money because if there is one thing that we can be certain of is that 50 years from now physics and biology are not going to be less important then today because there's a method from which they develop a moving viewpoint. And they will kept moving. What is energizing this is an unrestricted desire and unrestricted means there are no limits.

Lonergan realised that if you look at the history of philosophy it doesn't seem to make much progress. The problem with scholastism was that they got into endless disputes like the one I talked about--the analogy of proportionality versus the analogy of attribution. But where were the norms for distinguishing which was the correct analogy or which was partially correct? How could you appeal to some data? The scientist learned to appeal to data ( and it's frequently mistaken to think that just an appeal to data is the scientific method--but we'll skip that). For Lonergan, it is the idea of appealing to the data of your own consciousness. I have had many experiences with students, if they catch on to the fact that they are in the process of appropriating themselves and they get some insights into that, then they are hooked, because they have met themselves. I tell my students, "There is only one thing you have to learn in college and that is that you have a mind and it's fun to use it. Once that happens you're educated!". Students don't think that going to class is fun--it's a drudgery. But if you discover that--wait a minute--although someone else had this insight before me, I just had it, and it's really fun to have it. It's quite exciting. You proceed from yourself. Your insights come from you. You are in the process of self-discovery and self-knowing.

This is another reason I use the term "Quest for Self-Knowledge". I remember when I first read the line from Lonergan that the direct corollary of metaphysics is how much you know about yourself. People thought that metaphysics was all about objects. However, Lonergan is saying that the key to metaphysics is discovering who you are--subject knowing. That was just the opposite of what I was taught. (I've spent my life time unlearning. I had all these residue images of which I needed to purge myself! And they limited me, but I didn't know it until I confronted them.)

Lonergan's major contribution to human history is that he taught how scientists were using their minds methodically. We've had terrific disputes in the social sciences because they haven't clarified just what their method is. (For example, in our department of philosophy we had huge disputes back in the sixties about whether to teach philosophy systematically or historically. For four years that was a very heated dispute in our department. I don't know when the arguement stopped! It stopped sometime in the seventies. I remember asking one day, "What happened to the arguement?!" It just went away. Everyone was doing history.) We know from Lonergan that it's got to be historical--all human sciences are historical. It seems to me that with Lonergan, what is characteristic of the third stage of meaning is method. It is that philosophy, through interiority, has become a foundational method. A foundational method meaning it's the foundation of all other methods. It knows what the methods of physics are, what the methods of the human sciences are. As Bernie said, "You don't have to use the method, but there's a lot to be gained by it." It gives you normative ways to solve disputes, normative ways to move ahead steadily, progressively. You don't have to be a genius to get steadily moving insights. You just have to be introduced to yourself--to the way that you can verify ideas within your own conscious data. And you'll have a normative way of solving problems for yourself. So, it seems to me that's why we can be sure that Bernie's work is going to be more and more important as the years go by.

Thank you very much Joe for this time!

Monette, Peter and Allen, Paul. The Josesph Flanagan Interview for The Lonergan Web Site. 01 Aug. 1997. < http://www.lonergan.on.ca/flan.htm > (Your access date).

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