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The Philip McShane Interview

We sat down with Philip McShane on January 9, 1998. We had previously sent Dr. McShane a copy of our questions which were designed from the many questions we received from our visitors. The interview itself lasted just over three hours. The overall tone of the interview was one of a gentle conversation through which Dr. McShane, in a sense, addressed all our questions in responding to the first question! Dr. McShane easily moved from insightful comments about Lonergan studies to stories of the times he had with "Bernie". Unfortunately for the LWS, our troubles began once the interview stopped. For some unknown reason parts of the interview have been erased from the audio tape. This made some of the interview incomprehensible. Since Dr. McShane provided us with a written response to our questions, we felt that it would be important to have these available. In the meantime, we are attempting both to correct the transcript of the interview and to arrange for a second interview. Therefore, the following is Dr. McShane's written reponse to our questions. © 1998, All Rights Reserved.

Tell us how you were introduced to Lonergan.

I was introduced to Lonergan by Chopin and Cantor and Schroedinger and various distresses of quest: that's the "how". What I mean is that the reaching involved in enthralment with music and mathematics and space-time structure etc. led me into the self-discovery process. More superficially, I was introduced to Lonergan's Verbum and Insight over 40 years ago by a Fr. John Hyde when I began philosophy after graduate work in mathematical science. It is, perhaps, both interesting and helpful to recall that my breakthrough on extreme realism came through reading about dogs knowing their masters etc. in Verbum, probably, in 1958, since that was the topic of my first conversation with Lonergan in Dublin in 1961.


Does Lonergan, in his economic writings, have a view of the purpose of the redistributive function of economic circuits? Of the concentration of economic resources? On the "public" nature of environmental goods, such as clean air?

The key to glimpsing the importance of Lonergan's economics as an answer to financial, distribution, investment, development etc. problems is to advert to some model of massive scientific shifting. In the early seventies my own parallel was expressed by claiming that Lonergan had leaped from Brahe to Laplace in a decade. More recently I find that analogy from chemistry useful, both for economics and for theology. Economics at present is in a pre-Lavoisier state. There are pointers in the works of Schumpeter and Kalecki, but Lonergan represents a profound shift to precise explanatory variables and to a fresh view of scientific control.

Do you have an appraisal of Paul Krugman's recent work in economics? Perhaps a contrasting notion of the self between yourself and Krugman?

So, in that light, work like that of Krugman or Omerod can be seen as expressing popular discontent, but contains no theoretic advances. Moreover, Lonergan's heuristic notion of the self in history was a vastly remote perspective in deep contrast with the surface searchings of such literatures.

Lonergan apparently criticized bureaucracy and the welfare state while emphasizing innovation. What are the implications of these critiques?

Certainly, there is a massive gain to be reached, but only slowly. Lonergan's first communication to me about his economic manuscript in 1968 mentioned the need to get beyond discussions of the family wages. What Lonergan offers grounds both a theory of distribution and a perspective on third-world development: I have described this latter as Operation WHALE in the little book, A Brief History of Tongue.

Do you know of any applications of Lonergan's circulation analysis? Some have raised questions about a) the Santa Fe Institute, b) the Mondragon Project in Spain and c) the Louisiana Prosperity Corporation in relation to your work and Lonergan's.

You have to get back here to my analogy with chemistry. The application of the Meyer-Mendelieff discovery of the periodic table was, first, a slow change in the perspective of research chemistry, then a change in the Journals and Publications of Chemistry in the closing decades of the 19th century. Concrete applications are the manifest realities of the twentieth century. So, in economics, there must be a beginning - against a massive economic establishment - in accepting the significance of the fundamental variables of the analysis. Following that, there should be a slow recasting of theoretic structures and statistical information revealing the folly of most of present economic policies. Some of the follies, of course, do not need a massive theoretical basis of criticism. Books like Susan George's A Fate Worse than Debt (Penguin, 1989) and Michael Barratt Brown's Africa's Choice (Penguin, 1995) are very enlightening about present stupidity and greed.


Several have asked about Lonergan's "objective" account of human knowing in the current atmosphere of postmodernism. What is key about Lonergan's understanding of knowledge in this context?

The key thing about Lonergan is to forget about Lonergan and have a shot at finding the presuppositions of your own decision to talk or write. Either you come to glimpse that you were carried forward to express yourself by the dynamics of your molecules and mind or you have to settle honestly for the silence of the monkey at a computer. Of course, if you are a postmodernist, you find that suggestion offensive: but then you cannot afford to speak out lucidly what you mean by "offensive", or what you mean when you claim that lucidity is an impossible goal. Postmodernism is just the most recent expression of axial and truncated fragmentation but within its sophistications are seeds of its own sublation to post-axiallity. Further, you have to view these seeds in the context of Lonergan's full normative view of human knowledge as an eightfold global collaboration. The shambles of present academic work agonizes towards that collaboration.

The couplet "anamnesis-prolepsis" appears in your writings in relation to "foundation persons" and "elders" - what are you referring to here?

I might use a different couplet here to start a shake-up: Body-building and Fantasy. By "body-building" I mean a phyletic reaching of Proustian memory that would carry the foundations person across what I call "the bridge of bones" ("Features of Generalized Empirical Method"), some personal agony of displacement to overcome the millennia in which "the social situation deteriorates cumulatively" (Insight, ch. 7). To begin to envisage that, of course, calls for the second member of the couplet, Fantasy. What might it be like to break forward into the second time of the temporal subject, to a mediated compactness? The notion of Elder or Ken-Mistress - brings up the sore topic of adult growth. It was not a problem in the first time of the temporal subject, pre-axial time. It is an axial problem which you can connect with Maslow's view of "less than 1% grow". Great people have a sense of it: Beethoven, Cezanne, Joyce, VonKarajan, Merc Cunningham.

What is the possible benefit of General Empirical Method to Theories of Everything in cosmology?

One must distinguish two meanings of cosmology: a theoretical orientation of physico-chemistry; a general heuristics. The search for a Theory of Everything is connected to the search for some unified field theory, a legitimate search for a concretely referent integral geometry. It is, at present, a messy and truncated search. It calls, indeed, for the perspective of a general heuristic. I made a beginning on that in Randomness, Statistics and Emergence, but one has to follow up a lot more of Lonergan's suggestions, in the full context of modern physics, mathematics and logic, to have a luminously-correct theory of everything physico-chemical.

Tell us about your new book A Brief History of Tongue. Does this mark a return to earlier interests in a philosophy of science?

I have been preoccupied with science for fifty years. The present book is simply an effort to push linguistics forward towards a new grounding both in functional specialization - or its sublation, hodik logic - and in a fuller heuristic of linguistic universals.

What is your evaluation of the current state of Lonergan scholarship?

The fundamental significance of Lonergan's work will be the implementation of his normative view of collaboration in what Simmel called Die Wendung zur Idee. That significance will become an efficient reality in so far as academics are carried forward into that collaboration by enlightened emergent probability. In particular I would note the need to take Method in Theology, p. 250 seriously. The page describes brutally the process of dialectic analysis. Recall what I said earlier about Lavoisier. Dialectic essays comparing Lonergan and x are like Phlogiston chemistry.

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