Front Page


The Transcendental Method of Bernard Lonergan

By R. Jeffrey Grace

I. Introduction

      Fr. Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. was a member of the Thomistic school, a tradition which contains a variety of interpretations of the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Fr. Lonergan is situated within the Thomistic tradition that is known as the Louvain tradition, which began at the University of Louvain's Higher Institute of Philosophy which was founded in 1889 at the request of Pope Leo XIII. The thrust of this school was " engage in vital dialogue with post-Kantian philosophical currents then active, and to confront the traditional philosophy with the findings of modern science." 1 The members of this school saw their task as being the epistemological justification of metaphysics and the preservation of the faith in the face of the Kantian critique of knowledge which had left the human mind unable to claim any knowledge of "reality as such" in the realm of speculation.

     This paper will consist of a sketch of Fr. Lonergan's contribution to this endeavor, his transcendental method, and will summarize the criticisms of this method that have been leveled from within the Thomistic school as well as from other perspectives within the philosophical community.

II. The Transcendental Method

Fr. Lonergan begins his explanation of his method in the following way:

First, we shall appeal to the successful sciences to form a preliminary notion of method. Secondly, we shall go behind the procedures of the natural sciences to something both more general and more fundamental, namely, the procedures of the human mind. Thirdly, in the procedures of the human mind we shall discern a transcendental method, that is, a basic pattern of operations employed in every cognitional enterprise. Fourthly, we shall indicate the relevance of transcendental method in the formulation of other, more special methods appropriate to particular fields.2

     Human beings are questioners. Everyone is familiar with the stage that a child goes through when it has finally begun to master language. The child is full of questions: "Why?", "How come?", "What is that?", ad infinum. This basic drive to question the world is continued in the life of the adult. It is what Aristotle described as "Wonder", the basic drive to know. It is what drives the sciences. Fr. Lonergan, following the lead of Emerich Coreth, S.J. (b.1919),"... a professor of philosophy at Innsbruck..."3, sees a basic pattern of operations in this drive to know, which:

...are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, inquiring, imagining, understanding, conceiving, formulating, reflecting, marshalling and weighing the evidence, judging, deliberating, evaluating, deciding, speaking, writing.4

     All of these operations are directed towards, intend, an object, and the operations are the operations of a subject. The subject is aware of these operations. Introspection is the word, which must be understood to signify what the subject does when the contents of consciousness are objectified:

Just as we move from the data of sense through inquiry, insight, reflection, judgment, to statements about sensible things, so too we move from the data of consciousness through inquiry, understanding, reflection, judgment, to statements about conscious subjects and their operations. 5

     Furthermore, these operations take place at different levels of consciousness and have different intentions. These "...different levels of consciousness and intentionality have to be distinguished."6 These levels of consciousness are:

  1. empirical, which is the level of the sensual;
  2. intellectual, which is the level of inquiry, understanding, and expression;
  3. rational, which is the level of reflection and judgment upon the truth or falsity of a proposition; and
  4. responsible, which is the level of applying what we know to ourselves and come to a decision about how we should then act, given what we know. As we progress through these levels of consciousness, we become aware of a fuller self, "...and the awareness itself is different."7

     These different levels of consciousness are accompanied by different levels, different modes, of intention. The sensual intending is an attending to the datum of the senses. " normally is selective but not creative."8 The imaginative intending is creative, representative. Conceptual intending combines the contents of the imagination and insight. "...the result is the intending of any concrete being selected by an incompletely determinate...content."9

However, the most fundamental difference in modes of intending lies between the categorical and the transcendental. Categories are determinations. They have a limited denotation. They vary with cultural variations. In contrast, the transcendentals are comprehensive in connotation, unrestricted in denotation, invariant over cultural change. While categories are needed to put determinate questions and give determinate answers, the transcendentals are contained in questions prior to answers.10

     These transcendental modes of intending are the objectification of the contents of the categorical modes of intention. The transcendental concept of the intelligible is formulated by objectifying the content of intelligible intending; the transcendental concept of value is formulated by objectifying the content of the responsible intending, etc. The transcendentals are "...the radical intending that moves us from ignorance to knowledge. They are a priori because they go beyond what we know to seek what we do not know yet."11

     In addition to these transcendental concepts, there is the "...prior transcendental notions that constitute the very dynamism of our conscious intending..."12 This dynamism is the condition of, rather than the product of, cultural advance.

     The objects that are intended by these operations are of two types: elementary and compound. Correspondingly, the cognitional operations are elementary and compound. The elementary would be seeing, hearing, understanding. The compound would be "...the conjunction of several instances of elementary knowing into a single knowing."13This compounding is done by the transcendental notions "...which, from the beginning, intend the unknown that, gradually, becomes better known."14As a result, our experience of the universe is an experience, ultimately, of the real as such.

But as the many elementary objects are constructed into larger wholes, as the many operations are conjoined in a single compound knowing, so too the many levels of consciousness are just successive stages in the unfolding of the 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.15

     So the conscious and intentional operations of the conscious subject are:

  1. experiencing,
  2. understanding,
  3. judging, and
  4. deciding.

     These operations are objectified by the conscious subject. The subject can

  1. experience himself experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding,
  2. understand his experienced experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding,
  3. affirm his experienced experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding, and
  4. decide to "...operate in accord with the norms immanent in the spontaneous relatedness of (his) experienced, understood, affirmed experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding."16

     The operations not only intend an object, they also reveal a subject who is intending. "It is an awareness, not of what is intended, but of the intending."17 This is a movement beyond the spontaneous sensitivity that is operating at the level of the senses. It is a movement of understanding, in which the intelligent subject emerges.

     No one can deny that these operations exist and that they happen. To do so would be tantamount to disqualifying himself as non-responsible, non-reasonable, non-intelligent, and fast asleep. Anyone who would deny that they occur as described by Fr. Lonergan would have to consider the following:

The answer to this, of course, is that we do not experience the operations in isolation and then, by a process of inquiry and discovery, arrive at the pattern of relations that link them together. On the contrary, the unity of consciousness is itself given; the pattern of operations is part of the experience of the operations; and inquiry and discovery are needed, not to effect the synthesis of a manifold that, as given, is unrelated, but to analyze a functional and functioning unity.18

     This pattern can undergo revision only if certain conditions are met. If anything has been overlooked, misapprehended, etc. then the attempt to offer a better explanation will employ the pattern described by Fr. Lonergan.

Any theory, description, account of our conscious and intentional operations is bound to be incomplete and to admit further clarifications and extensions. But all such clarifications...are to be derived from the conscious and intentional operations themselves. They as given in consciousness are the rock; they confirm every exact account; they refute every inexact or incomplete account.19

     The method described is transcendent in that any attempt to modify it will inescapably utilize the very method it speaks about. Anyone advancing a proposition will go through the process of attending to data; understanding the data by means of imagining what it can possibly mean; reflecting upon the resultant conceptions and theories in order to determine if it matches with the facts; and finally deciding what implications the resulting knowledge has for one's life and actions.

     This transcendental method is "...a heightening of consciousness that brings to light our conscious and intentional operations and thereby leads to the answers to three basic questions. "20 These three questions are the questions asked by cognitional theory, epistemology, and metaphysics: "What am I doing when I am knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I do it?"21 The terms and relations of the transcendental method are "...isomorphic with the terms and relations denoting the ontological structure of any reality proportionate to human cognitional process."22 This means that the same process that compounds elementary acts of knowing also compounds elementary objects of knowing.

III. Criticisms

     Hugo A. Meynell, in his book The Theology of Bernard Lonergan deals with some of the basic criticisms leveled against Fr. Lonergan's method. The first criticism we shall review is the one leveled by Brian Hebblethwaite:

Within the overall intention to think through the world-view that has come down to us in each religious tradition, any and every critical method must be tried out and pursued as far as it will go. We cannot prescribe a single pattern.23

     Hugo A. Meynell answers this by pointing out that Hebblethwaite fails to comprehend the generality of the method proposed by Fr. Lonergan. How else would one proceed than to attend to data, build hypotheses, evaluate the hypotheses for correctness, and then decide what the results imply for our lives, for how we are to proceed?

     The second criticism consists in the assertion that Fr. Lonergan's appeal to introspection "...which is central to (his) method, has been shown by contemporary analytical philosophers to be mistaken in principle."24 Meynell replies that if these critics understood what Fr. Lonergan means by the term "introspection", then they would clearly see that, even though the term is problematic, what is being described by Fr. Lonergan is something that they would be hard pressed to deny the existence of. Fr. Lonergan deals with this subject in the following way: "Inward inspection is just a myth..."25 that is based upon the mistaken conception that "...consciousness is (analogous to) ocular vision..."26 The correct meaning of the word "introspection" is "...the process of objectifying the contents of consciousness."27 This objectification of conscious experience is recognized in our expressions, our language, which is a public event.

     Another objection along these lines is as follows: Knowing is not an activity. I know that there is no Easter Bunny, but I didn't exert my mind about the subject. Those who hold to this "...would learn more from Lonergan if, when he writes about 'knowing', they would take him to be referring to 'coming to know'."28

     Others object that Fr. Lonergan's method doesn't adequately deal with the problem of objectivity. Meynell replies that we can verify in experience that which we cannot look at: "...the past, other minds, the theoretical entities postulated by scientists..."29

     Nicholas Lash levels the criticism that Fr. Lonergan fails to appreciate the discontinuity between cultures. Meynell answers that adhering to the thesis that there is no continuity of meaning between cultures would invalidate "...all anthropology, and all history which is concerned with cultures other than that from which the historian comes..."30 I might add that Lash would have to explain how translation between languages takes place.

     W.F. Shea claims that Fr. Lonergan has not outgrown "classicism", which Fr. Lonergan explicitly repudiates. "Classicism" is the belief that "...there is but one culture... (whereas) systematics can discern and therefore accept a unity of belief within a wide variety of forms of expression."31 Shea fails to see that one can be committed to systematics, an enterprise which seeks to provide a transcultural viewpoint regarding one religious faith, is not the same as "classicism".

     Shea, along with Karl Rahner, also claims that Fr. Lonergan's method is to general to be of use to theology. Meynell points out that in order to argue for the most basic positions of religion, ie. the existence of God, theology needs a method that is general enough to deal with such issues.32

     The final criticism that will be dealt with is the one leveled by, among others within the Thomist tradition, Etienne Gilson. It basically runs as follows: By starting with the epistemological problem that Kant left us with, one ends up with a metaphysics that is inadequate at best, non-existent at worst. One will not have a traditional type, or Thomistic metaphysics if one attempts to found it "...on a transcendental basis..."33

     Etienne Gilson, in his book Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, takes aim at "critical realism" and lets loose with both barrels:

We have now examined several types of critical realism and in each instance have come to the conclusion that the critique of knowledge is essentially incompatible and irreconcilable with metaphysical realism. There is no middle ground. You must either begin as a realist with being, in which case you will have a knowledge of being, or begin as a critical idealist with knowledge, in which case you will never come in contact with being.34

     Fr. Lonergan address this criticism by exploring how "...Kant, Prof. Gilson and Fr. Coreth differ (on this issue)."35 Basically, Fr. Lonergan agrees with Prof. Gilson:

First, then, it is to be noted that the operative moment in Fr. Coreth's use of transcendental method cannot occur within a Kantian context. (This moment) lies in a contradiction not between content and content but between content and performance; but a Kantian context is a context of contents that does not envisage performances. Thus, there is no explicit contradiction in the content of the statement, We are under an illusion when we claim to know what really is. On the other hand, there is an explicit contradiction in the reflective statement: I am stating what really and truly is so when I state that we are under an illusion whenever we claim to know what really and truly is so. However, the content of the explicitly contradictory statement adds to the content of the first what is found implicitly in the first, not as content, but as performance. Now to bring to light such contradictions is the operative moment in Fr. Coreth's use of transcendental method.36

     According to Fr. Lonergan, Prof. Gilson differs with Kant"...not on a question of principle, but on a question of fact."37 Both Kant and Prof. Gilson agree that we come to attain objectivity by means of perception. For Kant, we perceive the world of appearances. Our cognitional activities are related to the objective world " an empirical Anschauung."38 Prof. Gilson holds that our cognitional activity attains objectivity by means of an immediate realism. So they both hold that perception is the "door" to the real world. They differ, however on what it is that is perceived, the fact. For Kant, what is perceived is phenomena, appearances. The things that give rise to the phenomena, the things-in-themselves, are inaccessible to the senses. For Prof. Gilson, what is perceived is the concept of being.

His assertion is that over and above sensitive perceptions and intellectual abstractions there exists an intellectual vision of the concept of being in any sensible datum. Moreover, he adds, it is the concept of being, seen in this manner, that is predicated in perceptual judgments of existence. Thus, "the apprehension of being by intellect consists in a direct vision in any sensible datum whatever of the concept of being."... So much for the matter of fact.39

     This "fact" does not seem to be "...the exact opposite of Kant's"40 Prof. Gilson's fact " not a manifest datum accessible to anyone, and by its sheer givenness imposed on any and every philosopher."41 Nothing would prevent Kant from "...placing the perceived existence in the category of...phenomena."42

     Prof. Gilson, by his own admission, is left with dogmatically asserting his immediate realism in the face of the Kantian denial. Fr. Lonergan compares Prof. Gilson's realism to Fr. Coreth's and concludes that:

The basic difference is that, while Prof. Gilson's immediate realism cannot be mediated and so is dogmatic, Fr. Coreth's immediate realism not only can but must be mediated.43

IV. Conclusion

     After attempting to get a handle on Fr. Lonergan's method, and after struggling to summarize it, this writer is left with the impression that Fr. Lonergan's work represents the Catholic spirit at it's finest. In this writer's humble estimation, the essential character of that spirit is an all consuming force that intends to take all of humanity's best endeavors to grasp the meaning of life and baptize them in that revelation that was accomplished by Jesus the Christ. Indeed, that very revelation itself is the paradigm. Fr. Lonergan, as a good disciple of St. Thomas, has realized the import of this paradigm: the Incarnation. This is illustrated by Fr. Lonergan's view that all philosophies contain a position that invites development and a counter-position that invites reversal. Rather than dogmatically asserting the insights of his mentor St. Thomas, he takes the best elements within the various philosophies and develops from there, while at the same time the elements that are destructive are shown to be self-destructive.

     Even the critics of Fr. Lonergan's method concede his contention that to criticize his method involves the critic in the inescapable position of using the very method in the process. They are reduced to admitting to inconsistency and are forced to take positions that are so convoluted that one wonders how they expect to be taken seriously.44

     Fr. Lonergan makes a statement that some feel to be radical, extremist, to absolute. On reflection, one wonders why philosophers who make claims of the opposite nature, that we cannot know what reality really is, or we cannot lay claim to some universal truth, are not considered just as audacious in making such absolute claims?

     Let us hope that, if indeed Fr. Lonergan has elucidated a truth that Humanity has been needing for some time now, it hasn't arrived upon the scene just in time to witness a total disregard for reason. Let us hope that his voice does not fall on ears that have long been deafened.

Copyright 1995-96

R. Jeffrey Grace