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Wisdom and the Transformation of the Disciplines

by Richard M. Liddy,
Director, Center for Catholic Studies,
Seton Hall University, New Jersey, USA

(part of an occasional series of reprinted articles and reviews for the LWS; this article recently appeared in an edition of the Seton Hall University papers.)

Thomas Aquinas wrote about two dimensions of wisdom. One was supernatural; it came from above. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit, a share in God’s own knowledge. But Aquinas also spoke about another dimension of wisdom, a natural wisdom, and surprisingly enough, he identifies this with Aristotle’s metaphysics! Such wisdom was not limited to a particular field of knowledge but was an over-arching and integrating view of the various realms of knowledge. It was a view of the whole; it was, in Cardinal Newman’s phrase, a science of the sciences. Now our postmodern age is very suspicious of any view of the whole. However, I believe that one must have some such operative or implicit view in order to operate in this world at all. Such a view, even when only implicit, constitutes an undertow in all one’s activities. Commenting on Aquinas’ view of wisdom, Bernard Lonergan once wrote:
"In the natural order, wisdom is Aristotle’s first philosophy, his metaphysics, and that gives rise to a problem. How does one discover that Aristotle’s first philosophy is wisdom? Why not take some other philosopher? Why Aristotle? In particular, how did Thomas know that he had to go beyond Aristotle’s metaphysics, beyond hylomorphism, matter and form, to posit essence and existence as the principle elements of his analysis of being? St. Thomas himself corrected and amplified Aristotle’s first philosophy. Where does this wisdom come from? How does one acquire wisdom?"(1)

In other words, if wisdom in this general sense is an over-arching and integrating vision, how does one arrive at it? Lonergan answers his own question by first noting that “there is no rule of thumb for producing wisdom.”(2) Wisdom is not something we start with, but something we head towards. We only reach it through the long and difficult process of striving to know. Nevertheless, if wisdom is something ahead of us, how do we make good judgments as we head towards it? towards this “view of the whole?” How do we make good judgments now, prior to our having achieved wisdom? Lonergan’s answer - as Aquinas’ and Plato’s - is that from the start we have within us a rudimentary "view of the whole." Otherwise, as Plato saw so clearly, we would never be able to say "That’s it! That’s the answer to my question - that’s what I have been looking for!" Without a heuristic anticipation of what true answers would "look like", we would never be able to say with Archimedes "Eureka!" "I’ve found it!" We would never be able to say "I’ve been mistaken - true judgments lie in this other direction."

Lonergan calls this heuristic anticipation of truth "the notion of being." It is ourselves as intellectually open to learning everything about everything. It is our pure detached disinterested desire to know. Although initially this anticipation is empty, it heads us towards a knowledge of the concrete universe in all its aspects. When there is nothing in a box, a box does not feel empty; when there is nothing in a stomach, the stomach does feel empty. Human intelligence is more like a stomach than like a box. Though it has no answers, and so is empty, still it can ask questions.(3)

Wisdom and Intellectual Conversion

There is, then, what one might call an implicit anticipation of wisdom identical with our human spirits; but as Aristotle emphasized, the road from this implicit anticipation to its explicit realization is a long and difficult one. "Knowledge makes a bloody entrance." In fact, as Lonergan himself points out, the road to this explicit wisdom is akin to a conversion. It is a movement from the child’s materialism to the adolescent’s idealism to a mature realism. A moment in its attainment might be illustrated by the physicist, Freeman Dyson, and his description of his students learning quantum physics. The student begins by learning the tricks of the trade.  He learns how to make calculations in quantum mechanics and get the right learn the mathematics of the subject and to learn how to use it takes about six months.  This is the first stage in learning quantum mechanics, and it is comparatively easy and painless. The second stage comes when the student begins to worry because he does not understand what he has been doing.  He worries because he has no clear physical picture in his head.  He gets confused in trying to arrive at a physical explanation for each of the mathematical tricks he has been taught.  He works very hard and gets discouraged because he does not seem able to think clearly.  This second stage often lasts six months or longer, and it is strenuous and unpleasant. Then, quite unexpectedly, the third stage begins.  The student suddenly says to himself, "I understand quantum mechanics," or rather he says, "I understand now that there really isn't anything to be understood."(4)

That is, there is nothing to be understood in "the physical picture" in which the student previously sought to understand physics. Indeed, the conversion away from dependence on such mental pictures constitutes a new level in one’s understanding of physics. This process can be discerned in learning any new discipline, a process as much of letting go of illusions as of new learning. Now wisdom in the sense of a general view of things consists in going through the same process of intellectual conversion as one comes to a view about how the various disciplines and areas of knowing hang together and how they are related to ourselves and to the universe.

Wisdom and a Critical Philosophy

Lonergan calls the philosophical form of such an intellectual conversion a critical realism. Such an attainment of an adequate philosophy about "how things hang together," is a high achievement. It is a personal development parallel to Aristotle’s move beyond the early materialists and beyond Plato to a realist philosophy. In contemporary terms it is a move beyond empiricism and postmodern relativism to a critical, that is, a self-aware, realism. For the Enlightenment ushered in the age of specializing intellect. Specializations reveals more and more about less and less. Eventually narrowness succumbs to decreasing returns and the need for “generalists” is felt. Interdisciplinary studies arise. Philosophical questions emerge: how are the disciplines related? how are they linked to the mind of the scientist? the scholar? the philosopher? what is meant by "the mind?" by "reality?" by "being objective?"(5)

Such general questions are answered differently by empiricists, idealists, phenomenologists, pragmatists, realists. Today some are calling for "A Second Enlightenment" which would seek the answers to such questions in an analysis of the human spirit in its own interiority.(6) Such an analysis brings to light the intrinsic realism of the human spirit. What is a realist philosophy? It is the view that words and sentences such as I am typing now have a meaning in the "real world." It is the view that my very spirit - and yours, dear reader - are meant to understand each other correctly - and to understand ourselves correctly. Such a view understands reality not as what I can see and touch, or what I can imagine and "picture," but what I arrive at through true judgments. Such a realist philosophy transcends a childish view of reality as "already out there now" reflected in various types of materialism and empiricism. It also transcends a more sophisticated view of reality as “already in here now” - such as is found in modern idealism, various types of phenomenology and postmodern relativism.

Such a critical realism is rooted in the basic methodology of the human spirit as it moves from human experiencing to understanding to judging to deciding. In whatever area one chooses that basic methodology is operative. That methodology specifies the basic question that is the human spirit as it moves through human experience to the intelligible, to the true, to the good. It leads to what satisfies my spirit, and our common human spirit, on its deepest level.

Such a view understands metaphysics not as a conceptual system to be imposed on the autonomous sciences and disciplines from the outside - the unfortunate story of decadent scholasticism - but “a view of the whole” expressing the anticipations of the human spirit unfolding in the various autonomous disciplines. It is not the whole of knowledge, but the whole in knowledge. Such a view, precisely because it reflects the basic methodology of the human spirit as it heads for being, will tend to purify the individual disciplines of their totalitarian pretensions, and integrate them into a comprehensive view of the virtualities of the human spirit.

That view will include not only our common sense living, but also the empirical disciplines, the scholarly disciplines, and an adequate view of the human person. Such a natural wisdom is, as we noted, a high achievement. Most people, including most scientists and scholars, tend to just drift into a philosophy that is some form of naive realism. On a more sophisticated level that naive realism finds expression in an empiricism, an idealism, a relativism. Very few reach the type of realism, or natural wisdom, exemplified by an Aristotle, an Aquinas, a Lonergan. Yet the presence or absence of this wisdom influences all our knowing. Now we are not discussing a merely technical point in philosophy. Empiricism, idealism, and realism name three totally different horizons with no common identical objects. An idealist never means what an empiricist means, and a realist never means what either of them means.(7)

Wisdom and the Transformation of the Disciplines

Now my point in highlighting Aquinas’ conception of natural wisdom as developed by Lonergan is to highlight the fact that one’s philosophy, one’s implicit or explicit view of "how things hang together," influences how one view one’s own knowing in other areas. It influences and underpins how a professor views his or her own discipline. One’s view of "the whole," since it is a view of oneself as knower and what one is capable of knowing, constitutes an undertow to all one’s knowing. To give an example, the modern mechanistic view of physics has given way in our day to a much more “intentional” view of what the physicist is doing when he is doing physics.

In fact, there is discernible a development in the way the great modern minds in physics have themselves viewed physics. Einstein held that quantum theory was merely a set of coherent statements that allows a person to work with the evidence that light is both a wave and a particle.  But a radically different view of quantum theory was taken by Niels Bohr, no less eminent than Einstein in the history of modern physics.  Bohr agreed with Einstein in saying that quantum theory does not describe or characterize the way things really are; but he went on to say that neither does the rest of physics nor the rest of science nor the rest of human knowing generally.  All that we can know are our own operations, nothing beyond that. A third position, taken by Werner Heisenberg, is that what quantum theory tends toward is indeed a characterization of sub-atomic reality as such.  Einstein asked: "How can it do that, since, you know, it doesn't hang together in sensible terms?"  Heisenberg answered that the real is more than the sensible.(8) There is discernible in these three views of the nature of physics a move from empiricism to idealism to a realism.

Other examples of one’s philosophy influencing one’s interpretation of one’s discipline are readily at hand. For example, I subscribe to The Journal of Consciousness Studies. The contributors range everywhere from neuro-biologists, cognitive scientists and experts on artificial intelligence to psychologists, philosophers and theologians. Now there is a major underlying battle going on in the pages of this journal between those who deny that there is any such reality as consciousness (it is merely an "epiphenomenon") to those whom the journal generally terms "phenomenologists." The latter generally believe there is “something more” to human understanding than can be understood from computerized neuro-biological research. But for the most part they are at a loss to clearly specify that “something more.” Every issue of the journal involves a battle between these underlying schools of thought and their respective interpretations of biology, neuro-biology and various levels of psychology.(9)

To turn to the discipline of history, what are historical facts? For the empiricist they are what was out there and was capable of being looked at. The emphasis is on more and more data. A conversion - an intellectual conversion - is needed in order to free historical studies from a positivism that treats history merely as discrete and meaningless events removed from their original context.(10) Indeed, in this century the discipline of history has undergone a “Copernican revolution” symbolized by the following quote of R. G. Collingwood:
" far from relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority and his thought is autonomous, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized."(11)

If ever there was a statement of the inner criterion of the human spirit that guides us to explicit wisdom, that is it. But even Collingwood’s idealist tendency must be transcended in order to arrive at a realist view of human history. Writing of the activity of human judging, Lonergan makes a reflection which, I believe, can be applied to a great number of postmodern writers. There is an insufficient awareness of this third level of cognitional activity in the authors we have been mentioning and a resultant failure to break away cleanly and coherently from both empiricism and idealism....the break from both empiricism and idealism involves the elimination of cognitional myth. There are notions of knowledge and of reality that are formed in childhood, that are in terms of seeing and of what's there to be seen, that down the centuries have provided the unshakable foundations of materialism, empiricism, positivism, sensism, phenomenalism, behaviorism, pragmatism, and that at the same time constitute the notions of knowledge and reality that idealists know to be nonsense.(12)

For the historian with idealist tendencies historical facts are mental constructions carefully based on data recorded in documents. For the critical realist they are events in the world mediated by true acts of meaning. My point here is to illustrate that one’s basic achievement of a "view of the whole" penetrates right into the warp and woof of the academic disciplines. One’s implicit or explicit philosophy enters into the doing of one’s own discipline. It involves one’s view of what one is doing when one is researching, setting up hypotheses, seeking verifications. It enters into how one views one’s own discipline and its relationship to other disciplines. It enters into how one views oneself and the universe. A professor of neuro-biology who believes that her computer-assisted research into brain waves justifies a materialist view of things, whether she knows it or not, has bought into a particular view of knowledge and the human person within the universe.(13) Similarly, a postmodern sociologist who believes that the endless varieties of human cultures justify a basic incommensurable pluralism among human beings has adopted a particular relativist view of human knowing.

And the power of a discipline over an individual researcher is immense. A young doctoral student is "socialized" into a particular view of his or her discipline. That discipline can act as a “principality and power” that can greatly inhibit the freedom of the individual researcher to ask further questions, especially questions with humanistic and religious implications.(14)

Wisdom and Integrated Human Studies

What would wisdom look like today? Lonergan himself in his Insight: An Essay on Human Understanding articulated a metaphysical view, rooted in a transformed self-understanding, that would result in a transformation and integration of the individual sciences and common sense knowing. In various later writings he indicated the need for this kind of wisdom by pointing to a work by Gibson Winter, Elements for a Social Ethic: The Role of Social Science in Public Policy.(15) In his work Winter distinguishes various types or styles of social science; each of these styles is appropriate for dealing with different areas of human reality, but at the same time demands critique when unilaterally used to understand other areas.

Winter distinguishes four styles: the physical, the functional, the voluntarist, and the intentional. The physical style considers that the methods of natural science are the only scientific methods; it is positivist, behaviorist, reductionist. The functional style understands social structures and processes by grasping the functions of parts in the whole; it is associated with the name of Talcott Parsons. The voluntarist style stresses power, conflict and ideology; it is associated with the name of C. Wright Mills. The intentional style is phenomenological; its subjective dimensions are the constituting intentionalities of embodied consciousness; its objective dimensions are the forms in which the world appears for this consciousness. This style was transposed from Vienna to America by Alfred Schutz.(16)

Winter concludes that the different types of social science are helpful in treating different problems. He found behaviorists most likely to be helpful in dealing with traffic problems, voluntarists in analyzing revolutionary situations, functionalists in understanding ongoing processes, and phenomenologists in entering into the mentalities and aspirations that motivate and direct social continuity and change. In other words, the scientific tools helpful for thinking about human beings in traffic jams, are totally inadequate for thinking about the full scope of human involvements. Only an over-arching and integrating view of the whole can evaluate the different styles of social science appropriate to different areas of investigation while at the same time highlighting the weaknesses of the various specializations.

Wisdom and the Question of God

Finally, the point here is not only the genuine autonomy of the individual disciplines but also the relations of the autonomous disciplines to each other, to the person of the researcher and, I believe, to the transcendent question that each person is. For genuine interdisciplinary dialogue, to the extent that it expresses the inquiring spirit of the human community, must of its nature be philosophical, ethical and religious. Just as the human spirit is an anticipation of being, of everything about everything, so an adequate understanding of the human spirit inevitably leads to the question of God. For to question questioning is self-destructive; our spirits inevitably head "beyond"- beyond even this world. To understand the human person is to understand one who is a transcendent question. The question of God, then, lies within our human horizon. We are diminished as persons unless we are stretching forth to the totally intelligible, the source of truth and goodness. The reach, not of our attainment, but of our intending is unrestricted.

There lies within his 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.(17)

A natural wisdom, then, an adequate philosophy, is able to relate the various sciences and human studies to each other, to our common sense knowing and to the question of God. To do this, however, it has to be rooted in an adequate self-knowledge, a self-knowledge arrived at only through the difficult process of intellectual conversion. This need for intellectual conversion, for natural wisdom, is not easily grasped. There is a natural distaste for developments that have not taken place in us and need to take place. There are the biases of self-centeredness and group selfishness. There are the biases of the guilds, the disciplines themselves as social organisms. There is, deepest of all, a “hatred for the light” masquerading under various inadequate philosophies and cultural mind-sets. People often "prefer the darkness to the light."

To penetrate this darkness we need the supernatural wisdom that Aquinas also wrote about, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, that unites us with the mind of God. The light of that wisdom can pierce our darkness and shine in our hearts and our minds. That wisdom “from above” is also a healing wisdom, one that would heal our human reason “to be reasonable” and to strive for a natural wisdom - like Aristotle’s metaphysics, a comprehensive and integrating view of the whole.(18) Beyond the wisdom we may attain by the natural light of our intellects, there is a further wisdom attained through the supernatural light of faith, when the humble surrender of our own light to the self-revealing uncreated Light makes the latter the loved law of all our assents....(F)aith, besides involving a contact with reason, also involves a contact with God. On that side wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, making us docile to his movements, in which, even perceptibly, one may be "non solum discens sed et patiens divina."(19)


1. For an excellent and fascinating account of wisdom in Aquinas see Bernard Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 78-87.

2. Bernard Lonergan, Topics in Education, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 3, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993) 149-150.

3. B. Lonergan, Collection, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 200.

4. Freeman Dyson, "Innovation in Physics," in Rapport and Wright, ed., Physics (New York, Washington Square Press, 1965) 259-260.

5. Cf. Bernard Lonergan, "Questionnaire on Philosophy", Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 2 (October 1984) 9.

6. Cf. Fred Lawrence, "The Modern Philosophic Differentiation of Consciousness or ‘What is the Enlightenment,’" in Fred Lawrence (ed.) Lonergan Workshop Vol. II (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981) 231-279.

7. Ibid., 239.

8. Cf. a very excellent discussion of the different views of the various disciplines rooted in divergent underlying philosophies in the interview with Michael Vertin, Dialogues in Celebration, Thomas More Institute Papers 80 (Thomas More Institute, Montreal, 1980) 212 ff.. In Method in Theology, 239, Lonergan puts the differences in one’s operative philosophy of physics this way: “An empiricist may argue that quantum theory cannot be about physical reality; it cannot because it deals only with relations between phenomena. An idealist would concur and add that, of course, the same is true of all science and, indeed, of the whole of human knowing. The critical realist will disagree with both: a verified hypothesis is probably true; and what probably is true refers to what in reality probably is so.”

9. This battle just reflects the longer battle in the history of the psychology: from the behaviorists with their insistence on “nothing but” sensation, to the Freudians with their insistence on “nothing but” the unconscious, to the Jungians and other humanistic schools of psychology that go beyond a focus on human pathology to the self-actualizing potentialities of the human psyche. How do these three sets of positions in psychology relate to each other? Does one emphasize what the others miss? Is there some way to come to an integrated "vision of the whole?" some wisdom? 

10. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) 200-201, referring to a nineteenth century handbook on historical study which “removed the facts from their historical context, isolated them from one another, reduced them, as it were, to a powder.”

11. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1946) 37; quoted in Lonergan, Method in Theology, 206.

12. Ibid., 213.

13. Cf. Steven Rose, New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, 38: "Thus Dr. Damasio insists that as materialists (and all neurologists must surely be materialists) we should not speak of the mind/brain system, but rather of the mind/brain/body system."

14. George Marsden in The Idea of Christian Scholarship catalogues the enlightenment bias against allowing religious questions to be raised from within the disciplines. On the other hand, I am not sure his philosophical tools are sufficiently acute to achieve the positive result he wishes to achieve.

15. Gibson Winter, Elements for a Social Ethic: The Role of Social Science in Public Policy ( New York: Macmillan, 1971).

16. B. Lonergan, "The Example of Gibson Winter", A Second Collection (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) 190.

17. Method in Theology, 103.

18. From a theological point of view this needed transformation of the disciplines seems to be what David L. Schindler is aiming at in the interview read at our workshop, "Going to the Heart: An Interview with David L. Schindler", Turnaround (March, 1998), 16-21.

19. "...Not only learning but receiving divine movements." Bernard Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan vol. 2, 100.

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