Lonergan's "Three Basic Questions"

"What am I doing when I am knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I do it?" (Lonergan, Method in Theology 25)

A person's answer to these questions will be their cognitional theory, their epistemology, and their metaphysics. Bernard Lonergan has his own answers for these, which I'm going to talk about today, because I think he happens to be right, and because these are essentially the foundation of everything else that I'm going to write.

Lonergan is one of those philosophers who gives a lot of people headaches with his clear-as-mud writing style, so it is perhaps not surprising that his ideas are not as widely known as they probably ought to be. But the stuff I'm dealing with today is surprisingly simple, and once it has been understood, it seems completely obvious. Whether or not I can explain it in a single post remains to be seen, but that won't stop me from trying.

Cognitional Theory: "What am I doing when I am knowing?"

To answer this we need to pay some attention to the structure of our cognitive process. The first step must involve experience, because whatever else knowing might be, it cannot take place in the absence of experience. All knowledge begins with the experience of some kind of data -- whether data of sense, or data of consciousness.

The data we experience is itself just scraps of information. If we are attentive to this data, we may or may not have an insight. That is, we will come to some understanding of what it is, we will form a concept, we will see how things hang together in an intelligible way. And then we will make a judgment about whether or not this understanding is, in fact, the case.

In order to do this successfully, we have to experience attentively, understand intelligently, and judge reasonably and responsibly.

This is not usually something I am conscious of doing at the time it happens, but when I look back at the things that I know, I will find that this process invariably took place. But more on that later.

Epistemology: "Why is doing this knowing?"

Lonergan is sometimes accused of "subjectivism." The problem, though, is that whenever we think, reason, decide, reflect, judge, etc., we do so as subjects. There is no getting around that. The error made by some of Lonergan's critics is in seeing "objectivity" as opposed to "subjectivity." If this is the case, then epistemic "objectivity" is not possible -- a conclusion that some people have affirmed.

Lonergan, however, insists that objectivity is not a matter of non-subjectivity, but is rather "attained only by attaining authentic subjectivity." (Method 292). In other words, objectivity is not attained outside of our subjectivity (which would be impossible, given that we can only know as subjects), but within it. Our subjectivity is "authentic" when we are attentive in our experiencing, intelligent in our understanding, and reasonable and responsible in our judging.

Metaphysics: "What do I know when I do it?"

If "knowing" is the result of experience, understanding, and judgment, it follows that what can be known is experience-able, intelligible, and affirmable. This is not "being" in its fullness, but "proportionate being": that is, "being that is proportionate to human knowing." That "being" might extend beyond this can be affirmed by intelligent understanding and reasonable judgment, so in addition to "proportionate being" there is also "transcendent being."

How do we know that any of this is true?

Lonergan's epistemology and metaphysics are easy enough to grasp once one has understood his cognitional theory, but perhaps it is not clear what he meant by this. I will explain with some examples.

I might ask myself how I know that there is a place called "Texas." I've never been there, but I've heard about it, and I'm reasonably certain it exists -- but how do I know this?

In my experience, I've certainly encountered a lot of data suggesting that there is such a place. I've read about it. I've seen pictures of it. I know people who claim to have been there. I've watched sporting events that were allegedly played there. Early in this process I gained an understanding of what this name "Texas" refers to. I developed a concept of this place.

Does this necessarily mean it exists? Not really, because I can also have concepts of fictional places. But I made a reasonable judgment. This didn't happen consciously, but when I look back, I can see that it must have happened.

How do I know it was reasonable? I simply need to look at the evidence that led to the formation of the concept. I could explain it by judging that "Texas" does in fact exist, or I could try and come up with some other explanation for the data. I could suppose that there is a massive conspiracy involving countless numbers of people. Everything I've read, and all the images I've seen, could all be fabricated evidence. The people I know who claim to have been there could have been among the conspirators, or maybe they were tricked into believing that they had been there. The sporting events that supposedly took place there could have actually taken place somewhere else -- it could be that all of the people who were present were also among the conspirators. The more I think about it, the more ludicrous it becomes. For me to judge that Texas does not exist would require me to completely abandon my reasonableness.

The only reasonable judgment I can make is that Texas does, in fact, exist. And I am justified in claiming to know this objectively.

Cognitional Structure as Self-Justifying

I might also consider what would be involved if I was to deny Lonergan's description of the cognitional process. Lonergan called it the "method," but this term is unnecessarily confusing -- as Lonergan himself often pointed out, when people hear "method," they tend to think "recipe" -- so for now I'll just call it "the concept."

If I was unaware of the concept, I would not be in a position to deny it. So I would have to have some experience, either by reading about it, or having someone explain it to me. Experience is therefore necessary.

In having this experience, I could understand the concept, or fail to understand it. If the latter, I would either know that I don't understand it, or I would think that I've understood it, without actually having done so. If I know I didn't understand it, I could not reasonably deny it. If I understood it incorrectly, what I would be denying is the misunderstood concept, not the real concept. So to deny it would require understanding.

So all that remains is judgment. The concept, remember, is that we know by experience, understanding, and judgment. But to deny it would be to make a judgment. So whether I accept it or deny it, I'm proving that its true, because either way, I'm making a judgment!

Anyone who doesn't think it's true either hasn't heard about it, didn't understand it, or is contradicting themselves by verbally denying that they are doing what they are doing.

Isn't that exciting? I sure think so.


Through the process of attending to my own interior operations, I take possession of myself as a subject. Lonergan called this process "self-appropriation." It is through this process that we discover the foundation of our knowledge.

Lonergan said that his 1957 book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding was essentially written to help people through this process. It's over 800 pages long. It's not necessary to read it for this process to take place, of course, but I mention this to explain why I don't imagine that anyone has become "self-appropriated" simply by reading my brief summary here.

It actually took me several months before I grasped not only what Lonergan was saying, but why it's so significant. I had the good fortune of studying with a professor who happens to be a recognised expert in Lonergan's thought. Obviously this helps, but it isn't necessary, and it's not enough: the truth of Lonergan's answers to the "three basic questions" can ultimately only be discovered by examining one's own conscious-intentional operations (experiencing, understanding, judging) and their contents. And if you should come up with better answers than Lonergan, I'd love to hear 'em.

Works Cited

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. 1971. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Recommended Reading

Grace, R. Jeffrey. "The Transcendental Method of Bernard Lonergan." Online.

Meynell, Hugo A. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan. 2nd Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Tekippe, Terry J. What is Lonergan Up to in Insight? : A Primer. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Also worth checking out is Mark Oppenheimer's fun Boston College Magazine article "Beautiful Mind," which is about Lonergan and his independent-thinking non-disciples (which is what Lonergan told his followers to be, although some of them haven't listened).



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