Bernard Lonergan’s “Insight”: on becoming an intellectually fulfilled theist

“Well, they’re deductivists. And you know what I think of deductivists.”

That’s how Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1984) answered when I asked him about the Austrian school of economics.

Yes, I did know what he thought of them. More on that presently.

On June 22, 1983 I was on the campus of Boston College, engrossed in an afternoon session on Lonergan’s then-unpublished “Essay in Circulation Analysis, the economics section of that year’s Lonergan Workshop. (An unofficial edition circulated among Lonerganians.) My aunt, the late Anne T. Flood, Sister of Charity, Ph.D. (Catholic University of America; dissertation on Bishop Christopher Butler and Lonergan) beckoned me from the hallway.

Would I like to meet the great man?

I didn’t return to the classroom.

Patricia “Pat” Coonan, who had known Lonergan since 1945, drove us from Chestnut Hill to Weston, where he was convalescing at the Campion Center. When we arrived, it wasn’t certain that Lonergan was up to a visit. We might have to turn around.

But soon he was ready [my diary shows] and greeted us [from his hospital bed] with a smile. Pat introduced me to the master, and I managed to comport myself properly. I did not interview him, but I did tell him about myself, what his work has meant to me, and even raised the question [of] macroeconomics with him when Pat brought up her difficulties with the “Circulation Analysis.” Lonergan stressed his own macroeconomic approach, not seeming to be aware that [Ludwig von] Mises’ and [Murray N.] Rothbard’s “microeconomic” approach has addressed the “Depression” argument against the free market.

Image result for bernard lonerganIn the aftermath of the Great Depression, immersed in theological studies and spiritual formation between his profession of vows in 1924 and ordination in 1936, Lonergan produced that manuscript. In the ‘70s, after his methodological work was done, he returned to it.

Told him I would send him a copy of Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression without expecting a reply. He indicated a certain indifference to receiving it.

Actually, I remember these words: “Well, you’re free to use the postal service,” but couldn’t bring myself to record them. But I never forgot them.

I’ll interpret his non-refusal optimally. This is my way to circumvent the “official” version of Lonerganian political theology by going directly to the master himself. I just have to work out praxeology in Lonergan’s terms.

Yeah, that’s all. I asked him to sign my copy of his Method in Theology, still a prized possession.

Image result for method in theology

When in 1978 I accepted Jesus as the Word of God incarnate and the Bible as the Word of God written—a topic for another day— Lonergan’s Insight helped me think my way out of the rationalism of Brand Blanshard.

Blanshard’s lucid writings had snapped me out of my Hegelian sleepwalk, the study of Hegel’s prose being the preoccupation (at one time or other) of virtually every philosophically bent Marxist (of which I was once a specimen). My copy of Lonergan’s 1957 Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (which I bought at the office of its U.S. publisher, Philosophical Library, 15 East 40th Street) has many annotations that mark what I regarded as its author’s advance over Blanshard. As a clear a writer as Lonergan was, however, his literary style could not hold a candle to Blanshard’s.[1]

Image result for bernard lonergan insightLonergan’s Insight is about “getting the point.” Grappling with that book educates or “leads out of” the reader the acts of understanding of (a) what one is doing when one is knowing (which yields a cognitional theory), (b) why doing that is knowing (an epistemology), and (c) what one is knowing when one does that (a metaphysics).

About twenty years ago at a conference I had the pleasure of thanking  Michael Novak, who had studied under Lonergan at the Gregorianum, for writing Belief and Unbelief, a Philosophy of Self-Knowledge, an accessible introduction to Insight’s themes. Absorbing (and promiscuously annotating) that 1966 paperback was the prelude to my immersion in the masterwork.Image result for michael novak belief and unbelief

Lonergan believed, unfortunately in my opinion, that social disaster threatens unless we intelligent, reasonable, and responsible human beings (guided by his understanding of economics) steer modern economies away from the chaos to which their peaceful, voluntary economic transactions tend to hurl us. That is, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible people sometimes ought to interfere with peaceful, voluntary economic transactions.[2]

Ironically, Lonergan lacked insight into how such interventions spawn the social dislocations he wished to prevent or ameliorate. The theorist of the self-appropriation of the human knower never extended his analysis to the self-appropriation of the human actor. So his economics were a disappointment to me long before his philosophical theology came to be one.

At the 1983 Libertarian National Convention at New York’s Sheraton Hotel, almost a year before meeting Lonergan, I had met (the first of many times) the late dean of the Austrian School, Murray Rothbard.

Earlier that year I sent him a copy of Lonergan’s Essay. When I asked Murray (he was always “Murray” to his friends) what he thought of it, I half-expected, “Could you remind me?” (I hadn’t spoken to him in six months). Without missing a beat he replied, “Oh, yeah, he’s an institutionalist.”

Murray was, of course, a Misesian praxeologist: there’s a logic of human purposeful behavior or action that can be expressed as a deductive system, and that’s the foundation of economic theory (and, for that matter, game theory). As we can grasp its truths intellectually (a priori), we are not to test them empirically (a posteriori).

In short, economics is like mathematics and not like behavioral psychology. Like mathematical theorems, praxeological theses are not historically, psychologically or environmentally variable. If they hold at all, they hold always and everywhere.

Thus Lonergan’s charge of “deductivism.” Lonergan scholar Frederick G. Lawrence defined “abstract deductivism” as

an overweening concern for the logical model of subsumption or syllogistic reasoning together with an exaggerated estimate of the need for apodicticity or the requirements of universality and absolute necessity.[3]

The fight, of course, would be over the qualifiers “abstract” (what might “concrete deductivism” refer to?), “overweening,” and “exaggerated.” The burden of Lonerganians, were any of them to turn their attention to Mises’s Human Action, would be to show that “abstract deductivism” would be a fair characterization of Mises’s system.Image result for ludwig von mises

The latter is a system of deductions from the insight, expressed as a system’s axiom, that human beings act, that is, behave in order to achieve goals (and use scarce resources to do so). And insight it is: that is, the insight is direct, neither itself an inference nor a sense-perception. (The last sentence expresses my view, not necessarily that of Mises.)

Image result for ludwig von mises human actionI have found nothing overweening or exaggerated about the reliance on deduction in Mises’s Human Action or Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State and Power and Market. To my knowledge, however, no Lonerganian has expressed in print any opinion of Mises, Rothbard, or praxeology.

My problem that emerged from my intellectual inheritance is not whether we ought to conceive of economics as an apriori system, but what follows practically from doing so. Now that we know (if we do) what follows from the axiom that human being behave purposefully, how ought we relate to each other morally?

Murray’s political thought was the fruit of an eclectic mix of Thomistic natural law and Lockean property rights theory. It was the prerogative of my polymath friend to combine them as he saw fit. Could a 13th-century scholastic’s ethics be sensibly lifted out of its metaphysical context and braided with that of an 18th-century empiricist? Murray left to others the challenge of defending an affirmative answer.

Murray thought highly of Hans-Hermann Hoppe‘s argumentation ethics, that is, his treatment of natural law insight (e.g., “Every person ought to respect his own and every other person’s ownership of his or her body”) to a logical entailment of the human mammal’s use of its vocal cords.[4]

Image result for hans-hermann hoppeHoppe’s view is not necessarily that libertarian ethics is deducible from self-evident axioms. It is rather that the anti-libertarian argument can’t even get started: it refutes itself as it forms in the anti-libertarian’s brain and mouth (which he implicitly claims to own) whenever his or her self-ownership or other property right is threatened.

If I read Hoppe aright: the “is” of an organism’s neurological self-control fixes the “ought” of moral ownership, and so the fact of the former stymies attempts to deny the ethical value that inheres in the latter. That’s how he allegedly transcends the “Is-Ought” problem.

A value-neutral justification of ethical value, which Hoppe’s effort seems to me to amount to, has always struck me as not just quixotic, but also oxymoronic. Puzzling over it is also just the kind of activity I lost my taste for.

When I was working on the problem of integrating Murray’s Man, Economy and State and The Ethics of Liberty, I expressed my embryonic ideas to Hoppe after the “Man, Economy and Liberty” symposium in honor of Murray’s 60th birthday. (A total surprise to the guest of honor, it was held on March 1, 1986 at the Halloran House Hotel, now the New York Marriott, on Lexington Avenue. Here’s a picture of Murray at that event posted by Steve Horwitz.)

After listening patiently to my ill-formed ideas, Hoppe shared with me the state of his much more developed thinking, which he said he would soon publish (and did).

I’ll have to leave my tendentious gloss on Hoppe there for now.

It was the promise of Lonergan’s philosophical theology, however, that drew me into the world of Lonergan studies. As a relatively new Christian who was studying philosophy at the graduate level, I initially (1977-1978) had only Norman Geisler’s Christian Apologetics as my guide. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, which entered my life in 1979, gives the reader a tour of a cultured mind well-versed in physics, mathematics, history, and and psychology as well as ethics and theology.

But this impatient philosophy major had to wade through over six hundred pages of small-font text to reach the promised land: a rigorous theistic proof grounded in my own appropriation of my cognitive operations (Chapter XIX, “General Transcendent Knowledge), topped off by a solution to the problem of evil (Chapter XX, “Special Transcendent Knowledge”).

Lonergan’s proof, in a nutshell (and in his own words), is as follows:

If being is completely intelligible, then God exists.

But being is completely intelligible.

Therefore, God exists.

You’ll have to read Chapter XIX itself for the meat Lonergan puts on that frame. (Or at least glance at my outline.) It took me years to figure out what was wrong with his project. Here’s my inference:

God exists.

Therefore, being is completely intelligible.

Lonergan is entitled to his minor premise only because the God to Whom he devoted his life exists.

How else can one arrive at the startlingly superhuman universal truth that “being is completely intelligible”?

Certainly not by extrapolating from one’s investigations into one’s cognitional apparatus, which is basically what’s going on in Insight.

That is, Lonergan’s argument presupposes that the conditions of intelligible predication (Van Til terminology) are fulfilled. But you cannot know that unless you (a) are God or (b) know what God has revealed about Himself and his creation (including you).

Among the things He’s revealed is that “His understanding is infinite” (ayin mispar, “not numbered”) Psalm 147:5. He understands everything about everything, one of the notes of Lonergan’s notion of the unrestricted act of understanding, which he takes to be God.

The  project of suspending, even provisionally, one’s knowledge of God’s existence in order to show that it follows from other truths should be immediately suspect theologically. The Apostle Paul says that God’s power and deity are clearly seen, plain to all by the things that are made—He made them plain—but some choose to suppress (katechontōn) that knowledge. Romans 1:18-20

Some suppressors will deny Lonergan’s minor premise if it entails theism. (One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.)  Confused non-suppressors will go through the motions of “arriving” at their implicit starting point.

Which brings me back to economics, politics, and everything else we study.

There’s nature, and there’s logic. There are subatomic particles, and there are numbers. There are facts, and there are values, “ises” and “oughts.” What’s the connection? They’re as disparate as two (classes of) things can be, and yet seamlessly conjoined in our experience. But that’s because they were created. They don’t exist in separate “realms” waiting to be somehow sewn (or jammed) together, so to speak, by God or some other agency.

Since Heraclitus and Parmenides the Western philosophical enterprise has generated a dialectical pendulum swinging between rival pseudo-solutions. Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.[5]

An equally safe characterization is that it consists of series of footnotes to Plato’s failure to solve the problem of methexis, i.e., the problem of the universal and the particular, the one and the many, without suffering the predication-destroying defeat represented by the Parmenidean block or the Heraclitean flux.

Plato’s third stab at the problem (some eternal categories mix like paints) evaded the problem of how time relates to the eternal (indeed, why the eternal should “spill over,” so to speak, into the temporal at all).  Why, for heaven’s sake, would the ideas “participate” hair, mud, and filth?

In other words: Plato and the philosophical tribe he spawned failed to show how we thread the hole-less beads of contingent facts onto the infinite string of universal law or necessity (to employ another Van Tilian metaphor).

And of those beads is the contingent fact—or illusion?—of my ego.

With apologies to Anthony Newley’s musical, I shout “Stop the dialectical swing – I want to get off!”

The conceit of Lonergan, on display in Insight, is that from his intellect he can extrapolate to an ordered cosmos from which we can, Lo!, deduce God’s existence—the presupposition of proof itself.

Bernard Lonergan helped me feel intellectually fulfilled as a theist, as the world (or Richard Dawkins) regards intellectual fulfillment.[6] I learned more than I can say from his writings. I encourage you to discover and enjoy them. I hope to re-read them in the coming years. To say that this post hasn’t done them justice would be a laughable understatement.

But the reality of intellectual fulfillment came when I stopped trying to prove the very thing that makes proof possible and simply pursue my studies—theological, philosophical, historical, economic—on its basis.

I’ll close with Lonergan’s eloquent humanistic “programme,” which so stimulated my mind and stirred my heart forty years ago:Image result for lonergan unrestricted act of understanding understands everything about everything

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, and invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.[7]



[1] A taste of Blanshard:

Listen to this from a great philosopher. I leave out only the first word and ask you to form the best conjecture you can of what he is talking about:

X is the self-restoration of matter in its formlessness, its liquidity; the triumph of its abstract homogeneity over specific definiteness; its abstract, purely self-existing continuity as negation of negation is here set as activity.

You might guess the writer of this—it is Hegel—but I would almost wager the national debt that you do not have the faintest suggestion of what he is actually talking about.

Well, it happens to be heat—the good familiar heat that one feels in the sunshine or around fire­places. I strongly suspect that this farrago is nonsense, but that is not my point.

My point is that even if it is not nonsense, even if a reader, knowing that heat was being talked about, could make out, by dint of a dozen re­readings and much knitting of eyebrows, some application for the words, no one has a right to ask this sort of struggle of his reader.

On Philosophical StyleAdamson Lecture, Manchester University, 1953, 29. I divided the paragraph.-AGF

[2] For a critique of this assumption and its implications from an Austrian perspective, see Ludwig von Mises, “The Error of Anti-Market ‘Disproportionality’ Doctrines.”

[3The Beginning and the Beyond: Papers from the Gadamer and Voegelin Conferences. Supplementary Issue of Lonergan Workshop, Volume 4. Edited by Fred Lawrence. Scholars Press, Chico, CA, 1984.  For the definition, search <abstract deductivism> within this document.

[4] “Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarchocapitalist, Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural-law/natural-rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison.” Murray Rothbard, “Beyond Is and Ought,” Liberty, 1988.

[5Process and Reality, 39.

[6] “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence Reveals a Universe Without Design, New York, Norton, 1987, 6. Making the case that the universe reveals no such thing is William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, and Michael Behe, Science and Evidence for Design in the UniverseIgnatius Press, 2003.

[7Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, xxviii, 748.