Bernard Lonergan

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Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (December 17, 1904 – November 26, 1984) was a Canadian Jesuit Priest, philosopher-theologian in the Thomist tradition, and economist. Like many of his fellow Roman Catholic theologians, Lonergan perceived that Catholic theology was antiquated and in need of a modernization that would retain the achievements of the past. Gradually coming to the conviction that what was needed was a new method in theology, and he made the discovery and articulation of such a method his life work. Lonergan believed that the lack of an agreed method among scholars in fields such as philosophy and theology had slowed progress, in contrast to the natural sciences, and aimed to establish a firm basis for agreement. Lonergan researched Thomas Aquinas’ theories of cognition and epistemology, and developed his own theories in Insight (1949–1953), providing the grounds for metaphysics. He inaugurated the “generalized empirical method” (GEM), which divides human knowing into three levels; experience, understanding, and judgment. By stressing the objectivity of judgment, Lonergan developed a Thomistic vision of Being as the goal of the dynamic openness of the human spirit.

Lonergan was also an economist; during the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression, he wrote For a New Political Economy, and at the end of his life, worked on An Essay in Circulation Analysis.


Bernard Joseph Francis Lonergan was born on December 17, 1904, in Buckingham, Quebec, (about 100 miles west of Montreal), Canada, the first child of Josephine Wood, the daughter of a wheelwright at the local mill and Gerald Lonergan, a civil engineer. His father, Gerald, was descended from Irish immigrants, and worked as a surveyor mapping Western Canada. Lonergan's mother, Josephine, was from an English family.

In 1918, at the age of thirteen, Lonergan entered Loyola College, a Jesuit school in Montreal, as a boarder. There he began forming what would become a lifelong dissatisfaction with the intellectual standards of Jesuit schools in particular, and the state of Catholic education more generally (Crowe, 1992, 5). In 1922, he quietly decided join the Jesuit order. He spent four years in Guelph, Ontario (1922-26), as a novice and junior; three years studying philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London (1926-29), a Jesuit house of studies near Oxford, and another year studying for a degree in languages and mathematics; three years of regency at Loyola College (1930-33), where he had teaching duties; then four years in Rome doing theological studies for the licentiate in theology at the Gregorian, in preparation for an academic career (1933-37). He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, in 1933, and passed a ten-month tertianship in Amiens, France (1937-38). At Heythrop in London, his textbooks were scholastic manuals. In Rome, he picked up some of the transcendental Thomism of Maréchal from a fellow student, and gained first-hand exposure to the original teachings of Thomas Aquinas, as opposed to the Thomism of the scholastic manuals. Dissatisfied with the state of Catholic education, he began planning for a renewal of Catholic studies.

He earned his doctorate (S.T.D., Sacrae Theologiae Doctoratus) at Pontifical Gregorian University (1940), focusing on Aquinas' account of grace. After completing his dissertation, Lonergan taught theology at Jesuit seminaries, in Montreal and then in Toronto. In 1953, he became a professor at the Gregorian in Rome. He was diagnosed with cancer of the lung in 1965; after surgery and recovery he went to Regis College in Toronto, where a reduction in teaching duties were permitted to allow him to write and do research. He taught there until 1975, spending a short time at Harvard in 1971-72. In 1970, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. His final teaching post was at Boston College from 1975 to 1978.

Lonergan spent the last decade of his life, not in further development of his philosophical or theological work, but exploring the field of economics. In 1930, when Lonergan had returned from philosophical studies in England, he had found Canada in the midst of a severe depression. He turned to economic analysis, trying to grasp the nature of economic cycles (this work was published in For a New Political Economy). Near the end of his career, after completing Method in Theology, he decided to pick up this earlier work on economics. He began to teach graduate seminars on macroeconomics and the human good, while working on a fundamental reorientation of macroeconomic analysis (An Essay in Circulation Analysis). While still engaged in this work, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and died in Pickering, Ontario, on November 26, 1984, at the age of 79.

Thought and works

Lonergan, like many of his fellow Roman Catholic theologians, perceived that Catholic theology was antiquated and in need of modernization, but a modernization that would retain the achievements of the past. To describe this work, Lonergan adopted a phrase from the encyclical Aeterni Patris of Pope Leo XIII: vetera novis augere et perficere, “to enlarge and perfect the old by means of the new" (Insight, 768). Lonergan gradually came to the conviction that what was needed was a new organon (Crowe, 1980), a new method in theology, and he made the discovery and articulation of such an organon his life work. After his return from Rome, Lonergan wrote a series of four articles for Theological Studies on the inner word in Thomas Aquinas, which became highly influential in the study of St. Thomas' accounts of knowledge and cognition. The articles were later collected and published under the title, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas.

In 1973, Lonergan published Method in Theology, which divided the discipline into eight "functional specialties." He applied the method to all disciplines and realms of consciousness. Through his work on method, Lonergan aimed to establish a firm basis for agreement and progress in disciplines such as philosophy and theology. Lonergan believed that the lack of an agreed method among scholars in these fields had inhibited substantive agreement from being reached and slowed progress, in contrast to the natural sciences, where widespread agreement among scholars on the scientific method has enabled substantial progress.

One view of Lonergan portrays him as a Thomist who later became interested in integrating Aquinas' thought with modern philosophy, science, and history. Lonergan's dissertation topic, suggested to him by his dissertation adviser, Charles Boyer, was the question of operative grace in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. One of the more infamous debates within Catholic scholasticism was the Banezian-Molinist controversy over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and determination to save humankind with human freedom. Lonergan's exegesis of Aquinas, arguing that it was necessary to understand the historical development of Aquinas's thought in order to grasp the intricate and dynamic synthesis which Aquinas was able to achieve, is considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century Thomistic scholarship.

A second major piece of Thomistic work during this period was a series of four articles, originally published in Theological Studies and later collected under the title, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, in which Lonergan explored Aquinas' Trinitarian analogy as found in the Summa Theologiae I. qq. 27 and 93. Lonergan examined the essence of Aquinas's analysis of the human act of understanding, which had relocated Augustine's psychological analogy for the Trinitarian relations within Aristotle's metaphysical psychology.

In his next major work, Insight (1949– 953), Lonergan worked out the implications of this discovery. The book answered two questions; what happens during cognition, and what is known during cognition? The first question produced a theory of cognition and an epistemology (chs. 1-11), and the second provided the grounds for a metaphysics (chs.12-17). The last two chapters establish both the possibility of an ethics and a theology (chs. 18-20).

The experience of teaching compelled Lonergan to engage in research on human knowing (Lambert et al, 1982, pp. 8-10) and how the mind operates. After fifteen years of research he published Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). Lonergan invited the reader, through a series of exercises, to recognize and appropriate what happens when the mind engages in ordinary mental activities, such as asking questions, grasping insights, making judgments, and forming concepts. His aim in writing the book was "to help people experience themselves understanding, advert to the experience, distinguish it from other experiences, name and identify it, and recognize it when it recurs" (1974, p. 269).

After completing Insight, Lonergan spent another fifteen years on the question, "What are we doing when we do theology?" The result was Method in Theology (1972). In this work, Lonergan suggested that his "transcendental method" of doing theology could supply a lacking "anthropological component," the conscious Presence of the human subject in the process of understanding, to the natural and human sciences as well (1972, pp. 23-25).

Generalized Empirical Method and Radical Unintelligibility

Major concepts introduced by Bernard Lonergan include "Radical Unintelligibility" and "Generalized Empirical Method" (GEM). While teaching theology at the Collegium Regis Christi (later Regis College associated with the University of Toronto), Lonergan wrote Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, inaugurating the Generalized Empirical Method (GEM). GEM belongs to the movement of "transcendental Thomism" initiated by Joseph Maréchal. The "Generalized Empirical Method" divides human knowing into three levels; experience, understanding, and judgment. By stressing the objectivity of judgment more than Kant had done, a Thomistic vision is developed of Being as the goal of the dynamic openness of the human spirit.

Lonergan described GEM as critical realism; realism to affirm that we make true judgments of fact and of value, and critical because knowing and valuing are based in a critique made by consciousness. GEM traces the sources of all the meanings and values that make up personality, social orders, and historical developments, to their roots in consciousness.

"Radical Unintelligibility" is the idea that one can act against his better judgment, and refuse to choose what he know is worth choosing. It is the refusal to make a decision that one deems one ought to make.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Doran, Robert M. and Daneil Monsour, eds. The Triune God: Systematics (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan). University of Toronto Press, 2007. ISBN 0802091687
  • Lonergan, Bernard, and Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, eds. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan). University of Toronto Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0802034557
  • Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. University of Toronto Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0802068095
  • Tekippe, Terry J. Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Comprehensive Commentary. University Press of America, 2003. ISBN 978-0761825951

External links

All links retrieved September 28, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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