From the distance of 750 years, Thomas Aquinas can seem quite the stodgy fellow—not just old school but the old school. One needs to look a little closer to realize the exuberance of his work, not only in its robust confidence about the order of God and the effervescent goodness of created things, but also its remarkable capacity for creative retrieval, turning to other thinkers and sources before doing something original and productive. He’s reading Scripture, the Patristics, Muslims, Pagans, other Christians, and forging synthesis where others saw only impasse, and not in some lame version of “can’t we all get along,” but through genuinely new insights into the possibilities inherent in the others.

Perhaps the most creative move was to situate an Augustinian view of God and man into a framework of Aristotelian science, personalizing the science and revitalizing the anthropology in a tradition still unfolding. In raising his intellect to the level and needs of his time, Aquinas preserved and developed the tradition in an abiding way.

Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) a Canadian Jesuit most noted for his work on philosophical and theological method, attempted a creative retrieval of Aquinas in order to raise Thomism to the level of our times, particularly, although not only, in its understanding of science and meaning.

Classical Thomism concerned itself, for instance, with a logically rigorous but abstract method of reasoning. Terms were defined as universals, abstracted from concrete particulars, and organized syllogistically with clarity, rigor, coherence, and necessity. In a similar way, genuine science proceeded from self-evident first principles, proceeded logically to universally valid and necessary conclusions which could not be other than they were. But this is not how we nowunderstand science, for we are just as concerned with the empirical, the concrete, the emergent, and the statistically probable, with that which can be otherwise, and we do not think intelligibility disappears.

In a similar way, classical Thomism studied the soul and its operations, using the very same method to identify the essence of the human as trees or bees, and that essence was universal, static and essentialistic. But what about the person, the concrete subject which I am? As John Paul II termed it, is the cosmological approach to the person adequate to the person, or must the person be approached as a subject?

Also, Thomism was, at times, somewhat ahistorical, only awkwardly including development and change as meaningful, a charge that later Augustinians thought exposed Thomism as only inadequately committed to the dynamic changes entailed in the drama of Creation—Fall—Redemption. How is historicity to be included?

According to Lonergan, a Thomism responsible to the level of our time would transpose the achievements of its heritage in ways allowing for the best of the new science, including probability, a personalistic access to ourselves, and a genuine appropriation of historicity, including the historicity of meaning.

To accomplish this transposition, Lonergan conducts an inquiry into understanding, first in his massive Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957), and in Method in Theology (1972), with implications drawn out for economics, Christology, Trinitarian theology, grace, and so on in an oeuvre totaling twenty-one volumes. If we thoroughly understand understanding, he suggests, we will have an invariant foundation for the unity of the entire range of human inquiry and action, as well as normative guidelines with which to resist the flight from understanding.

One cannot merely begin by examining knowledge and standards of objectivity (as in so many epistemologies). Instead, we begin with our own performance of inquiry in its various modes, with what we do, not how we theorize about what we do. In doing so, we discover a four-level structure of inquiry and action. First, there is experience, and if we lacked experience there would be nothing for us to know or choose. Neither does experience compel us to further inquiry or engagement, but if we are interested, if we desire to know, we engage data with a question: What is it? In so doing, our intellect pivots toward intelligibility. Thus directed, we have moments of insight, those “aha!” experiences when vagueness peels back and intelligibility is manifest—the second level, or understanding. Of course, not every insight is fruitful, and we discard a good many quite soon after having them by asking another question, “Is it?” intending to discover not only intelligibility but the true and real. We answer this second question with a judgment of fact on the third level. Possessing responsibility, we can act, responding to reality with actions about which we deliberate and choose, and about which we make judgments of value on the fourth level of the intellect. Our activities can be summarized as experience—understanding—judging—deliberating.

While this seems quite broad, Lonergan takes enormous effort to show how this structure works concretely in common sense, math, science, theology, and economics, maintaining the basic pattern even as consciousness differentiates itself in particular ways. Further, the structure is not empty but reveals normativity, for if we attend to each level and its intentional structure, we discover a normative pattern, namely, that insofar as we are attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible we tend toward the true and good. Further, the driver of this cumulative and self-correcting process is desire, wonder, a love of the truth. Thus, persons of genuine subjectivity tend also to objectivity.

Not only is this normative, but it is also universal and undeniable. Let’s imagine a person reads this account and doesn’t get it, wondering what it’s all about—doesn’t their wonder demonstrate the predictive power of the model? Aren’t they doing just what Lonergan suggests they will do. Or imagine another person denies the model. Can they do so without appealing to some data it overlooks, or something it has misunderstood, and don’t they judge it to be false, or harmful? In other words, they respond to it through the operations the model identifies, thereby confirming the model and performatively contradicting their own denial.

This is a model of reason in keeping with the achievements of the old and the new. For instance, the first principles identified by Aristotle cannot be proven but also not denied, and Lonergan suggests that he has provided something similar, but in a personalist, concrete mode allowing for contemporary versions of reason. Not first concepts or propositions, but first performances or operations. Human subjectivity is the ground of first principles, and human subjectivity is not subjectivistic but exhibits universal, normative, transcultural, and invariant structures of meaning, all while admitting history, embodiment, linguistic heritage, and human finitude.

This is an explication and defense of reason keeping the achievements of Thomism without sinking into the mistakes of Enlightenment rationalism, but also without the irony of so much contemporary thought. This is reason mounting to the level of its time.


 A Few Links

The Lonergan Center at Boston College, the Lonergan Resource, and the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto are good places to begin.

Fr. Joseph Flanagan’s Quest for Self-Knowledge provides an excellent introduction to Lonergan’s account of reason, as does Mark Miller’s introduction to Lonergan’s theological method.

I’ve contributed as well, both in Through a Glass Darkly and Authentic Cosmopolitanism.

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R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. This is an excellent introduction Mr. Snell, but it doesn’t remove my misgivings over Longergan’s work. There is a sense in which it, like Rahner’s, was out of date even as it was being written, insofar as while the truly interesting thinkers of the 20th century were busy challenging the Cartesian-Kantian framework of modern thought, Lonergan was busy trying to open up neo-Scholasticism to it. Of course Lonergan wasn’t simply a modern, but he underestimated the degree to which methods and starting points were already loaded with metaphysical and even (implicitly) theological content.

    Two things in particular: 1) In your essay you mention that classical Thomism treats the substance of things as static and ‘essentialistic,’ and that may very well be true, but it is certainly not true for Thomas. Substance is precisely what explains the activity of a thing, and that’s why we can come to know something of a thing’s substance only by observing its activity. I’m not sure why Lonergan would have thought it necessary to turn to the moderns to correct Thomism’s overly static understanding of essence (a notion explicitly rejected by Hume, Locke, Kant, et. al.), when he could have turned to Thomas himself. 2) While Lonergan’s conclusions are most often not modern, his very notion that one can work out a method prior to thinking about theological content is precisely what the most astute critics of modernity were already critiquing, as early as Hegel (cf., the latter’s famous quip about Kant and swimming)! I was subjected to Lonergon’s Method in Theology in graduate school, and I kept wondering why a Catholic thinker was so uncritically accepting of the modern attempt to pattern all ways of thinking on the hard sciences, when folk like Gadamer, Jonas, and Polanyi were already demonstrating that even the hard sciences don’t work this way.

    So, to return to my previous contention: Lonergan’s approach was outdated before it was ever put to paper. I will state, however, that the content of much of this thought is better than the style.

  2. Mr. Howsare,

    Thank you for your response, which is meaty and to the issue in the debates about Lonergan.

    I’m happy to agree that certain aspects of Lonergan’s concern were very much of the moment and served to engage that moment but perhaps not beyond. Certainly the “Lonerganian moment” that some noted, and others hoped for, has been limited. Other aspects, however, I do not find so limited, nor do I find them as uncritical or closed to theological content as you do, namely, the account of subjectivity.

    For instance, (1) I agree that Thomas was not so static or essentialistic as Thomism sometimes was, and I often find myself reading Lonergan along with Norris Clarke or Kenneth Schmitz or JP2 or Blondel. Already by Method in Theology Lonergan is reading, and its clear that he is, von Hildebrand and Scheler, which was not clear in Insight. In fact, I find the broader concerns to be not entirely dissimilar to JP2, a resistance to the merely cosmological mode of reading the human being, and thus a sense that the Aristotelian tradition needed a thicker account of subjectivity to get to the person. That kind of concern has survived and flourished long after Lonergan, I suggest (would you agree?).

    Further (2), I’m not so sure he’s as naive about patterning everything after the hard sciences as you suggest, certainly there are many who read Gadamer and Lonergan as pulling in similar directions. And while Insight may read in its earlier sections as though science is the model, Method’s turn to existence and emotions seems free from that. Again, I’m not as convinced that his method is (or claims to be) entirely free from theological backstory (and I think such entanglement a strength). For instance, the central role of religious conversion and the visible mission of the Holy Spirit becomes a central aspect to Method in Theology and thus to his account of the human subject.

    I’ve never read him as a Transcendental Thomist, although certainly I understand why others do. And thus I’m quite at ease in reading his self-reflexive account of subjectivity as a deeply productive move because it opens into, and is informed by, other philosophical and theological resources.

    None of that is established in this little response, of course, but merely a suggested direction. I wonder might you might think of the book Steve Cone and I did where grace is central to our version of Lonergan’s subjectivity, or my forthcoming work on natural law and the centrality of the holy spirit to it (using Lonergan to make that claim).

    All best wishes.

  3. Well, you’ve piqued my interest and I intend to check out the book by you and Mr. Cone. I’ve always read Lonergan as a straight up Transcendental Thomist, but that’s basically how he was taught to me. Thanks for the thoughtful reply (and for extending my list of “things to read”)!

  4. Lonergan never thought Thomas fell into essentialism. He always differentiated Thomas from the commentary tradition. Lonergan published two books on Thomas Aquinas, and central to both of them is the argument that Thomas was not an essentialist. He also argued from the beginning of his career to the end that the Cartesian and Kantian project was a dead end, and that Thomas had a better approach to these problems. It is unjust to suggest that he was trying to open scholasticism to Cartesian and Kantian thought, when Cartesian and Kantian thought are the major objects of Lonergan’s criticism in *Insight.* Finally, the whole project of Lonergan’s two most important works, *Insight* and *Method in Theology*, is that the paradigm of the natural sciences is totally inadequate to the humanities, philosophy, and theology–but also that this does not mean the latter have to be unmethodical. Lonergan’s argument was that the humanities, philosophy, and theology are intelligent activities just as capable of methodological reflection as the natural sciences, but in a more complex way because they deal with a much more complex subject, a subject largely constituted not by natural phenomena but by acts of human meaning and freedom. When Prof. Howsare lines him up in opposition to Polanyi, Gadamer, and the rest, he gets Lonergan exactly backward; they were all after the same squirrel, but Lonergan treed it.

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