Everything Bernard Lonergan does is based on and refers back to his cognitional theory. He argues that by attentiveness to the knowing subject (one's self), the structure of inquiry can be perceived, understood and then judged.
The drive to know and the structure it follows are common to all. All human knowing operates on four levels, all of which are conscious (aware) and intentional (having an outward object). They are the empirical, intellectual, rational and responsible levels of consciousness [The following discussion of the levels of consciousness can be found in Method in Theology, 9]. At the empirical level of consciousness the knowing subject is sensing, perceiving, imagining, feeling, speaking and moving. At the intellectual level it is inquiring, coming to understand, expressing the understanding and working out the presuppositions and implications of the expression formulated. At the rational level the knower is passing judgment on the truth or falsity of a statement after weighing the evidence and deciding if the conditions of its truth have been fulfilled. The final level is the responsible level in which the subject makes decisions concerning possible actions, evaluating and deciding the meaning of those actions in light of greater goals and aims.
The four levels of consciousness consist of relative operations each building on the previous, (1) experiencing leads to (2) inquiry and understanding by which intelligible answers are formed to questions arising from the first level. (3) Judging the veracity of the answers follows and finally (4) deciding a course of action in accord with what has been judged true is the final level of consciousness. The levels of consciousness are a dynamic unity, given as a whole.
Lonergan notes that “one and the same operation not only intends an object but also reveals an intending subject” (15). By attentiveness and awareness to one’s knowing, the knower can, in accordance with the very structure she is aware of, decide to “operate in accord with the norms immanent in the spontaneous relatedness of one’s experienced, understood, affirmed experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding” (15).
This coming to acknowledge the structure of knowing, and then deciding to act in accordance with it is what Lonergan calls self-appropriation.