05 March 2006

Lonergan's Cognitional Theory: The Structure of Human Inquiry

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.


thorsten said...

Thanks Tom. Such summaries are immensely useful. I'll recommend your blog to students who are interested in CR.


Thomas said...


I wrote a paper this fall for Historical Jesus about N.T. Wright's methodology and it's relationship to Ben Meyer and Bernard Lonergan. What I find interesting is that in some places Wright will say something like "I hold to an epistemology along the lines of Bernard Lonergan..." but in NTPG he doesn't at all mention Lonergan's cognitional theory.

This past week I read your article in the Renewing Biblical Interpretation about Wright's methodology and how his CR differs from "chastened positivism" only because of his focus on story. For Ben Meyer, Lonergan's cog. theory is indispensable, and many of the breakthroughs epistemologically for Meyer stem directly from Lonergan's work- such as getting beyond Enlightenment dichotomies (subject/object, naturalism/supernaturalism), and clearly expressing a theory of history (building on Collingwood). So, Wright seems to appropriate the breakthroughs that Meyer does, references Collingwood and getting to the "inside" of historical happenings, but does not himself even mention Lonergan's name in NTPG (although he includes Insight and Method in his bibliography).

It seems to me that Lonergan's cog. theory and Wright's story laden epistemology meet in the middle so to speak. Lonergan begins with attentiveness to his own subjectivity while Wright works his way down from Meta-story. Do you think Wright would acknowledge the centrality of Lonergan's cognitional theory? It wouldn't have taken much space to give a paragraph or two to Lonergan, or at least to mention him along with Meyer, but he doesn't. Maybe all of his Lonergan comes via Meyer and he hasn't fully appropriated Lonergan's writings.

Do you think a CR that combines Wright's story epistemology with Lonergan's cognitional theory would be a way of moving Wright from a (chastened positivism within story, CR) to a more full account of human knowing which goes top down (story) as well as bottom up (Lonergan).


Bryan Tarpley said...

i'm trying REALLY hard to push consciousness level #4 -- hence criticalrealism.net ;) there's a tangential debate currently going on here:


in the comments section, we're discussing the degree of responsibility a philosopher has for popularizing their work. please jump in!

Mark said...

Hi Thomas,

Would you be able to send me the paper you wrote?
Thanks for the interesting blog!