Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Making Sense of Lonergan

Kevin Kim takes up my offer to make sense of Lonergan passages that Kevin finds baffling. I write as someone who has never studied Lonergan, though I have read an odd paragraph or two. Part of my interest here, besides being of some slight assistance to Kim and others, is to see whether I should undertake a serious study of Lonergan.

Kim writes:

Before I quote you some long passages from Bernard Lonergan's Method in Theology, I wanted to offer you a list of some Lonerganian insights, some of which I simply don't understand, others of which strike me as having nothing to do with reality. All page citations are from Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971. Ready?

A. Page 9: "...different levels of consciousness and intentionality have to be distinguished. In our dream states consciousness and intentionality commonly are fragmentary and incoherent. When we awake, they take on a different hue to expand on four successive, related, but qualitatively different levels. There is the empirical level on which we sense, perceive, imagine, feel, speak, move. There is an intellectual level on which we inquire, come to understand, express what we have understood, work out the presuppositions and implications of our expression. There is the rational level on which we reflect, marshal the evidence, pass judgment on the truth or falsity, certainty or probability, of a statement. There is the responsible level on which we are concerned with ourselves, our own operations, our goals, and so deliberate about possible courses of action, evaluate them, decide, and carry out our decisions."

Question 1: Why is "imagine" located on the empirical level and not the intellectual level?

BV: I suppose L. puts imagination on the empirical level because imagination typically involves the re-working of sensory and perceptual materials. To imagine something is to form a mental image of it, and presumably one could not form a mental image of anything that did not have a sensory provenience.

Question 2: Aren't "reflect" and "work out the presuppositions and implications of our expression" almost the same thing? If so, why are they located on different levels? How is Lonergan assigning these operations to their levels?

BV: I perceive my coffee cup and see steam rising from it. I make the judgment: Steam is rising from the cup. I express this judgment by uttering a sentence in the indicative mood. I then infer that the coffee is hot. All of this is within the INTENTIO RECTA. I don't know if L. uses this phrase, but if he doesn't, he ought to. [grin] The intellect is operating in straightforward, direct mode, going right at the things themselves. The intellect is not reflecting on its own operations. When it does that, we can say that it is within the INTENTIO OBLIQUA. But this Latin terminology is not essential. The main idea is that there is a difference between judging, expressing, teasing out the implications of a judgment about some subject-matter one is confronting, and reflecting on the mind's doing of these things.

Therefore, to work out an implication (e.g., to infer The coffee is hot from Steam is rising from it) is different from reflecting on what the mind is doing when it draws this inference. Logic, the study of inference as such in its formal aspects, operates on the plane of reflection.

B. Page 15: "...sensations can be produced or removed at will."

Question: They can? I call bullshit on that one.

BV: I'd have to see the context here. But surely I can give myself some sensations. I can pinch myself. I can also remove sensations. I can remove a headache sensation by taking Ibuprofen.

C. Page 18: "...the absence of the effort to understand is constitutive of stupidity."

Critique: Sorry, but that's simply wrong. As I wrote in the margin of that page: "Stupid people can make efforts to understand."

BV: Again, I would have to see the context. But going on what is available, I agree with the Big Ho on this one.

D. Page 27: "What is good, always is concrete."

Question: Huh? What does this mean? No explanation is forthcoming in the chapter.

BV: Philosophers use 'abstract' and 'concrete' in a half-dozen different ways. I would have to know how he defines these terms -- if he does define them. He may well mean something like this. The concrete is that which is completely determinate. Only the completely determinate exists in itself. What exists in itself is good insofar as it exists. Existence is a perfection. Ens et bonum convertuntur: being and good are convertible notions. The abstract is existentially defective and less than good.

E. Page 57: "Meaning is embodied or carried in human intersubjectivity, in art, in symbols, in language, and in the lives and deeds of persons. It can be clarified by a reduction to its elements. It fulfils various functions in human living. It opens upon quite different realms. Its techniques vary in the successive stages of man's historical development."

Question 1: What does "techniques" mean in the above? What are the "techniques" of meaning?

BV: L. does seem to be a sloppy writer. He seems to be confusing techniques for the embodiment of meaning (techniques of sculpting, for example), and techniques of meaning. And if he doesn't provide examples, then he is a really bad writer.

The trouble with most Continental philosophers is that no one ever held their asses to the fire and forced them to be clear. The French are absolutely the worst. Try to find even one clear paragraph in Derrida, king of coffeehouse bullshitters.

Question 2: Does the above paragraph actually provide a definition of meaning, or has the definition been postponed until we can perform a "reduction to its elements"?

BV: Is L. trying to define 'meaning'?

F. Page 61: "A pattern is said to be pure inasmuch as it excludes alien patterns that instrumentalize experience."

Comment: I have no damn clue what this means.

BV: I agree that this is awful. Had L. stopped after 'patterns,' the sentence would have been intelligible.

G. Page 77: "For meaning is an act that does not merely repeat but goes beyond experiencing."

Comment: Now meaning is an act? I know less than I did before.

BV: Meaning (taken participially, rather than substantivally) is a mental act. 'Mental act' is a technical term in philosophy which means something like mental occurrence or episode. The seeing of a mountain, the remembering of a past event, the imagining of a winged horse -- these are all mental acts. A mental act is not the same as a mental action such as searching one's memory for a person's name.

The mind means, intends, refers to something beyond itself. Philosophers call this intentionality. Thus, seeing yonder mountain, my mind means, intends, is directed to an object that is not a part of my mental life. The meaning can go beyond the experiencing in the following way. Seeing a house, my consciousness means it as as 3-dimensional object having sides, an interior, etc. that are presently invisible. So the meaning goes beyond the actual experiencing. In Husserlian jargon, the empty meaning-intention is only partially fulfilled by the present content of sensory experience.

L. is not bullshitting here. He is making sense. It is just that he is a lousy expositor. Of course, it may be that the context makes things a lot clearer.

H. Page 102: "Judgment proceeds rationally from a grasp of a virtually unconditioned. By an unconditioned is meant any x that has no conditions. By a virtually unconditioned is meant any x that has no unfulfilled conditions. In other words, a virtually unconditioned is a conditioned whose conditions are all fulfilled."

Comment 1: Uh...

BV: This does appear to be nonsense as it stands. 'Virtual' is one of the weasel words of philosophy. Suppose it means potential. How could there be a potentially unconditioned entity? A conditioned entity like me has his conditioned status essentially. How could I go from being conditioned to being unconditioned? An unconditioned entity like God is essentially unconditioned.

Are you sure the context sheds no light on this?

Comment 2: The phrase "in other words" struck me as unintentionally humorous. The "explanation" following that phrase left me in deeper murk than before.

BV: I agree.

I. Page 112: "...language is the vehicle in which meaning becomes most fully articulated."

Comment: All the religion-related posts on my blog add up to an attempted refutation of this claim. Lonergan himself is quasi-foundationalist in outlook; he's not a total postmodernist by any means. But this quote of his could easy lead one to believe he was a closet PoMoer. It is, by itself, entirely consistent with the Derridean claim of "il n'y a pas de hors-texte."

BV: What L is saying here seems clear enough. Is it a PoMo thesis? The PoMos seems to embrace some kind of unholy blend of linguistic relativism (truth and perhaps meaning vary from language game to language game) with linguistic idealism (there is nothing extralinguistic to which we refer when we use language). If that is what PoMo amounts to, then I don't see that L. is anywhere near saying that. Suppose truth and meaning are objective and absolute. It could still be that language is the medium through which they become most fully articulated.

At the back of L's mind is something like this: God is the eternal and unchanging and absolute truth. God the Son is Verbum Dei, the articulation of this truth. Nothing PoMo about this. The similarity may only be that L and the PoMoers are sloppy writers and thinkers.