Skip to main content

Encountering Bernard Lonergan Alongside Richard Liddy

On Saturday, August 28th, after several weeks of written exchanges, The Straddler traveled to South Orange, New Jersey to pay a visit to Monsignor Richard Liddy.  Monsignor Liddy is the editor of The Lonergan Review, a journal produced by Seton Hall’s Bernard Lonergan Institute and dedicated to examining the thought of the 20th century Canadian philosopher and theologian, who focuses on the methodologies of the sciences, including economics.

The first volume of The Lonergan Review is entitled “Generalized Empirical Method: Perspectives from Bernard Lonergan,” but it was the second volume, “Forging a New Economic Paradigm” that was brought to our attention by a Straddler reader who suggested that we might encounter in Lonergan’s thought means and methods of inquiry into culture, society, and economics that were not dissonant in spirit with our own approach.

Monsignor Liddy’s introduction to the second volume begins with an epigraph by Keynes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.  Indeed the world is ruled by little else.

Liddy continues the rest of the quote in a footnote:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.  I am sure the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.[1]

Keynes use of the term “practical men” has an echo in Lonergan, who distinguishes between “common sense” and a more developed theoretical methodology which is “capable of thinking on the level of history.”

As Liddy put it in our conversation with him:

The way [Lonergan] would describe the distinction is common sense relates things to us as individual people—people of a particular community, or a particular area.  So I have the common sense of an American—if I grew up in England, I’d have the common sense of that particular group.  Common sense is always embodied in relationship to a particular time and place and situation, whereas theory tries to give you a more explanatory and a more universal viewpoint, even though it arises out of a particular common sense, and is often colored by it.  Common sense is a tremendous development in human intelligence, but sooner or later some people realize it has its limits, and we have to get clarity on a more universal, more theoretical level.

Now, that theory is, like common sense, susceptible to fads doesn’t do away with the power of theory, and so it behooves us as a human family to try and get the best one possible.  I think Keynes’ point is that some theory is going to fill the gap, and it’s going to influence people.

Insight is Lonergan’s most famous work, and Liddy points to its seventh chapter to emphasize the central role culture plays in Lonergan’s thought:

“Cosmopolis” is the cultural term.  It’s an x for movies, theater, poetry, good theory—things that touch people’s hearts.  Chapter 7 in Insight is culture.  He’s done five chapters on science, and then he’s moving towards a viewpoint that is sort of philosophically universal and he expresses that in the second part of the book.  But right in the middle, he says, hey, we’re really influenced by culture, by the things that touch our hearts for the good or for the bad.

“In introducing the higher viewpoint and community he calls cosmopolis,” writes Patrick D. Brown in “Insight as Palimpsest,” another of the essays in the second volume:

Lonergan discusses the virtualities of culture and its central role in human living and human history.  For if humans “are to meet the challenge set by major decline and its longer cycle, it will be through their culture that they do so.”  But, writes Lonergan, present culture has abdicated its essential role.  It is less a solution to the longer cycle and more its first and most conspicuous victim. …  Ideally however, one of the important functions of culture is to be an independent factor that passes a detached yet effective judgment upon capital formation and technology, upon economy and polity.

“It is important,” writes Brown in the same essay, “to notice the importance Lonergan gives to economic and material developments made possible by timely and fruitful ideas.”  Again, culture has a central role:

Without something like cosmopolis, culture becomes hostage to the general bias of common sense, and as it does so, the general bias excludes the timely and fruitful ideas called for by the objective situation.[2]

A fundamental problem in Lonerganian thought is how to overcome biases that prevent good and productive ideas from having their hearing.  How, in other words, do good ideas buck constraints and become part of the conversation?  In one of our written exchanges, Liddy put the problem succinctly:

[There are] skewered horizons – cultural “biases” – not just personal but group (prejudice) as well as what Lonergan calls “the general bias” – a refusal to think things through – expressed not just in explicit and inadequate philosophies but also in popular culture… – which needs rebuttal on that level – “let me write a country’s songs and I care not who writes its laws”[3]

Liddy continued this thread in our conversation:

Lonergan in a number of places distinguishes society and culture, society being the structures—economic and social structures—that we create because we’re intelligent and we want to get things done; culture being the meanings that we see in these structures in the economy and so forth—the philosophy of the economy, for example—and that can be very pragmatic and business oriented, or it can have a transcendent dimension to it.  He would say that art is one way that people get out of their shells.  Sometimes hard-headed businessmen, in their advertising, for example, will appeal to really beautiful things.  Of course, they want to make money, but Lonergan would say you need more than that—you need more than sublime advertising.  But even that wants to touch something in people’s hearts and spark something of their higher aspirations.

Let me just say this: I think there is a desire for wholeness in people, for meaning.  Beginning with that is very important.  And then part of that is to find meaning in your own desire for meaning.  In other words, a more reflective awareness of your own dignity.  Your own ability to learn and be creative and so forth.

A focus on, and concern with, authenticity runs throughout Lonergan’s later thought.  This is partly a result, Liddy says, of Lonergan’s encounters with continental existential thought of the mid twentieth century:

He began as a Scholastic.  He joined the Jesuits in the 1920s, but he was always interested in science and culture.  And he wrote Insight, which is the key to the first half of this life.  But he was in Europe at the time when I had him as a teacher,  and more and more he came into contact with the existentialist philosophers—he has a whole volume on existentialism—and of course, for them that’s the word:  Authenticity.  What does it mean to be an authentic person?  More and more he framed his own thought in those terms.  So the first part is intelligence, and then intelligence about your own intelligence; and then he puts that in a wider framework: what does it mean to be an authentic person?  What does it mean to be authentic?

And he’d say, to be authentic is to use your eyes, is to ask questions, to check on the answers you come up with, to make good decisions—this is an ongoing process that we’re involved in every day.  And there are ways that we screw it up, through all these biases that get in the way of asking the next question.

In Lonergan’s essay “The Response of the Jesuit As Priest and Apostle in the Modern World,” he speaks of authenticity in terms of self-transcendence.  Using different phases of sleep and wakefulness as metaphors for the progression of self-transcendence, he contrasts dreamless sleep with dream-filled sleep, dream-filled sleep with wakefulness, and wakefulness with a higher level of consciousness in which we utilize our imagination, language, and so on as thinking and feeling beings whose concerns transcend immediate experience.  Lonergan has brought us up a ladder of consciousness and self-transcendence, but we are not yet in the field of action—and it is precisely there that authenticity is of greatest importance:

On the topmost level of human consciousness the subject deliberates, evaluates, decides, controls, acts.  At once he is practical and existential: practical inasmuch as control includes self-control, and the possibility of self-control involves responsibility for the effects of his actions on others, and more basically, on himself.  The topmost level of human consciousness is conscience.

However, man’s self-control can proceed from quite different grounds.  It can tend to be mere selfishness.  Then the process of deliberation, evaluation, decision, is limited to determining what is most to one’s advantage, what best preserves one’s interests, what on the whole yields a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain.  At the opposite pole it can tend to be concerned solely with values: with the vital values of health and strength; with the social values enshrined in family and custom, society and education, the state and the law, the economy and technology, the church or sect; with the cultural values of religion and art, language and literature, science, philosophy, history, theology; with the achieved personal value of one dedicated to realizing values in himself and promoting their realization in others.

In the measure that one’s living, one’s aims, one’s achievements are a response to values, in that measure self-transcendence is effected in the field of action.  One has got beyond mere selfishness.  One has become a principle of benevolence and beneficence.  One has become capable of genuine collaboration and of true love.  In the measure that self-transcendence in the field of action characterizes the members of a society, in that measure their world not only is constructed by imagination and intelligence, mediated by words and meaning, based by and large on belief; it also is a world motivated and regulated not by self-seeking but by values, not by what is apparently good but by what truly is good.[4]

While seeking to live authentically is by no means a guarantee that one will always get it right, striving towards insights and their consequences is, in Lonerganian thought, one of life’s essential responsibilities.  “The ought,” says Liddy, “comes from the is.”

In other words, there’s a connection between what you really know and the need to be consistent with that in your doing.  He has a chapter on ethics where that’s the point.  If culture, at its best, is trying to get us to this universal viewpoint—this viewpoint that goes beyond our own ordinary common sense—well, are you just going to say, I’m not going to listen to that?  Or, are you going to say, I’m too weak to do that?  That happens.  Or are you just going to avoid consciousness?

So, in other words, questioning is really a big deal.  And talking together is a big deal.  And listening to people who have something to say—it’s all a big deal.  Because we’re being formed and forming each other by that process.

And my guess is that working in a system that just doesn’t foster questioning—sooner or later it’s got to be deadening to the soul.  Sooner or later, chickens do come to home to roost.  Maybe they come home to roost in stages…

In an article in America Magazine, Mary Ann Glendon presents a vision of the Lonerganian process of insight.  “Over time,” she writes, “the recurrent, cumulative and potentially self-correcting processes of experiencing, wondering, understanding, critically evaluating, judging and choosing may enable us to overcome some of our errors and biases, the errors and biases of our culture, and the errors and biases embedded in the data we received from those who have gone before us.”[5]

Without insight, of course, there are oversights.  And oversights are not only harmful because of the blind spots (“scotoma”) that take root in individual actors, but because of the societal institutions that take root, codifying and perpetuating the activities of oversight.  For example, William Mathews, in his contribution to the second volume, notes that “the hard questions weren’t being asked” in the lead up to the financial crisis:

The oversights of the opponents to the whistleblowers were in relation to the real relevance of the questions being advanced which were challenging the oversights of the orthodoxy.  It is a sign of intellectual maturity and authenticity that an individual or a group can listen carefully to the criticisms it encounters, both hostile and serious and learn to discern between those which are based on the ego inflation of the critic and those which originate in some real understandings of the oversights of the group.  Without this maturity the financial civilization digs its grave and cannot be argued out of its actions.  Most major oversights do not surrender without a fight or even a war.

“No solution exists in mainstream economics,” continues Mathews, “to the problem of boom and bust.”[6]

In Lonerganian economics, a complex field, there is such a solution.  While a complete explication of Lonergan’s economics is beyond the scope of this piece, in the abstract it essentially argues that there are two circuits in the economy, the basic and the surplus; that “mistaken expectations” and incomplete understanding of the economy’s functioning create booms and busts; and that a longer-term analysis is crucial to leveling out the all too familiar and recurrent spasmodic developments of our economy.  Patrick Byrne’s essay “The Economy: Mistaken Expectations” lucidly elucidates Lonerganian economics and notes that one of its primary admonitions is that “long-term expectations that are intelligent and correct are vitally important to avoid setting in motion dynamics that will prove devastating for future generations.”[7]

Mathews concurs, and offers a prescription consistent with Lonergan’s broader, methodological thought:

[A] future economic paradigm must move beyond the theoretical question—what is the nature of the macroeconomy?—to the wider practical question: for whom and what is that paradigm?


In this sense the future paradigm must be interdisciplinary.  Significantly new insights and their ideas are needed which, not overnight, but in accordance with the rhythms of cultural evolution, will emerge and lead to better options in adjusting finance to the needs of the human family.  That call for innovation and imagination by those who understand how great our current ignorance is will be strongly resisted.  Many conservatives of the status quo will argue for some slight tuning.  Although economists in past history have their contribution to make, we have to go forwards, not backwards into the new paradigm.  Along that path there will be no escape from the struggle in our human condition between progress and decline.  There is no standing still.[8]

“The task,” Liddy writes, “is immense, but each of us has to do what we can: to understand the world as clearly as we can, and to collaborate with others in the long range project of a genuine education contributing to making the world a better place.”[9]

“Lonergan,” Liddy told us, “was once invited to the American Studies division of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.”

So these guys who ran the Center had him for dinner.  And he was this little old Jesuit, sort of grandfatherly.  And they said the conversation was sort of stilted—a friend of mine was there—and then finally somebody said, “Father Lonergan, if you were going to develop a research center, what would be the question?”  And his answer was, “How do people change their minds?”  How does this happen?

Lonergan believed that intelligence, reason, and responsibility should be operative more democratically across the board.  That cooperation, adult education, all of us doing some economics a little better—all of this is going to have some effect.  He has this line that I’ve often used where he’s talking to some Cardinal about taking care of the poor and he said to the Cardinal, “if you really want to take care of the poor, you’ll learn some economics.”   If you want to liberate people, you have to know the systems in which they’re suffering—and what a good economic system would be.

Monsignor Richard M. Liddy is University Professor of Catholic Thought and Culture and the Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University.  He is also a member of the Department of Religious Studies.  He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the work of the American philosopher of art, Susanne K. Langer.  His published books on Bernard Lonergan include Transforming Light: Intellectual Conversion in the Early Lonergan and Startling Strangeness: Reading Lonergan’s Insight.  The latter, published in 2007, centers on his own encounter with Lonergan as a student in Rome in the 1960s.  He has also written articles on the thought of Cardinal John Henry Newman and on the topics of art, education, and personal formation.

[1] Liddy, Richard M. “Introduction.” The Lonergan Review. II.1 (2010): 5, 9n.1.

[2] Brown, Patrick D.  “Insight as Palimpsest: The Economic Manuscripts in Insight.”  Ibid.  136-37.

[3] Liddy, Richard M.  Personal Communication.  July 26, 2010.

[4] Lonergan, Bernard.  “The Response of the Jesuit as Priest and Apostle in the Modern World.”  A Second Collection. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. 168-69.
[5] Glendon, Mary.  “Searching for Bernard Lonergan.” America Magazine. 1 Oct. 2007.

[6] Mathews,William.  “Finance Ethics.”  The Lonergan Review.  II.1. (2010): 159-60, 167.

[7] Byrne, Patrick H.  “The Economy: Mistaken Expectations.”  Ibid.  17.  We have relied on Byrne’s summary for our own understanding of Lonergan’s economics.

[8] Mathews, op cit.  171-72.

[9] Liddy, op cit.  8.

Website | + posts

Leave a Reply