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Ontology is something I never quite got comfortable with. I have tried a few times to approach Heidegger (Being and Time) and I think I have had a couple of insights there, but I am starting to come across very interesting relationships between epistemology and ontology that I don’t quite understand yet and am curious to study it closer. Somehow, Lonergan, Kant, and Heidegger all move into ontology from epistemology, but I have not quite gotten there yet. Aquinas also has some very interesting things to say on this, pulling as always it seems, from Aristotle. Again, I am still digesting the basics of the ontological, however. I would love to take a course on some of this, as I am sure my understanding of the dividing lines of different schools of thought and where these thinkers fall on these issues is cloudy.

For example, I never read Hegel, but I came across an article that indicated that Lonergan was following Hegel and that Kant was an afterthought. So I started to read up on Hegel and indeed, I have found that characteristics of Lonergan’s structure jumped out at me, and right away.

I was always turned off to Hegel because of the Marx connection, but I am finding hints of great insights in his work, “The Phenomenology of Spirit.” The title invokes Kant (who divided the world into noumena and phenomena) and speaks to the fact that all thinkers after Kant had to deal with the power and force of his work. [This is just a part of the great tradition of thinkers that have contributed to this centuries-old dialogue. Kant was speaking directly to Hume and Locke, both giants; Aquinas stands on the shoulders of Aristotle; etc.

There are two things that I am focused on right now with the beginnings of Lonergan’s Insight. One is the transcendental structure (which does seem to come from Hegel, but is also tied to Kant, who brought in the transcendental, I believe) of higher and higher levels of consciousness and how consciousness of itself moves from one stage to another….

These “…different levels of consciousness and intentionality have to be distinguished.”

These levels of consciousness are:

1.   Empirical, which is the level of the sensual;
2.   Intellectual, which is the level of inquiry, understanding, and expression;
3.   Rational, which is the level of reflection and judgment upon the truth or falsity of a proposition; and
4.   Responsible, which is the level of applying what we know to ourselves and come to a decision about how we should then act, given what we know. As we progress through these levels of consciousness, we become aware of a fuller self, “…and the awareness itself is different.”

Thus, Lonergan’s transcendental method is summarized as

1) Be attentive
2) Be intelligent
3) Be reasonable
4) Be responsible

The second thing I am focused on, as mere intellectual curiosity, is this epistemological issue regarding the veil of perception, what I have come to call “The Matrix Problem.” How do we know that this world is not some virtual reality matrix? Are we to come to conclude that the words “real” and “knowledge” are valid only locally, like time and space, which only have meaning in a locally-defined frame of reference? This is the question David Hume asks us, and it is reminiscent of the shadows in Plato’s cave.

I am fairly certain that Lonergan’s answer to this is that if indeed we are in the Matrix, we cannot “know” this, simply because we can never have any experience of the world outside the Matrix. Within the confines of what we mean by “real” and “knowledge” the Matrix would be “real” to us in a local way that would not translate to the programmers who designed the Matrix. The end result of this view is that we are “limited” to saying that what we human beings consider “knowledge of the real” only applies to “our universe” – aka, the supposed Matrix.

On the one hand, this seems to admit defeat of our desire to know the “really real” but I believe that Lonergan and Kant calls into question that the concept of knowing this really real can have any meaning.

For example, Lonergan says

“there is no explicit contradiction in the content of the statement, We are under an illusion when we claim to know what really is. On the other hand, there is an explicit contradiction in the reflective statement: I am stating what really and truly is so when I state that we are under an illusion whenever we claim to know what really and truly is so.”


This is a huge insight. I have tried to come up with a way of articulating this as a concept, this map of a map, this abstraction on top of an abstraction, self-referential loop, or spiral… Wait, spiral? This is precisely what Hegel describes as the dialectic, and what Lonergan describes as we move from level 1 to level 2. This is why Lonergan begins Insight by talking about arithmetic (level 1), only to go to algebra (level 2) and show how in level 2 we have to re-investigate the concepts of level 1 from a new perspective, still looking at mathematics, but as mathematics looking at mathematics. And herein is why understanding is not “picturing” for we cannot “picture” everything that we can understand, like the fact that 0.999… is in fact equal to 1.

the symbol “0.999…” is a map of a map (level 2) while the symbol “1″ is “just a map” (level 1). The symbol “1″ is a map of an actual thing in the world: 1 apple, 1 car, 1 chair, etc. It is an abstraction one level above an actual object, a map of an object. The symbol “0.999…” however, is NOT a map of a physical object in the world. It is a map of a process. It is a map of a series of maps acting on one another in a process that never ends. It is NOT a number. But it is equivalent to a number! There is no one on this planet that can “picture” this, but we CAN understand it.

Level 1, level 2, abstractions of abstractions, self-referential ideas… this is the spiral of consciousness. Somehow this spiral transcends (I am still struggling with this part) to understand what must be so, even though it is not a property of the objects in the world. These are the Kantian categories: space, time, causality… etc. These are not properties of the objects in the world, but rather, the systhetic a-priori knowledge, or empirical residue, to use Lonergans phrase, which MUST be in order for experience to be possible. This is the transcendent, objective, sythetic knowledge that is so, must me so, objectively, before any empirical experience is possible at all.

In other words, if there is experience, in any universe whatsoever – ours OR the universe of the programmer who created the Matrix – it is only because time and space and causality are what they are. These categories are said to be transcendent categories of knowledge. The MUST be so, and moreover they make experience possible.

I have more learn about this, but I think that is roughly or approximately the case that is being made.

Now, quickly back to the statement


“there is no explicit contradiction in the content of the statement, We are under an illusion when we claim to know what really is. On the other hand, there is an explicit contradiction in the reflective statement: I am stating what really and truly is so when I state that we are under an illusion whenever we claim to know what really and truly is so.”


As I said before I got sidetracked, this is a huge insight. This is an example of evaluating an analytic statement (as opposed to a synthetic statement). We need not go out into the world to see whether it is true or false.

An easier analytic statement to parse, for example, is this one:

My father’s brother is my uncle.


This statement can be evaluated without investigating the world. It’s truth value can be analytically derived from the meaning of the word uncle. However, to say the following:

Jeff’s father’s brother is not Jeff’s uncle.


is to make a mis-statement. We can see on the face of it, via the analysis of the concepts, that is wrong. All we need to know is the meaning of the word uncle and brother to reject this statement as false. It is in this same way, Lonergan is saying, that we can see the wrongness of the statement,

I am stating what really and truly is so when I state that we are under an illusion whenever we claim to know what really and truly is so.

There is no basis for the claim, “I am stating what is really and truly so.” This is how Kant defeats Hume’s skepticism, and Lonergan is repeating it. Lonergan, however, is a better writer and gives us nuggets of insight to help illuminate what Kant laid out. For example, the above point is brilliantly illuminated by Lonergan with this phrase, which assimilates everything written above:

“It is not through true judgment that we reach knowledge of existence, it is through knowledge of existence that we know true judgment”


The person who made the claim,

I am stating what really and truly is so when I state that we are under an illusion whenever we claim to know what really and truly is so.


makes the claim through no empirical knowledge of the existence that the claim posits, it cannot possibly by true, except by coincidence, which fails the verification part of the process of cognition and understanding.

Kant and Lonergan are saying that we can have knowledge of objective reality, AND we may be in a virtual reality Matrix. In this case, the concept of “objective reality” is synonymous with the Matrix.

This makes us feel uncomfortable, perhaps. But it is nothing more that what science, and religion, tells us: The particular features of God cannot be known. The mind of God cannot be understood. What caused the Big Bang cannot be verified. The possibility of multiverses, and their number and nature cannot be investigated. Events that lie outside the light cone of our space-time environment remain forever inaccessible to us.

All of these statements present the same epistemological limitation as the Matrix paradox. Kant and Lonergan, therefore reduce knowledge of the really real (noumena) to knowledge of phenomena.

Enter Hegel and his work, “The Phenomenology of Spirit.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a trustworthy source) says

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is one of the greatest systematic thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. In addition to epitomizing German idealist philosophy, Hegel boldly claimed that his own system of philosophy represented an historical culmination of all previous philosophical thought.

The Phenomenology of Spirit (Die Phänomenologie des Geistes), published in 1807, is Hegel’s first major comprehensive philosophical work. Originally intended to be the first part of his comprehensive system of science (Wissenschaft) or philosophy, Hegel eventually considered it to be the introduction to his system. This work provides what can be called a “biography of spirit,” i.e., an account of the development of consciousness and self-consciousness in the context of some central epistemological, anthropological and cultural themes of human history. It has continuity with the works discussed above in examining the development of the human mind in relation to human experience but is more wide-ranging in also addressing fundamental questions about the meaning of perceiving, knowing, and other cognitive activities as well as of the nature of reason and reality.

Does this description sound familiar? It could be a description of Lonergan’s work in Insight!

I also like that, given the limitations of our situation inside the Matrix – what Percy describes as the “Island” – we have in fact been sent a message in a bottle – news of what is beyond the island, or Matrix – through revelation.

And this is the point at which we step from philosophy to theology. It turns out that we DO have data, in the form of news, about the world beyond the Matrix! Theology is precisely about this news. It uses the tools of philosophy to venture out into the world of the “programmer” who has sent us a message about his world!

Does that sound right?

At any rate, I am working my way in this direction. I can see what is coming. Soon Aquinas will guide me across the divide. I am working my way to him!

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