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Bernard Lonergan


Philosophy is reflection on the human situation at an ultimate level. It is fundamental thinking about the human situation.

B. Lonergan Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Topics in Education (1988)

Bernard Lonergan



Bernard Lonergan appears to be principally concerned with the question of the person qua person - in the sense as to what are the central questions that may be raised about ourselves. Foremost (or perhaps more aptly, foundationally) are questions about knowledge and understanding. It seems, in fact, that all his major (and most of his other) works focus on questions pertaining to this.

This page is not meant to be an analysis, exploration, nor elucidation of Lonergan's works, but rather some brief notes on some of his statements to which I refer in other places (either online or elsewhere). For those interested in the works of Lonergan, I would first and foremost suggest the Lonergan Archives.

His early (and major) work Insight forms the foundation out of which later questions arise and are answered (such as in Method in Theology).


A quote reminiscent of Lonergan's Insight

Donald Rumsfeld (former USA Secretary of Defense) has been quoted as stating the following during a news briefing in 2002:

Reports that say there's — that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns: there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don't know we don't know.

Though sections of the popular press at the time reacted with characteristic scorn, the comment is something that could easily have arisen out of the early chapters as well as part of chapter XVII of Insight.



Lonergan's sense of horizon has much to do with the 'unknown unknown' (alternatively termed by its Latin cognate indocta ignorantia) in, for example, CWL 18: 13 'Subject and Horizon':

We have knowledge; we have docta ignorantia limited by the horizon; and if the field of entia goes out beyond that, it is possible that the reality of the subject or part of the reality of the subject lies beyond the horizon; he does not really know himself. […]

To say, then, that the reality of the subject lies in whole or in part beyond his own horizon is to say that he suffers from an indocta ignorantia with regard to himself. This indocta ignorantia with regard to himself is not any matter of biochemistry or synapses or any of the subtleties that he could well be excused from knowing. It regards his knowledge of his own intelligence, his own freedom, his own responsibility. For those are the fundamental things in human science, philosophy, and theology insofar as theology is affected by philosophy.

In the ensuing lecture (CWL 18:14 'History, Horizon, Philosophy'), Lonergan succintly characterises 'horizon' as the fragile line between the known unknown (docta ignorantia) and unknown unknown (indocta ignorantia):

there are the questions that cannot be raised at all, or that if raised are not understood, or that if understood in some fashion are not considered worth while, or that if considered worth while have no apparent method of solution. This constitutes the still further region of what may be named indocta ignorantia. The limit between the last two, between docta ignorantia and indocta ignorantia, might be called the frontier or the horizon.

The concept of horizon is likely taken from either Nietzsche or Husserl (or perhaps both) – but it is worth pointing to some key references that Lonergan makes in Insight to S.K. Langer's works (Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, as well as her translation of some of Cassirer's works), together with her own important reference to Cecil Delisle Burns's 'The Sense of the Horizon' (1933) and his simultaneously written Horizon of Experience (1934).


Functional Specialties

In Method in Theology, Lonergan states that (p. 134):

[…] the very structure of human enquiry results in four functional specializations and, since […] there are two distinct phases, we are led to expect eight functional specializations […].

The ease of reference these are summarised in tabular format, even though oversights may result:



phase: obliqua   

   phase: recta



Dialectic →      ↓ Foundations ⇐ Decision / Values

History ↑       ↓ Doctrines ⇐ Judgement / Theoretical Developments

Interpretation ↑       ↓ Systematics ⇐ Understanding / Insight

Research ↑      ↵ Communication ⇐ Data / Experience