Lonergan's Quest: A Study of Desire in the Authoring of Insight. By William A. Mathews


Pp. ix, 564 , Toronto , University of Toronto Press , 2006 , £60.00.

Lonergan's Quest is an intellectual biography of the academic career of Bernard Lonergan up to the writing of Insight, which was published in 1957. This is not an introduction to Lonergan's thought, nor is it a short-cut to understanding the philosophical ideas worked out by this Canadian Catholic theologian. It presupposes and requires some familiarity with Lonergan's position. It is a well researched resource for any student of Lonergan providing an account of the intellectual eros which formed the narrative thread of his life from his early days as a student in Canada through to his taking up a professorship in the Gregorian University in Rome.

The author of the study, William A. Mathews, is well qualified to write this account, since he has been particularly interested in the analysis of biography as an approach to studying and teaching the philosophy of the human person. This comes through in the text in the cross references to others' lives which serve on occasion to illustrate points made about Lonergan's progress. The awakening of desire, the scope available for that desire to seek its object, the struggle to complete the quest, these themes provide the bones of the narrative. Lonergan's philosophical work culminating in the volume Insight is a study of the dynamism of the human desire to know and a commensurate analysis of its object, being. Mathews' study reveals how this work is also an expression of the desire of one man who pursued the questions awakened for him in his studies at Heythrop College in England, in his life as a student in Rome in the depressed years of the 1930s and in his early career as a teacher at third level in Montreal and Toronto. Mathews comments very helpfully on how the critical issue addressed in Insight of the self-affirmation of the knower is exemplified in Lonergan's own struggle with his questions.

This study is a resource with very valuable information about what Lonergan was reading at various stages of composition of his doctoral thesis and published articles on Gratia operans, the Verbum articles on word and idea in Aquinas and Insight itself. For this reviewer, the way in which Lonergan's thought was formed in interaction with the writings of Cassirer, Bergson and Schull was particularly informative and revealing.

Just before reading Mathews's volume I had been reading Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), which tells the story of the encounter of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge at a meeting of the Moral Science Club in October 1946. The poker in question was waved about by Wittgenstein in energetic support of his arguments. Witnesses disagree on whether the gesture was threatening. Popper's own account suggests it was, since he saw himself on that occasion as defeating finally the view held by Wittgenstein and his supporters that there are no philosophical problems, only puzzles. The alleged puzzles arise because of the quirks of language which are likely to mislead us. Popper was firmly of the view that there are indeed problems to be addressed by philosophy, and that they had to do with the distinction between science and non-science and the foundations of scientific method, such as the problem of induction.

About the same time as this encounter, on the other side of the Atlantic, Bernard Lonergan was struggling to sort out similar questions such as the nature of scientific knowledge, the relationship of science to non-scientific forms of knowing, the relationship between the expressed concepts and that which is understood by the speaker. Lonergan's discovery is that by attending to the operations of the human knower it is possible to deal with these questions. Recovering awareness of what is going in the act of understanding enables him and his student reader to get beyond the mastery of verbal definitions and the ability to use the language to grasp the intelligible patterns in that which is examined. Just as the Cambridge debaters had their opponents, so Lonergan in his measured pursuit of his quest found himself challenging a well entrenched version of Thomism which saw no need to get behind or beyond the established language they shared. This book traces well the stages of that debate, with helpful commentary on the reactions to Lonergan's publications, and his eventual response.

Lonergan remains private and inaccessible despite the biographer's skilful attempt to get behind the glimpses allowed in correspondence and conversation, and the impressions of those who knew him. The desire which grounds the narrative of his life only rarely finds direct expression, and is read for the most part from its unfolding in the products of Lonergan's labours. From the intellectual path revealed in the series of works Mathews excavates an intellectual hunger driving the project. The coherence of that project as seen in the series of questions and discoveries leading from one to another reflects the intensity and power of the desire. One would like to know more: how does someone like this live with the tension between an almost over-ambitious aspiration and the reality of limitation and partial achievement? Allowing for the gratification of success in resolving some questions, how does such a thinker cope with the disparity between achievement and the ever growing list of problems waiting to be addressed? What personal and spiritual resources sustain the continuing effort? Mathews helpfully notes the people who provided secretarial support, intellectual encouragement and companionship, and yet it remains hidden how Lonergan himself regarded these persons and their significance in his life.

Lonergan's reputation as one of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century does not derive from any notoriety in challenging Catholic orthodoxy. And yet the impact of his work was to confront the dominant orthodoxy of Thomism and to challenge its reading of Aquinas on important matters. Mathews brings out well how the work on grace and freedom found its solution in the discovery that Aquinas was not to be read as propounding a single, coherent theory in his various writings, but as developing his thought as he engaged with different questions and different authors at various stages of his career. Similarly in the Verbum articles, Lonergan challenged the conceptualism of the Thomist establishment by bringing to the reading of Aquinas questions generated in his earlier engagement with Mill and especially Kant. This is not simply a story of a single man's desire to know, it is also a story of encounters between cultures, which Lonergan himself reflected on thematically in later writings. Historical mindedness confronted a classicism which had frozen texts and questions, Anglo-Saxon enquiry confronted a complacent formalism which was content with natures and definitions.

It appears from the material collected by Mathews that Lonergan was aware of the impact of his work and its provocative nature. How did he manage this life of controversy and the possibly unfavourable reaction of the establishment? There are some answers to be found in this study. For instance, Lonergan was sufficiently aware of the intellectual style he was developing during his time in Britain to realise that it would not fit comfortably with what he might be asked to do as a Jesuit teacher of philosophy. He explicitly drew attention to this in correspondence with his provincial superior. Mathews suggests that Lonergan was affected by the reaction to his article on the ends of marriage in which he attempted to develop Catholic thought with a distinction between the horizontal and the vertical finality of marriage. This was relevant to the traditional teaching on procreation of children as the primary end of marriage. The distinction between the different dimensions of finality would allow talk of the community of the couple and their development in love, ultimately into the love of the Divine Persons, without having this classed as secondary. Mild disapproval of this approach seems to have depressed him (p. 128). Shortly after the negative reaction to his marriage article he experienced criticism of his argument in the first Verbum article. But how did he cope with this? There is some suggestion, e.g. in the reference to his illness, that he did not manage this well (p. 188). At any rate, it is clear that his intellectual eros to raise and pursue questions led him into controversy at which he did not baulk.

Insofar as Lonergan expressed his dream, his ambition to develop an intellectual project, his early attempts to name it identified something other than what emerged in the course of his life. A metaphysics of history was on the cards as he reflected on the collapse of economic, social and political order in the crises of the nineteen-thirties (p. 79). Related ambition is reflected in his attempts to develop a theory of economics. What resulted was something else, even if related to the original ambition. How did Lonergan deal with this aspect of his life, with the frustration of one chosen path and yet the surprise of discovery of another?

The story told is of a quest, the working out of a desire in one man's life. The first section presents the education of desire and the heading speaks of ‘the apprenticeship of a problem solver’. The second section structures the narrative under the heading of ‘finding and following the golden cord of the heart's desire’. But there is another metaphor at work also in the narrative. It is the image of a work of art, and the title of the third section in which the story is organized reflects this. ‘The artistry of desire’ invites the reader to consider Lonergan as an artist engaged in the production of a work of art. And just as with any artist the relationship between the life and the work becomes a theme to be addressed. Mathews' well-researched study allows that life to appear as itself reflecting the work which it produced. Lonergan's themes and topics can be found to have their counterpart in Lonergan's life: intellectual conversion, a reversal of the flight from understanding, the self-affirmation of the knower, the moving viewpoint, the shift to historical mindedness, minor and major authenticity. This study of desire in the authoring of Insight is a welcome addition to Lonergan scholarship and will be an essential tool for those who draw on Lonergan's work, in both philosophy and theology.