Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing Without a God's-Eye View. By R. J. Snell


Pp. 238 , Milwaukee, WI , Marquette University Press , 2006 , $27.00.

I have thought for some time that Lonergan and Rorty would be an excellent choice for a study in comparison and contrast. Each of these writers has presented us with a well-worked-out reaction to the prodigious pickle in which contemporary philosophy, both ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’, finds itself. As Dr. Snell sees it, at the centre of the work of both men is recognition of the bankruptcy of the conception of knowledge as ‘intuition’ (to use Snell's term).

So far as Rorty is concerned, we don't need anyone to tell us, as philosophers once presumed to do, what ‘knowledge in general’, or ‘knowledge as such,’ might be. As to philosophical ‘foundations’ of knowledge or of culture, we cannot have them, as philosophers have rather belatedly discovered; fortunately, we do not need them either. The natural scientists are our authorities on knowledge of the external world, psychologists or sociologists on how it stands with the speech, writing, or (to put it in a very old-fashioned and misleading way) ‘thought’ which is prestigious enough in our society to go by the name of ‘knowledge’ (as opposed to what we like to put down as ‘false belief’, ‘pseudo-science’, ‘superstition’ or whatever). If philosophers feel hurt and humiliated at apparently having nothing left to do, they can still busy themselves with the humbler task of promoting conversation between groups which have lost touch. Disciples of Wilfred Sellars on the one hand, and of William Blake on the other (to take a rather extreme example), might find it quite difficult to converse; here is where philosophers in their new role, can help out.

Yet some would maintain that this Rortian view, popular as it may be in certain quarters, is about as far from the truth as it could possibly be. Such people would insist that we still need general reflection on the basis of which we can distinguish science from pseudo-science, ill-founded claims to knowledge from well-founded ones, tyrannies from fairly just societies, comparatively benign and sensible from absurd or malignant religious beliefs or practices, and so on. Some folk are prepared to slaughter themselves and quite large numbers of other people on the basis of religious differences; it would be a relief to the rest of us if there were principles of reason which could at least in principle serve as an honest broker to deal with these differences instead. Such worries are met head-on by Lonergan's philosophy, which takes issue both with the narrow view of the grounds of truth and meaning which was proclaimed by the logical positivists, and was destructive not only of religion, metaphysics and ethics, but ultimately of itself; and the succeeding anti-foundationalist position in accordance with which, if you don't insist on whatever prejudices you happen to have, anything goes.

You may choose to put belief that there is a God, in the manner of the ‘Reformed’ epistemologists, among your ‘properly basic’ beliefs; but if you demand this right for yourself and your theism, why should not believers in the Great Pumpkin which comes down at Hallowe'en, or in the moon's being made of green cheese, or in the unfitness of Ruritanians to live, make just the same claim for their own principles, for all that you happen to find them ridiculous or wicked?

Believers in foundations are often presented with a dilemma. Whatever Jacques Monod may have thought, deductive logic and experience alone are insufficient foundations for knowledge. But if you allow anything else into your foundations for knowledge, how do you justify this? Whatever foundations you propose, your opponent can always ask what is the justification, and hence what are the foundations, of those; and what are the foundations of those; and so on ad infinitum. Here is the epistemological equivalent of the well-known theological difficulty alluded to by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. With his tongue, as so often, firmly in his cheek, Hume refers to an Indian philosopher who claimed that the world was supported on the back of an elephant, and that the elephant in turn stood on the back of a tortoise; but did not pursue his researches beyond this point.

Lonergan deals effectively with the problem of foundations by pointing out that there are judgments which are self-destructive without exactly being self-contradictory. It is odd for someone to say that they have never been aware of coming to understand, or even of coming to misunderstand, anything; or that they have never been conscious of making a judgment about any matter in accordance with the relevant evidence; or that they have never made a responsible decision. Freud made a highly responsible decision, and one which went very much against his personal inclinations, in publishing The Interpretation of Dreams; but it is a question, to say the least, how far Freud's own psychological theories were compatible with anyone ever making a responsible decision at all. On the foundation laid in the contradictories of such self-destructive judgments, Lonergan mounts a comprehensively critical account of the nature of science, of political and psychiatric theories, of ethics, of natural theology, of Christian apologetics, and of theological method – to name a few. That is why some of us, perhaps wrongly, remain astonished by his genius, for all that others are convinced that they have seen through him.

Snell's choice of authors to be compared was well-made, and the project represented by his book as a whole is well carried out. His work, at least in my view, represents where the real action is in present-day philosophy. As to the choice between Lonergan's work or Rorty's as providing a direction for the future, one can hardly do better than quote Scripture: ‘I set before you life and death; choose therefore life’ (Deuteronomy 30.19).