METHOD IN METAPHYSICS: LONERGAN AND THE FUTURE OF ANALYTICAL PHILOSOPHY
by Andrew Beards

Authors

  • JOSEPH FITZPATRICK


METHOD IN METAPHYSICS: LONERGAN AND THE FUTURE OF ANALYTICAL PHILOSOPHY by Andrew Beards ( University of Toronto Press , 2008 ) Pp . 383 , £48 hbk

The University of Toronto Press, which is nearing completion of its project of bringing out Bernard Lonergan's collected works in some 25 volumes, has also published a good deal of secondary literature on different facets of Lonergan's thought. A noteworthy feature of the secondary literature is the presence of British authors among those who have written specifically on Lonergan's philosophy. The doyen of British Lonerganians, Hugo Meynell, has produced two such books, I have produced one with the sub-title ‘Lonergan and the Analytical Tradition’, and here we have Andrew Beards, the Director of Philosophy Courses at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, producing another, with the sub-title ‘Lonergan and the Future of Analytical Philosophy’.

In a generally sympathetic review of my own book in New Blackfriars the reviewer rightly took me to task for failing to treat Lonergan's metaphysics at any length. He would find his wishes more than adequately met by this excellent, well-researched volume that addresses a wide range of questions in metaphysics in considerable detail. A feature of the British contribution to Lonergan Studies has been a concerted wish to bring Lonergan into dialogue or debate with contemporary philosophers working in the analytical tradition; that, it is felt, is the only viable way of making him better known and of getting him – and the tradition he represents – more involved and more widely used in contemporary philosophical discussions. Beards' book reveals a broad grasp of the dominant issues and the leading lights in present-day analytical philosophy. The names that fall from his pen represent a fair sample of the dramatis personae who occupy centre stage in contemporary Anglo-American metaphysical debates: Kripke, Putnam, Hausman, Lewis, Searle, Dummett, McGinn, Martin, Kim and Oliver, to mention only some. He also makes excursions into continental philosophy to discuss the ideas and approaches of philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Foucault and Derrida. At all times he brings what these and others have to say into fruitful dialogue with Lonergan.

Beards sets off by noting ‘the ironic state of affairs’ represented by the renaissance of metaphysical writing among analytical philosophers over recent decades, something that would have been considered laughable round about 1950. He quotes tellingly from Alex Oliver's riposte to the logical positivists of that era that “the show is over and serious metaphysics flourishes once more”, but who also goes on to add that there remain “serious, unanswered questions about its methods of inquiry.” This is where Lonergan comes in, for Lonergan's great strength is undoubtedly the attention he gives to method and questions of methodology. And for Lonergan the foundational method has to be the answer to the question, “What are we doing when we come to know something?”– the process of cognition that underlies all human attempts to know. The interaction between knowledge and reality, or more precisely the various components of knowing and the various characteristics of reality, is at the heart of Lonergan's thinking. Metaphysics is the “to-be-known of cognitional activity.” Reality, he claims, is isomorphic with cognition. So get cognition right and you'll have a fair chance of getting reality right. On the other hand, get it wrong … that is the kernel of Lonergan's position.

It is not surprising then to find that time and again, when dealing with the metaphysical claims of analytical philosophers, the muddles they get into or their disagreements with each other, Beards goes back to features of epistemology and cognition in order to bring some clarity and order into the discussion. What he is up against, time and again, is the empiricist confusion of knowing with perception, which is also present in phenomenology. This in turn gives rise to the notion that the real is what lies out there, as the object of perception, and of objectivity as reaching out with our senses to what lies out there in space and time. From this perspective, reality becomes confused with the physical and picture thinking gives birth to the idea that anything that is real can be reduced to ever-smaller physical bits and pieces from which it is composed. All of these basic assumptions give rise to a plethora of misunderstandings. For, as Beards points out, metaphysics is not about the whole of reality but about the whole in reality. This whole is not the aggregate of an indefinite number of smaller bits but the product of the operations of intelligence on the data that are delivered by the senses. Reality consists not of a series of bits and pieces dreamt up by our pictorial imagination but of unities and relations grasped by intelligence and the rational verification that may take place regarding such intelligible unities and relations. Once that particular obstacle is overcome, the obstacle constituted by a basic misunderstanding of what knowing is, then a valid metaphysics becomes possible and answers can be found to the tendencies to reductionism and the denial of finality and causality – and ultimately the scepticism – to which empiricism is prone.

One of the very good things about Beards' treatment of Lonergan is the way in which he shows how Lonergan from early on was engaged in a critical appropriation of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition; so successful have been Lonergan's efforts in this regard that Beards suggests that the tradition be re-named the ‘Aristotle-Aquinas-Lonergan’ tradition. This evaluation is not the wishful thinking of a fond admirer but comes from a hardheaded engagement with such issues in contemporary metaphysics as first-person ontology, substance, ‘thisness’, causality, finality, development and supervenience, etc. In handling all of these and other issues (such as the individual and the social) with considerable finesse and not a little wit, Beards brings out the remarkable versatility of the cognitional theory that underpins Lonergan's critical realism and, more broadly, of the tradition to which Lonergan belongs and which, with his grasp of the methods of modern science, modern mathematics, and modern scholarship, he has helped to develop further. Alongside his depiction of Lonergan's critical retrieval of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, Beards positions Lonergan in relation to Descartes, showing both where he is at one with Descartes in attending to mental acts and in disagreement with him on the issue of universal doubt. This is a very helpful manoeuvre since both contemporary Anglo-American philosophy and continental phenomenology have positioned themselves by redefining where they stand in relation to Descartes. This strategic dimension is a valuable component of the book which at times is in danger of losing the reader in the thickets of individual philosophers' idiosyncratic thinking, and the book might have benefited from more of this kind of strategic mapping.

Throughout his book, Beards' approach is conciliatory: where he can, he points up agreements between Lonergan and the philosophers whose ideas he examines and makes suggestions on how what he perceives as their shortcomings might be overcome. He presents Lonergan as a broad yet precise thinker whose philosophy has the resources to act as a bridge between competing positions. The book deserves to be read by anyone interested in the revival of metaphysics in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy.

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