Bernard Lonergan, S.J., has been called one of the most profound philosophers and theologians of the twentieth century, and his major work, Insight, has been favorably compared to David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838). With his grasp of modern science and philosophy, Lonergan was able to go well beyond these earlier philosophers in Insight, whose pivotal claim is that a general structure of inquiry exists in all thinking individuals, a structure that is operative in every endeavor from the simplest commonsense decisions to the most revolutionary ideas of scientific, artistic, and theological geniuses. The number of insights generated by humans is ungraspably immense and growing at an accelerated pace, but Lonergan is primarily concerned not with the known but the knowing. He has discovered that knowing has a recurrent structure of experiencing, pondering, judging, and deciding. He challenges readers to understand what it means when they themselves understand, and if they do this, then they not only will generally understand whatever needs to be comprehended but also will have an insight into the insight-making process itself. This understanding will promote intellectual progress in a variety of fields and also help humans to avoid false ideas (“oversights”) that lead to intellectual and social decline, unenlightened policies, and dangerous courses of action.

Insight has two parts, “Insight as Activity” and “Insight as Knowledge,” and these parts have ten chapters each. Lonergan’s purpose in the first five chapters is to elucidate the nature of insight by examining examples from mathematics and science. He wants to clarify how scientists gather data, formulate hypotheses, and verify their ideas. He then uses a generalized version of this empirical method to convince readers of their own process of knowing. He carefully distinguishes this objectification of conscious experience from the mistaken view of introspection as mental picturing. The goal of his theory of understanding is not pictures but an insight into the pattern of a person’s cognitional activities.

The first example of insight Lonergan analyzes is Archimedes’ famous “Aha experience” when, while taking a bath, he apprehended the principle of buoyancy. By using this and other examples from science and mathematics, Lonergan illustrates how specific individuals intelligently generated, critically evaluated, and progressively revised new ideas. In chapters 3 through 5, he consolidates these points by showing that the examples reveal not only a heuristic structure (how insights are generated) but also a set of rules governing their unfolding...

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Sources for Further Study

Crowe, Frederick E. Developing the Lonergan Legacy: Historical, Theoretical, and Existential Themes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. This compendium of studies and essays on Lonergan by one of the scholars who understood him best contains a helpful article on the genesis and continuing influence of Insight. List of Crowe’s writings and an index.

Flanagan, Joseph. Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan’s Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. A good introduction to Lonergan as a philosopher and in particular to Insight, his major philosophical work.

Gregson, Vernon, ed. The Desires of the Human Heart: An Introduction to the Theology of Bernard Lonergan. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. Although many of the essays in this volume emphasize Lonergan’s analyses of theological issues, some deal with his philosophical theory of understanding. Selected readings and an index of subjects and authors.

Tekippe, Terry J. What Is Lonergan Up to in “Insight?” A Primer. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996. This brief (164-page) manual makes Lonergan’s study of understanding accessible to general readers.