The twentieth century Catholic Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan analyzes the various forms of human knowledge (natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy, theology, and common sense) in order to address the issue of the possibility of attaining objective knowledge.
Lonergan maintains that there is in all of us a “pure desire to know.” The desire to know can be cast aside by other desires: rest, sleep, food, comfort, wealth, power. But we all have moments in which these other desires are stilled, and our attention is focused on the desire to understand. Some of us are called to a life of intellectual work, in which we develop a daily pattern of permitting the desire to know to come to the fore.
But as we seek to understand, can we manage to formulate concepts that in some form are independent of the social roots and social positions in which we necessarily, as human beings, are immersed? If so, how can we do it?
For Lonergan, as we seek to understand, we proceed within a particular social context. We all occupy different positions by virtue of the different societies and sub-societies to which we belong. In each social position, we learn through social interaction a coherent set of values, facts, and assumptions concerning the world. Lonergan seeks to stress that this worldview is rooted in a particular social place, and he thus invokes an analogy and calls it our “horizon.”
By enabling us to make sense of the world, horizon aids understanding. The natural and social world in which humans live is complex, and we would be overwhelmed and bewildered were it not for a socially-based and commonly-accepted set of assumptions, facts, and values that enable us to meaningfully organize selected elements of the complex world in which we live.
At the same time, horizon limits our understanding, in that it provides us with a view of the world that is shaped by the particular social positions that we occupy. Horizon thus constitutes the fundamental basis for ethnocentrism. As Lonergan wrote:
"As our field of vision, so too the scope of our knowledge, and the range of our interests are bounded. As fields of vision vary with one’s standpoint, so too the scope of one’s knowledge and the range of one’s interests vary with the period in which one lives, one’s social background and milieu, one’s education and personal development. So there has arisen a metaphorical or perhaps analogous meaning of the word, horizon. In this sense what lies beyond one’s horizon is simply outside the range of one’s knowledge and interests: one neither knows nor cares" (1973:236).
Lonergan, however, maintains that we can overcome the limitations imposed on understanding by horizon through personal encounter with persons who possess social positions and horizons different from our own. Personal encounter involves “meeting persons, appreciating the values they represent, criticizing their defects, and allowing one’s living to be challenged at its roots by their words and their deeds” (1973:247).
Thus, personal encounter is the key to transcending the limitations of culturally-rooted assumptions and moving toward an understanding that is universal. In subsequent posts, we will explore the implications of Lonergan’s insight into human understanding for our understanding of the global crisis that humanity today confronts.
Lonergan, Bernard. 1958. Insight. New York: Philosophical
__________. 1973. Method in Theology, 2nd edition. New York: Herder and Herder.
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