Cognitional Theory of Bernard Lonergan

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Charles McKelvey:

"The twentieth century Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan described the process through which persons who desire to understand are able to arrive to correct understanding. He maintained that this “invariant cognitional structure” pertains to all fields of knowing, including mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, history, and common-sense understanding.

In order to arrive to correct understanding, the “subject,” or the person seeking to understand, must place the desire to understand above all other desires. The “pure desire to know” must take priority over all other desires. Affection for and identification with the perceived interests of one’s social groups must be suspended.

Lonergan maintains that there can be no doubt that the desire to know exists. All of us are driven occasionally by the desire to understand, giving it temporary priority over other desires. And there are persons who spend hours in their study or laboratory in the pursuit of truth; sacrificing other interests, pursuits, achievements, or pleasures.

In arriving to correct understanding, the subject moves through three levels of consciousness. The first is the level of experience, where the subject selects from the data according to his or her orientation or focus of attention. Because of differences in orientation or attention, two subjects may be looking at the same reality but experience different data. At this first level, the data experienced by the subject are not operated on by the subject; they are simply given as data in experience, seen or heard and nothing more.

On the second level of consciousness, the level of understanding, subjects operate on the data. They attempt to make sense of what they experience, to make it comprehensible. They grasp an intelligibility in the data, which at this second level is hypothetical; and they articulate this hypothetical intelligibility. Lonergan calls these two moments “insight” and “formulation.”

But subjects seeking to understand cannot rest satisfied with hypothetical insight and hypothetical formulation. They seek to determine if the insight is correct, which drives them to the third level of understanding, that of reflection and judgment, in which they raise questions relevant to the issue at hand and gather evidence by answering these relevant questions.

At first, relevant questions may revise the hypothetical insight; but subsequently, the subject may see that further relevant questions are not modifying but are reinforcing the insight. When this occurs, the subject has consciousness that the judgment is correct, because he or she sees that the answers coalesce, that the responses to relevant questions reinforce one another. In this situation, the subject is in a position to know that the insight has a high probability of being correct and to make the probable judgement that the insight is correct.

The probable judgment does not have certainty, because subjects cannot be certain that there are no further relevant questions that would modify the insight. In future reflection, new developments and/or experiences can bring further relevant questions to consciousness, which would modify the insight. But further relevant questions would not lead to a complete rejection of the insight, because the insight had moved beyond being merely a hypothetical insight to being affirmed as having a high probability of being correct. That is to say, there is invariably some truth to insights that have moved beyond the hypothetical to the probable judgment, but not necessary the whole truth.

In Lonergan’s cognitional theory, the process of knowing occurs with a continuing relation to the real. At the level of experience, the subject sees, hears, or touches a part of reality. When subjects select on the basis of orientation or focus of attention, they select elements from reality. When subjects ultimately arrive to correct understanding, they have not invented data from feelings or desires. When subjects move through the second and third levels of consciousness, they formulate hypothetical insights in relation to the real; and they make probable judgments about the real. They desire to understand reality, in the present and the past.

Science, for Lonergan, is one form of knowledge, and it proceeds in accordance with these structures of cognition. Science abstracts from empirical reality in seeking to grasp the essential, and it selects from empirical reality under the guidance of previously accumulated scientific insights and theories. Science, therefore, is like other forms of knowing, for all knowing occurs in a perceptual context.

Standing in opposition to science and other forms of knowing is what Lonergan calls “group bias,” which he defines as a spontaneous feeling of identification with, sympathy for, and interest in the social group that takes priority over the demands of intelligence and the good of order.


Ideology is the negation of science and knowledge. Ideologies are not based on a desire to understand; ideologies give highest priority to defending particular interests.

In reflecting on Lonergan’s understanding of understanding, we can see that knowledge is not independent of the subject. The experience of the data is relative to the orientation or focus of attention of the subject; and insight and formulation are relative to the perspective of the subject. Moreover, probable judgments, even though they are the culmination of the search for relevant questions, can be shaped by social location, because there can be relevant questions that are beyond a horizon that is grounded in the social position, occupation, culture, and period of history of the person.

Lonergan addressed the problem that horizon poses for understanding. He maintained that when we seek to understand, we proceed within a particular social context, which includes a coherent set of values, facts, and assumptions concerning the world. Stressing that this worldview is rooted in a particular social place, Lonergan calls it our “horizon,” analogous to a place from which we view a physical landscape. He 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.” This field of vision or “horizon” shapes one’s knowledge and interests. “What lies beyond one’s horizon is simply outside the range of one’s knowledge and interests.”

The word “horizon,” therefore, refers to the cultural boundedness of the process of knowing. Horizon defines the boundary beyond which the person cannot see. Beyond horizon lie those relevant questions that, if the subject were aware of them, would modify or even transform understanding. What lies beyond the boundary is beyond one’s orientation or comprehension. Accordingly, what is sensible, good, or true from the viewpoint of one horizon can be nonsensical, evil, or false from the viewpoint of another horizon. Horizon, therefore, is an obstacle to knowledge, because it blocks relevant questions from consciousness.

Lonergan maintains, however, that we can overcome the limitations imposed on understanding by horizon. What is required is personal encounter with persons who live in social positions different from our own, whose horizons are 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.”

Just as a person who desires to understand will move beyond hypothetical formulation to the search for relevant questions and to probable judgment, so a person who desires to understand will also ask if there possibly are questions beyond his or her horizon that are relevant to the issue at hand. If this possibility exists, and if the subject places the desire to understand above the interests of his or her social groups, the quest for understanding will drive the subject to search for relevant questions beyond horizon. The person who desires to understand will journey to other social contexts to meet persons, with an orientation of respect for their values, thereby permitting their own understanding to be challenged and possibly transformed.

Accordingly, the limitations imposed on human understanding by horizon can be overcome through personal encounter with persons of different horizons. I have coined the term “cross-horizon encounter” to refer to this process. Cross-horizon encounter provides the foundation for attaining an understanding of particular issues that transcends the subject’s natural social and cultural context, an understanding that reflects an intercultural journey with respect to particular issues.

At the level of cross-horizon encounter, the process of knowing retains its relation to the real. Moving through levels of consciousness, the subject begins with the experience of the real; proceeds to an understanding of the real, initially a partial understanding rooted in horizon; and then moves to a judgment concerning the real, again possibly limited by horizon. When the subject moves to cross-horizon encounter, culminating in an objective understanding and judgment that transcends social position with respect to particular issues, the subject has arrived to an understanding of reality. The real is always present as a point of reference in the knowing process.

Lonergan maintains that the same structure of understanding applies to judgements of value, or judgments concerning what ought to be done, as well as judgments of fact. In judgments of value, the subject seeks to understand the right course of action, both at the personal and societal level. In judgments of value, there is a fourth level of consciousness, that of decision, in which the subject decides to act in accordance with his or her understanding of the right. Subjects decide to act in accordance with the right to the extent that they are driven not only by the desire to know but also by a desire for consistency between knowing and doing. In judgements of value, as in judgments of fact, the movement of the subject is through the experience of reality, the formulation of insights, and a search for relevant questions that culminates in cross-horizon encounter. The movement of the subject through levels of consciousness and culminating in cross-horizon encounter is a process that pertains to both the true and the right.


In seeking to understand the particular issues that societies confront, emphasis needs to be given to encounter with the dominated and exploited, whose insights tend to be excluded from prevailing societal narratives.


Encountering and taking seriously the voices of the excluded does not imply accepting at face value their formulations. Note that Lonergan’s description of personal encounter includes criticizing the defects of the formulations of persons of other horizons. In the genuine pursuit of truth, however, this criticizing occurs in the context of an ongoing process of respectful listening. At the same time, in a genuine process of knowing, the discovery of further relevant questions beyond horizon leads to modification of previous insights, but not their complete rejection, inasmuch as the previous insights are rooted in a quest for relevant questions and judgement in the context of one’s own horizon. Genuine knowing does not result in the bashing of one´s own culture.

A Lonerganian approach to knowledge is different from and opposed to post-modernism, which assumes that a subjective perception rooted in personal experience cannot be escaped. This post-modern assumption, although pretending to be a liberating force that frees the individual from social constraints, actually gives rise to authoritarianism.

Against this post-modern assumption, we must proclaim that, although different interpretations are possible, all interpretations must be defended from the experience of the real; that is to say, a subjective perception cannot be imposed on reality. And we must maintain that truth can be attained through reason and listening dialogue with persons of other horizons. We arrive through this process not to certainty nor to eternal truth, but to an objective truth in relation to our epoch, a truth that can and must be the foundation for responsible political and social action.

Reason and dialogue are the most effective means for all social groups to advance in the protection of their rights and needs. I do not deny that there are some nations and groups that have no interest in reason and dialogue; nations and groups that organize means of violence to impose their will on others. This situation requires others to use force to defend themselves. Force, therefore, is a necessary dimension of politics and human affairs. However, force is most effective when it defends the true and the right. So the true and the right must be discerned, for the good of one’s own nation and groups. Indeed, the search for the true and the right is the highest form of morality. The search for the true and the right is our highest moral duty as citizens of nations in the modern world.

The post-modern view, that every understanding is nothing more than a construction, is in tension with the universal common-sense understanding that the world is real. The post-modern view, therefore, is not only at variance with Lonergan’s cognitional theory, but also with the implicit epistemology of the peoples of the Third World, for whom the real world has to be attended."