Summary of Bernard Lonergan’s “Dialectic”, Chapter 10 of “Method in Theology”

Lonergan Method In TheologyThis summary was written for a class in Concordia University (Montreal) being taught by Dr. Paul Allen. The class is focused on Methodology, and we’re doing a chapter by chapter exploration of methodological issues arising from Lonergan’s Method in Theology. Each student is meant to summarise one chapter, mine was chapter 10. Obviously, I admit that my understanding of the chapter is limited, even perhaps a little wrong? However, this is a helpful summary, I think, to get people thinking about Lonergan’s Dialectic, as he wrote it.

A reason for me posting this summary on this site is that the chapter deals with “Conversion”, an especially important issue in the Indian context. Lonergan’s take on conversion, I think, provide a unique language for talking about it. Even if we do not accept everything from Lonergan.

I may add more to this summary later, but I hope to keep it as a summary without any editorial-critical common. So, here’s a birds-eye sketch of Bernard Lonergan’s “Dialectic,” Chapter 10 of in Method in Theology.


Before we begin our summary of Chapter 10, it is important to remind ourselves of some Lonergan’s terminology.

The Four Realms of Meaning (which are differentiated realms of consciousness)

Common Sense, Theory, Interiority and Transcendence

The Stages of Meaning (Which are differentiated realms in history)
This is the dynamic movement, perhaps even the dialectic, where common sense moves historically to the emphasis of theory and a combination of common sense and theory leads to interiority (which is the “transition from consciousness of self to knowledge of self”). There is also an idea of degeneration, which is briefly mentioned in Chapter 10 as well.

The transcendental precepts (based on his cognitional theory)
These are expressed in various ways and to various disciplines

Experience     Understanding     Judgment            Decision
Research         Interpretation      History                 Dialectic
Be attentive    Be Intelligent        Be reasonable    Be Responsible

Human authenticity
Lonergan equates the idea of good with “human authenticity.” In other words, to be fully human in the best sense, is to be fully authentic (even if this is not a fixed state, it is both a state to be constantly arrived at and aspired to).

(While my summary focused on the individual element of authenticity, there was also a corporate level of human authenticity, where we “promote” conversion, in the Lonerganian sense, by talking about it)


Lonergan’s Chapter 10 is divided in 10 sections, as listed below with highlighted purposes.

Process of Dialectic
Introduction 235
1. Horizons 235-237
2. Conversions and Breakdowns 237-244

Explanation of Dialectic
3. Dialectic: The Issue 245-247
4. Dialectic: The Problem 247-249
5. Dialectic: The Structure 249-250
6. Dialectic As Method 251-253

Application of Dialectic
7. The Dialectic of Methods (1) 253-257
8. The Dialectic of Methods (2) 257-262
9. The Dialectic of Methods (3) 262-265

Future of Dialetic
10. A Supplementary Note 265-266

Lonergan is also operating with an internal logic that is not easily deduced from within the chapter headings. In my view there are a few central propositions driving the chapter. They are:

1. We are bound to our horizons. And often these horizons result in conflicts (research, interpretation and historical)
2. The only way to overcome our horizons (vertically) is through intellectual, moral and religious conversion. (These in fact are three separate (though related) kinds of conversions.)
3. The Dialectic method is the method to highlight (and make) propositions within the converted horizon and also to expose and reject and even reverse the conflicting propositions arising outside fully converted horizons.
4. Then, the dialectic is seen to be applicable in many issues facing philosophy, including language and idealism.
5. But this is not the end, there is something more, and that is religious experience (transcendental experience), and we’re getting to that in the next chapter.

One point to remember is that Lonergan’s dialectic is not to be confused with Hegel’s use; which was the thesis-antithesis-synthesis paradigm (which for Lonergan is actually a closed system). Lonergan’s dialectic is founded on the structure of the realms of meaning (as visible in the stages of meaning) which is the movement within differences and connections between common sense and theory and interiority.

(applying the functional specialty of Research and Interpretation on Lonergan)

Lonergan opens by saying that dialectic is about conflicts and that “The function of dialectic will be to bring such conflicts to light, and to provide a technique that objectifies subjective differences and promotes conversion.” (235)

The conflict here is not between propositions, but between the propositions in the context of horizons. In other words, the dialectic method is not employed with a sense of ideas alone, but ideas in their contextual (personal) framework.

What does Lonergan mean by Horizons?

There are two ways of looking at horizons, one is the natural horizons (something like the perspectives we have) that we inherit and develop, the full measure of our interests and knowledge (236). They determine not only what we know, but what we can know (“condition and the limitation of further development” 237).

Negatively, however, are the horizons that are opposed dialectically. Where one thing is deemed good by one and evil by another. This often leads to the rejection of the other. (236-237)

What does Lonergan mean by Conversion?

Describing possible movements within horizons as horizontal and vertical (using Joseph de Finance, 237), Lonergan points to one kind of movement (whether vertical or horizontal) that stays within the boundaries of the horizon. While another kind of vertical movement is radical, an “about-face”, repudiating the old, a “new beginning.” (237-238).

Within this radical view, there are three kinds of conversions; intellectual, moral and religious.

Intellectual conversion
Clarification and elimination of a view that knowing is like looking, objectivity is seeing (238). But it is not simply myth, and for people in the realm of common sense, but also expressed through intellectual traditions that assert, like realists, empiricists and idealists, that their proposed perception of truth/reality is true and no other. (239) In proposing a critical realist approach, Lonergan is proposing a kind of self-examination that our view of reality may be false and yet a faith in the fact that we can know.

The classic application of this critical realism occurs later in the chapter, when Lonergan talks about Language (253-262). He points out how post-Wittgenstein either there is a naivety that there is no linguistic problem (and everything is a simple projection of mental states) or the opposite view that everything is linguistic. However, by showing the connection between mental states (internal, private) and common expression (community, public), Lonergan is able to appeal to both critique of how we know as well as a faith in what we know.

Moral conversion

Is the clarification and elimination of the view that satisfaction is the same as value (240). It is also the discovery for ourselves of what is good and right. This applies not just to decisions, but also to action.

Lonergan expresses this by talking about how history is different from the specialty of dialectics. History, unlike Meineck or Becker, is not about value but rather is concerned with movements, an “intentional consciousness” of “what happened.” (245) Values comes to play in making decisions, in evaluating between good and bad research, interpretation and historical-narratives.

Also, while all of the conversions are influenced by Lonergan’s idea of the “good”, here it is an important category that involves decision making. While in chapter 2 Lonergan qualify what he means, there is a sense in chapter 10 in which Lonergan speaks of good in the terms of “you-will know-it-when-you-are-it. “For moral knowledge is the proper possession only of morally good men and, until one has merited that title, one has still to advanced and to learn.” 240.

Religious conversion
This is where transcendence is at play in the individual, where going beyond the moral it is being grasped by “ultimate concern” (240). “It is such a surrender, not as an act, but as a dynamic state that is prior to and principle of subsequent acts.” 240.

While Lonergan does not explicate this type of conversion in this chapter, he does end his book with an explanation and hint. Lonergan rightly notes that while he has focused on common sense, theory and interiority in the chapter, his “remarks on transcendence as a differentiated realm have been fragmentary.” 266.

He proposes that religious experience, is to be added to experiencing, understanding, judging an deciding. To the extent that religious experience is not simply a part of the cognitive states, by extends it. Perhaps it is the key turning point that leads us towards the next four functional specialties… and remains part of dialectics and yet, never contained within it.

Back to what ‘conversion’ is

Ultimately, the conversion, being discussed by Lonergan is the transcendence to authenticity. It’s the knowledge (and operation) of good by the converted… and for Lonergan, this conversion (as represented in three ways in Chapter 10), is wholly positive. All three conversions involve self-transcendence. Thus, the converted self, is good. And one way to look at this good is through the authentic self.
“…the basic idea of the method we are trying to develop takes its stand on discovering what human authenticity is and showing how to appeal to it…. It is a powerful method, for man’s deepest need and most prized achievement is authenticity.” 254

What does Lonergan mean by breakdown…

This is the state where either continues self-transcendence is denied, where the community, begins to deny one part of authentic conversion and raises its own dialectic opposition (static) as a valid proposition due to strength of culture and numbers. The wrong becomes common and prevalent belief and works “against intellectual, moral and religious self-transcendence”. (244) (Perhaps the historical movement of the denial of ‘religion’ in Montreal was being foreshadowed in Lonergan’s mind)

The latter part of the chapter gets technical, and is often illustrative of the need for this conversion. Briefly, we can go through the chapter headings.

Dialectic: The Issue

The functional specialties of research, interpretation and history serve only to bring out what is done (recover the past). But they do not foster an encounter, especially an encounter of value, of decision. For this requires conversion, as mentioned in dialectic, to transform all three.

Dialectic: The problem

The lack of ‘conversion’ in research, interpretation and history gives rise to dialectically opposed horizons (247). “There results a babel”

These oppositions are less evident in natural and human sciences (though still evident), but theology must meet these challenges head on (249).

Dialectic: the Structure

Here the structure of dialectic is seen as upper and lower levels, where upper levels is to “develop positions and reverse counter positions” 249. And the lower level aims to “assemble the materials” and in each stage of assembling that includes (completion, comparison, reduction, classification, and selection) there is need to apply the self-transcendent dialectic. 250. (even if it a multiple activity, there will be commonality in authentic humanity).

Dialectic As Method

What is method? a pattern of related and recurrent operations for progressive and cumulative results. Lonergan’s aim is to show here that Dialectic is progressive/cumulative.

Basically, dialectic is an authentic method, because it highlights the role of the subject (theologian etc) as authentic human.

For instance, if the dialectic is implemented by a converted person (fully), then the “investigator will know from personal experience just what intellectual, moral and religious conversion is.” Plus, “he will have no great difficulty in distinguishing positions from counter-positions.” His view of history will be “better” than reality (cumulative tradition), and it will be supported by other similarly converted (or at least partially converted) scholars.

Then, the two cases of method: Language and Idealism

Where, in the case of idealism and the accusation of problematic subjectivity, Lonergan argues for authentic subjectivity… especially represented in the right view of objectivity.


And his final note, as always, points to what is to come… And so it’s like a trailer for the importance expression of “God” (“Love”) and how that plays out Cognition etc.

Thus, if religious experience is the trans-cognition level then it is indeed the call for ‘religious’ conversion where dialectic is concerned with the “good” and can operate within it, but the call is much higher, towards God himself, towards the love of God. Personally, I feel the dice were loaded towards this conclusion right from the beginning, but still, Lonergan makes a strong case for it.


3 Responses to “Summary of Bernard Lonergan’s “Dialectic”, Chapter 10 of “Method in Theology””

  1. 1 Doug Mounce August 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for the summary. Ch 10 came-up in a discussion on the Lonergan_l traffic, but newsgroups don’t tend to carry this level of essay – it’s a nice reference!

  2. 2 stanislaus agava September 18, 2009 at 12:12 am

    lonergan is an enigma in knowledge. his approach to simple issues should however not be taken simply. he opens up minds and presses them to work beyond their realms.

  1. 1 Lonergan notes « Tryst with the Academia Trackback on February 23, 2009 at 11:55 pm

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