Lonergan’s Cognitional Theory

What am I doing when I am knowing?

One’s answer to this question, as I noted earlier, will be a cognitional theory. Lonergan believed that in order to know how we come to know anything, we need to pay close attention to the things that go on in our consciousness.

He listed the following as the “basic pattern of operations”:

seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, inquiring, imagining, understanding, conceiving, formulating, reflecting, marshalling and weighing the evidence, judging, deliberating, evaluating, deciding, speaking, writing.1

Presumably most if not all of these operations are familiar to you.

The first thing to be noted is that all of these operations are intentional. This is another potentially misleading term. The most common meaning of this term is roughly synonymous with the word “deliberate,” but that is not how Lonergan is using it here. He is referring to the fact that each of these operations requires an object. So, for example, one cannot see without seeing something, nor can one imagine without imagining something, and so on. The something in each case is what Lonergan calls the object.2

Lonergan further explains,

To say that the operations intend objects is to refer to such facts as that by seeing there becomes present what is seen, by hearing there becomes present what is heard, by imagining there becomes present what is imagined, and so on, where in each case the presence in question is a psychological event.3

Now, operations imply an operator, and the operator is called the subject. The operations are performed consciously, and it is through these operations that the operator is conscious.

The operations are diverse, and so too are the objects intended by them. Lonergan identified four levels of consciousness and intentionality:

  1. The empirical level, the level of experiencing: sensing, perceiving, imagining, feeling, and so on.
  2. The intellectual level, the level of understanding: inquiring, understanding, conceiving, and so on.
  3. The rational level, the level of judging: reflecting, marshalling and weighing the evidence, passing judgment on the truth or falsity, or the certainty or probability, of a statement.
  4. The responsible level, the level of deciding: considering possible courses of action, evaluating them, deciding whether to carry them out, etc.4

This is how Lonergan describes the subject’s movement through these levels:

Our consciousness expands in a new dimension when from mere experiencing we turn to the effort to understand what we have experienced. A third dimension of rationality emerges when the content of our acts of understanding is regarded as, of itself, a mere bright idea and we endeavor to settle what really is so. A fourth dimension comes to the fore when judgment on the facts is followed by deliberation on what we are to do about them.5

More succinctly, we can say that every act of knowing involves a pattern of experiencing, understanding, and judging. [The fourth level, of deciding, while extremely important, is not constitutive of knowing as such. We come to know many things without making any decision about what to do them. The responsible level will be treated separately.] I’ll briefly describe each level, leaving a more detailed explanation (with concrete examples) for later:

Experiencing. If someone is in a deep coma, or is undergoing dreamless sleep, they cannot come to know anything. So experiencing is necessarily a part of knowing. But, contrary to the claims of empiricist philosophy, experience it is not in itself constitutive of knowledge. What we experience is, by itself, nothing more than scraps of data.

Understanding. To the data of our experience we put the question, “What is it?” Lonergan calls this the “question for intelligence.” Our answer comes in the form of an insight. We have an insight whenever we come to understand something. Merely arriving at an insight is not constitutive of knowledge, either. Our answer to the question “What is it?” might well be correct, but it could also be incorrect.

Judging. With regard to our insight we ask the question, “Is it so?” This is the “question for reflection.” It’s here that we judge whether there is adequate grounds to support our initial insight. The question for reflection is answered with a further insight, what Lonergan calls a reflective insight.

That, in a nutshell, is Lonergan’s answer (as I understand it, anyway) to the question, “What am I doing when I am knowing.” But why is doing that knowing? That is the second basic question which I’ll take up next.

The next post, “Epistemology,” is forthcoming.


1. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, 6.

2. For a helpful explanation of the various meanings of “intention” and “intentionality,” see Michael Vertin, “Intention, Intentionality.” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. Michael Downey, ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000: 542-543.

3. Lonergan, Method, 7.

4. Lonergan, Method, 9.

5. Lonergan, Method, 9.

4 Responses to Lonergan’s Cognitional Theory

  1. Faustine says:

    For the first time I am reading Lonergan. It is a good summary.

  2. ondiek paul says:

    A good one

  3. Pingback: Discipleship Matters

  4. Graham Harrison, Translator and Linguist says:

    Thanks for this summary of Lonergan’s epistemology (if that’s the right word). I am wondering whether it goes back “far enough” into the subject, the “I”. My current interest is in the work of J.G.Fichte, who examines the “I” that undertakes the four activities you describe. The basic (ungrounded, because self-validating) activity of the “I” is the affirmation. It affirms itself, and thereby everything else. This affirmation is itself a “decision” or “action” (your fourth category), and as such is NOT optional. Thank you again.

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