Lonergan’s Three Basic Questions

Bernard Lonergan said that the human person “achieves authenticity in self-transcendence.”1

Self-transcendence can be cognitive or moral. In cognitive self-transcendence I attain knowledge of that which is beyond myself. The judgment I make concerns “not what appears to me, not what I imagine, not what I think, not what I wish, not what I would be inclined to say, not what seems to me, but what is so.”2

Moral self-transcendence is attained when I judge that this or that is not only apparently good, but is truly good (or, conversely, not only apparently bad, but truly bad), independently of my thinking so.

Lonergan’s account of how we achieve self-transcendence, which he called “Transcendental Method,” is his most important contribution to philosophy. I’m going to spend a little while discussing it.

Consider the following three questions:

  • What am I doing when I am knowing?
  • Why is doing that knowing?
  • What do I know when I do it?

Lonergan held that a person’s answers to these questions will be, respectively, their cognitional theory, their epistemology, and their metaphysics.3

It is important to clarify what Lonergan meant (or didn’t mean) by some of these terms. By “knowing” he did not simply mean “possessing knowledge.” We possess a lot of knowledge attained in the past, and we aren’t really doing anything with it most of the time. What he meant by “knowing” is the process of coming to know something.

Another potentially misleading term is “metaphysics.” Some people are quite turned off by this term, equating it with a kind of outmoded philosophical speculation unsupported by any kind of evidence. This is certainly not how Lonergan uses it. Indeed, he described his metaphysics as “verifiable,” and as we will see, this is exactly what it is.

I’m going to quickly go through Lonergan’s answers to each of the three questions, and then provide more detailed explanations with some concrete examples.

Read “Cognitional Theory”


1. Lonergan, Method in Theology, 104.

2. Lonergan, Method, 104; emphasis added.

3. Lonergan, Method, 25.


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