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Philosophy of Education

Educating the Human Subject

Marc Smith
St. Thomas University

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ABSTRACT: The transition from 'classical' to 'modern' culture has meant the disappearance of any normative, universal, and absolute culture in which all humanity is to be educated. But that, in itself, does not mean that there is now nothing 'transcending' culture that philosophy can teach humanity. I argue that Bernard Lonergan's analysis of the rational, self-conscious subject, as constituted by the conscious operations of experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding, provides a 'fixed base, an invariant pattern' as the condition for the possibility of educating humanity.

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It is timely, in these final years of a waning millennium, to consider again what philosophy proposes to teach humanity; timely, not simply because the end of an epoch inevitably prompts such a reflective review, but also because the age we are about to enter will raise anew the possibility of shared perspectives in the face of increasing evidence of divergent, and even conflicting, views. Given not only the differences among cultures, but the differences in philosophical methodologies as well, what common word can philosophy address to a universal humanity?

There was, of course, a time when the notion of paedeia implied the existence of a culture that was normative, universal, changeless and absolute, and, as such, the opposite of barbarism.

It conceived itself not empirically but normatively, not as one culture among many, but as the only culture any right-minded and cultivated person would name culture. Its very antiquity, however, only reinforced its more fundamental character of immobility. It considered its classics works of art, its philosophy was the philosophia perennis, its laws and structures were the fruit of the prudence and wisdom of mankind.

Such a notion of 'classical' culture has its roots in the paedeia of ancient Greece and the Roman doctrinae studium atque humanitatis, and was reborn in the exuberant Renaissance ideal of the uomo universale. And, unfortunately (or otherwise), classical culture has vanished. The modern fact is that culture has to be conceived empirically, that there are many cultures . . . .

Given our modern awareness of the diversity of cultures, then, the issue raised is whether there is, or even can be, any common, universal and normative basis which could provide a grounding or starting point for collaboration and cooperation in education, the humanities, and the sciences. If the ideal of a command of all that there is to be known is, in our current situation, impossible, is there any reason to think that philosophy could envisage, let alone attain, the goal of "educating humanity"?

Without being presumptuous, it well may be. In what follows, I shall present an understanding of the human subject, a grasp of whose structure might well provide a possible point of departure for the philosophical contribution to humanity's education. It is an analysis of the human subject as knowing and acting that has been proposed by the Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard J. F. Lonergan. I present it here, not only because it is little discussed by those not interested in Lonergan studies, but also to evaluate Lonergan's claim that any attempt to revise his analysis in theory will necessarily utilize it in practice.


It is now forty years since Bernard Lonergan proposed, in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, the view of human consciousness that is the core of his analysis of human subjectivity. In fact, the basis of Lonergan's critique of any form of empiricist, rationalist, idealist or existentialist theories of human subjectivity is the pointed charge that all of these views reduce human consciousness to one act or operation. Such views of the human subject he characterizes as truncated, because each ignores the fact that the human subject acts at several levels of consciousness (or awareness), and not on one only. In doing so, these truncated views of human subjectivity do not—indeed, cannot—do justice to all the operations that constitute the structure that human subjectivity is.

Rather than conceiving what he calls the 'psychological subject' as constituted by simply one act, Lonergan insists that the conscious subject is a dynamic structure of acts or operations, in which each operation presupposes and completes the one which precedes it. This structure is characterized as dynamic because (1) its components are themselves acts, and also because (2) the structure is self-assembling or self-constituting, since each operation summons its complement.

The operations identified by Lonergan as constitutive of the psychological subject are four in number: experiencing, understanding (or direct insight), judgment (or reflective insight), and deciding. The first act or operation, that of experiencing, is characterized by apprehending and attending to data (whether of sense or of consciousness, the latter being the conscious operations themselves). But, as Lonergan notes, while an animal is content simply with the data, the human subject will, at least on occasion, ask a question. And this dynamic spontaneity prompts the transition from the level of experiencing to the level of intelligence, or understanding.

This second type or level of consciousness is marked by direct insight, which grasps the unity-identity-whole given in the manifold of sense data, and it is pivotal in Lonergan's account of how the human subject comes to know. By itself, however, it does not constitute the achievement of knowledge, properly so called. For, while insight answers a question prompted by the data ("what is it?"), yet another question is now raised by the insight ("is it so?" "really?"), and so one questions the adequacy, the correctness, the truth of the 'bright idea' that insight has suggested.

This second question is answered at yet another, third, level, characterized by a different sort of conscious operation, that of judging, or reflective understanding, whereby one either affirms or denies the sufficiency of the insight which the second conscious act has provided. Moreover, it is only with this critical judgment, Lonergan contends, that rational knowledge is attained. Thus, knowing is not one operation, but a structure of operations. And to come to the realization that 'knowing' is the cumulative result of inter-dependent operations Lonergan would later call an 'intellectual conversion'; it is the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity and human knowledge. The myth is that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not there, and that the real is what is out there now to be looked at. . . . Knowing, accordingly, is not just seeing; it is experiencing, understanding, judging . . . .However, such a conversion, and the conscious operations which constitute it, is presupposed and complemented by a further act or operation of consciousness, that of choosing or deciding. For, while the reflective act of judging answers a question ("is it so?"), it too raises yet another, i.e., whether one's doing is consistent with one's knowing.

Man is not only a knower but also a doer: the same intelligent and rational consciousness grounds the doing as well as the knowing; and from that identity of consciousness there springs inevitably an exigence for self-consistency in knowing and doing.

To accede to that innate demand is to experience, in terms later employed by Lonergan, a 'moral conversion', whereby one transforms "the criterion of one's decisions and choices from satisfactions to values."

While this order of exposition, as Lonergan calls it, suggests that the fourth operation of deciding presupposes, and is consequent upon, the operations of experiencing, understanding and judging, the order of occurrence can be—and often is—the reverse. And understandably so; for, before one can rid oneself of the 'myth' that knowing is like looking, one must have grasped, in some way, that it is important that one understand correctly what rational knowledge is, and how it is to be attained. Thus, while the fourth conscious operation complements and presupposes the third, the activities of cognitional consciousness (i.e., the three operations of experiencing, understanding and judging, often referred to as 'cognitional structure') do not occur without the guidance and control of the fourth level of operation.


Thus far, we have considered Lonergan's analysis of the psychologically operative subject as a structure of mutually inter-dependent conscious acts. Experiencing naturally is complemented and presupposed by intelligent understanding; direct understanding spontaneously seeks critical judgment; reflective understanding dynamically demands consistency between what one knows and what one does. In other words, the analysis is not only and merely descriptive; the operations constitutive of the human subject are normative, as well. Authentic subjectivity is achieved by adhering to the innate dynamism that characterizes our subjectivity:

. . . human authenticity is a matter of following the built-in law of the human spirit. Because we can experience, we should attend. Because we can understand, we should inquire. Because we can reach the truth, we should reflect and check. Because we can realize values in ourselves and promote them in others, we should deliberate. In the measure that we follow these precepts, in the measure we fulfil these conditions of being human persons, we also achieve self-transcendence both in the field of knowledge and in the field of action.

It is not difficult to see why these conscious operations have normative effect. Without experience, there is nothing to understand; hence, we not only can be, but must be attentive. Without insights, there is nothing on which to pass judgment; without inquiry, we will miss possible alternatives; hence, we not only can be, but must be intelligent and reasonable. And if our actions are to be consistent with our knowledge, then we must be responsible in our choices and decisions.

Here, it seems to me, we come close to what we have been seeking, i.e., a normative understanding of the human subject which is capable of transcending the relativities of particular cultures, limited as each may be by history, geography and imagination. Here, perhaps, is what philosophy might teach humanity: know thyself; or—perhaps more pointedly—be thyself. Be an attentive subject, for only thereby can one be intelligent. Be intelligent in insights, for only thereby can one be reasonable in one's judgments. Be reasonable in judgment, for lacking this, one cannot be responsible in one's conduct.

By far the most provocative aspect of Lonergan's analysis of the conscious subject is his claim that the relationship between the subject's conscious operations is invariant and unrevisable—to which it might be objected that human subjects surely differ from one culture to another. What humans know, so it might be argued, and how they behave never transcend the defining limits of an age or place. That we differ as to what we know, concedo; however, that we differ as to how we know, nego. Consider: the only way to contradict Lonergan's analysis of the knowing subject would be to appeal to the evidence of one's own conscious operations. To deny the adequacy of Lonergan's insight into the subject as knower would necessarily involve marshalling new evidence, and/or otherwise interpreting the evidence collected, and/or denying the adequacy of Lonergan's insight into the data provided by experience—and all under the guidance of some conscious decision to strive for a chosen end (be it the glorification of self or the attainment of truth). In other words, any attempt to argue that Lonergan's analysis of the constituent operations of conscious subjectivity, and their inter-relationship, is incorrect must, of necessity, employ those very same operations. One can intelligently and reasonably attempt a refutation of the theory only by espousing it in practice.

Perhaps Lonergan's own summary of the content and import of his analysis is the best:

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.

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