The ethics of Lonergan's existential intellectualism

James Gerard Duffy, Fordham University


This study is an investigation into the Thomist sources of Bernard Lonergan's existential ethics. Both the cognitional theory and the theory of human freedom, which Lonergan retrieved from Aquinas writings on the procession of the inner word and on freedom of the will under the action of grace respectively, profoundly influenced Lonergan's conception of existential ethics. There are at least two ways in which Lonergan's ethics is existential. First, he upholds the Thomist distinction between essence and existence, and corresponding to this distinction the cognitional acts of understanding and judgment. Since the intellectual processes and principles of practical knowing are isomorphic with those of speculative knowing, this distinction pertains to both patterns of knowing. Secondly, intentionality analysis, which is the "method" of existential ethics, is an appropriation of the norms that are intrinsic to the genuine unfolding of conscious operations of an existential subject. Existential subjects are persons who not only understand, will, decide, speak, offend, promise, risk, and are faithful, but also who in doing these things are aware that they are doing them. Appropriation is increasing one's awareness of conscious operations, their relations, and the values that are intended. Since these conscious acts are always socially and culturally conditioned, existential ethics is also a recognition and acknowledgement of historicity. Underlying the first meaning of "existential" and linking it to the second is the premise that the ontological and psychological are not incompatible alternatives but interdependent procedures. This premise helps clarify the the critical philosophical problem. The problem is not whether to start with either subjectivity or objectivity, with the hopes of making it across the bridges to the other side. The problem is to discern just what is happening when we are authentically knowing, deciding, and acting. Lonergan contends that objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity. Authenticity is achieved in cognitive and moral self-transcendence whose dynamic principle is to the spirit of human inquiry.

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Recommended Citation

Duffy, James Gerard, "The ethics of Lonergan's existential intellectualism" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9628334.