Schematic: "Insight" Mastered: 1st Canon

A recipe book for undertaking the vast labor of

heightening one's awareness of Lonergan's transcendental method as

self-appropriation through processes of adjustment and assimilation.

An Emergent Cosmopolis

As is commonly known, Lonergan’s Insight was never written to be read in an analytical fashion. Rather, it is a work to be experienced as a set of injunctions in the same way that a cooking recipe or a musical score is a set of instructions for making a cake or playing a piece of music.[1] The cake or music in this case is the subject playing himself: the dynamics of Lonergan’s transcendental method. That playing is the central object of Insight, the self-appropriation of one’s own rationality that has at its core an intellectual conversion toward Lonergan’s critical realism and away from naïve realism, empiricism, conceptualism, and other limiting epistemological positions.

Reflective understanding often involves a sustained intentionality without forcing answers.[2] A time-consuming approach far at odds with the exciting and demanding work of the detective, reflection may be the primary method for appropriating both Insight and Method. The simple reason is that ultimately the self-appropriation of one’s own rationality is achieved through evaluation not understanding, even though an understanding of insights and different realms of meaning come first. This is especially true for appropriating Lonergan’s functional specialities, which are not understandable without recognizing the way they are grounded in his transcendental method.

Another factor is that Insight and Method are not only separated by more than twenty years but each work has its own specific intentionality. Yet, there is an underlying unity, a natural continuum from the first to the second: Insight lays the philosophical grounds for providing a suitable method for theology at a time when theology transcends any one person or group.

A clue to a possible approach in uncovering the underlying skeleton that grounds both works might be found in Spenser-Brown’s Laws of Form. In this work he lays out a way of working that is eminently suitable to the injunctive, reflective, and unifying task of bringing together both Insight and Method. At the core of his approach is the idea of making a distinction.[3] To draw a distinction is to indicate something of value, for without value there is no reason to make any distinction.

  • Commands call something into being, may conjure up some order of being, or may be a call to order. In general they take the form of “ draw a distinction”, “let there be a distinction”, “find a distinction”, “see a distinction”, “describe a distinction”, “define a distinction”, or “let a distinction be drawn.”[4]
  • Names act as reference points or tokens, e.g., “call so-and-so such-and-such.” Names refer to things of value.
  • Instructions are designed to take effect within whatever universe has been brought into being through a distinction. Axioms, postulates, theorems, initials, and consequences are terms that refer to specific kinds of injunctive commands.
  • Canons are orders or sets of orders that permit or allow, but do not construct or create.[5]
  • Proof of any assertion is derived from the logical coherence of the person engaged with judging. Proofs are not axiomatic in form.[6]
  • Descriptions are not proofs as such but ways in which the reader can relate theoretical material to concrete realities.[7]

With this in mind we take up the first of eight canons that constitute a “recipe book” of instructions or injunctions for readers to follow when undertaking to appropriate Lonergan’s transcendental method and its multiple implications for metaphysics, ethics, and theological method.


[1] “[The] primary form of mathematical communication is not description, but injunction. In this respect it is comparable with practical art forms like cookery, in which the taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form, the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands which, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader, of the composer’s original experience.” C. Spenser-Brown, Laws of Form, (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969), 77, hereafter referred to as Laws.

[2] “To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.” Laws, 110. Italics in the text.

[3] “The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.” Laws, xxix. In this paper we do not use Spenser-Brown’s actually theorems relating to such basic forms. Instead, we use his basic approach to highlight the underlying form or skeleton of Lonergan’s work in both Insight and Method combined. RCB.

[4] Laws, 79-81.

[5] “The more important structures of command are sometimes called canons. They are the ways in which the guiding injunctions appear to group themselves in constellations, and are thus by no means independent of each other. A canon bears the distinction of being outside (i.e. describing) the system under construction, but a command to construct (e.g. ‘draw a distinction’), even though it may be of central importance, is not a canon. A canon is an order, or set of orders, to permit or allow, but not to construct or create.” Laws, 80.

[6] “In discovering a proof, we must do something more subtle than search. We must come to see the relevance, in respect of whatever statement it is we wish to justify, of some fact in full view, and of which, therefore, we are already constantly aware. Whereas we may know how to undertake a search for something we can not see, the subtlety of the technique of trying to ‘find’ something which we already can see may more easily escape our efforts.” Laws, 95. Italics are in the text.

[7] “Another point of interest is the clear distinction . . . that can be drawn between the proof of a theorem and the demonstration of a consequence. The concepts of theorem and consequence, and hence of proof and demonstration, are widely confused in current literature [in mathematics and logic] where the words are used interchangeably. This has undoubtedly created spurious difficulties.” Laws, xxii. When “value” is discussed in the core of this article, it refers to demonstration, i.e. a demonstration of value. RCB.