Monday, December 20, 2004

Lonergan's cultural ignorance

I promised earlier that I would provide examples of dense and unreadable passages from Bernard Lonergan's classic work, Method in Theology. I don't have time to do that right now, but I wanted to quote a short passage that exemplifies another problem I have with Lonergan: he thinks things through without checking whether they correspond with reality. Lonergan's entire cognitional schema seems to be like this. Based on his (extremely sparse) footnotes, I gather he did little to no work with the cognitive scientists of his day, relying instead on his own genius (cough) and the work of other philosophers to develop his now-famous formulation of experience, understand, judge, decide. One ignores science at one's peril.

In the following passage, from Lonergan's chapter on meaning, Lonergan makes claims about the universal, objective meaning of a smile. After claiming that a smile does have meaning, and that a smile is "highly perceptible," he says the following on pp. 58-59:

Both the meaning of the smile and the act of smiling are spontaneous. We do not learn to smile as we learn to walk, to talk, to swim, to skate. Commonly we do not think of smiling and then do it. We just do it. Again, we do not learn the meaning of smiling as we learn the meaning of words. The meaning of the smile is a discovery we make on our own, and that meaning does not seem to vary from culture to culture, as does the meaning of gestures.

To his credit, Lonergan notes that smiles happen for different reasons: recognition, friendship, welcome, love, joy, delight, contentment, amusement, refusal, and contempt among them. But I'm not sure how Lonergan squares these various purposes with the idea that a smile's meaning is invariant.

In Korea, people often smile to say "I'm sorry," something we don't normally see in America. Smiling is a culturally conditioned activity: we do indeed learn how to smile, in the sense that we learn when to smile. Whatever meaning arises from the act of smiling arises at the same time from the social and cultural context in which the smiler finds herself. It's misleading to say a smile and its meaning are spontaneous. They are determined as much by the exterior nomos (to borrow a term from Peter Berger) as by one's interior reality.

I should spend some time digging through Method for more examples of where Lonergan makes claims that have little basis in reality. In the meantime, I'll find some unreadable passages and slap them up on the blog.


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