Monday, December 20, 2004

Owen on Lonergan

From beyond the grave, Owen Rathbone expounds on his fellow Canuck in my newly revamped comments section (see sidebar; look for the Glam Rock Kevin; hit the image and leave a comment):

Saw your post on Lonergan. I actually had the misfortune of having to research this fellow for an employer in Toronto. For several weeks I visited the Lonergan Center in Toronto, photocopied a lot of materials and tried, in vain, to decipher what the heck Lonergan was on about. I understand him more now thanks to summaries of his works I have read recently on the Internet but, to be honest, I think the man was and is highly overrated. A lot of his writing simply is indecipherable because it is bad prose -- not necessarily because his ideas are not worth considering.

Yeah, I agree that Lonergan's got some decent ideas, but he was incapable of expressing them well. Our professor offered us grad students a lame excuse as to why Method in Theology was so dense and explained itself so little: it's because Lonergan, who wasn't young when he wrote MiT, thought he was going to die soon, so it became more important for him simply to get the basic arguments out than to pretty up the prose and fill in the details.

I don't know whether that's an urban legend, but there may be something to the idea that Lonergan was capable of better writing. I did read a few chunks of one of his other works, Insight, and those chapters* were-- despite being from a much larger work than MiT-- a fairly navigable read.

There's something bizarre about having whole "societies" devoted to the study of Lonergan (or any other philosopher, for that matter). It's a scholastic version of the groupie-ism of Trekkies (Trekkers/Trekkors). A Lonergan Center? We might as well enslave a few thousand poor people from across the globe and begin work on the 5-mile-high Lonergan Pyramid. He deserves no less.

And while I'm ranting about Lonergan, I'll note another complaint: Lonergan tended to define his terms by including the term to be defined in its own definition. Example, page 75 of Method in Theology:

A term of meaning is what is meant.

Lonergan also liked to write definitions that tie themselves up in metaconceptual knots. Here's the very first sentence of Lonergan's introductory chapter in MiT, ostensibly a "definition" of theology:

A theology mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of a religion in that matrix.

Give me a fucking break. I mean, where do I begin? I'm not sure I ever understood the above formulation, though I had to pretend I understood it for my coursework.

When normal human beings use the phrase "X mediates between A and B," it's understood that A and B are separate, distinct, not part of each other. But in the above, B (significance and role of a religion in a cultural matrix) appears to be a subset of A (a cultural matrix). Or more precisely, B, the "significance and role," appears to be a subset (or aspect?) of B-prime, "a religion in that matrix," which is in turn a subset of A, "a cultural matrix."

We lost yet?

To make matters worse, I'm not sure how the word "between" has any meaning in Lonergan's definition. Element B is pretty damn abstract. I was never able to visualize the mediating function of theology between a cultural matrix (which is a pretty clear concept to me) and a significance/role. How does one get "between" the cultural matrix and the significance/role of a subset of that matrix?

Forget I asked.

Because my readers like pain, here are some links:

The Bernard Lonergan Web Site

Lonergan Institute at Boston College

The Lonergan Centre of Sydney

I haven't visited any of the above links in detail. I don't intend to. I still resent my profs for putting us through Lonergan. It really was like being shrunk to the size of an egg and forced to struggle our way out of a sheep's intestines.

*One chapter dealt with a phenomenon called scotosis, which my mind immediately converted to the crippling disease scrotosis. I go through much the same process whenever I see the acronynm SCOTUS, or the name of Duns Scotus.


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