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We milk the cow of the world, and as we do 
We whisper in her ear, “You are not true.” 
—Richard Wilbur

“Before we dismantle this imposing structure, let’s step back a moment and admire its elegant lines.” Thus Alex Tourigny, my teacher of philosophical psychology forty years ago, was wont to mark the pause before the crusher. His version of the crusher was a deadly “reduction to first principles.”

Of the many other kinds, consider two. Crusher number one is the dreaded counter-instance. The lecturer says: “Languages may have a double negative with a negative meaning, a double negative with a positive meaning, and a double affirmative with a positive meaning—but no language has a double affirmative with a negative meaning.” And from the back of the hall comes: “Yeah, yeah.”

Crusher two is the reduction of implicit to explicit self-contradiction. “Let me see if I get your drift: you deny the correspondence theory of truth, for it fails to correspond to the way we actually think.” This reduction takes place by making explicit, not the content of an affirmation, but the performance of affirming (or denying).

A like performance: “We cannot know what is really and truly so.” The self-contradiction latent here is swiftly rendered patent by making the act of affirming thematic: “I am stating what is really and truly so when I say that we cannot know what is really and truly so.”

Such is the philosophical crusher. There are those who say it doesn’t crush, but, if you notice, they are exceedingly careful not to get caught in its pincers. Heidegger called it trivial and Frederick Copleston calls it slick, but no one yet has made the case that it doesn’t hold. What was wrong with Hume’s theory of the mind? The late Bernard Lonergan summed it up in three sentences.

Hume thought the human mind to be a matter of impressions linked together by custom. But Hume’s own mind was quite original. Therefore, Hume’s own mind was not what Hume considered the human mind to be.

Lonergan was an adept of the philosophical crusher. In a book review that must rank with the all-time unappealable counterstatements, be observed:

[The author] asserts an unbridgeable difference between the way in which God is in himself and the way in which be is in our knowledge. This, of course, while absolutely possible, is not possibly known within our knowledge, and so the reader may wonder bow [the author] got it into his knowledge.

We shall return to Lonergan, for he was not content to apply the crusher only occasionally and unsystematically. He proposed that it be made to operate systematically, and that is our main point in bringing it up at all.

Think of what its potential might be. Every ideologist carries a single burning coal in the tongs of his mind, an explanatory idea meant to unlock the secret of bow human beings work. J. P Stern once remarked that in each case the explanation proceeds by way of what makes men do what they do. None of the three modern masters Stern had in mind—Marx, Freud, Nietzsche—was eager to apply his explanation to his own work. A way of accommodating, if not reducing, psychoanalysis itself to the sexual impulse might just possibly have been wrung from Freud, but Marx knew (as we know) that he did not write Das Kapital out of material interest, nor does the will-to-power explain the composition of Nietzsche’s numerous monographs on the will-to-power (e.g. The Anti-Christ). What a crusher! The actuality of performance belies the all-comprehensive explanation. The gap between the two looks like a common trait of ideologues and their ideologies. Systematic exploitation of the gap would mean an efficient, methodical undermining of ideology.

Sometimes the ideologist seems to be aware of it. Sartre acknowledged that literature owed its power to its being somehow like life. He also knew that the chaos he affirmed of life he could not make work in a novel. An authentically Sartrean novel would be a chaotic muddle. But novelists, including Sartre, labor under a first commandment, Thou shalt not be dull. If La Nausee or Les chemins de la liberte are plotted and the characters convince, how can this fail to be due to the novelist’s bad faith? If the novel works, the philosophy doesn’t”and vice versa.

Literary theory has found itself in a like dilemma. Bernard Bergonzi’s new book Exploding English points out that the followers of Nietzsche and Foucault are passionately persuaded that truth is a mere rhetorical device employed in the service of oppression, and say so at length. What, then, is the status of their saying so? We should give them their choice. Is it false? Or in the service of oppression?

In this bleak spectacle of theories shattering on the rock of fact, the fact in question is special. It has to do with how the human subject functions. What if we were to come into possession of truth on fundamental aspects of human functioning? Would we not find ourselves in possession of a powerful instrument for discriminating, methodically and productively, among a vast range of significant truths and errors?

Just such an instrument was an eighteenth-century dream. Though Collingwood called it a relic of substantialism, the dream might just as well be transposed into the non-substantialist terms of “invariant pattern.” This, indeed, is how Lonergan conceived it: the invariant pattern of human intentionality.

Drawing on a metaphor of levels, the pattern has the following shape. First, there is an empirical level, which is the level of sensing and of the data of sense. (Moreover, since data are prior to understanding, there also belong to this empirical level all conscious human operations and their products insofar as they present themselves ”to psychology, say, or to cognitional theory” as data of consciousness.) Second, there is a level of understanding, to which belong the acts of wondering, of translating wonder into questions, the quest of answers, their selective conceptualization, the working out of the significance of what we have understood. Third, there is the rational level of reflection on the adequacy of any answer, the quest of relevant evidence, and the state of mind (its name is “objectivity”) that allows one to pass a true judgment, either merely thinking or actually knowing it to be true. Such is the level of true and false, certain and probable. Fourth, there is the level of choice and decision: deliberating, evaluating, and deciding. Here we are concerned with ourselves, our ends and means, our loves and hates, the courses of action open to us, and their likely results; here, too, we carry out our decisions or fail to do so.

This scheme is radically unrevisable. For, since any revision would have to appeal to data, it would have to allow an empirical level of operations. Since any revision would have to offer a better explanation of the data, it would have to allow an intelligent level of operations. Since any revision would have to claim that its better explanation is more probable, it would have to allow a rational level of operations. Finally, since no one undertakes the task of revision unless he takes it to be worthwhile, the revision must affirm or suppose a responsible level of operations.

The fact is that the human subject exhibits a set of structured spontaneities: attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility. What keeps wrecking mistaken theories of human performance—how we know, or what friendship is, or why language works this way or that—is the gap that recurrently comes to light between performance and theory. The theorist spontaneously operates one way and laboriously theorizes in another.

There is a passage in Lonergan where Aristotle is pictured as having been present when (according to Plato’s Meno) Socrates contrived to demonstrate the seemingly ignorant slave-boy’s geometrical knowledge, and from it inferred the boy’s contemplation, in an earlier mode of existence, of eternal mathematical forms. This stunning inference captured the wonder of Socrates’ listeners—except for Aristotle, who was left pondering Socrates’ diagram in the dust. Preexistence, shmee-existence. From a diagram in the dust that kid had abstracted an intelligible form! Having problematized with Plato the conditions of knowledge and concluded to the necessity of intelligible forms, Aristotle figured out by inference how in fact we acquire them. In fact: there are numerous more or less reasonable arguments accounting for how we come into possession of ideas, but how in fact do we do so?

The test of the answer is the field of human performance. Once the pattern of human operations has been brought to light in radically unrevisable fashion, new possibilities heave into view: in particular, the new possibility of systematically confronting theories of knowing with facts of knowing, theories of love or of freedom with the facts of the human subject-in-love, freely disposing of himself. What we blithely call “the facts” are a normative pattern—empirical, to be sure, but not a slice of life. And the image that they yield of the human subject is as far removed as possible from, for example, the systematic use of knowledge to crush or to bludgeon.

“The philosophical crusher” accordingly turns out to be an attention-grabber for a philosophy finally typified by sobriety, self-restraint, even love—just what Nietzsche thought he would free us from. But it was the facts of human performance that gave this philosophy its form. The facts of performance reveal the will-to-power as one more aberration. At its most authentic, human subjectivity is defined by a threefold break with the conventionally modern: the break with picture-thinking (all the forms of “language philosophy”), the break with the primacy of gratification (norm of choice in the consumer society), and the break with the great dogma of the secular (the this-worldly as ultimate horizon).

If the philosophical crusher is converted into a methodical dialectic”a technique grounded on the observation that fact is normative—we have found a way of settling what seem otherwise to be irresolvable disagreements, those not resolved by appeal to “rational argument,” precisely because they include a disagreement on rationality. They differ, not on particulars within a particular horizon, but on horizon itself—a metaphor for the limits of what I know and care about. My horizons are the product of my life-history. I am aware that they are limited (whole worlds fall outside my horizons, utterly meaningless to me) and, if I have lived long enough, I shall be aware that they are riven with error”but where they are erroneous and why, I do not know. Dialectic is designed to tell me where I am not only limited but wrong, not only wrong but wrongheaded.

Where you and I differ, of course, I tend to think it likely that I am right and you are wrong. Where we differ dialectically—I am, let’s say, prochoice and you prolife—I am passionately persuaded that I am right and you wrong. Dialectic is designed to settle just those matters on which we differ dialectically and passionately. In inventing the systematic process of dialectic and its follow-up, Lonergan’s main purpose was to discover what Christian truths, and especially what doctrines, to affirm. But there is nothing to keep philosophers and educators and social and literary critics and ordinary puzzled citizens from using it to find out how to resolve the radical conflicts that most engage them.

There is just this problem: dialectic is productive in the measure that its practitioners are radically pointed in the right directions. I must have broken with picture-thinking to make truly satisfactory philosophical judgments. I must have made the primacy of values over satisfactions an existential reality of my own in order to make habitually authentic moral judgments. And since we cannot exclude the issue of religion from the interests of philosophers, literary and social critics, educators, and ordinary citizens, I must have made the discovery that God is more worthy of my love than any finite person, group, or program, and must have begun to let that love take root in and transform me.

Three steep conditions! They might be thought to be the bad news, the kind of woeful ascertainment that sent the rich young man away sorrowful. But in a West that has come to mean technology and junk culture, they condition the meeting of the contemporary challenge”the herculean task of rebuilding the human in the West.

Whoever finds the above three conditions beyond him still has a little comfort. If he wishes, he can learn to win an argument or two by practicing the philosophical crusher.

Ben F. Meyer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.