Meeting You Where You Stand Today

We have to make a start … 1Philip McShane, Futurology Express, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2013, p. 12..

We make a start by working from the ground up. Actually, we are hoping to pull ourselves out of a hole2See footnote 19 below. For Benton and Quinn (and others), our shared “stand” is our more or less compatible and developing orientations grounded by the “stand” we expressed in Journeyism 1. We hope this now-obscure point will become a little clearer to you by the end of the series..  To escape from a hole, then, it would be best to stop digging.3The dilemma of being trapped in a hole conveys an image of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of crippling convention in the academy and beyond: “… compromise and distortion discredit progress … absurd situations do not yield to treatment … [but rather] … have a flair for picking the mistaken solutions and insisting that it alone is … good. Imperceptibly the corruption spreads from the harsh sphere of material advantage and power to the mass media, the stylish journals, the literary movements, the educational process, the reigning philosophies. A civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its destructive ways … .” See Bernard Lonergan, MIT, op. cit., 55.

As it happens, that describes the challenge of sorting out where you stand regarding intellectual growth in your field of study. What do we mean by “where you stand” and “intellectual growth” 4You and possibly other stakeholders have invested a great deal of time, energy and expense in your post-secondary education. Are you (as well as the overall educational enterprise and society at large) getting sufficient return for all this effort? On what basis do you evaluate that?? This is an opportunity to explore these questions in a fresh way.

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.5Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1103a.33.

So we hope you will actively participate, as well as contribute some reflections6We also hope you will come to reflect “honestly,” in a fresh way. What we mean by “honestly” will become clearer as we move forward through the series. However, the basic issue is spelled out bluntly in Journeyism 9, footnote 7. along the way. It’s likely you’ll need to break a habit that has victimized every student since elementary school: being hurried past the struggle to understand for the sake of “covering the material.” This insidious classroom routine “educates us out of our mind”.7The drudgery of forced short-term memory work for the sake of passing exams haunts us at every turn in our formal education. Such experiences may provide relevant data in forthcoming exercises. In this series we observe a leisurely pace8We will have more to say along the way about “how to read,” the adequacy of which includes the importance of reading patiently and on pace with your effort to understand. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once observed, you only begin to read seriously when you take your eyes off the page. See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970, 14, 21, 39, 47, 83 on the challenges of reading adequately. that respects the struggle to understand.9See footnote 16.


You are invited to conduct a preliminary investigation by participating in a strategic series of “empirical” exercises.10The name of a series of exercises undertaken by Benton’s philosophy students between 2005 and 2012. Note that what we mean by ’empirical’ is different in origin and meaning, and should not to be confused with, the traditional philosophic meaning of the term, “empiricism”. What we mean by “empirical” will become clearer as we proceed.11“When culture is conceived empirically, [fill in your subject name here] is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.” Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972, p. xi. You might say this series is your laboratory and thinking about your field of study is a source of specimens.

What observations can I make about the process I undertook in order to progress in my field of study?

We invite you to generate some personal data with respect to intellectual growth during your undergraduate years. How did you acquire what the institution deemed “sufficient competence” to earn an undergraduate degree?12The degree, BA, is sometimes (humorously) referred to as meaning “Barely Adequate”. How might that claim of “adequacy” line up with your experiences?

To pique your curiosity, we suggest reviewing the course outline of your field of study in the university syllabus. There, recurring patterns of expression will furnish the clues.

The clues describe routine tasks and topics that you undertook during the four years of study.


Some observations …

After having identified many of the tasks and topics, are you beginning to wonder how you managed to “cover” that complex material from Year One to Year Four? What does “cover” actually mean? How much of that diverse material did you believe, memorize, understand? Can you distinguish what each of these activities mean? Do you wonder why some topics were included and others left out? How do you go about performing routine tasks such as research, interpretation, evaluation, and so on? Do you think of your subject as having a significance and value beyond “personal interest” and future employment?

It’s hard to embrace a solution to a problem one does not even know exists.13Brown, P., Duffy J. eds., Seeding Global Collaboration, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2016, iv.

What do you make of our questions? We raise them to draw your attention to a subtle oversight in academic routine that, in effect, contributes to confining one’s own horizon.14“We can distinguish the known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown. The distinction is applicable to any stage of development. … The known is the range of questions that I can raise and answer. … Beyond the known … there is the known unknown, the things I know I do not know. … There is a range of questions that I can raise, find significant, consider worth while … Thirdly, there is the unknown unknown, the range of questions that I do not raise at all, or that, if they were raised, I would not understand, or find significant, or, if I understood what is meant, I would see no point in asking them. … I would not consider it worth while finding out what the answer was. I could not care less whether there is an answer to such questions or not.” Bernard Lonergan, Topics in Education (CWL 10), University of Toronto Press, 1993, 89. Hereafter cited as CWL10For discussion of this topic, see ”2.2 Horizon,” CWL10, 88-96.

One’s own horizon is the limit, the boundary, where one’s concern or interest vanishes. As one approaches the horizon, one’s interest, attention, concern is falling off to the vanishing point. At the horizon it has ceased altogether. What one does not attend to at all, ever, one knows nothing about, and that settles one’s horizon. … Moreover, the matter of going beyond one’s horizon is not simple. There is an organized resistance to going beyond one’s horizon.15CWL10, 88-89.

How might one overcome this “organized resistance”?16[T]o move beyond one’s horizon in any but the most casual and insignificant fashion calls for a reorganization [in every aspect of one’s life] … Against such reorganization … there come into play all the conservative forces that give our lives their continuity and their coherence. The subject’s fundamental anxiety, his deepest dread, is the collapse of himself and his world. Tampering with the organization of himself, reorganizing himself, gives rise to such a dread. (CWL10, 90) For encouragement, we present John Benton’s reflections on his undergraduate experience between 1973 and 1977 as an example of how curiosity, perseverance and luck make it possible to discover a problem exists.

Discovering the Problem

“I drifted through most of my undergraduate years, “covering the material,” manipulating “content” in essays, performing feats of memory for exams. I did not question any of these practices. I simply assumed that they were necessary to learn, but most importantly, to graduate.

My courses were eclectically presented. We were exposed to an enormous flow of content accrued by scholars working in isolation in increasingly specialized areas. Scholarly discourse was dominated by spontaneous opinion and speculation.

Gradually, I became curious. For instance, I wondered if grades were the definitive measure of personal growth and progress in a subject, whatever ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ mean.17See Journeyism 24 for discussion of genuine “adult growth.” I wondered what purpose was served by my field of study.18You might pause here to contemplate what your graduation means, or could mean, in “practical” terms, beyond the mere prospect of future employment, toward intellectual growth in your field of study. More pointed questions followed with respect to procedure: How does one discern a principle from which to unify the complexities of a tradition of literature, as well as the reflections of a scattered labour force of scholars? How does one channel these complexities toward a coherent solution? Overall, how does one evaluate the field’s contribution to the community, to human culture?

Discovering the Solution

By the spring of 1977, good luck and perseverance paid off. I chanced upon a book called Method in Theology.19Although theology was the field of study, the author was ultimately interested in “method” for its interdisciplinary value: “I am concerned not with the object that theologians expound, but with the operations that theologians perform.” Lonergan, 1972, xii. In other words, what is being scrutinized is procedure. I read the first few paragraphs of its Chapter 1, advocating the importance of method and the efficacy of taking an empirical approach. I knew I was on to something significant. The author had not only identified the problem, but also had formulated a concrete solution irrefutably applicable to any line of inquiry.

From that point forward, I was committed to studying method.”20This shift in reflection is given introductory treatment in “Chapter 1. The Move Beyond Spontaneity”, Introducing Critical Thinking, Benton, J., Gilles-Drage, A., McShane, P., Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2005-6, 4.

It took me years to get to grips with what I have expressed in the last page or so. It took me so long not because I am mentally deficient, but because I am human. Human understanding is little and a slow-growing thing. Basic humility is an … acknowledgment of that fact and its concrete consequences.21Philip McShane (1977), Music That is Soundless (2nd ed.), Washington: University Press of America, 27.

Taking on the problem of an empirical approach to method is humbling and, for a time, disorienting, but in a healthy way that respects the struggle to understand. It is the worthwhile result of curiosity, perseverance and luck. My modest beginning would not have been possible without a nudge from someone or something to focus my attention.”

With encouragement from us, an open mind, and a willingness to take the time, might you begin to undertake the climb22”This does not mean, of course, that one tries to know everything at once. Seriation is the essence of method. But it does mean that one never brushes issues aside, never says to any relevant question, ’I could not care less.’ CWL10, 88. by recalling similar circumstances in your experience as an undergraduate?


Taking A Fresh Look at Philosophy

The topic of method brings to light two fundamental problems in the Philosophical tradition. Therefore, we need to say something about the discipline, Philosophy.23It is apparent that the subject, Philosophy, suffers from a perception problem both in the academy and on the street. For those who are cynical toward formal study of the subject, Philosophy, and its practical application to “the real world” we would ask, “what does the expression PhD stand for?” Would it surprise you to hear the ‘Ph’ in PhD stands for Philosophy? If you Google the term you get: “Ph D is an abbreviation for “Doctor of Philosophy,” commonly called a doctoral degree.” (Google, accessed 9/21/17). Again, we would ask, why does Philosophy appear in this prestigious title? There are a lot of people graduating from, and working in, universities worldwide whose professional reputation, claim to relevance and contribution to society hold the title, “Philosopher of …”. Why? If the title “Philosopher of such and such” is an anachronism and the subject irrelevant, then wouldn’t it have disappeared from the curriculum? On the contrary, historically speaking, philosophy is but in an early stage of development. The sad fact is, the Philosophical tradition has lost its way in the struggle to answer two fundamental questions: “How does human knowing work?” and, “How does human decision-making work?” Historically, this has resulted in confusion for critical thinking in all of the natural and human sciences24In this regard, “Philosophy” and “Critical Thinking” mean the same thing..

Perhaps you are among those who, having had exposure to the Philosophical tradition, are at odds with our take on its current state. Since we are only starting out, some of the things we claim probably don’t make much sense to you, and you may find our line of inquiry odd. But what is even more odd to us is that our empirical approach to this most fundamental issue of human knowing and decision-making is strangely unpopular in Philosophy.

If you will bear with us it will become evident that the only way forward in any line of inquiry is to take an empirical approach that seeks to understand our experiences correctly. So, in good time we will invite you to undertake a balanced focus on both our thinking selves as “knowers” and “decision-makers” and the subject matter under investigation25See Journeyism 5, footnote 1., as well as its relevance to putting our global minding in order. But we’ll not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the challenge is to encourage you to discover that one of Philosophy’s basic tasks is to ask questions about procedure in any area of study. Along the way, the need to resolve these two basic questions cannot be avoided.

We will return to the Philosophic tradition later in the series.26See Journeyism 18 and Journeyism 19, “Transforming the Philosophical Tradition: Part 1 and Part 2”. By then, we hope you will have begun to formulate your own empirically-verified view of yourself as a “knower” and “decision-maker,” thereby furnishing a basis upon which to judge the Philosophical tradition for yourself.

References   [ + ]


  1. hazzang825 on July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am

    What observations can I make about the process by which I studied my subject(s) in my academic discipline? In other words, how did I go about performing my tasks in order to achieve what might be deemed progress in my area of study?

    At first I thought I should just get good grades on tests. Usually the midterm and the final exams decide my grades. I thought getting higher grades meant progress.

    I am now learning Dentistry. Over the years, the purpose of this study has become quite clear, to help people eat, talk and smile.

    Fundamental questions are, Why am I learning this? Why are we learning in this order? So I asked my kind professor and she taught me.

    Here is the flow of what we are learning.

    First we need to become a scientist. What we have to deal with is a human body. It is a living thing so we learned biology. It is composed of molecules so we learned chemistry. And so on. We learned basic sciences.

    Then we learned more about the healthy state through psychology, anatomy, etc. We also learned about pathology, the abnormal state of human body.

    After the basic sciences, healthy state, and pathologic state, now we are learning how to help teeth recover from the pathologic state. Since teeth usually don’t recover by themselves, we need to create something similar to the natural state.

    Despite the fact that the tooth is small, it is delicate. And if we fail to reconstruct properly, then it will fail eventually.

    After this I began to understand more clearly what I have to focus on as opposed to just memorizing.

    • Terrance on July 17, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      Hello hazzang825,

      Thank you very much for your great comments.
      You help shed light for us and for readers on new subtleties and on the scope of the project.

      Please feel free to contact us any time with more comments or questions.
      All the best in your endeavours,

      Terrance Quinn and John Benton.

Leave a Comment