How Does Intellectual Labour Proceed? (Part 3)

Human Knowing

So far in our series, we have drawn attention, in a number of ways, to the current ineffectiveness of established “academic disciplines”. We have invited you to slowly, patiently and empirically shift your attention to the process that occurs in the production of any kind of intellectual labour. We have borrowed from a sample university syllabus to yield a portion of relevant data from a list of key expressions. Our task in this segment will be to consider what role they play in structuring how we generate and reflect on data? At the same time, you are invited to uncover the facts for yourself of what actually occurs when you or we or anyone is engaged in the activity of thinking, for its discovery will, in part, be the basis for “new standards of competence” in the future academy.1The task is based on one of Lonergan’s leading ideas, which he coined “Generalized Empirical Method.” “Generalized empirical method envisages all data. … Generalized empirical method operates on a combination of both the data of sense and the data of consciousness: it does not treat of objects without taking into account the corresponding operations of the subject; it does not treat of the subject’s operations without taking into account the corresponding objects” (Bernard Lonergan, “Second Lecture” in A Third Collection, vol. 16 of Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, eds. Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 136.

Expressions from the list of “Human Activities”

To know

To question

To understand

To question

To experience

We have arranged the expressions in the diagram above. The diagram is relevant because it describes the series of stages in our core desire to correctly understand or know. With respect to how we come to know anything, then, we are in agreement with Aristotle:

All men [and women] by nature desire to know.

So, there you are; that is our claim. We have told you the “answer”. But after having taken a beginner’s shot at working empirically through the exercises, do you not suspect that a spoon-fed “answer” rings hollow, that merely being told the “answer” is not the way to go; not in our “nature”, so to speak?

Everything we have discussed in this series has been underscored by the fact that, where understanding is concerned, we cannot tell you the answer to anything. Nor do we have any desire to persuade you to believe us or accept our claim above as fact. That would defeat the purpose of the series. How can you avoid reliance on the claims of others, be it ours or some other authority, or even worse, reliance on the speculation or guesswork of others, as well as your own?

Our role as teachers is to encourage, guide and support you in your empirical search, or in this case, your empirical self-search. It is our hope to free you up to make this claim on your own, by yourself and for yourself. In doing so, we are drawing your attention to the capacity-for-performance of your best self. The self that is open to a fresh perspective on the amazing solution to the problem of living that is the human being.

So, how do you go about making sense of our claim? How do you go about agreeing or disagreeing with Aristotle and ourselves and, at the same time, avoid forming an opinion out of the blue by guessing or borrowing opinions from other sources? We are reminded of a comment by Thomas Aquinas:

Inform students of a bundle of opinions and they depart empty-headedly.2Nihil scientiae vel intellectus acquiret, sed vacuus adscdet. Quodl., IV, a. 18

The challenge is clear: how can you describe, with empirical support, your experience of how you think?

Let’s give our focus on data another go. The diagram above presents to your senses data ordered in a pattern. It is most likely you have never before seen these expressions presented in this way. So, if you are seriously paying attention to this experience in the moment, what the diagram represents is nothing more than a series of words or sounds arranged in a pattern that, collectively, is unlikely to make sense.

Again, although the individual words in the diagram may be familiar and easy to memorize and although you have uttered and written these words many times in various ways, nonetheless, this particular pattern, as presented to your senses, at this stage in your empirical investigation, probably has little or no meaning for you. That is to say, if you are reading properly, the image may make no more sense than merely taking in the punch line to a joke without getting the point.

To reinforce our pointing, then, and to ease you further into the messy job of working empirically, it would be helpful to pause here to compare your initial experience of reading this diagram to the initial experience of reading unfamiliar written signs or symbols in, say, one bar of a Chopin sonata, or one of Maxwell’s equations, or one line of prose or poetry written in a language that is foreign to you.

What happens when you do this? Chances are, you would not progress much further than that. The prospect of making sense of each would be remote and you would probably struggle merely to repeat what it is you see. But your curiosity might well be aroused by what you see: a puzzle you would desire to understand.

We also suggest it would be worthwhile to get into the habit of going through some of your written products that are to hand (letters, articles, essays, notes, diaries, emails, tweets, whatever) to see if you can find self-generated, hard evidence of being curious at various times in your life, in which you desired to make sense of something, to solve a puzzle, a problem or a situation, etc. In equal measure, it would be worthwhile to do likewise in your reflections on each attempt to properly read the diagrams presented in this series. We respectfully urge you to:

  • Identify and highlight  your use of different types of question marks: what-questions: what is it?, why questions: what is the cause?is-questions: is it so?, is it a fact?.
  • Highlight the language and punctuation you used to describe when you experienced a breakthrough, hard evidence of your experience of “getting it”: the excitement of experiencing a “flash”, a “eureka” moment, an insight, an instance in which you “got to the bottom of a problem or an issue” and expressed your excitement.
  • Highlight the language you used to describe those difficult and frustrating “in between” moments when the prospect of reaching a solution seemed to be such a remote, even impossible task, until your breakthrough moment when the solution suddenly became all too obvious.

This is but an elementary first step in the process to properly read the diagrams in our series. If you have ever taken an empirical stab at rolling up your sleeves and getting messy, as we suggest, then you will have generated valuable data to work from, data from which to accurately describe how you think. It goes without saying, it’s a far cry from merely being told, or merely reading and repeating the words.

Moreover, your effort would at best, be incomplete, and at worst, fizzle out, without taking up the challenge to keep an ongoing written account of your personal experience of engaging in the activities above; in short, of generating the hard evidence required to describe what is actually occurring when you are in a state of wonder. We hope you will discover that personal knowledge is always generated from within; that is, it is immanently generated3Please see Journeyism 11, footnote 3. and the only way you can come into possession of an authoritative, credible view. On the other hand, the empirical process is slow and tedious, and requires plenty of persistence and patience. It is the nature of the beast. Or rather, more accurately, it’s a part of our nature that separates us from the beast.

Your dedication to take personal possession of this fact would be a rare achievement. And here’s the payoff: not only would you be liberated from reliance on outside authority or guesswork about your wonder, your desire to understand correctly, but also you would possess the authority to overcome challenges to your hard-won view. You would dispel the myth that merely “being told” a fact is the same thing as finding it out for yourself. You would be able to accurately describe your experience of distinct core attitudes4The core attitudes of which we speak correspond to each of the expressions in the diagram. We will be examining each in upcoming segments.from what was initially experienced as mere data in a diagram. You could state with a budding authority that these attitudes identify/describe anyone’s core desire to correctly understand or know some small aspect or other of the full range of sensible data and/or data for human meanings.

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