You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 3)

Like the acts of direct and introspective understanding, the act of reflective understanding is an insight. As they meet questions for intelligence, it meets questions for reflection. As they lead to definitions and formulations, it leads to judgments.1op. cit., CWL3, 304.

The Third Core Attitude2This installment draws heavily on Lonergan’s Verbum articles (CWL2). For an expanded account of the meaning of is-questions see Chapter 2, “Verbum: Reflection and Judgement,” pp. 60-105. (To question → To know)

There is a third core attitude present in Helen’s puzzling that is regularly unnoticed.3There is a long history of that lack of attention, of which, fortunately, Aquinas avoided. He distinguished the existence of two acts of understanding: the direct act and the reflective act. The first act he referred to as the expression of a first inner word occurs at the level of “whatting.” The second act, the attitude we speak of here, he referred to as the expression of a second inner word that occurs at the level of “ising.” Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between the meaning of what- and why-questions, and the meaning of is-questions. In Aquinas’s terms: the “first inner word” answers the question, ‘What is it?’ The “second inner word” answers the question, ‘Is it so?’4Quid sit? [What is it?] An sit? [Is it so?] 

… both acts of understanding have their instrumental or material causes … the direct act has this cause in a schematic image or phantasm, while the reflective act reviews not only imagination but also sense experience, and direct acts of understanding, and definitions, to find in all taken together the sufficient ground or evidence for a judgment of fact. Hence, while the direct act of understanding generates in definition the expression of the intelligibility of the phantasm, the reflective act generates in judgment the expression of consciously possessed truth through which reality is both known and known to be known.5op. Cit., CWL2, 60-61.

Helen, therefore, is on the verge of generating a “second inner word”. There is little hesitation as she moves into this new poise – an is-attitude. She puzzles, what is this sequence of Annie’s hand shaping? Signing? Notice that “signing” here is qualified by an ‘is’ question mark, distinguishing this attitude from the ‘what’ question mark.  

The issue here, of course, is hesitation, where we give that word a positive meaning. By we, we mean Helen and ourselves shifting without hesitation to the is-attitude. 

Recall that the second core attitude revealed how Helen had achieved a direct insight, had formulated a possible solution to the name and meaning of ‘w-a-t-e-r’. We might say she had wondrously formulated an idea of what ‘it’ is. 

But she was neither certain about her solution, nor content to leave things at that. She desired to know if her solution was correct. Helen’s is-question expresses her desire for a reflective insight and correct affirmation.

Is this solution correct? Is there sufficient evidence or ground for a judgment of fact? We have all experienced for ourselves that our response to is-questions invariably end with a “Yes,” or a “No,” or an “I don’t know.”6Op. cit., Thinking Woman, 65-66. I draw the reader’s attention to further refinements of Lonergan on the is-attitude that are beyond the elementary scope of this chapter. See Insight, Chapter IX, especially “6. Probable Judgments,” 299-304 [324-29].

Spontaneously, Helen reviewed all the relevant data and questions that had led to her formulation.7See footnote 5 above. Aquinas describes how “the reflective act reviews not only imagination but also sense experience, and direct acts of understanding, and definitions, to find in all taken together the sufficient ground or evidence for a judgment of fact.” A reflective insight affirmed that there was sufficient evidence and her formulation of the name and meaning of ‘w-a-t-e-r’ was correct. We might say she had spontaneously verified her idea of what ‘it’ is.8We open the door to, but brush past, the manifold complexity associated with human judgment by including the following note: “You spontaneously move towards thinking in unities … Our reaching for unities is an empirical and discerning senseability. It seeks, you seek, (without knowing them: that is the significance of our inquiry) special character of what I might call ‘genuine itness’. What are these special characters? Only the sin of popularization could settle for brevity: I must point you to the lengthy treatment else of the charters of ‘unity’, ‘identity’, ‘whole’ that are the characters of our spontaneous desiring for genuine it-assertions.” [Footnote 20: “The lengthy treatment is chapter 8 of Insight. A recalling of my own experience may encourage you here. I had struggled with the book Insight from 1958 on, with the advantage of a solid background in modern physics, but it took me a great deal of the winter of 1964-5 to break through on the notion of thing: and I am only averagely stupid.”] See Chapter 2.3 ‘Nouns,” in Chapter 2, “How-Language: Works?” in Philip McShane, A Brief History of Tongue, Axial Press, 1998

Phantasm is actuated in the genesis of names and the meaning they represent.9Lonergan’s introduction of the frontispiece of Insight (CWL3) has a quotation from Aristotle (De Anima, III, 7) that includes the key word phantasmasi, “insight into phantasm.” This fact is fundamental to the view of Aristotle, Aquinas and Lonergan. Helen’s answer, therefore, was “Yes!” She recalls that moment: “I knew that water meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand10Op. cit., Helen and Teacher, pp. 256-7. … the mystery of language was revealed to me.”11Op. cit., Helen and Teacher, pp. 256-7. Annie observed amazedly, “A new light came into her face.”12Op. cit., The Story of My Life. 

Image 3, below, represents the third core attitude.13Is-wonder is the third of five basic attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the word why, the occurrence of which is termed the efficient cause. The arrow below the box denotes the relationship between the second and third stages. 

Image 3 

For Helen and ourselves, this illustration of the dynamics of wonder: sense experience, what-questions, direct insight, formulation, is-questions, reflective insight, judgment, is a core psychological fact. For, as Helen observed: “whatever the process, the result is wonderful.”14op. cit., The Story of My Life, 25. So, too, is the process. 


It is important to note that the core attitudes depicted are the dynamic underpinning for ‘syllogizing’ and ‘logic.’ Unfortunately, ‘syllogizing’ and ‘logic’ have been commonly mistaken to mean the “laws of reason.” While we cannot engage the topic here, we offer the following comment from Lonergan, as well as some helpful references below.15We recommend introductions to “syllogizing” and “logic” in op. cit., A Brief History of Tongue, Chapter 2, “How Language: Works?,” pp. 57-65 and op. cit., Introducing Critical Thinking, Chapter 26, “Fallacies,” pp. 100-104 and Chapter 27, “The Function of Logic,” pp. 104-108. For advanced treatment, see Bernard Lonergan, “The Form of Inference,” Collection, (CWL 4), University of Toronto Press, 1988, Chapter 1. For further discussion regarding the distinction “between a static and dynamic viewpoint,” see Chapter 3 of Bernard Lonergan, Philosophy of God, and Theology, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973, 45-50. “In brief, like the mortician, the logician achieves a steady state only temporarily. The mortician prevents not the ultimate but only the immediate decomposition of the corpse. In similar fashion the logician brings about, not the clarity, the coherence and the rigor that will last forever, but only the clarity, the coherence, and the rigor that will bring to light the inadequacy of current views and thereby give rise to the discovery of a more adequate position.” (47)  

A little learning is a dangerous thing, and the adage has, perhaps, its most abundant illustrations from the application of logic…. A familiarity with the elements of logic can be obtained by a very modest effort and in a very short time. Until one has made notable progress in cognitional analysis, one is constantly tempted to mistake the rules of logic for the laws of thought.16op. cit., CWL3, 573. 



Leave a Comment