General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
Lonergan And Korzybski
Posted: 06.23.2013 | Categories: General Semantics

Note: This essay may also be found here under Formal Essays & Handouts.

                                               Lonergan And Korzybski

 Towards a deeper understanding of self, others and the world we live in.   

We have insights from time to time. We mostly do not recognize or attend to our insights (think of ‘gut feelings’ and ‘intuition’). Insights come and go for us: But Bernard Lonergan S.J. has made a study of insight and presented this in his seminal books “Insight”, “A Study of Human Understanding” and “Method in Theology”. This article constitutes some of my abstractions (selections, simplified interpretations, rewording, and some of my own insights) related to a small fraction of Lonergan’s and Korzybski’s overview of our human condition and ways to improve. Students of general semantics will extract from “Insight” ideas they can relate with general semantics principles ((generalized science and mathematics) presented in Korzybski’s seminal books “Science and Sanityand “Manhood of Humanity”.

Lonergan, Korzybski, advanced thinkers 

We usually elementalistically attribute the problems of our societies to this or that political system, politicians (whom we voted for and put in power), the economy, poverty, big business, religious and other belief systems, science and technology, inadequate education systems, T.V., and so on. We often ignore or forget the common factor in all of these—“humans”. If we want to improve our human situation, it suits us to recognize how as individuals or ‘groups’, our usual way of thinking-feeling-believing-values we hold-and meanings we give, create, contribute to, reinforce, proliferate, and ‘rhizomize’ (surreptitiously disperse) our problems. Lonergan and Korzybski offer us heuristic methods—psychological tools, significantly different ways to understand and deal with our human problems at personal, interpersonal, societal and international levels. Both of these great thinkers appreciated the methods of science and mathematics (especially the calculus) as models of clear thinking toward human progress and advancement. In both “Insight” and “Science and Sanity”, evidence of this high regard for the calculus can be found: ‘Descartes proposed that ‘Great problems are solved by being broken down into little problems.’ (Insight, page 3) And Korzybski devoted a whole chapter (Chapter 32) to the calculus. Both Lonergan and Korzybski from their different abstracting-deliberations, were concerned that ‘‘mankind’ be conscious of its responsibility to the future of mankind’. (Insight page 227) And in Korzybski’s “Manhood of Humanity”, page xlii, we find: “On this inherent level of interdependence, time-binding leads inevitably to feelings of responsibility, duty toward others and the future…”

Neither Lonergan nor Korzybski were considered or generally appreciated as authorities in the fields of anthropology, psychology, or epistemology. But in their studies related to general patterns of human behavior; goings on in the world in and around us; their concern for improving our understanding, of ourselves as “transcendent”, and “conscious time-binding beings”; and in their presentations of principles, methods, and approaches we can apply towards understanding, adjustment, and improvement of our human situation, I consider these two extraordinary thinkers not as anthropologists, psychologists, or epistemologist–but as “meta-anthropologists”, “meta-psychologists”, “meta-epistemologists”, and meta-philosophers: From their books we get anthropological and psychological overviews–not of particular human societies, but of the historicity of the human race. They have contributed a great deal towards realizing our potentials as “knowers” and “transcendent beings” (Lonergan), and as “conscious time-binders” (Korzybski). (More on “transcendence and “conscious time-binding” later.) Their ideas and principles are not just to be talked about, or treated as “philosophy”–but valued as “practical philosophy”–psychological tools, we can use to gain higher levels of understanding towards improving our human situation. (A precaution: I did not find either “Insight” or “Science and Sanity” easy reading–at first–But I think anyone resolved to embark on this semantic adventure, will find it as rewarding as I did, and possibly, a life enhancing experience.)

Lonergan on Insight

“Deep within us all, emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain.” Lonergan’s aim is ‘to convey to us an ‘insight into insight which is in some sense “a knowledge of knowledge” (an epistemology)’: ‘Insight, an instant of consciousness, comes in a flash, suddenly and unexpectedly, as a release to the tension of inquiry, in a moment of relaxation.’ “It can be recognized as a flash of understanding, getting the point, seeing the picture, seeing how things hang together, seeing things in a new light, recognizing a pattern, an apprehension of possibilities.”  “…Insight depends upon a habitual orientation, upon a perpetual alertness ever asking the little question, “Why”? (How come? What’s going on?) (Insight, pages ix,x,4,5)

The more we wonder, the more curious we are, the more we want to go /behind beyond “appearances” and want to see the bigger picture; the more we seek to understand through inquiry; the more conscious we are that we don’t know all–the more insights we will experience. Understanding insights through intelligent inquiry, critical reflection, and reasonable verification regarding the processes and tensions that lead to insights, leads us to epistemology (knowledge about knowledge–understanding what we are knowing when we know), and a deeper sense of self, and much more. The frequency of our insights gives us a clue to the liveliness of our inquiring mind: The more insights we experience, the more we expand our horizons of understanding, the more we broaden our outlooks, the more creative we become. Look out for those “aha” moments of insight the next time you are trying to make sense of some perplexing situation, working on a problem, or puzzling out something. Following general semantics principles of  “non-allness”, and “non-identity”, it suits us to think of our insights, opinions, theories, conclusion, not as certainties, not as final, but as starting points–ideas to be developed towards further discoveries and improvements.” (Insight, pages ix-6)


“As our field of vision, so too the scope of our knowledge, and the range of our interests are bounded.” “…what lies beyond one’s horizon is simply outside the range of one’s knowledge and interests”: one neither knows nor cares. But what lies within one’s horizon is in some measure, great or small, an object of interest and of knowledge.” “Horizons then are the sweep of our interests and of our knowledge; they are the fertile source of further knowledge and care; but they are also the boundaries that limit our capacities for assimilating more than we already have attained.” (Lonergan’s “Method In Theology”, page 236-237) There are close relationships between Lonergan’s insights, and Korzybski’s general semantics principles, in terms of ways to expand our horizons: Lonergan emphasized the importance of “successive higher viewpoints” among other factors (page 394); and Korzybski, “higher order abstractions”, through practicing “consciousness of abstracting” (“non-allness, and “non-identity”)–remembering we have not (and cannot) included all. (See below.)

We expand the range of our horizons when we seek to improve the way we think-feel about things, and by acquainting ourselves with Lonergan’s cognitional theory and Korzybski’s general semantics methods. We expand our horizons through reading—exposing ourselves through words and meanings we give, to the ‘thoughts’, ‘experiences’, ‘dreams’, ‘visions’, ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ of others; and through our own attentiveness, experiences, ideas, ideals, and visions. We expand our horizons in not being content with quick easy answers, but in being constantly curious—seeking to learn more; in asking the further questions; and in exploring the bigger picture and longer cycle. We expand our horizons, when we compliment our commonsense practicalities (satisfying the needs of everyday living) with theoretical and value concerns. We expand our horizons when we become aware of our individual biases; when we see and understand ourselves, others, and the world we live in, from ever broader perspectives. We expand our horizons when we seek to acquire tools to help us avoid ‘dis-stressing’ ourselves (I call this “self-harrassment”); and when we work at taking care of ourselves physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. We expand our horizons, when we aspire to live healthier lives; and when we work at creating more satisfying relationships. Probably, one of the least demanding ways we can expand our horizons involves expanding our vocabularies by habitually looking up ‘new’ words we come across in our readings and conversations; and seeking to comprehend the structures ‘named’ by the words.

Korzybski emphasized how important it is for us: to recognize and appreciate differences between verbal and non-verbal (silent) levels of consciousness. He invites us to recognize and value difference between “What is going on–what appears to be going on, and what we imagine, think, believe, or say, is going on.” He invites us (for our own good) not to confuse, but distinguish between the person, the ‘group’, thing, object, situation, etc., and the labels and names we give. He invites us to remember that “The word is not the thing-structure labeled”. He asks us to think extensionally and distinguish between (give more importance, more value), to the person, thing, situation, etc., than what we say, assume, imagine, believe, etc., about that person, thing, object, or situation. He also emphasized the importance for clear thinking and more satisfying relationships, that we recognize that “Our verbal (words, labels, names, etc.) and non-verbal ‘maps’ (imaginings, fantasies, beliefs, feelings, opinions, theories, etc.) are not the actual territories; and are not a representation of all the territory” (principles of “non-identity” and “non-allness”). What we see, (visual map) is not all that’s there to be seen: (Scientists using special tools and equipments ‘see’ beyond what is directly visible to the naked eye–and make different ‘maps’.) What we hear is not all that could be heard. What we sense is not all that is sensible. (Think of dogs picking up a scent after several days.) We do not understand all about anything or anyone—including ourselves…and so on. There are complementary relationships between our meanings, beliefs, values, behaviors, and the range of our horizons: As our horizons expand, so do the meanings we give, the beliefs and values we hold, and the ways we behave…and vice versa: As we expand our meanings, explore our beliefs and values, and review our behavior, we expand our horizons. Analyze any problem, conflict or disagreement, and you will find that these seemingly simplistic notions are not being applied.

Abstraction and consciousness of abstracting

Regarding “abstraction” Lonergan wrote: “We speak of abstraction, and commonly we mean a direction of attention to some aspects of the given with a concomitant neglect of other aspects.” (See (Insight, page 355). In other words, we select, attend to, consider significant, important, inquire about, seek to understand, make sense of, and so on from the data available to us (aspect, portion, sub-set, of the “given–the totality”). It’s worth emphasizing that: “In selecting and attending to, we also leave out”; and that our selection is already a selection, from a fragment of the whole, from the given, from all that’s going on.

  In the field of general semantics, “abstracting” is generalized to include processes at physiological, psychological, and other levels of our being. Our sensual, psychological, and other ‘maps’ are abstractions–our main connections with the outside world and ourselves. Our ‘organisms’ ‘select’ what it needs when we breathe, eat, digest, see, hear, have an experience, have insights, and so on. We are abstracting (selecting-leaving out, projecting, etc.) when we look, listen, read, think, feel, imagine, believe, remember, talk about, criticize, plan, theorize, explain, give opinions, make decisions, act and react, etc. We can think of what emerge at psychological levels (what we are aware of, conscious of) as abstractions from neurological processes: Memories are abstractions from the past: My ‘description’ of a person, object, or situation, is strictly speaking, not a description of the person, object, or situation, but a ‘description’–a selection related to how the person, object or situation appeared to me, in those times, at that place: in effect a description of my ‘visual ‘map’ of the person, object or situation. (Think of “non-allness”, and “non-identity”). Words, things, situations, in and of themselves, do not have meanings: meanings we give are our abstractions from experiences. And as our experiences are also abstractions, the meanings we give, and what we say, think, feel, etc., about anyone or anything, constitute “abstractions from abstractions from abstractions”. Without critical reflection, this might seem no more than needless nitpicking: On further thinking we might come to realize that the meanings we give, our values, beliefs, and consequent behaviors, are all related to our many levels of abstractions. And since no two of us ‘see’ things from the same experiential viewpoints,  we can attribute a great deal of our human problems to a lack of awareness that we abstract–and that we abstract from different points of viewing.     

 Consciousness of abstracting

As human beings, we cannot not abstract: The satisfactions we experience in our living depends on the “quality” (representational accuracy) of our abstractions. We can  avoid and resolve many (not all) of our human conflicts and other problems with just “being aware that we abstract”. Korzybski labeled this important psychological function “consciousness of abstracting”:Awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics.” When we are conscious of abstracting, we are aware that we cannot sense, experience, imagine, understand, or know all about anything—including ourselves. We can improve our living through practicing consciousness of abstracting” so this mode of consciousness becomes more and more active—enabling us to continually improve the representational accuracy of our abstractions.

In practicing consciousness of abstracting, we come to realize that our perception-abstractions are uniquely ours. In our daily interactions with others, and with ourselves, we can go beyond–not consider or treat our ideas, beliefs, comments, opinions, etc., and those of others, as if they were final–as if they were “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”:  “Scientific activity”, one of our most reliable sources of structural information about the world in and around us, also involves abstracting–albeit to a greater degree of structural representational accuracy than most other abstractions. Seeking successive higher viewpoints and practicing consciousness of abstracting lead us to become more creative beings, and provide us with a sound base from which we can expand our horizons. With constant practice, we improve the quality of our communication (with ourselves and with others), our judgments, decisions, plans, opinions, explanations, theories, beliefs, and so on. Lonergan wrote: “To the spontaneous joy of conscious living, there is added the spontaneous joy of free, intellectual creation. (Insight, page 185) And “Not only, then is man capable of aesthetic liberation and artistic creativity, but his first work of art is his own living.” (Insight, page 187)

Method: A method is a set of directives that serve to guide a process towards a result.” (Insight, page 396). “‘Method’ is that aspect of the search for structure which deals with the most expedient means for finding structure”. (Science and Sanity, page 725). “Scientific method involves sensibly verifiable laws and expectations. If it is true that essentially the same method could be applied to the data of consciousness, then respect for ordinary usage would require that a method, which only in its essentials is the same, be named a generalized empirical method. (Insight, page 72) “Science represents the highest structural abstractions that have been produced at each date.” (Science and Sanity, page 553) “Science and mathematics show the working of the ‘human mind’ at its best. Accordingly, we can learn from science and mathematics how this ‘human mind’ should work, to be at its best.” (Science and Sanity, page 728)

If our goal is to expand our horizons, increase our understanding of, and to develop ourselves; if our goal is to understand others and the world we live in, both “Insight”  and “general semantics” provide us with up-to-date un-revisable, self-referential methods: “…it is possible to reach a higher viewpoint only within the framework of inquiring and critical intelligence; there is not, in any human knowledge, any possible  higher viewpoint that goes beyond that framework itself, and replaces intelligent inquiry and critical reflection by some surrogate;” (Insight, page 394) Lonergan invites us to be attentive and intelligent; to critically reflect; and to be reasonable, and responsible: (This exhortation is un-revisable in that a revision necessitates our using “data, inquiry, reasoning, judgment, etc.” to refute data, inquiry, reasoning, and judgment. (Insight, page 335)  Korzybski’s general semantics ‘implores’ us to practice being “conscious of abstracting”, and “apply the methods and approach of science and mathematics, as a general time-binding method for improvement.” Similar to Lonergan’s cognitional theory, this proposition is also not refutable since an attempt would involve abstractions (data, theories, etc)—as supporting evidence: Put another way, an attempt at refutation would validate the proposition…But don’t take anyone’s words for this—Check it out for yourself: Try not to abstract.

Transcendence. Awareness of The Unity of, and Enlargement of Consciousness            

Cognitional process involves understanding the unity of our mind processes at psychological levels. Lonergan’s “Levels of consciousness” (cognitional process-theory) include: empirical, intelligent, rational, rational-moral self-consciousness, and appropriation of rational self-consciousness. ‘There are cumulative unities of consciousness: What is perceived (empirical consciousness) is what is inquired about; what is inquired about is what is understood and formulated (intelligent consciousness); what is formulated about is what is reflected on (rational consciousness); what is reflected on is what is grasped and verified, (judgment).’ (Insight, pages 322-325) “Appropriation of rational self-consciousness” involves ‘becoming familiar with the activities of our own cognitional processes…a way towards becoming acquainted with, and understanding ourselves’. (Note: Each level includes the previous as “object”– goes beyond, but also includes.) (Insight, page xix) “Appropriation of rational self-consciousness ” can be related to Korzybski’s “structural differential”, and the following general semantics principles: “consciousness of abstracting” (levels of consciousness as abstracting-selective processes; “the organism-as-a-whole-in environments” (unities of consciousness), “non-elementalism” (interrelatedness); and “conscious time-binding”.

 Lonergan’s Cognitional Process-theory

Empirical consciousness: a basic level involving our sensing, perceiving, and imagining. It involves our experience of what is there to be inquired about, ‘that from which we abstract’ (the given): This level is the underpinning and foundation of the other levels. The less active and attentive we are at this level, the less information we provide for the ‘higher’ levels to work with –consequently the poorer the quality of our opinions, explanations, judgments, decisions, theories, meanings we give, values we hold, and so on. (Insight, page 322)   

 Intelligent consciousness: We look for meanings, inquire about, and strive to make sense of and understand what we experience (sense, see, hear, feel, read, imagine, etc.) at the basic level. We look for patterns and relationships; we formulate our interpretations and understanding in opinions, explanations, rules, laws, theories, beliefs, meanings, values, standards, judgments, etc. Insights (experience of possible connections and relationships) accelerate our endeavors to make sense of what we experience, sense, imagine, remember, believe, etc. (Page 322)

Rational consciousness: Goes beyond (but includes) “intelligent consciousness”. We raise further questions. We go beyond “intelligent consciousness” to critically reflect on our opinions, conclusions, theories, knowledge, beliefs, judgments, ‘meanings’, etc., arrived at from our investigations and explorations at the level of “intelligent consciousness”. (Insight, page 322) ‘In the process of forming our individual character, rational consciousness, involving our reflection and criticism, deliberation and choice, exerts a decisive influence. (See Insight, page 188). We are not satisfied with just understanding –we want to understand correctly; we want to make correct judgments; we critically reflect on our insights, our theories, our opinions and explanations–we look for reasonable grounds, sufficient reason to support our judgments. We ask the further questions: “Is it so?” How so? How do I ‘know’? What am I knowing when I know? etc.” In the practice of ‘science’, ‘mathematics’ ‘Korzybski’s general semantics’, and Lonergan’s ‘cognitional theory’, we find excellent examples of “rational consciousness” in operation. By the way: Regarding “epistemology”, Lonergan wrote: “… nothing is known except the content immanent in the act of knowing”. (Insight, page 635) And Korzybski proposed ‘…structure is the only possible content of knowledge’. (Science And Sanity, page 540.) The following is my interpretation of these propositions: Applying “non-allness, and non-identity”–since “we arrive at ‘knowing’ through abstracting”, we delude ourselves when we think, or claim we ‘know’ something, or someone (including ourselves). In our abstracting, we discover “structures” (orders, relationships). So we are being more accurate, more honest, more truthful, more courageous, when instead of saying “I know “x””, we say “I know some things about “x” ”. The physicist-philosopher Niels Bohr noted: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature.” You could test this out the next time you say “I know…”, by looking back at how you arrived at that ‘knowledge’ (conclusion).

Rational-moral self-consciousness: an enlargement of consciousness; an expansion of our horizons: …the empirically, intelligent, rationally conscious subject of self-affirmation becomes a morally self-conscious subject. We are being rationally self-conscious when in our development we become concerned with values. Rational self-consciousness is an aspect of conscious processes that moves through empirical, intelligent, and rational consciousness –from sensing, knowing, judging, deciding, to doing. It’s a “higher viewpoint” involving consistency in one’s conscious operations. In being “rationally self conscious”, we are concerned to be sincere, and authentic. We are ‘being’ rationally self-conscious when we are honest with ourselves; when we are concerned with, reflect on our reasons and motives, and take responsibility for our words and our actions;  when we avoid rationalizing and blaming others, and avoid making up excuses. In so doing, we achieve self-consistency in deciding, and doing according to what we know: Rational self-consciousness can be related to such notions as “conscience, sincerity, authenticity, and “integrity. (See Insight, page 599, 611).

Appropriation of rational self-consciousness:  Essentially, it is a development of the subject and in the subject and, like all development, it can be solid and fruitful only by being painstaking and slow.” We appropriate (recognize, grasp, and value) the different levels and unity of consciousness: We appropriate our rational self-consciousness in experiencing our experiencing; in grasping and valuing our intelligent inquiry and insights; and in grasping and valuing our own critical reflection, our judging, deciding, and doing. (Insight, page xviii)  In “appropriating our rational self-consciousness”, we are involved in discovering, identifying, and familiarizing ourselves with the activities of our own intelligence. If we want to change and/or improve, we have to be aware “that”, and also “what” and “how” we are doing. In so doing, we open to ourselves more possibilities in our life’s direction. (Insight, page xix) We can think of ‘appropriation’ as an “overarching awareness”, “a self-reflexive, self-conscious process”—“a special case of consciousness of abstracting”: We can catch ourselves in not being attentive –and decide whether we will be attentive or not; we can catch ourselves seeking to make sense of things; making up theories, offering opinions and explanations, making judgments…allowing us to correct and improve.  We can ask ourselves if we have sufficient evidence for making a judgment; if we understand enough to back up our claims and propositions. And we can catch ourselves in our decisions and actions, and recognize our reasons and motives –and ask ourselves if we are behaving consistent with what we ‘know’. The practice of appropriation could be stressful at first–but well worth the effort for anyone courageous enough, and interested in developing a heightened sense and understanding of self.

Transcendence: Detached, disinterested, unrestricted, pure desire to know

“The immanent source of transcendence in man is his detached, disinterested unrestricted desire to know.” “…despite the imposing name, transcendence is the elementary matter of raising further questions.” “…The desire to know, then, is simply the inquiring spirit of man”. “In a more general sense, transcendence means ‘going beyond”. “Man wants to understand completely”.  (Insight, pages 634-638) The desire to know “is the prior and enveloping drive that carries cognitional process from sense and imagination to understanding, from understanding to judgment…” (Insight, page 348)  “Detached, disinterested desire to know”, the pure desire to know involves wonder, and curiosity —an urge, a desire to know for no other reason but simply to know (a desire detached from any other motive or interest except simply to know for knowing sake.) …but not just to know, but to know correctly.  “By demanding adequate understanding, it involves man in the self-correcting process of learning in which further questions yield complementary insights.” (Insight, page 348)

Transcendence involves going beyond (but not excluding) each level of cognitional process (empirical, intelligent, rational, rational self-consciousness, appropriation of rational self-consciousness), to critically reflect on the experiences, opinions, conclusions, theories, knowledge, beliefs, judgments, discoveries, etc., gained from our inquiries and reflections. Transcendence involves higher levels of ‘thinking’ and evaluating  in terms of “being self-consciously attentive to our attentiveness, ‘critically’ inquiring about our inquires, ‘critically’ judging our judgments, ‘critically’ reflecting on our reflections, attending to our opinions, explanations, and conclusions”, and so on. (See “finality” below) In a seminar the question came up: “Who has time to do all this soul searching”? Let’s say: Anyone who wants to be engaged in enriching their general knowledge, improving their intelligence, and nourishing their spirit; anyone concerned with expanding their horizons, and seeing things from broader perspectives; anyone motivated by the detached, unrestricted, disinterested desire to know…anyone who likes to know, and wants to know—just to know; anyone seeking to ‘see’ things from “higher and higher points of viewing”. The more we know, the better our understanding, judgments, decisions, and chances for success in any enterprise. But our biases tend to hamper this basic unrestricted desire to know. We can keep the unrestricted desire alive by being attentive–first catching ourselves, then asking ourselves (whenever we think we know, or feel sure we know): “Is it so? “How do I know”, “Is that all?” (application of the general semantics principles of “non-allness”, and “non-identity”.) ”  (“Critical” above involves careful evaluation towards improvement–not “fault-finding” and “harsh judgments”.) (Re. “Detached, and “disinterested”: This involves: “a desire not attached to any other interest than “just to know””.)

An overview of Lonergan’s dialectic

Dialectic involves practicing a “Let’s see how more comprehensive a viewpoint we can arrive at, by not focusing on…by not dwelling on our ‘differences’, but in appreciating and valuing our diverse and seemingly incompatible and incontrovertible individual contributions.” With a dialectic orientation, we can learn a great deal from anything or anyone—including ourselves. We are being dialectic when we go beyond our criticisms of anyone (including ourselves), anything, any situation, any disagreements or conflict, to think-say “On the other hand…”, “From my point of viewing…”, and so on. In a dialectic orientation, our thinking moves through a wide range that includes “silent contemplation”, to “one valued” (It must be so. This can only mean…); to “two valued” (It’s either ‘this or that”); to “many valued thinking” (this, that, and who knows what else?). We are in a dialectic mode when in addressing a problem, or in disagreeable moments, we are structurally concerned…we explore the interrelated and interactive characteristics that make up a thing or situation. “Non-identity, non-allness, and dialectic” go together: In a dialectic approach, we recognize that what we believe or know is but a very small part of all we could ‘know’–and also which others might ‘know’). From the loss of lives, and costly destruction, resulting from the ingenuity, resolve, and actions of just one, or a few individuals, we see (but seem reluctant to accept) that massive force and more advanced technology no longer determine winners. A dialectic approach offers a more advanced and saner way to address our conflicts.  With a dialectic approach, even if an issue is not satisfactorily resolved, both parties can come away with a more informed perspective. Valuing and practicing a dialectic approach involves much “courage” and is one way to improve communication, and shift our thinking to higher and higher viewpoints.


“…let’s say that a dialectic is a concrete unfolding of linked but opposed principles of change.” (“Insight, page 217).

The event: There is “a problem, a situation, an issue, conflict, disagreement, negotiation”, etc.: Taking an algebraic approach, we’ll label these variables “a”.

The links: Related to “a’, there will be different points of viewing, different values, beliefs, opinions, comments, explanations, suggestions, proposed solutions, hypotheses, etc. We’ll label these opposed, but linked principles “x” and “y”. (“x” and “y” are linked, since although different and opposed, they are responses to the ‘same’ event, problem, conflict, issue, etc., at hand.) Different and opposed principles can be active in an individual, among individuals, a group, a community, social systems, between nations, and so on. In an individual they are a source of psychic, spiritual, and physiological disorder –or with inquiring intelligence and critical reflection –personal development. (The reader might recognize opportunity for an “internal dialectic” from the flood of ideas involved in making a decision or taking an action.) Among individuals, groups, communities, nations, etc, when parties ignore intelligent inquiry and critical reflection, and do not value differences, conflicts, tensions, and sometimes violence are among the usual consequences.

The unfolding: There will be different data, evidence, arguments, experiments, etc., offered by different parties –some supporting or not supporting “x”; and some supporting or not supporting “y”. Some of the data, experiments, arguments, etc. will strengthen, weaken, or modify “x”. And some will strengthen, weaken or modify, “y”. The modifications of “x’ (if appreciated, valued, and accepted) will affect the viewpoints, arguments, etc., of “y”. And vice versa, the modification of “y” (if accepted), will affect some of the viewpoints, data, experiments, etc., of “x”.

Cumulative time-binding effects: From these interactive modifications, eventually, through intelligent inquiry, critical reflection, appreciation of differences and other perspectives (points of viewing), there will arise a cumulative effect involving a broader picture, and higher viewpoints related to both “a”, (the ‘problem’), and “x”, and “y” (the different arguments for and against). It must be mentioned that the possibility of development and progress along these lines (instead of absurdities (social surd), and decline) will be circumvented–if the different biases (always operating) are recognized and attended to.

I find Lonergan’s approach to dialectic (as far as I have understood it) more comprehensive and descriptively useful than others I have come across. Lonergan’s approach describes and emphasizes a process involving an intelligent (good judgment and sound thinking), and sane way (anticipating and evaluating the possible effects of ones actions) for us to be communicatively engaged. We can learn more, expand our horizons and understandings, and avoid a great deal of unnecessary disagreeableness, by taking a dialectic approach in our interactions with others, in our relationship with ourselves, and with situations we find ourselves in. If we think of “creativity” in terms of imagining, thinking, seeing, thinking-reasoning-feeling about, representing, configuring and doing things in different ways, practicing “a dialectic and consciousness of abstracting approach” develop and actualize our creative potentials. Lonergan’s “dialectic”, and Korzybski’s “consciousness of abstracting” offer us to ways to be more creative in our negotiations; improve our communicating skills; and to better avoid and  manage disagreements, conflicts, and contradictions.

Dialectic and Consciousness of abstracting

I see a close relationship between Lonergan’s “dialectic”, and his “appropriation of rational self-consciousness”, to the general semantics principles of “non-allness”, “consciousness of abstracting”, and “time-binding”. “Time-binding” has to do with appreciating, and building on the ‘achievements’ of oneself and others. Consciousness of abstracting—a master principle of general semantics, incorporates all other general semantics principles including “non-allness”, and “non-identity.( “Non-identity” principle: No two things are the same in all respects. “Non-allness” is about remembering that: We cannot sense, imagine, think, say, understand, know, all about anything or anyone –including ourselves.) These principles might be considered simplistic and “everyone know this”. Yet if we look closely at a great deal of our problems, disagreements, conflicts, etc., at any level, personal, interpersonal, and international, we will find a lack of awareness or application of these principles. A “consciousness of abstracting-dialectic-seeking higher viewpoints-heuristic approach” is one way we become more creative, in managing disagreements, conflicts, and contradictions. You might try the dialectic approach the next time you are in a conflict situation, or in disagreement with someone. This might not be easy: One has to overcome the concern of being seen as “giving in”, “agreeing with”, “supporting”, “indecisive”, etc.…and this could be much more problematic and difficult for individuals and groups with high social and national and international roles to play.


We all have our biases (tendencies, preferences, inclinations, etc.) For our survival and self-development we need our biases. We can seek to create a balance between our self-interest and the greater interest involving the society through expanding our horizons. Dialectically: On the ‘positive’ side, they are sources of our personal and cultural development; on the ‘negative’ side, forces that retard our further development. Our biases involve attitudes and behaviors that are often the source of personal and societal achievements and progress, and also the source of problems and decline. (See Insight, pages 187-238). Biases include “dramatic, individual, group, and the general bias of commonsense”. Bias generally involves censoring, repression, rejection –excluding from emerging into consciousness, elements and perspectives that would lead to unwanted insights and higher viewpoints. Bias, in generally diminishing attentiveness, retards the process involving intelligent inquiry, critical reflection, and reasonable verification.

Dramatic bias: Early traumatic experiences, through aberrant censoring, repression, and inhibition, (goings on at non-conscious levels) of what might contribute to an insight, can retard later development of an individual: A ‘bad’ or ‘good’ experience, especially in the very young, can have tremendous (sometimes lifetime effects) on their attitudes, thinking, behavior and spirit. In dramatic bias, “Insights are unwanted, not because they confirm current viewpoints and behavior, but because they lead to their correction and revision:” At psychological levels: This might find expression in a self-defensive “Leave me alone. That’s how I am. I don’t want to know”, attitude.

 Individual bias: self-indulgence, self-orientation; self-gratification, self-promotion–intelligence applied to one’s concerns, interests, goals, etc., with a poor concern for others, or the broader picture; and a refusal to consider further questions that would upset one’s egoistic solutions. (Here one can make a connection that individual bias does not support a dialectic approach.) Individual bias interferes with the fuller development of the individual, their practical commonsense, and higher levels of understanding, by limiting application of their intelligence mainly to considerations of “What’s in it for me.” “I have to look out for myself.” “Every specialist runs the risk of turning his specialty into a bias by failing to recognize and appreciate the significance and contributions of other fields.” (What do you know? I am the expert here.)

 Group bias: “As has been noted, at each turn of the wheel of insight, proposal, action, new situation, and fresh insight, the tendency of group bias is to exclude some fruitful ideas and to mutilate others by compromise.” Group bias is like individual bias –the group looks out for itself: The group wants to know: “What’s in it for us”. In being mainly concerned with its own ends (us against them), fruitful ideas seen as threats to the group’s position, are blocked–society becomes stratified. We find examples of “group bias” among ‘specialists’ in many fields. Dominant powerful groups may be progressive or reactionary resulting in conflicts and sometimes violence. Group bias could be an ongoing expression of a “tribal instinct”. We can find evidence for this in diverse situations: In “party politics”, there seems a greater concern for supporting the party (the tribe), getting re-elected, than acting in concern for the welfare of the society or nation. In the “right to life–freedom to choose” issue, there is little dialogue or dialectic: What might emerge if those in the “right to life tribe” were asked to adopt unwanted children; and those of the “freedom to choose” tribe promised to guard against unwanted pregnancies”?

General bias of commonsense asks “What use is it?” What is it good for”. “Commonsense is practical. It seeks knowledge, not for the sake of the pleasure of contemplation, but to use knowledge in making and doing” (right now). “The business of commonsense is daily life; it is a specialization of intelligence in the particular and the concrete. There is a general lack of concern for long term consequences, the bigger picture, and the longer cycle.” Similar to group bias, general bias tends to dismiss speculations, theories, and philosophies as irrelevant to practical affairs: As such it cannot correct itself. The general bias, in excluding timely and fruitful ideas (foundations for further fruitful ideas, and insights), and in rejecting the importance of detached and disinterested intelligence, create inconsistencies: The social situation deteriorates into what is called the ‘social surd’. One can easily understand how attending to our biases and valuing dialectic, we can expand our horizons: We can appreciate the importance of thinking about the longer cycle and the bigger picture. This is one way we can avoid laying foundations for repeating earlier absurd behaviors.

Social surd: “Now inasmuch as the courses of action that men choose reflect either their ignorance, or their bad will or their ineffectual self-control, there results the social surd”…‘A succession of less and less comprehensive syntheses’. (Insight, pages 689, 690)  We find concrete examples of the surd when there are opposing parties in an organization…like opposing political parties in government. It goes something like this: There is a problem. Party “A” in power, offers a solution. (This proposal has already been watered down, and so will probably be less effective –but this watered down proposal is what “A” thinks will likely get enough votes to pass.) Now opposing party “B” cannot afford to let party “A” gain points towards re-election–so party “B” opposes the proposed solution. Similarly, party “A” cannot allow party “B” to gain points –so party “B’s” suggestions are also ignored or watered down: (biases at work, and dialectic absent on both sides). These ‘negotiations’ go on until a much compromised solution is reached –one that has become less and less comprehensive, and very likely, will be more and more ineffective, due to successive “watering”, and often “dumbing” downs”. The compromised solution is activated and becomes a precedent–a base, the paradigm determining the direction of future debates on social problems and solutions–and also a source of many consequent absurd decisions and regulations in government, and other operations. It might be noted that in these ‘watering downs’, there’s no “Let’s see how more comprehensive a viewpoint we can both arrive at by ‘appreciating’ each other’s contributions.” Or “Let’s be rationally conscious; let’s be concerned to verify the effectiveness our solution so later, if required, we can modify, seek to improve, our abandon that move” (scientific-heuristic approach). Taking a dialectic-heuristic approach helps us avoid the social surd, and many other absurd personal, societal, and national, and international behaviors.

Finality: Lonergan’s notion of “finality(a metaphysical term) is not to be confused with our everyday understanding of the term. I understand Lonergan’s “finalty” to be about the ultimate heading of our inquiries: Recognizing a world of process and change, and attending to our limitations, there is an openness to inquiry and reflection –we don’t get stuck; we avoid being dogmatic, becoming disagreeable, or fanatic. We ask the further questions. Finality involves an appreciation that ‘Present knowing is not just present knowing but also a process towards fuller knowing…incomplete knowing heading towards fuller knowing.’ (Insight, pages 444-451). Finality and transcendence go together as our acknowledgement of ‘a Universe not at rest, not static, not fixed, in the present, but in process…’ (Insight, page 445) Remember: ‘despite the imposing name, transcendence is the elementary matter of raising further questions—‘What’s going on? What do I not know? How do I know, if what I believe or know, is so? How could I corroborate my belief and knowing with what is actually going on?’ (Insight, page 635) Students of general semantics can recognize close relationships between Lonergan’s “finality”, and “transcendence”, and Korzybski’s general semantics principles of “non-allness” and “non-identity”.

Heuristic approach: involves a search for an unknown; a starting point, a draft, a hypothesis, a conjecture, a proposition; a “maybe”, “possibly”, “let’s see what happens experimental scientific attitude and approach”: In our endeavor to make sense, our search for meanings, in doing things, we don’t know exactly what we will find or accomplish; but we learn more about this ‘not yet known’ through learning from knowledge gained in the search.  In the heuristic approach “we use what little information we have about anything (a problem, a puzzle, a conflict, a goal, a difficult reading, etc.,) as a guide to accessing more information towards resolving the problem, puzzle, conflict, achieving the goal, and so on. In a heuristic mode of consciousness, we self-reflexively use our search or experiment as a way to improve the search or experiment, and so we gain more knowledge of the ‘not yet known’ through the search. With a heuristic approach, we think of our judgments, conclusions, beliefs, opinions, knowledge, meanings, theories, etc. not as final, but “tentative”…open to  modification based on more data, new evidence, broader understanding. (An acceptance of  Lonergan’s “finality” and Korzybski’s “non-allness” requires us to adopt a heuristic approach) (See Insight, page 392) With a heuristic approach, we avoid the label or idea “failure”: Instead of thinking “failure”, what works differently from what we expected is seen as “success in discovering what not to do next time”; and what we ordinarily react to as “a mistake” is embraced as a fantastic opportunity for discovering ‘somethings’ about how the world works, so we can use this information to do better next time. With a heuristic approach, we become better time-binders: We do what we do, to discover what we are doing; to learn more about what we are doing; how to do better what we are doing; and to learn more about ourselves through our ways of doing things.

Scientific method. Scientific approach

“Both ordinary and scientific description are concerned with things as related to us, but both are not concerned with the same relations to us. The scientist selects the relations of things to us that lead more directly to the relations between things themselves.” (Insight, page 292) We find in ‘science’ and ‘mathematics’ examples of human time-binding behavior at its best. The scientific approach can be thought of as “A heuristic cumulative enterprise evolving from wonder, curiosity, and imagination: Through careful observations, hypotheses, experiments, theories, predictions, a time-binding-heuristic correcting process of learning involving revisions, and refinements of theories, “scientists seek to create ‘maps’ (theories, explanations, patterns of relationships, etc.) that most accurately represent territories mapped.” The achievements of the sciences (including mathematics) have shown the effectiveness of a scientific approach in gaining knowledge towards expanding our understanding. We can apply a scientific approach and quite reasonably, expect similar successes in managing our everyday affairs, and in improving our ways of relating with ourselves, with others, and with our environments.  We can be creative without being ‘artists’. Similarly, we do not have to be ‘scientists’ to practice a scientific approach in our everyday thinking and interactions. Each one of us can go beyond the level of “intelligent consciousness” to “rational consciousness”: Thinking of a possible better future, we can use Lonergan’s insights and Korzybski’s principles to critically reflect, and improve actions we take, by –seeking supporting evidence for whatever we think, say, do, believe, etc.

 Good of order: “It consists in an intelligible pattern of relationships that condition the fulfilment of each man’s desires by his contribution to the fulfilment of the desires of others and, similarly, protect each from the object of his fears in the measure he contributes to warding off the objects feared by others. (Insight, page 213) A social order where “…both taking care of oneself and contributing to the well-being of others have their legitimate place and necessary function.…” (page 219) We see concrete evidence related to the “good of order” in constitutions, policies, laws, rules regulations, and in the behaviors (albeit usually non-self conscious) that contribute to the relatively smooth working of a society, group, or nation.  “Anarchy”, a label for a state of “political disorder”, is possible, but not sustainable: Maintaining disorder requires a great deal of restraints, restrictions, rules and regulations—in other words “the application of some degree of order”. We could think of the idea of “anarchy” as an “extreme example of “me and mine” (individual bias); “us and them” (group bias); and the general bias of commonsense –elementalistic and general unconcern with long term developments, and the interacting forces involving the bigger picture (other goings on).

 Where are we going as a race?

A reader, by being attentive, can experience for him or herself, actual referents for the labels, “insight, levels of consciousness, consciousness of abstracting, appropriation, dialectic, heuristic, horizon, bias” (individual, group, nation, specialists, etc.), and others. Evidence of bias, and lack of evidence of dialectic is not difficult to spot. For instance: ‘Nations’ in their foreign policies, exhibit behaviors along lines similar to those expressed in individual, group, and the general bias of commonsense. In politics, ‘…the flight from understanding blocks the insights that concrete situations demand. There follow unintelligent policies and inept courses of action. Situations deteriorate to demand still further insights and, as they are blocked, policies become more unintelligent and action more inept–leading to absurd behaviors. The bigger picture, involving possible directions for human development, and future possible long term consequences, and repercussions (the longer cycle), is given little attention or value…leading to “social surd”’. (See Insight, page xiv, and 690)  Presently (as far as I know) there is no world or national organization with a mission based on pursuing the question “Where are we going as a race”. Attending to this “higher viewpoint” (longer cycle, bigger picture) could help a great deal in changing our ways of understanding and dealing with our human problems. But whether this is addressed or not–As a race (and as individuals), there is no doubt we are heading somewhere–towards progress and improvements; or towards more uprisings, revolutions, rebellions, economic disasters, wars, and decline? In taking a heuristic, dialectic, time-binding, scientific-mathematic  approach, (not forgetting the impact of the arts) as our guides, we can more responsibly choose which directions we will take towards better ways of being humans.

Recognizing our personal metaphysics.

We all have our “metaphysics” (an integration of our personal worldviews, beliefs, values, standards, philosophies, biases, ways of thinking-feeling about things, etc.)–whether we have appropriated (become aware of, and internalized) them, or not. Lonergan wrote: Explicit metaphysics is a personal attainment.”  “Metaphysics, then, is not something in a book but something in a mind.” (Insight, page 396)  A set of words on any subject, whether in Lonergan’s “Insight” or Korzybski’s “General Semantics” will not significantly increase our understanding and contribute to our development until by being attentive, we observe for ourselves, concrete situations that we can connect to what we understand at verbal levels (rational consciousness; and then put into practice, what we understand (rational self-consciousness), so we can better understand through personal experiences. Korzybski cautioned: “I must stress that I give no panaceas, but experience shows that when the methods of general semantics are applied, the results are usually beneficial, whether in law, medicine, business, etc., education on all levels, or personal inter-relationships, be they in family, national, or international fields. If they are not applied, but merely talked about, no result can be expected.” (Science and Sanity, Fifth Ed. page xxxi) We gain more from the words we read through a movement from words to practice, involving “being attentive, making critical inquires, reflecting to facilitate the emergence of insights, and looking for supporting evidence to verify our ideas, beliefs, feelings, opinions, and judgments”. With awareness, study, and practice, we can appropriate our personal metaphysics, as a start towards improving our ways of being in the world–especially “ways of being with ourselves and others”.

At national and international levels, diverse ethnic groups (racial, national, religious, linguistic, political, professional, financial, etc.) following their own self-interests, disregarding long term consequences, and with minimal dialectic values, will progressively increase societal and international discontent, aggressiveness, violence and insanity. Meeting the challenges of deteriorating relationships will require training at all educational levels, based on a psychological-anthropological-historicist approach; and following the principles and methods offered in “Insight” and in “Science and Sanity”—an approach emphasizing human values, and offering communication standards as alternatives to the usual, tribal, political and militaristic reactions. Meeting this challenge also requires increased levels of attentiveness to help us recognize how our biases operate to support, and also sabotage our own efforts towards improvements. We live in a world of interacting processes, things changing (including ourselves); a world of things in relationships; and a world of changing relationships: In such a world, we benefit through developing thinking and reasoning habits that more closely match this kind of world: thinking and reasoning based on remembering that things change; thinking and reasoning that explores how things are related, their structures, functions and interactions—and paying special attention to how we are relating (through our language habits, thinking, beliefs, fears, biases, expectations, judgments, decisions, actions, etc.), as individuals, as groups, as nations, and as a race.

Not knowing all, we can value ourselves as “transcendent beings” by being mindful, attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible–reaching for higher and higher points of ‘viewing’” through practicing conscious abstracting, conscious time-binding and consciousness of abstracting, as ways to expand our horizons, nourish our spirits, to live more satisfying lives through better relationships.

In terms of “finality”: The abstractions constituting this essay represent a work in progress, heuristic commentaries, points of departure, to be critically evaluated, corrected, and expanded on. To gain more from Lonergan’s “Insight” and “Korzybski’s general semantics principles”, it helps if we resist treating their works only as philosophy, or subject matter for academic exercises. It helps more when we put into practice what we understand–so we can understand better, and do better based on our deeper understandings.

Milton Dawes/2013

Milton Dawes/2013


1. Ferris, Timothy, The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, And Mathematics,  Little Brown And Company, Boston, New York, Toronto, London.

2.  Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity (1933), Forth Worth, TX, Institute of     General Semantics  (1994)

3.  Korzbski, Alfred, Manhood of Humanity, The International Non-Aristotelian  Library Publishing Company, Institute of General Semantics, Distributors,  Lakeville, Connecticut.

4. Lonergan, Bernard, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, London,    Longmans,   Green & Co.Ltd. (1957)

5.  Lonergan, Bernard, Method in Theology, The Seabury Press, 815 Second     Avenue,  New York,  N.Y.10017 (1979)

  • For elaborations on general semantics principles and applications, see articles at    <>








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