Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

in Bernard Lonergan


The Augustinian Background of the Problem of Consciousness

in the Western Tradition of Thought*


By Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan

Professor of Armenian Language and Literature, University of Venice

Venice, Italy



We certainly owe to Augustine the first elaboration of a thorough theory of consciousness in the history of Western thought. In this frame I shall take into consideration the case of an outstanding North American philosopher of the 20th century: Bernard Lonergan[1]. The question of consciousness, and of self-consciousness in particular, is a corner-stone in Bernard Lonergan’s vision of  human understanding.


Socratic Inwardness


The origins, in the West, of the notion of  “consciousness” goes back to Greek philosophy, to the Socratic “gnôthi seauton”. This means in general the necessity, for the thinking subject, of  an ontological and ethical reflection upon its own reality to reach truth. This Socratic challenge for a new programme of wisdom determined the evolution of philosophy from Plato through Plotinus. Augustine’s philosophical programme - condensed in that major imperative he addresses to the searcher of wisdom: “redi in te ipsum; in interiore homine habitat veritas” (turn back into yourself, in the interior man dwelt truth) - opened a new path in philosophy, if compared with the Socratic challenge.


The difference between the two is already evident in the very formulation of both imperatives. We can define the Socratic program as an “objective interiority” which makes of the human person, acting as an intellectual and ethical subject, the main, central object of man’s intellectual and moral search. Augustine’s challenge, on the contrary, is an invitation addressed to the subject as such to be itself, to rediscover itself as subject in its most inward reality. This is also confirmed by the development of both imperatives as we know them. As far as the Socratic principle is concerned, this is to be seen in the use that subsequent philosophers, basically claiming Socrates’ spiritual heritage, made of it, and in the way they understood it and they responded with to it. As far as Augustine is concerned, we know the developments of his principle from his own literary legacy. A brief outline of Augustine’s investment in this field is necessary for an overall evaluation of Lonergan’s theory of consciousness and of its relationship to Augustine. I tried to analyse what was new in Augustine's approach in relation to that of Socrates  in a study entitled L’interiorismo agostiniano (Zekiyan 1981).


I can sum up the conclusions reached in that work as follows. We can distinguish two basic aspects in the Socratic “principle of inwardness”: the onto-noetical and the ethical. These correspond to the two basic dynamics implied in that principle: a) to know man’s intellectual nature and its fundamental requirements; b) to act according to that nature and to those requirements.


To these two basic Socratic dimensions Augustine adds a new one: the “psychological” dimension. Here lies the novelty of his approach. I must, however, immediately enter a strong caveat for the use of  the term “psychological” in the present context. The primary meaning, in which I employ it, neither refers to an experimental/empirical psychic reality as studied by modern psychology (not even at that deeper stage which has been put into light and studied by the various schools of psychoanalysis), nor is it simply the metempirical reality of the existence and operations of the human soul as studied by classical metaphysics. By the “psychological dimension” of the Augustinian inwardness principle, I mean the fact that the thinking subject, the reflecting and operating I, is studied, analysed, regarded upon by Augustine precisely as a subject, in its subjective entity, in its very being as a subject, and not merely as an essence, a substance, capable of producing operations of a certain kind and level. This is the deepest aspect of what the Confessions contain as an outstandingly singular witness to man’s “psychological” dimension. They transfer into the unrepeatable concreteness of the literary-poetical language the inmost core of Augustine’s metaphysical reflection. 


Augustinian Inwardness


The centrality that the subject as such, and the human subject in the given case, acquire in Augustine and consequently, for the first time, in the Western thought has two main effects:


i)    “The concrete form of human reality penetrates with Augustine probably for the first time, in such an impetuous and dramatic way, into the very plot of philosophical reflection” (Zekiyan 1981, p. 7). This fact gives to Augustine’s thought its unique existential character, as has been stressed by numerous authors of different attitudes. It goes without saying that “existential” does not mean in any way a simple equalization to “existentialist” as referred to the existentialist philosophies of the last century. Hence the ethical dimension of the principle of inwardness acquires in Augustine a strongly existential determination, so that we can define it as “ethic-existential”7.


ii)  Introspection becomes in Augustine a primary and ordinary method of philosophical inquiry leading him to a profoundly original analysis of the psychic, phenomenological, and transcendental contents of human consciousness. We can name this introspection “psychological” in the very sense in which we have defined our contextual use of this term. Thus “psychic”, “phenomenological”, and “transcendental” indicate the three basic levels or spheres that outline the horizon of the Augustinian introspection (for a deeper exposition, see Zekiyan 1981, pp. 20-26[3]). 


The psychic level is given by all those phenomena interweaving with man’s psychic life: pulsions, emotions, passions, motivations, sensations and sentiments, reactions, impressions of past and present, conscious and subconscious tendencies, dreams and projects for the future, thoughts and cares that excite or depress.


The phenomenological level of introspection is determined by the fact that the inquiring attention is centred, at this level, on what makes the subject a subject, and lays the foundations of human inter-subjectivity: that is the I and You relationship. Once again Augustine appears, in the history of Western thought, as the great discoverer of the phenomenology of inter-subjectivity. Even more: such an excellent interpreter of modern phenomenology as Ludwig Landgrebe considers Augustine as the very discoverer of the priority of You with respect to I. Furthermore he adds that the rediscovery of this priority by modern phenomenology has been a return of the Western thought to its most genuine substance (Landgrebe 1949, pp. 56 sq., 181-184). There is, however, a difference between the two approaches: in Augustine, You laying the foundations of whatever inter-subjectivity is the Divine Thou; in modern phenomenology it appears as being a human You.


With the third and deeper step of Augustinian introspection we reach its metaphysical-transcendental level. While the prior two levels develop on the plane of conceptual knowledge, this third one develops, on the  contrary, on a plane of pre-conceptual knowledge. In fact what we have to deal with here are not data appearing in the conscience or involved in some psychic experience, but those a priori conditions that make consciousness itself and conscious activity possible. Thus Augustine reaches the expressed formulation of the notion of memoria sui and the implicit formulation of those of “Illumination”/illuminatio (Zekiyan 1987) 11 and of memoria Dei (Zekiyan 1987, part. pp. 402-405. I propose in this paper an interpretation of the Augustinian illumination as memoria Dei). A distinctive feature of these notions is that they represent an inner, immediate, total knowledge made of and by experience, or simply an experience/knowledge which takes essentially place not as the normal perception of an object but as the transparency of the subject to itself. We can define this kind of knowledge a “subjectwise” knowledge. This means “in a way exclusive to the subject”, that is “functioning wholly as a subject”, and said in a still clearer way: “to know and to be known in the same and unique function of subject”. In other words  the knowledge in question is not, and cannot be, objectified at all. Moreover it is an experience/knowledge, concomitant of any other knowledge, of any act produced by the human soul, not belonging therefore to the order of conceptual knowledge. It precedes - of course not in a temporal sense - all concepts, judgements, reasonings. It is necessarily pre-conceptual (Biolo 1969, pp. 80-107, 109-218; Zekiyan 1981, pp. 27-44, 1987, pp. 405-419). It is a true knowledge, although in an analogical  sense, nor can it be regarded as an “unconscious knowledge” without an inner contradiction (Biolo, loc. cit; Zekiyan, 1981, p. 44, note 47, pp. 64-68).  Memoria sui  is then the self-consciousness of the knowing subject as pure presence to itself, as pure transparency to itself in a pre-conceptual, inner, immediate, total experience/knowledge, without any objectification.


The Augustinian Specificity


Beyond any controversial interpretation, there can be no doubt, I think, on the following points:


a.   Augustine introduced a profoundly new dimension into the tradition of Socratic inwardness;


b.   this new dimension is due, to a greater extent, to Augustine’s methodology of psychological introspection, in the sense in which we have defined the contextual meaning of the qualification “psychological”; 


c.   Augustine produced a comprehensive and subtle theory of human consciousness. This is expressed mainly by the notion of memoria sui;


d.   In any way it may be interpreted, the Augustinian notion of illumination implies an immediate pre-conceptual experience/knowledge of the eternal truths and values.


Lonergan’s Use of Augustine


Now, if we draw our attention to Bernard Lonergan’s work, we see that his idea of consciousness is patently Augustinian. 


Although the question of consciousness, and of self-consciousness in particular, is a corner-stone, as I said, in Bernard Lonergan’s vision of  human understanding and it makes a major issue of his entire philosophical production, there are, however, some titles in Lonergan’s literary production that are either wholly dedicated to or treat extensively of the question: the author himself explicitly refers to them in later works as main landmarks (1959, P. 5; 1972/1979, p. 7, note 2). To this respect two of his books hold, in my opinion, a privileged position: one is De Constitutione Christi ontologica et psycologica, one of his earliest and fundamental works, published in Rome, by the Press of the Pontifical Gregoriana University, in 1956; the other is  Insight, doubtlessly the most important of all Lonergan’s works. In this latter one, chapter XI is entitled “Self-affirmation of the knower”, and it is the first chapter of Part II, entitled “Insight as knowledge”. This chapter is an overall and penetrating exposition of Lonergan’s vision on the issue. I believe it will not be useless, at this point, to summarise this vision. To do so, Lonergan himself can be our best guide, as he too did a similar operation at the beginning of his Method in Theology. In the sentences that follow, which are almost literal quotations from this book (pp. 7-9), we find the substance of Lonergan’s thought on consciousness.


i.     “He [the reader] will have to evoke the relevant operations in his own consciousness”;


ii.   “... by the operation one becomes aware of the object. The psychological sense is what is meant by the verb, intend, the adjective, intentional, the noun, intentionality”;


iii. “The operator is subject not merely in the grammatical sense ... He also is subject in the psychological sense that he operates consciously”;


iv. “The operations then not only intend objects. There is to them a further psychological dimension ... by them the operating subject is conscious ... they make the operating subject present to himself”;


v.   “... the presence of the object is quite different from the presence of the subject. The object is present as what is gazed upon, attended to, intended. But the presence of the subject resides in the gazing, the attending, the intending. For this reason the subject can be conscious, as attending, and yet give his whole attention to the object as attended to”;


vi. “I spoke of the subject experiencing himself operating. But do not suppose that this experiencing is another operation to be added to the list, for this operation is not intending but being conscious ... It is that very operation which, besides being intrinsically intentional,  also is intrinsically conscious”;


vii. “Just as we move from the data of sense through inquiry, insight, reflection, judgement, to statements about sensible things, so too we move from the data of consciousness through inquiry, understanding, reflection, judgement, to statements about conscious subjects and their operations. That, of course, is just what we are doing and inviting the reader to do”;


viii. “... different levels of consciousness and intentionality have to be distinguished. ... There is an empirical level on which we sense ... an intellectual level on which we inquire ... the rational level on which we reflect ... the responsible level on which we are concerned with ourselves ...”.


As a conclusion I would like to express my hope that these considerations may represent a modest contribution to better understand:


a)  why such a great philosopher as Karl Jaspers has considered Augustine, beside Plato and Kant, as one of the “fortzeugenden Gründern des Philosophierens” (Jaspers 1957, 107, 109-111), one of the “seminal founders of philosophical thought”; 


b)  what an intellectual affinity linked Bernard Lonergan to St. Augustine.



Boghos Levon ZEKIYAN

Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies, Rome

Ca’ Foscari University, Venice





Biolo 1969  ̶ ̶  Salvino BIOLO, La coscienza nel “De Trinitate” di S. Agostino, (Analecta Gregoriana, 172), Libreria Editrice dell’Università Gregoriana, Roma, 1969.


Jaspers 1957  ̶ ̶  Karl JASPERS, Die großen Philosophen, R. Piper & Co. Vrl., vol. I, München, 1957, pp. 231 sq. - Engl. edition: The Great Philosophers. The Foundations, transl. by Ralph Manhein, ed. by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1962.


Langrebe 1949  ̶ ̶  Ludwig LANDGREBE, Phaenomenologie und Metaphysik, Hamburg, 1949.


Lonergan 1959  ̶ ̶  Bernard LONERGAN, Divinarum Personarum conceptionam analogicam (evolvit Bernardus Lonergan), editio altera, Ad usum auditorum, Apud Aedes Pontificiae Universitatis Gregorianae, Romae, 1959.


     ̶̶̶̶ ̶ ̶̶̶̶ ̶  ̶̶̶̶    1972/1979, Method in Theology,  Herder and Herder , Inc., 1972, 2nd ed. 1973,  Seabury Paperback ed. 1979.


Zekiyan 1981  ̶ ̶  Boghos L. ZEKIYAN, L’interiorismo agostiniano. La struttura onto-psicologica dell’interiorismo agostiniano e la “memoria sui”, (Filosofia Oggi, 14), Studio Editoriale di Cultura, Genova, 1981.


     ̶̶̶̶ ̶ ̶̶̶̶ ̶ ̶̶̶̶ ̶   1987, “Illuminazione e «Memoria Dei» in S. Agostino”, in Congresso Internazionale su S. Agostino, Congresso Internazionale su S. Agostino nel XVI Centenario della Conversione, Roma, 15 -20 settembre 1986, Atti, (Studia Ephemeridis “Augustinianum”, 25), vol. I, Institutum Patristicum “Augustinianum”, Roma, 1987, pp. 395-400, 415.




* This an abridged and in some parts newly elaborated version of a paper read at the XXXI Meeting of Searchers of Christian Antiquity (XXXI Incontro di studiosi dell'antichità cristiana, Roma, May 2-4, 2002) and published in Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum, 85, Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, Roma 2003, pp. 659-673: Consciousness and self-consciousness in Augustine and Lonergan: the Augustinian background of the problem of consciousness in the Western tradition of thought from Augustine's Confessions to Lonegan's Insight). I refer to this article for a wider framework of the question and for larger bibliographical information.   

[1] I am honoured to have attended his courses at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome on the "Incarnate Word" in the academic year 1963-64. Here are some appreciations of Lonergan's figure and work: "INSIGHT has become a philosophic classic comparable in scope to Hume's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (Newseek); "Lonergan is the twentieth century counterpart of a Renaissance man" (Time). The quotations are from the coverback of Insight's Harper & Row paperback edition, 1978.

[2] At a first glance one might have the impression that “Introspection” is not a term that Lonergan likes (cf. Method in Theology,  Herder and Herder , Inc., 1972, 2nd ed. 1973,  Seabury Paperback ed. 1979, p. 8: “it suggests an inward inspection. Inward inspection is just myth”). A more attentive lecture, however, will show that Lonergan’s objection regards the use of the term for consciousness. Since consciousness is in no way some sort of cognition that may have an “object” as to attend to or to gaze upon, as we shall see, “inward inspection” is non sense as applied to consciousness. But Lonergan adds immediately after the quoted passage: “However, «introspection» may be understood to mean, not consciousness itself but the process of  objectifying the contents of consciousness”. It is in this very sense that I apply it to Augustine’s philosophical methodology.




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