Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Priority of Insight over Concept

In my most recent post I mentioned the idea that insight comes before concept. This apparently struck a couple readers as quite, well, insightful, so I want to unpack it a bit more.

First, let me state, for the record, that this formulation does not originate with me. I heard it from Michael Vertin, a professor at Regis College in Toronto who was a close friend with Bernard Lonergan. For me thought it helped sum up the brilliance of Lonergan's achievement. What follows however is purely my exegesis of the formulation, for which no one but myself is to blame.

It is really a way of summarizing the distinction in Lonergan's thinking between attending to the data of experience and making intelligible sense of what I have noted in attending. Through attending I gain insight, then I set out to render those insights conceptually intelligible. This is really an incredibly powerful tool. In the field of religious studies, which is broadly speaking my area of expertise, it allows for some significant breakthroughs. For instance, I have long wondered why it is that all the earliest known religious traditions seem to have some sort of spirit-belief. I can now understand this is the result of three things: 1) certain experiences so common as to 2) recurrently generate comparable insights, 3) combined with limited heritage of conceptual resources. For instance, there is a common experience of the wind. This experience leads to the recurrent insight that the wind blows on its own accord. The limited conceptual resources lead to a recurrent tendency to describe this in anthropomorphic terms.

As humanity moves along the course of history however new data, new insights, and concepts will emerge. Two general tendencies will likely emerge. Such different groups will tend to have comparable experiences they will also tend to generate comparable insights; however, as they generate ever-new conceptual resources there will emerge a diversity in how these insights are articulated. Thus there will tend to be greater diversity on the level of concept than insight. Let us consider a particular set of insight and concepts. Much conceptual work in metaphysics has, for the last three or so millennia, been focused upon explaining the insight that although the world is constantly changing nonetheless it always remains. The Abrahamic traditions tend to articulate this in terms of God's creative work: change expresses the will of God, even as his ever-presence in the world ensures continuity. The Indian traditions tend to articulate this by defining reality as a sort of undifferentiated monism and the existence of differentiation and thus change as a product of illusion. Conceptually these are very different ways of thinking about reality, but when thinking in terms of insight they might not be as far apart as they might first seem.

The reality is that unless we can find better ways to coexist the 21st century promises to be no less bloody than the 20th, and given our present capacity for destruction I'm not sure that we can survive that as a species. Any tools that can allow us to identify our human unity despite and even through the din are to be welcomed. I am inclined to think that the distinction between insight and concept is such a tool.

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