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Foundations of Philosophy


The Notion of Judgment

For the desire to understand, once understanding is reached, becomes the desire to understand correctly; in other words, the intention of intelligibility, once an intelligibility is reached, becomes the intention of the right intelligibility, of the true and, through truth, of reality.1


Preliminary Exercises.

  1. Is it true that men are more intelligent than women? What information would you need to answer this question? What definitions would you need to be clear about to answer precisely? Does it matter for the answer whether you are a man or a woman?


  2. Is it true that bodies will continue at rest or in motion unless interfered with by other bodies? Can you prove it?

  3. Is it true that the ozone layer is being destroyed by hydrofluorocarbons? Do you know this or do you believe it?

  4. Which of the following lines is the longest?



  5. A relativist would say that we can pick our own truths; that there are no absolutes; that everything is relative, a matter of choice. Is this a coherent position?



1. Introduction


1. Outline. In part I we have been examining the activity of direct and inverse insights of various kinds. We have appealed to dramatic instances from history and hope that you were able to identify similar experiences in your own intellectual development. It is not too difficult to become aware of instances of direct understanding as insights can be quite exciting, inspiring, illuminating, even brilliant.


However, direct and inverse insights in themselves give only possibilities; the most brilliant of insights, of explanations, of hypotheses in itself may or may not be correct, may or may not be true. Direct insight grasps possibility; it is merely a bright idea. Whether it is anything more has to be settled by a further question and a further insight, a reflective insight leading to judgment. We passed over the question of verification and judgment in our earlier chapters not because it was not important but in the interest of doing one thing at a time. But direct insights can be so seductively attractive that we fail to consider the further insight needed for verification.


We will begin this second part of the text by establishing what we mean by judgment and reflective insight; this is an invitation to discover how we actually reach conclusions which we hold to be true. We will then summarize all that we have discovered about human knowing under the title of cognitional structure, and put our position systematically and succinctly. This is followed by a discussion of intellectual conversion where we consider the dialectic involved in the unfolding of the process of knowing. We will then tackle the critical problem, the so-called bridge between the subject and the real world. If you are involved in the exercises and doing the personal self-appropriation called for by this text you may have already some intimation of the startling strangeness of the [194] world of understanding and knowing; it is very different from what we expect and presume.


It would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance of judgment. It is pivotal in the transition from thinking to knowing, from fiction to fact, from bright ideas to verified ideas from the world of fantasy to the real world. It is also crucial for the transition from subjectivity to objectivity. It is not just important for a philosophy but for our life and our culture. Just as modern philosophies are on the whole skeptical or neglectful of truth, so also our culture in the public sphere is skeptical and negative regarding the claims of truth. What is useful, what is successful, what gives pleasure, what will sell, are readily valued, all too often displacing what is true. One of our expectations of this text was that it would provide foundations. It is in this chapter that we begin to lay the foundations for knowing the difference between true and false, image and reality.


2. Thinking and Knowing. Direct and inverse insights are, loosely speaking, about thinking; but now we are moving on to a consideration of knowing. Knowing goes one step further than thinking. The additional step is the reflective understanding leading to the judgment. In this chapter we will consider the characteristics of a judgment and try to clear up the many misunderstandings and misconceptions that there are about judgments. The following chapter will consider the structure of reflective understanding which is the insight that leads in to the judgment. The grounds for the judgment or verification will be given in that chapter. Here we simply intend to get a clear grasp of the difference between direct insight leading to definition and reflective understanding leading to judgment. We find that the fundamental difference between definition and judgment parallels the difference between thinking and knowing. In judgment we are systematically introducing the idea of correct or incorrect, true or false, fact or fiction. Our approach is still self-appropriation. We now ask how do we make a true judgment; why do we make false ones? One could appeal to all sorts of theories about truth, but for the moment we want to see how the mind grasps the sufficiency of the evidence for a true judgment. [195]


We can distinguish different modes in the operation of our intelligence: an understanding mode and a reflective mode. In the first mode we are doing a kind of brainstorming: what we are looking for are possibilities, expanding the scope of our thinking and imagination, pushing back horizons, expanding our vision. We open ourselves to new ideas, deliberately relaxing our critical faculty, simply envisaging possibilities. This is a mode you might be in as you begin a paper, or a sermon or an article.


But sooner or later this mode has to give way to the critical reflective mode. This rich mass of new ideas, images and facts which you have collected needs to be evaluated. Some of these are not true, some are not relevant, some are offensive, others unsuitable. This is the reflective mode, a sorting out, bringing criticism into play. For the most part in Part I we have considered only the mode of direct understanding. Now we intend to appropriate the more critical mode of judgment and reflective understanding.


3. Appropriation. For a variety of reasons appropriating our judgments is quite difficult, much more difficult than becoming aware of our direct insights. Very often the reflective insight is compacted into the direct insight, coming so soon after the direct insight that it is very difficult to separate the two. We ourselves have been guilty of this compacting as we have up to now been pretending, for the sake of simplicity, that all insights are direct insights.


The reflective insight is not as exciting as a direct insight. It comes more quietly, peacefully, gradually. It is relatively easy to get into the brainstorming mode and to recognize what we are doing; it is more difficult to get into the critical mode and to become aware of what precisely is meant by reflection. Reflective understanding can be a long drawn out process and often it is difficult to pin down that crucial step from thinking into knowing.


Sometimes judgment is confused with logic. There are many systems of logic but most of them seem to be deductive, working from premises to conclusions; lists of rules have to be learned to distinguish techniques which are legitimate from those that are illegitimate. But the rules of logic are not the rules of thought. We [196] are concerned with the rules of thought; how do we, in fact, in everyday life, reach a conclusion which we hold to be true and are prepared to defend strenuously. We are not concerned for the moment with logic but with the processes by which people actually reach conclusions that they know to be true: what is rational process?


There are many senses to the little word "is". 'A unicorn is an animal with one horn' and 'the horse is in the garden' both use the copula. But one is expressing a definition, the other a judgment of fact. Sometimes the many uses of the one copula hide the fact that we are moving from possibility to actuality, from thinking to knowing; there may be no grammatical difference whatever between a proposition entertained as a possibility and the same proposition firmly maintained as true.


It is easy enough to make judgments. We are making them every day. They can be simple judgments, that the bus is late, it is raining, the computer is down, Fred is not in the office; or they can be more complicated like there is a mistake in this calculation, this witness is lying, the economy is getting out of recession, etc. What is difficult is not making judgments but objectifying the process of making judgments. There are very few epistemologies which differentiate between the understanding mode and the critical mode, between formulation and judgment. Few of them have adverted to the actual experience of making judgments. So often they have been uncritical theories about what knowing should be, rather than an appropriation of what knowing actually is. Surely if we want to know about judgments we should start with the experience of making a judgment, start with the data and move on to the explanation. The key to our procedure is this appeal to your own experience, to identify and verify everything we say about judgment.


4. Historical Note. Aristotle spoke of judgment as a synthesis of terms. His approach in the Categories was very grammatical: a predicate is affirmed or denied of a subject. This was ambiguous as the judgment could still be on the level of definition or supposition. Most of his examples in the Analytics were simply suppositions: Socrates is sick, etc. This is a proposition; it can be assumed to be true, but it only becomes a judgment if it is affirmed to be true.


Aquinas spoke of judgment as compositio or divisio, namely, composing or dividing. He inherited the Aristotelian terminology. But it is quite clear that he has a good grasp of the difference between a proposition as a synthesis of terms and a judgment as positing or affirming of the truth of that synthesis. Just as Aquinas had identified the act of direct understanding in active intellect enlightening the phantasm so that the form is received immaterially in the possible intellect; so he grasped that reflective understanding evaluates the grounds for the judgment going back to the senses, the definition and first principles and so affirms or denies in the judgment. A judgment is not only a synthesis of terms but a personal affirmation of that synthesis as true. His analogy for the processions in the Trinity was based on a grasp of this rational procession from evidence to affirmation in a judgment.2


None of the three founders of modern philosophy were able to distinguish between statements considered as possibilities and judgments affirmed to be true. Descartes states explicitly, "..I judged that I could take it to be a general rule that the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true,.."3 He takes 'clear and distinct' as his criterion of what is true: whatever is clear and distinct is true, if it is confused and ambiguous it is not true. But this totally conflates two distinct activities of understanding and makes them one. In trying to solve mathematical puzzles you may get clear and distinct ideas but they are often totally wrong. The confused relative insights of description may or may not be correct. There is a further question after the direct insight. Descartes was so fascinated with the brilliance of clear and distinct ideas that he did not realize that a further question arises. No matter how fascinating an idea, to be affirmed as true requires another act of the mind.


Kant examines the logical structure of a judgment very closely. He distinguishes a priori and a posteriori judgments, analytic and synthetic judgments; in this he was examining the relation between the predicate and the subject. His epistemology was an attempt to justify the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments. But he misses the point that a proposition is one thing but a personal affirmation of the truth of the proposition is something further. He missed the distinction between the proposition as a synthesis of terms and [198] positing that synthesis as true. His work, Critique of Judgment was about aesthetic judgments of beauty.


Locke and Hume were also incapable of distinguishing between propositions as logical constructs and propositions as affirmed to be true. Their successors, the linguistic analysts systematically rule out of court any consideration of mental acts and so distinguishing possibilities from truths is eliminated. Truth is consigned to logic.


The three great traditions of modern philosophy totally missed the basis for any consideration of truth in the judgment and that is at least one reason for the failure of contemporary philosophies to deal adequately with the topic. Not having a sound foundation it is then difficult to defend against the relativists, skeptics and deconstructionists. The topic is almost an embarrassment. One of the great achievements of Lonergan is the retrieval and articulation of this distinction.


5. What judgment is NOT. The word 'judgment' is used in many contexts with various meanings. To prevent misunderstanding let us briefly indicate what we do not mean by judgment. 'Judgment' is not being used in the sense of a moral judgment. The word often has the sense of the Last Judgment, a moral judgment of guilty or not guilty, the judgment of history, etc. There are indeed value judgments but these are best dealt with in ethics and religious studies. We are using the word judgment in a morally neutral sense as an affirmation or denial, of what is simply true or false.


Nor are we using 'judgment' in the sense as a quality of a person. Sometimes we say that a person is a good judge of character; that he has good judgment in business matters; that a man of skill has good judgment born of long experience at his trade. We praise the judgment of a general who knows when to attack and when to retreat; of a football player who knows when to pass and when to go on his own; of a sculptor who is a good judge of perspective.


Judgments are not choices or decisions. We do make choices and decisions; usually we do so in terms of a scheme of values, what we consider to be important or desirable; that process is best studied and objectified in ethics or religious studies. However, it is very common for people to think that we can decide what to hold to be [199] true at the level of judgments of fact, science and philosophy. Freedom of choice is a legitimate value but does it extend to choosing what we will consider to be true or false? Do we have that awesome power to make something to be true by our free choice? A philosophy department might offer a variety of philosophical positions to study; a supermarket offers a variety of brands of toothpaste; do we have the same kind of choice in the two cases?


By 'judgment' we do not mean aesthetic judgment. There is a field of aesthetics where judgments can be passed on paintings, poetry, literature, sculpture, etc. But we are dealing with the intellectual pattern of experience. There is an analogous truth in the field of aesthetics where you can refer to an authentic poem, a true picture, etc. To say that a poem is true, and a proposition is true, is to shift from the aesthetic pattern of experience to the intellectual. In philosophy we are in the intellectual pattern of experience where the criterion for truth is different from that of aesthetics.


2. Different Kind of Question


To identify the experience of making a judgment of truth, the first thing to note is that the question which leads to the judgment is different from the one that leads to a direct insight.4 When we were dealing with direct insights we considered all sorts of questions like what? why? where? who? how often? etc. All of these questions are seeking further information relevant to a direct understanding. But there is also a series of questions that arise which are different in intention and tone. These are questions like, Is it so? Is it correct? Is it true? Is it real? Does it exist? Is he really sick? Does he really have cancer? Did he really do that? etc.


What is to be noted about these questions is that they anticipate a different type of answer: a Yes or No answer. They are not looking for further information, or further understanding; they are looking for affirmation or denial. A question already specifies the kind of answer that will satisfy it; if I ask, 'what time is it?' and you answer 'Yes', you have not been of much help. If I ask, 'Is it really true?' and you answer, 'five o'clock,' then again something is wrong. So the first characteristic of a reflective understanding is that it is asking a [200] fundamentally different kind of question and sending the mind off on a different kind of search than the question for direct insight. It is extremely important to note this difference because it is the question that specifies what the relevant insight is going to be.


We distinguish, then, questions for intelligence and questions for reflection. Questions for intelligence are questions asking for further information, questions seeking a clearer understanding or distinction, questions that are looking for further content. The usual questions of where? when? why? how many? how often? what is the weight? what is the distance? what is the answer? what is the required correlation? what is the required word? what is the formula? what is the definition? are all questions for intelligence. They cannot be answered with a yes or no; they are looking for more data, more content, clarifications, further relevant information, further direct understanding.


Questions for reflection are questions that are not looking for further content but are seeking a simple yes or no answer, is it so? Questions for reflection are oriented towards an act of reflective understanding that will normally lead to the judgment, an affirmation or denial.


Every direct insight will normally be followed by a reflective insight leading to a judgment. A direct insight gives us a possibility, a correlation, a bright idea, a hypothesis or a possible explanation, but normally we are only interested in possibilities as a halfway house to verifications and truths. So if we give it a chance the question will arise, is the hypothesis true? Can the bright idea be also the correct idea? Can the correlation be verified in the data and in all the data? Can the hypothesis be confirmed and raised to the status of a verified explanation?


Concomitant with every direct insight there is a question that arises for reflection: is this correct? is it true? is it so? Our critical thinking in solving mathematical or word puzzles involves a constant shifting from insights into possibilities, to judgments as to whether they are correct or not. Most of the possibilities we reject as they do not solve the puzzle; until eventually we hit on the final possibility and find that this is correct. There is something very fundamental about this constant shifting from possibilities to [201] reflection; it is a kind of hypothetical-deductive method in the sense of constantly throwing up hypotheses only to sort them out and reject many of them because they do not satisfy the criteria set in the question. Plato likened thinking to a person having a conversation with himself. Thinking is a constant stream of ideas, images, examples, direct insights and inverse insights; the mind does engage in this forward movement towards a conclusion. There is a constant oscillation from the mode of seeking new possibilities to the critical mode of asking is this possibility the right one.


Direct insight must precede reflective insight. To ask is it so? presupposes that we have understood what 'it' stands for. If we are not clear, then we have to ask what do you mean by so and so. If you are in an argument about whether men are more intelligent than women, at some point you will have to ask, what do you mean by intelligent. Psychologists define intelligence differently; some allow for culturally determined differences some don't; some define intelligence as purely theoretical, some as practical, some as intuitive; does intelligence increase with education? etc. Direct understanding presents content for the reflective insight. If the direct understanding is vague, confused or ambiguous, then the judgment will be similarly ambiguous. Many a philosophy discussion hinges on the phrase, 'Well, it depends on what you mean.' Further clarifications and definitions or divisions bring us back to the level of direct understanding, but again the question will arise, 'is it true?' and we are back to the critical level of judgment.


The answer to the question for reflection can be Yes or No or anything in between, such as, probably, possibly, very likely, etc. Or it can be of the kind, I do not know, I am not sure, I have not sufficient evidence for that, etc. There are very few judgments of which we can be absolutely, unequivocally and eternally certain. There is a wide range of probabilities from the highest probability, which we can consider as virtually certain, to the lowest range of bordering on the merely possible. But all of these are legitimate and coherent answers to the question for reflection.


Note that the question for reflection arises spontaneously, automatically, instinctively; it is hard to avoid it, difficult to stifle or ignore it. It is only in certain limited contexts that we can ignore [202] questions for reflection, such as when we are writing novels, composing poetry, creating a work of art, brainstorming, or playing games. But in scholarship, science, philosophy or any of the areas of knowing, it arises spontaneously and we normally are not satisfied until we reach what we consider to be true. Our questioning is purposive; we are seeking knowledge; there is a question of true and false, correct or incorrect; we want to find the true and correct solution. If we jump to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence, we realize that our colleagues will reveal the shortcomings of our research and show that we are wrong.


We can teach children the contents of correct judgments but we do not need to teach them the art of asking questions for reflection. There comes a time in the development of the mind of the child when he/she begins to evaluate the stories they are being told by adults. Fairy tales, Santa Claus, and stories about monsters that eat you are slowly examined and found wanting. There is no evidence for them; all the available evidence is against them. We give content to the judgments of the growing child, but the basic process of evaluation in terms of true and false is not learned but emerges spontaneously. Even children can and do ask Plato's question, 'is it really real?'


3. Affirming or Denying


The essential characteristic of the judgment is this quality of affirmation or denial. There is a fundamental difference between considering a hypothesis as a possibility and uttering it as a personal conviction; this difference lies in the activity of understanding which produces now one, now the other. This happens within human minds; it is invisible. The data for the distinction are the data of consciousness not the data of sense. In this section we examine this experience of affirming or denying as products of the activity of intelligence.


A proposition is a statement or a definition. A proposition can be a mere object of thought or it can be the content of a judgment. The old Latin phrase put it non asserendo sed recitando, not affirming but reciting. You can teach the philosophy of Kant merely as an [203] object of thought. A teacher could go to great pains to explain clearly and accurately Kant's position. But it may not be the position of the teacher who will constantly remind the students that this is Kant's position, not my own. In that context, Kant's philosophy is simply an object of thought, a complicated system of terms and ideas; but it is not necessarily affirmed as a personal conviction. A Kantian, on the other hand, is not only teaching what Kant taught, but is also identifying himself with this position; to criticize Kant is to criticize him; for this teacher it is not only an object of thought but also of personal affirmation and conviction; it is true.


A proposition can be a mere supposition, a definition, an object of thought, a synthesis of concepts, a consideration, a hypothesis. Direct insight yields possibly relevant hypotheses which can be produced at will by the simple act of defining or supposing. Logicians often deal with propositions such as 'Socrates is sick', 'all Irishmen eat porridge', 'Louis the fourteenth is the king of France'. These are mere objects of thought. Sometimes for the purposes of the argument they are supposed to be true; meaning that if they are true, then these conclusions follow; if they are false, other conclusions follow. But in logic such propositions are not usually affirmed personally to be really true. Mere objects of thought can be neither true nor false; the categories do not apply. Ideas are products of direct understanding; they are suppositions, concepts, theories, explanations, propositions; they can be brilliant, new, inspiring, appropriate, complicated, or crude. But the question 'is it true?' only arises in the context of reflection.


So, as well as being an object of thought the proposition can be affirmed as true or denied as false; it can be the content of a judgment. Then it has a completely different status. It has moved from thinking to knowing; it is subject to a new criterion. Mere thoughts cannot be either true or false, but judgments are affirming or denying and must be either true or false.


Another way of identifying the nature of the judgment is to note that judgment adds no new content to the hypothesis other than the simple yes or no; it simply removes the question mark from the interrogation. Is John really sick? becomes, John is really sick. There is a long process of reflection which makes this transition [204] possible. The judgment does not add any new content to the interrogation. It adds the yes or no of affirmation or denial. That is the proper content of the judgment. The material element of the proposition, the terms and what they refer to can be called the borrowed content of the judgment. But the judgment adds no new ideas, information, data, or definitions, other than the affirmation or denial.


The judgment adds only affirmation or denial. But that is no small thing. From being a mere object of thought a proposition becomes an affirmed content of our knowledge. We are no longer merely thinking or supposing, we are knowing what is and what is not. This is what divides fact from fiction, the real world from the world of fantasy, chemistry from alchemy, astronomy from astrology. This element is crucial. What could be more important than whether something is true or false?


A book is a whole series of words and sentences expressing propositions. One can read the book and understand the propositions without passing judgment on their truth or falsity. The ideas, suggestions, arguments, evidence, conclusions of the book can be entertained as simply interesting. It is a further step and a big one to take sides for or against the conclusions. Then we either agree or disagree. That is a judgment.


Judgments happen only in minds. Marks on paper can represent and express the judgments of individuals but the event, the happening is only in a mind. Judgments are invisible. We have access to these affirmations and denials because we can shift our awareness from the objects to the activities. Defining and judging are quite different activities. If you do not advert to the data of consciousness you will never be able to distinguish possibilities from affirmations.


4. Taking a Personal Stand


There is an element of personal responsibility that enters with the judgment, which is not there when we are merely considering or supposing. As long as we are merely thinking of possibilities we are still sitting on the fence and can go either way. But once we have [205] made the judgment we have come down on one side or the other and are committed to the judgment. It is our judgments that make us what we are as reasonable human beings. The person is involved from the level of experiencing to the level of understanding to the level of reflective understanding issuing in judgment. A whole series of activities finally issue in the judgment.


Lonergan often quotes de la Rochefoucauld to the effect that, 'Everybody complains of his memory but no one of his judgment.' We feel that we are not responsible for our memory. Either we have a good memory or a bad memory; it is a God-given gift to his chosen ones. We are not embarrassed if we forget someone's name and we blame our memory as an excuse. But in some way we are responsible for our judgments. We take personal responsibility for the judgment because it is a commitment. We made the judgment on the basis of the evidence. We could have looked for more information, we could have asked for clearer definitions, we could have asked further relevant questions, we could have introduced appropriate qualifications and reservations. We apologize for our bad memories; we do not apologize for our judgments.


We cannot be excused for mistakes of judgment; we are held responsible. A meteorologist is expected to know his trade and his judgments are expected to be accurate within a given degree of probability. The judgment is a free act and if there is not sufficient evidence, we should reply, 'I do not know.' Besides the absolute affirmation or denial there is a range of possibility or probability in between. We are responsible for assessing the evidence and enunciating a judgment which correctly mirrors the weight of the evidence as probable, highly probable, or certain.


Strangely enough we cannot avoid making judgments; we have to take a stand. Paradoxically, even sitting on the fence involves taking a stand. Consider the philosopher who says, 'Judgments are not important, we can do without them,' but in the very act he is making a judgment. Or consider the skeptic who says, 'I know nothing,' yet he is positing a judgment. Or the relativist who claims that everything is relative, except this statement that everything is relative. There is an inescapability about judgments; we have to take a stand, even if our stand is to run away. [206]


5. Completes the process of Knowing


When you posit an affirmation, the entire series of activities involved in the knowing process come to a term. When you have solved and checked a mathematical or a chess puzzle you know that your solution is correct and you simply move on to other matters. The problem no longer holds your interest, you have exhausted it, it is no longer challenging, it is in fact boring. All the activities of questioning, searching for images, looking, drawing, considering, remembering, defining, exploring, testing, checking, reviewing, reflecting, come to a full stop when we posit the judgment. The judgment sweeps everything into one affirmation or negation. A unit of knowledge is added to our habitual store and we move on to other matters.


We are at a stage now when we can clearly distinguish three levels of cognitional process. It will help to define the judgment if we give a summary of these three levels here; the levels will be defined in greater detail in the chapter on Cognitional Structure where a helpful diagram is also presented.


Our concentration at the beginning of this text was upon direct understanding. This level of cognitional operations is characterized by the activities of defining, distinguishing, considering, forming hypotheses, classifying, identifying, explaining, relating, correlating, counting, measuring, calculating, supposing, conceiving, etc. We identified the characteristics of this level in chapter two. Understanding gives us a possibly relevant hypothesis, a bright idea, a set of concepts or definitions, which may or may not be correct. This we will refer to as the second level of cognitional operations.


But understanding presupposes something that is to be understood. It presumes a level of presentations, of data, of the given. It presupposes the level of experience where data are given but are not yet understood. There has to be a content to the act of understanding; we have to understand something. What is the something, where does it come from? Examine your own activity of knowing and you will find that the matter, the content comes from [207] the senses, from memory or from imagination. This we will call the first level of experience.


But understanding gives only possibilities; it is only thinking, and a further question arises as to whether this thinking is correct or not. So we move into the reflective mode when we are weighing the evidence, checking the results, studying the link between the conclusion and the premises, examining the reasoning, etc. This is the level of reflective understanding that issues in the judgment. When the judgment is made the whole process comes to a halt; it has reached a term; there is a closure. This we refer to as the third level of cognitional process. It presupposes the other two and would be impossible without them, but does go beyond them to add its particular singular contribution to the process of knowing.


6. Contextual Aspect of Judgment


Judgments occur in developing minds and within a context of many other judgments on which they depend in various ways. A judgment can rarely stand in glorious isolation. We have already identified the context of description and explanation: judgments of description will presume the knower as the center of reference and all descriptive judgments will be coherent with that assumption. Explanation will assume the context of relating things to one another. If you do not distinguish the two contexts endless confusion can follow. Higher viewpoints will depend on a previous context of lower judgments. Preliminary confused judgments will lead gradually to further clarifications in more refined judgments.


Our own individual judgments today depend on our previous judgments and on the whole context of questions, insights, formulations, etc. that is our intellectual history. The expert in any subject is the one who has set up such a context of judgments and experience that he can deal expeditiously and immediately with any new problem or question within his field. Habits of inquiry and research are built up over years and the competent person immediately knows how to cope. Alternatively if we have not built up the context of the expert or if we have not developed the habits of the intellectual pattern of experience, we will suffer for it now as we [208] struggle to exclude extraneous interference and clarify what remains confused in our mind.


The content of our present judgments may be in conflict. There may be an apparent conflict between judgments of common sense and those of explanation. There may be ambiguity in the use of terms. It is the task of logic to establish the coherence or incoherence of different judgments within the one system. If logic cannot reconcile our various judgments then we must suspect that some one or other of them is wrong and we have to sort them out.


Our judgments also look to the future. We realize how little we understand and how much remains to be done. Our knowing is dynamic: a restless devotion to the task of adding increments to a merely habitual knowledge.


7. Belief and Tradition


1. The Notion of Belief 5. If you examine the convictions that you hold to be true and the reasons for holding them to be true, you will probably find that most of your judgments are not immanently generated but are some kind of belief. What we have been talking about so far is immanently generated knowledge, knowledge that we personally have acquired: we have experienced and understood the grounds for these judgments. But if we examine most of what we judge to be true in history, geography, politics or economics, even the empirical sciences, we find that we have not personally experienced the grounds of our judgments and we accept them as true on the authority of a teacher, author, publisher, photographer, editor, reporter, and so on.


It is common to contrast Science with Belief, on the assumption that all science is immanently generated knowledge and that belief is on the borderline of superstition. But if you have learned any empirical science you notice see that most of the time you take the author's or professor's word for what he says. You do crucial experiments, but you do not find it necessary to repeat every experiment and calculation. Belief as we are using the term is as much part of the collaboration of the scientific enterprise as of any other discipline. [209]


We understand belief as accepting something as true, not on the basis of personally experienced evidence but on the ground of a trustworthy source. The source can be an individual, a friend, an announcer, a scientist, a professor; or it can be a medium, a radio channel, a periodical, a historical document, a newspaper; or it could be a community, a tradition or culture.


The ground for belief is the communicability of truth. When we reach a judgment we find that the conditions for the truth of the judgment do not depend on us. The judgment is true independently of us. Truth, then, can be communicated without necessarily communicating the immanent reasons for the truth; it can be accepted as true on the basis of our own grasp of the conditions for its truth and also on trust that someone else has grasped these conditions and is honestly communicating his results to us.


2. What belief is NOT. We are NOT using the term belief as equivalent to opinion. Translations of Plato usually use opinion and belief as the two forms of sense knowledge that Plato held not to be true knowledge at all. 'Belief' is used in a similar kind of way in the contemporary analytic school. We are using the word as a technical term, which is generally in line with common usage but which differs from many philosophical schools.


We are NOT using it in a religious sense. The word is, perhaps, most commonly invoked in theology and religious belief, but our usage of it is purely neutral and secular and has as much to do with empirical science as with theology. Belief is part of the human collaboration in the enterprise of knowing in all fields, because of specialization and the simple fact that we cannot repeat all the experiments and research that has produced the results which we take for granted in order to move ahead.


We are NOT using the word belief in any vague, loose, commonsense meaning. In ordinary usage we often say 'I believe that is true', but we do not always have the distinction that we are making here in mind. Here we are giving that word a technical meaning and will try to use it always in conformity with that definition. There is after all a big difference between the person who has done the research and knows for himself, and the person who listens to him lecturing and accepts what he reports as true. If we are [210] serious about analyzing our judgments then we have to be clear on this distinction and we have to introduce a critique of beliefs as a parallel track to our critique of mistaken judgments.


3. Importance of Belief. To accept belief as a legitimate activity in furthering knowledge rests on a judgment of value. What dangers are we leaving ourselves open to and what are the values of accepting belief as a reasonable part of human progress? When we examine the state of current knowledge in the sciences and other areas we find that there is such an accumulation of information, research results, books, documents, tables, traditions, that if we were to start at the beginning to repeat all the experiments and observations for ourselves then we would never reach even the state of knowledge of the nineteenth century. Not only that but in any branch of science where we wish to specialize, we still find that we are dependent on the results and methods and instruments that pertain to other sciences. Are we to check them all out before we proceed?


We are really faced with a choice between primitive ignorance and accepting belief as a legitimate process that enormously facilitates learning. Belief is a kind of short cut to the end. Instead of doing the complicated calculations and experiments that may involve expensive materials, we accept the results as true on the basis of the reports. Someone should check out the results and repeat the calculations, but it is not necessary that everyone repeat the process.


Not only are we dependent on the veracity of teachers and authors but we also take it for granted that the instruments that we are using have been made to correct specifications. We use slide rules, barometers, thermometers, tables of logarithms, computer programs, calibrated scales and measures of various kinds. We do not know that they are all made to specifications unless we check for ourselves. We believe that they are correct and only when things go wrong do we begin to suspect that maybe they are not up to snuff.


Our knowledge of the past is gained through the study of history, and our own immanently generated knowledge is limited to our short life span. But history is mostly belief, not knowledge. We are trusting a whole series of human sources that have communicated [211] what really happened. We have the reports of eyewitnesses, the documents of state, the files of government offices, the annals of armies, the diaries of individuals, and the putting together of all these by a series of historians down the ages.


Our immanently generated knowledge of geography is limited to what we have seen and heard; usually very little depending on our propensity to travel. We depend on those who have seen, those who have reported the conditions, those who have drawn the maps, measured the temperature and rainfall, photographed, examined the flora and fauna, and published this in an orderly and honest fashion.


Our conclusion must surely be that primitive ignorance is to be avoided and that our participation in the development of human understanding is much facilitated by reasonable belief. As we have explained, it is usually quite reasonable to accept as true what we find in chemistry, geography and history textbooks, not that this will be a totally blind acceptance. In normal circumstances where appropriate checks and balances are in force, it will be reasonable to believe and a bit paranoid to try to check everything for yourself.


Belief can be quite certain. We do not distinguish judgments and belief on the basis that judgments are certain and beliefs are slightly dubious. We distinguish them on the basis of how we come to grasp the true as true. In the case of judgments we rely on our grasp of the sufficiency of the evidence for the conclusion; in beliefs we rely on the trustworthiness of the source to communicate truthfully. But immanently generated knowledge as in the empirical sciences may only reach a degree of probability, whereas a belief can be quite certain. We can be quite certain that Ireland is an island. Few people have actually personally traveled the coastline of Ireland to see for themselves but yet the accumulation of witnesses attesting to the fact and reporting on their limited experience is sufficient to accept the belief as certain. The scientist is giving the best available opinion of his time; his conclusions are probable rather than certain, as we explained earlier.


4. Critique of Beliefs. Just as there can be mistaken judgments so also there can be mistaken beliefs. Beliefs are particularly prone to wander from the truth because the evidence is detached from the conclusion. To set up a critique of mistaken traditions we have to examine the source, the communication and the message. We will give some brief indications as to what to look out for in these different areas.


Source. You have to ask how trustworthy is the source, how honest is the individual, would it be in his interest to lie or to slant the truth. You look for evidence of bias, prejudice, self-interest, self-glorification, etc. One suspects anyone who has much to gain by propagating some information. You look for a neutral source, a non-involved observer, someone who has nothing to gain for himself. You look for competence, for someone who is in a position to know: you go to a doctor for information on medicines and a meteorologist for information on the weather and not vice versa.


Communication. There can be quite a gap from the source to the believer. There can be translation involved from one language to another and that always involves an interpretation. There is the interpretation of the text and of its importance and of its message. There are publishers, editors, commentators, copiers, reporters, etc. Generally speaking, the farther we are removed from the source, the more reason we have to be careful. Historical studies of the Scriptures have revealed the work of editors, composers, additions, and subtractions, changes of various kinds. Successive translations can wander slowly from the original intention.


The message itself. Is it credible in itself? Does it fit in with the context of what we already know? Is it reasonable in itself? A legend reports how a monk interrupted Thomas Aquinas at his studies to report, "Look," said the monk, "There is a cow flying." Aquinas lumbered over to the window to see this great sight, whereupon the monk laughed as he was only joking. Aquinas rejoined, "I prefer to believe that cows could fly, than that a monk could tell a lie." By our education we build up a context of what is possible, what is probable, what fits in what does not fit in. We develop a sense of what is credible. If we are doubtful we check for ourselves and do the crucial experiment. Alien abductions we judge to be incredible; life on other planets we judge to be possible; black holes are now asserted to probably exist; it is certain that there are millions of galaxies besides ours. [213]


There are so many different circumstances that the only general rule is to be ever intelligent and reasonable. Don't be gullible. Don't be too credible. On the other hand it is reasonable to believe and we would be unreasonable to want to see all the evidence for ourselves. Much of what we have to say about judgments and reasonableness in the next chapter can also be applied to beliefs.


5. Belief is assent. Belief requires a value judgment about the value of believing in general, and also a value judgment that this particular person is worth believing in this specific instance. Belief involves an assent, a decision, a willingness to collaborate in the process of human knowing and a willingness to accept this person’s word for this truth. Belief differs from judgment in motive and origin. Judgment is motivated by the strength of the evidence; but belief is motivated by the desire to collaborate reasonably in the search for knowledge. The origin of a judgment is rational necessity; the origin of a belief is a free and responsible decision to believe.


In conclusion, the notion of judgment raises the critical question of whether we can know the truth or not. How do we move from thinking to knowing, from possibilities to truth. Here we have simply identified the activity of judging as the answer to the question for reflection, as affirming or denying, as adding no new content, as knowing coming to a term. Our next chapter deals with reflective insight which is the intervening act between the question and the judgment.


Comments on Exercises.


  1. This is just to illustrate that judgment depends on definitions, in this case the definition of intelligence. In some cultural systems boys will get a better education than girls. Does this mean that they are more intelligent? Also that bias will often enter into this area of research and judgment. Why is so-and-so a feminist? Because she is a woman!




  2. The logical positivists sometimes have difficulty with this. How do you prove it? How do you set up an experiment where there is a body that is NOT interfered with by other bodies and then see what happens? It is simply not possible. Our approach would be that the principle is verified indirectly countless numbers of times in every experiment concerning movement and gravity. The alternative hypothesis that bodies in motion will come to a stop when they are not longer being pushed can easily be disproved. It is an inverse insight.




  3. Most of us do not know the answer to this and have to believe those who purport to know. There are vested interests at stake and it is legitimate to ask who sponsored these studies and who carried them out. For most of us it is a question of belief, not of immanently generated knowledge.




  4. Drawings can produce the appearance that one line is longer than another. You can verify that they are the same size by using a ruler.




  5. The relativist says we cannot make true judgments, but what is the status of his own judgments? This raises the question of coherence between saying and doing discussed in the chapter on intellectual conversion.


End Notes

1. Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974) 81.

2. See Bernard Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol 2. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) In this text Lonergan recovers the intellectualism of Aquinas especially the distinction between definition chapter 1 and judgment in chapter 2. These two rational processes are the basis for the human analogy of the Trinity, chapter 5.

3. Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, Discourse 4 (Penguin Books, 1968) 54.

4. Insight, chapter 9.

5. Insight, 725-739. This is a rather technical treatment.

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