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 Dr. Andrew Beards
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Sir Anthony Kenny and Fr Bernard Lonergan SJ

by Dr Andrew Beards



The recent passing of the influential Catholic scholar Michael Novak drew me back to his affectionate and humorous reminiscences of his time as a seminarian in Rome in the 1950s attending the lectures of the Canadian philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-84) at the Gregorian University. From 1953 to 1965 Lonergan alternated between lectures on Christology and the Trinity. All classes were in Latin and Novak captures something of the atmosphere of the lectures before an international audience of students. A delicious anecdote recalls an outburst of student laughter at Lonergan’s translation into Latin of a term from Baseball to illustrate a point – a moment of ‘ecumenical contact’ between Americans and the Canadian perhaps, but something which only served to befuddle further the other nationalities present! http://www.catholicity.com/commentary/mnovak/08128.html

This was a world beautifully caught by Georgina Masson’s traveller’s guide to Rome, which includes in the tourist itinerary the sight of clerics exiting lectures at the ‘Greg’ in their variety of coloured cassocks and sashes; although dressed in sombre black, the students of the Venerable English College get a mention, as does the Italian admiration for their efficient morning march through the early morning market of the Campo de’ Fiori and on to the university, noted by the locals as ‘Il passo nordico’. When I spent two years as a student of the Venerabile in the late 1970s, that was a world which already seemed long passed, although I suspect there were more underlying continuities than were at first apparent. As a student with an inclination towards philosophy it was sad to learn of the story of a previous English College man with philosophical gifts who had left the priesthood and the Church, but who was by then an internationally known academic, Sir Anthony Kenny. I remember reading with appreciation his The Anatomy of the Soul at the time, having already benefitted from his book on Wittgenstein.

In my academic work, publishing on Lonergan’ thought, I have had an interest in the connection between Kenny’s thought and Lonergan’s teaching, not only from a philosophical viewpoint but from the perspective of a scholarly interest in Lonergan’s development. The latter interest has to do in part with Lonergan’s developing dialogue and debate with the two mainstream traditions of philosophy in the 20th century, continental philosophy and analytical philosophy. I think earlier reception of Lonergan’s work did not have a genuine enough appreciation of his knowledge of and relationship with the Anglo-American tradition. This is perhaps understandable prior to the gradual emergence of the great series of his collected works published by Toronto University Press, with the assistance of a truly dedicated team of editors, since the late 1980s. A landmark was the appearance in 2001 of Lonergan’s lectures at Boston College in 1957 on mathematical logic and continental philosophy, edited by Philip McShane, Phenomenology and Logic. In fact, Philip McShane was an early student of Lonergan who had a real appreciation of Lonergan’s significance for analytical philosophy, facilitated in some measure by McShane’s enviable knowledge of and ability in mathematics and the metamathematical/logical debates which lie at the centre of the evolution of 20th century analytical philosophy. Lonergan in his 1957 lectures shows a fascinating perspicacity with regard to these foundational issues in analytical philosophy. Later, in my doctoral work at the University of Calgary I had to labour through post-grad classes on symbolic logic with the gifted Professor Ali Kazmi, and while it was often like pulling-teeth, I look back on this now with gratitude as it gives one entry into a deeper appreciation of analytical philosophy and indeed what Lonergan saw back in 1957 he could contribute to the debates.

In interviews later on in his teaching career Lonergan indicates that these classes at the Greg in the 1950s provided great stimulation to his own thought and research. In these packed classes of clerical students along with Novak sat other future notables including (later Cardinal) Ruini, Hans Küng (whose brief reminiscence of Lonergan in his own autobiography is somewhat odd) and Anthony Kenny. Lonergan observes that among these numerous students from diverse backgrounds he detected the reading of the various authors central to the philosophical and theological trends of the day. It was not that Lonergan was by any means introduced to continental or Anglo-American philosophies through these student contacts – far from it.

As regards continental philosophy, Lonergan’s reading of the ‘classic tradition’ of German Idealism had gone on in his own student days in Rome in the 1930s and in his teaching periods in Canada in the 1940s. He also encountered Husserlian phenomenology in his dialogue and debate with H. Doms and Von Hildebrand on the nature of marriage in the early 1940s. One should understand that his relationship with Anglo-American traditions of philosophy went back to his days of study at the old Heythrop in the Oxfordshire countryside in the 1920s. There, as well as the usual fare of textbook late-scholastic philosophy, the young Jesuit delighted in mathematics, studied as part of a ‘distance-learning’ degree for London University. The admired mathematics teacher was Fr Charles O’Hara SJ, already in the 1920s well acquainted with relativity theory, who would be the subject of criticism by Wittgenstein (from a fideistic viewpoint) for the talks Fr O’Hara gave on the BBC in 1930 on science and religion. But his personal appropriation of philosophy and his own conscious cognitional life was above all due to his reading of Bl. John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent, further supported by Lonergan’s assiduous study of H.W.B. Joseph’s An Introduction to Logic. Joseph was in fact a contemporary Oxford philosopher of the time; a member of John Cook Wilson’s ‘direct realist’ movement. A previous generation of Jesuits like Fr Martin D’Arcy were strongly influenced in their intellectual formation by both Cook Wilson and Joseph. Joseph’s Logic is, in fact, no mere logic primer. The lengthy book includes discussion of scientific method and in some fashion incorporates wider debates on epistemology and approaches to logic of late 19th century British Idealism and reactions to it. In its pages the young Lonergan would have noted the shots fired by Joseph and Cook Wilson across the bows of the emerging mathematization of logic in Bertrand Russell and early Wittgenstein. While this gradually became the ‘classical logic’ of 20th century analytical philosophy, severe criticism or at least radical suggestions for its modification have grown over the decades. Remarks in Lonergan’s great book Insight (1957) and the 1957 lectures mentioned show both his appreciation of its potential but also the philosophical and methodological problems inherent in some of its approaches.

It was Lonergan’s reading of Newman, however, which initiated his own and somewhat independent type of phenomenology. This would develop further through reading St Augustine and J. A. Stewart on Plato, until Lonergan came through this route to study first-hand the genius of St Thomas Aquinas in his doctoral work on grace in the late 1930s. This proved to be a form of hermeneutical spiralling into St Thomas’ work, from this already incipient phenomenology. Newman’s thought, standing in the English tradition of Bishop Butler and others, is of course quite independent of the famous movement in phenomenology associated with Husserl. However, in intellectual and personal histories there are fascinating and sometimes surprising criss-crossings of paths. Behind Husserl stands his charismatic and influential teacher Franz Brentano. As Professor of Philosophy in Vienna, then at the heart of the Hapsburg Empire, Brentano formed a future generation of thinkers who would teach in some of the key centres of learning from southern Poland, to Prague to Northern Italy. His classes were also attended by the young Sigmund Freud. In a tragic story, akin to that of the young English priest, Anthon Kenny a century later, the then Fr Brentano, from a distinguished Catholic Austrian family (his Uncle, a poet, became the amanuensis for Catherine Emmerich) paid a short visit, at the behest of his mother, to Fr Newman and the community at the Oratory in Birmingham in the early 1870s to seek advice over his doubts. As with Kenny’s brief conversations on similar issues with Lonergan in Rome in the early 1960s, these conversations unfortunately were not very prolonged and Brentano, like Kenny, left the priesthood and the Church. However, no doubt having encountered on his visit the recently published Grammar of Assent, Brentano clearly demonstrates his admiration for the work, especially in some of his last lectures on knowledge of God.

So, while this diverse and numerous group of students in the teaching aulas of the Greg in the 1950s and early 60s proved a stimulus to Lonergan’s growing appreciation of what he took to be both the strengths and weaknesses in current analytical and continental philosophy, they had not initiated these paths. Students, so the anecdotes go, began by tittering at his Latin delivered in a Canadian accent with a modulation of voice which would tend to rise by an octave at regularly intervals; attitudes would become sober as Lonergan began to write mathematical formulae on the board! Consequently, one can well understand another anecdote I have been told. The dear and gentle French-Canadian Jesuit Fr René Latourelle, still a valued lecturer in my time, was Dean of Theology during part of Lonergan’s time teaching in Rome. Faced with organising affairs at the beginning of the semester, Fr Latourelle expressed his anxiety to Fr Lonergan over having the impossible task of fitting hundreds of students into the aula for the course Lonergan was about to teach. Lonergan reassured his Dean by observing that the problem would last only a couple of days and after that the aula would be virtually empty!

While Lonergan, then, had already a good grasp of things going on in analytical philosophy I cannot doubt that becoming a supervisor for Kenny’s doctorate in the late 1950s, was another instance of his learning more from this diverse student body. In his 1985 autobiography A Path From Rome, — a book which is, I find, a ‘sad read’ overall — Anthony Kenny tells us something of this intellectual activity and its connection to Lonergan. He had come to admire Lonergan greatly and when the issue of doctoral work came up he wanted to pursue this through the Gregorian with Lonergan involved as supervisor. However, the opportunity arose to study in Oxford. There Kenny came under the influence of Elizabeth Anscombe and through her the influence of Wittgenstein. This was a unique position to be in as regards the recently deceased philosopher’s later thought: Anscombe together with Peter Geach her philosopher husband had been close to Wittgenstein in his declining years. Both had converted to Catholicism during this period and in fact managed to arrange for the Dominican Fr Pepler from Blackfriars to visit Wittgenstein – already baptized a Catholic – in the closing days of his life in 1951 (Fr Pepler was welcomed, I understand, as a ‘non-philosophical’ priest). Anscombe, together with Von Wright was an executor of Wittgenstein’s estate, and so the young Fr Kenny was in a unique place to learn of the philosopher’s later work. The doctorate was on religious language and the aim was to make use of recent developments in analytical thought vis-à-vis the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. The doctorate was defended back in Rome in 1958, with Lonergan on the examination panel, and Kenny is clearly pleased to relate how he received Lonergan’s warm congratulations on the work. An immediate result was that Kenny published some of the ideas in his first article, ‘Wittgenstein and Aquinas’, in the Downside Review, in 1959.

As a Lonergan scholar I am intrigued by this first-hand mediation of the later Wittgenstein’s later work through what was a rather unique channel from Anscombe through Kenny to his supervisor/examiner in Rome, Lonergan; this at a time when the thought of the later Wittgenstein was only beginning to make an impact on the philosophical world. That influence would of course grow massively over the coming years. But in the last couple of decades in analytical philosophy this has waned further and further. One of the young Catholic-convert philosophers Kenny mentions in his reminiscences of 1950s Oxford, Michael Dummett would in fact play a role in that decline. Another young philosopher influenced by Anscombe, Dummett’s only direct meeting with Wittgenstein was when the latter came into the room looking for the milk bottle on the occasion of Dummett’s coming to Anscombe’s residence for a meeting. Kenny in the autobiography expresses some surprise at the philosophical impact Dummett was to make. At first more in the Wittgenstein group, Dummett gravitated away towards Frege for inspiration. While critical  in many ways of Wittgenstein, I think there are some problematic areas in his thought which still show the imprint of the great Austrian, as I have argued in a chapter of my book Insight and Analysis. (I was also very pleased to be asked to contribute to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Dummett, in which he has a piece responding to my contribution:CLICK HERE)

To appreciate further some of these developments in analytical philosophy in recent decades and how Wittgenstein’s significance has been very much re-evaluated – even the central ‘anti-private language’ argument being contested by many – one can read the survey piece by one of Dummett’s former doctoral students, now Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford Timothy Williamson, ‘How did we get Here from There?’ (2014).

The authorities of the Archdiocese of Liverpool found that their priest student at Oxford could receive local authority financial support if he applied to do an Oxford DPhil in addition to the Roman doctorate. So it was that Kenny also registered for the Oxford degree which he completed during his time back on the parish and as he began the process to leave the priesthood. That doctorate was published in 1963 as the book, Action, Emotion and Will. In the latter part of his career Kenny seems to have focused on work in the history of philosophy, but in various works and pieces he has published on Aquinas he has occasionally alluded to Lonergan as a significant figure in the field whose work he admires.

My first published article in 1986 was ‘Kenny and Lonergan on Aquinas’: https://philpapers.org/rec/BEAKAL I had noticed in various publications Kenny paid tribute to Lonergan’s work on Aquinas’ philosophy of mind, the Verbum articles. These were originally a series of articles in Theological Studies in the journal’s early days in the 1940s. Put together into book form by one of Lonergan’s former students David Burrell, they appeared in 1967 as Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas; since then the book has been reissued in the Collected Works series with helpful English translations of the sections Lonergan quotes from St Thomas in Latin in the earlier version. Kenny describes the work as rewarding the ‘hard work of reading it’ (see the bibliographic note at the end of his Aquinas, Past Masters Series, OUP 1980). But I found myself bemused by some of the things I read Kenny saying about St Thomas and about lacunae in his philosophy of mind precisely in light of my knowledge of Lonergan and his work Verbum. This was the subject of the short article and I have been pleased to see that C. N. Still in recent years has taken up these criticisms of Kenny and developed them further : https://philpapers.org/rec/STIAOS My own friend and former PhD student Dr Chris Friel has also done good work on problems in Kenny’s account of Aquinas on the soul, in light of Lonergan’s thought.

My own reading of the situation, however, is that the young priest was not helped in his intellectual/spiritual path by the experience of immersion in the thought of the later Wittgenstein in the 1950s in the way he describes this happening. He tells us that under the tutelage of Anscombe he shifted from a Cartesianism to a true Wittgensteinianism as regards mind. It looks as if he went from one extreme to the other: from the Cartesian conception of pure thought without image, word, phantasm to the linguistic behaviourism that downplays or reduces our conscious intentional operations to a vague and ambiguous minimum. Kenny never denied outright ‘mental acts’; he admired Peter Geach’s 1957 book Mental Acts, as his work in Action, Emotion and Will shows. But in the name of the priority of language, the analysis of conscious mental activity is imprecise; it is a deliberate shying away from the perceived philosophical ‘danger zone’ of consciousness in favour of ‘public discourse’ as one sees in Wittgenstein. But our words are noises or signs literally without meaning if we prescind from that intentionality. Analytical philosophers of our own day no longer have such qualms concerning mind. In A Path From Rome, Kenny writes that he regrets not having made greater use of his supervisor back in Rome, Lonergan. I think this would have been a crucial factor. Without a subtle analysis of conscious intentionality, of conscious insight into phantasm, word, symbol which may be in turn expressed in word, image, symbol the path of St Thomas to a critical distinction between the material and the non-material, the spiritual is obfuscated or blocked. This seems to have been a factor in Kenny’s path from Rome.

Yet, I notice in the Wiki article on Sir Anthony Kenny one sees supported tales of his attending Mass on occasion and we should certainly keep him in our prayers and pray for his reconciliation with the faith and that peace the Lord waits to give him through such a retracing of his path.

Note from Andrew Beards.

I'm sorry to say I don't have a copy in any form any more of that 1986 article of mine, so I could give links to citation pages regarding it. The article by C N Still on Kenny and Aquinas is, as far as I can see also unavailable online unless one has access to the
IPQ Journal. However, his PhD thesis, on which I assume that article is based is readable online here: CLICK HERE

Copyright © Andrew Beards 2017

Version: 23rd March 2017

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  Dr. Andrew Beards
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