Tag Archives: Bernard Lonergan

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 4 Thoughtfulness


At the beginning of this series I mentioned a distinction Bernard Lonergan made between common sense and scientific thought. As far as I remember, Lonergan did not address the idea of thoughtfulness. But this concept cries out for analysis as a matter of logical development and even more so for its cultural relevance; in my view thoughtlessness is a central feature of contemporary culture.

Now that we have before us the concepts of observation, common sense, scientific thought and introspection we may be able grasp the subtler concept of thoughtfulness and understand how it relates to theology and the religious life.

Unlike observation, thoughtfulness is not intense concentration on something. It’s not perception of the relationship of things to our needs and wants. This is common sense. Nor is it acute insight into the relationships among things considered apart from us. Here we are speaking of scientific thought. And thoughtfulness is not merely the inward gaze that distinguishes idea from idea, mood from mood and feeling from feeling. Introspection is at work here.

Consider how we use word “thoughtful” in everyday speech. Sometimes we designate an act as “thoughtful” and at other times we speak of a person as “thoughtful”. A thoughtful act manifests insight into the need and desires of another person coupled with forethought and goodwill. Thoughtful people are likely to perform thoughtful acts because they possess awareness, sensitivity, anticipation and empathy toward others. Thoughtfulness is heightened awareness of what is hidden from external observation joined with caring involvement with people. In the common use we see clearly the ethical dimension of thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness in the wider sense I want to explore includes this kind of awareness but is more comprehensive.

By thoughtfulness in this wider sense, I mean “thought-FULL-ness,” that is, comprehensive awareness. Observation, common sense, scientific thought and introspection are one-directional and focal. In observation and scientific thought you sometimes forget your entanglement with the object of focus, that is, how it affects you and you affect it. In common sense you can lose sight of the object’s existence in and for itself because you are concerned only with its effect on you. In none of these modes of thought are you aware of yourself in the act of relating to the object or of how your or the object’s relation to God affects the total situation.

Ideally, then, thoughtfulness is simultaneous awareness of every dimension of your environment and your relation to it; it is awareness of yourself, your relationship to other things and of the relationships of other things to each other at the same time. In thoughtfulness we do more than observe and think about something; we also become aware of our observations, thoughts, feelings and judgments. We do more than interrogate the objects we think about. We also question the relationship between us and the object of our attention, taking into account all aspects of our relationship to it—causal, ethical, religious and esthetic.

Thoughtfulness challenges every automatic and habitual way of relating to things, ideas, people, God and ourselves. Thoughtfulness insists that we bring our every act and relation into the light of rational deliberation, freedom, moral judgment and awareness of God. Thoughtfulness takes nothing for granted. It interrogates every act, feeling, thought and every appearance. It raises not only narrow scientific and common sense questions but reflexive questions, questions that question the questioner.  “What am I doing?” “Why am I doing this?” “Why do I want to do this?” “Should I do this?” “What does my action reveal about me?”

Most important of all, thoughtfulness is awareness of God in all these relationships and dimensions. For a Christian, our relationship with God must be the decisive factor in all relationships, feelings and acts. Everything possesses a relationship to God, a relation of dependence, meaning and direction; and a thing’s God-relation is the most fundamental relation it can possess. It is the central component in its identity. No one is truly thoughtful who is not mindful of the presence and relevance of God to all things.

For a Christian, every relationship and every activity is a matter of conscience. Conscientiousness is habitual thoughtfulness in relation to God. It is awareness of God as the third factor in every relationship, every activity and every decision. It is constant awareness of God as our Creator, Guide, Judge and Savior. A conscientious person does not forget God in the daily routines of life and views forgetfulness of God as a serious fault. Conscientiousness sanctifies every aspect of life. All of it is lived before God and directed to God.

I will omit examples of thoughtfulness because I hope that every post I make on this blog illustrates and embodies thoughtfulness. To be continued…

Coming soon: the nature, forms and consequences of thoughtlessness.

Thinking and Thoughtfulness (Part 1)

Since a major theme of my blog is “thoughtfulness in religion,” I owe it to you to explain what I mean by thoughtfulness and why I believe it is so important. Today I begin a short series on thinking and thoughtfulness. So, think with me for a while about thinking.


To understand a concept thoroughly it is not enough merely to define it. We must grasp its relationships to other concepts in the neighborhood. Only by bringing to light how it differs and resembles to those nearby ideas can we locate it on a conceptual map. The larger the scope of our vision, the more precise will be our sense of its location. Hence I plan to consider thoughtfulness in relation to such concepts as intelligence, reason, observation, common sense, critical thought, introspection and thoughtlessness.


A few years ago I read Bernard Lonergan’s huge book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This book stands in the long tradition of books with similar titles: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Lonergan surveys the map of concepts and activities that orient us to the human act of insight, which is the act of understanding. I will not attempt to summarize his study here. But I want to acknowledge that my thinking about thinking and thoughtfulness has been influenced by this profound book. Specifically, the distinction I make below between common sense and critical (or scientific) thought comes directly from Lonergan (p. 181).


Intelligence and Reason

Intelligence is a more encompassing concept than reason. Intelligence is the power of a living being to perceive and respond appropriately to the information it receives from its environment. Billiard balls and hydrogen atoms do not possess intelligence even though they respond to physical contact by other things. Intelligence involves interpretation or processing of information by internal systems capable of such activity. Many intriguing questions arise at this point. What is information? Is information always the product of intelligence? Is it possible to construct an intelligent machine? But I won’t pursue them here. Human beings are not the only living creatures to possess intelligence. Horses, rabbits, mice and even one-cell creatures are marked by intelligent behavior.

But human beings possess a higher form of intelligence we call reason. Reason is not simply more intelligence; it is a qualitatively different kind of intelligence. In brief, reason is intelligence combined with freedom. Human beings not only respond intelligently to information in the automatic ways animals and plants do, they are conscious of their intelligence and partly in control of its application. We can initiate the processes of thinking and imagining apart from external contact with information bearing systems. We can resist being determined by the information pressing in on our senses, and we can anticipate several steps ahead to future states of our world. Reason is the power to see, understand or comprehend relationships— spatial, temporal, mathematical but especially causal and logical relationships. Information is always encoded in a system of relationships, and reason can see the relationships and read the information written therein. Only reasoning beings can attain insight or understanding.


All intelligent beings can receive information from their environment but only reasoning creatures observe the world. Observation is an intentional act designed to raise mere perception to a higher level by giving the object the kind of attention that will allow it to show itself in its fullness. In ordinary life it usually suffices to see things as images in their wholeness. To avoid hitting the car in front of us, it is enough to see the image as a car. We need not observe it in detail. In that situation, observing would be a foolish thing to do. Observation is the skill of focusing intently on the appearance of something. It is taking note of the details of its parts and shades and activities. If you don’t notice something you can’t think about it or take into account how it might affect you. So, observation precedes serious thought and analysis. To become a good observer you have to train your mind to notice things that we ordinarily overlook. Description is the way we communicate the results of observation.

Common Sense

As I said above, reason is the power to see all sorts of relationships. Common sense is reason’s power to grasp relationships between things and us; that is, common sense enables us to anticipate how things will affect us in practical ways. It learns from personal experience and the experience of other people how things work, how to adjust to them and use them for our benefit. It also works to avoid danger, to make a living or to achieve success in our activities.

It reasons like this: when you do this, that happens; or when that happens, it affects us like this. It is the form of reason used in learning a skill: auto mechanics, bricklaying, getting along with difficult people, or playing basketball. It is not directly interested in theoretical explanations. It gets impatient with any line of thought where the practical relevance is not evident.

Clearly, common sense is very important for daily life. We are related to everything in our environment, and to act wisely we need to anticipate how our actions will affect other things and how those things may affect us. Common sense conforms to the general pattern of reason; it sees connections, analogies and relationships of all kinds. It is especially sensitive to causal relationships. It can use this knowledge very creatively to solve problems. To be continued…

Next: critical thought, introspection and thoughtfulness