Functional Specialization Seminars | January 2012

Seminar 5: What is Comparison by Robert Henman

by robert.henman 28. January 2012 19:03

                                            What is Comparison?

                                                                                    Robert Henman

            In the last 6 months I have been reading and rereading section 3 of chapter 17 of Insight and have learned that interpretation, a series of operations central to and within comparison, is a very complex set of different operations. I shall make an effort here to express what little I do understand about comparison.

In the first place when I am comparing two documents on a similar subject; Doc A and Doc B, I first function on a descriptive level of linguistic style, length, date, etc.. When I shift to discerning the meaning of the two documents the descriptive elements are with me as one level of context, but a whole new level of context now comes into play. The shift to grasp the meaning of what an author is attempting to convey depends on my present understanding of the language, the topic, the author’s purpose, the author’s audience, my understanding of understanding, my horizon and my ability to grasp the horizon of the author or authors.   

When I finally get to the actual comparing, I am comparing two different acts of my own understanding. I shall name those two acts MUX and MUY. Even if I have judged My Understanding of X and Y to be the same as the authors’ expressed understanding, it is My Understanding of X with which I am comparing to My Understanding of Y. Only if all relevant questions have been asked and correctly answered do I have potential access to the authors’ intended understanding and more than that I am seeking the differences, affinities and relationship between my two acts of understanding. It is a theoretical operation. That has been the fundamental insight into comparison that I have grasped over the past 6 months.

I will not repeat here Lonergan’s outline of the relational aspects of the operations that occur when one is attempting to express, interpret, or communicate understanding. One can read for oneself[1], first on page 579 of Insight, what Lonergan describes as the operations of communication. On page 585 and 586 Lonergan describes and distinguishes between expression, simple interpretation, and reflective interpretation. The challenge is to read those paragraphs with an interior presence and it is a challenge to hold it all theoretically “in one’s mind”, at least I found it so. Much of it is in play here now as I write even though much may not be acknowledged or fully understood. I am not referring to presuppositions here, although they are very relevant, but to the components of adequate interpretation and communication. Am I functioning, expressing myself, with an understanding of the universal viewpoint in mind? Am I thinking of and do I have an understanding of the possible audience of this brief expression? Have I an adequate understanding of the various canons of hermeneutics? What understanding am I attempting to express? This final question is worth exploring. I am attempting to express my understanding of comparison and I have found over the last 6 months that interpretation is a central factor in that process and that interpretation is a theoretical set of operations and contexts.

Over the past year I carried out a survey of articles that appeared in the Method and Lonergan Workshop journals. I found that comparison made up a significant percentage of those articles. The question that carried me along was in the nature of the value of such comparison. Later on the question was reformed for me as the value of the form of such comparison. The form of comparison did not operate functionally. In other words, it did not initiate dialectical discourse. Why not I wondered? That question led me into trying to understand the nature of comparison and interpretation that Lonergan outlined in Insight. Now this history may appear to be outside McShane’s seminar request to offer a brief expression of my understanding of comparison. Yet I think it relevant in that a process led me to ask certain questions that when answered helped me better understand the follow up to Lonergan’s achievements as well as some understanding of comparison. I think an example of how different horizons can and do obfuscate results will help express my present understanding of interpretation and comparison. This example is also one of the few that initiated discourse within Lonergan scholarship.

At the 1999 Lonergan Workshop Michael Vertin presented a paper titled “Is There a Constitutional Right to Privacy”. It would later appear in the Lonergan Workshop Journal. In the year 2000, Bruce Anderson published a response to Vertin’s article in Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, volume 18, # 1 pages 49-66, titled “Pointing Discussions of Interpretation Toward Dialectics”. In the Fall issue(Volume 18, # 2, pages 161-177) of the same journal Vertin replied to Anderson’s critique in an article titled; “Interpreting the Constitution: A Response to Bruce Anderson”.

Why did Vertin’s article initiate a response from Anderson when so many articles in a particular form of comparison over the past 4 decades within Lonergan scholarship did not? Are the two writers functioning in different horizons? Anderson refers to a limitation of the common sense horizon.[2] Vertin confirms his own common sense horizon in his statement when he says; “I am intelligently understanding meanings in the words.”[3] I am not going to repeat Lonergan’s lengthy paragraph on page 605 on objectivity. It is explicit on the origins of meaning and one has to ask why an acknowledged Lonergan scholar would make such a pronouncement.[4] Anderson and Vertin are in two different horizons. I suggest that this particular case of common sense interpreting and comparing combined with the many cases of comparison in Lonergan scholarship over the past 4 decades to have frustrated an adequate functioning of dialectic.[5] So, I suggest that Anderson responded because he functions in the theoretic zone and combined with his understanding of law and the philosophy of law, noted the level of Vertin’s horizon.[6]

Now, what does this all have to do with my attempt to express my understanding of comparison? I am merely stating that the proper functioning of comparison operates on the level of theory. If comparison occurred within the theoretic horizon the functionality of collaborative specialization would have a greater probability of occurring and help to eradicate common sense opinions. This form of comparison would also provide a foundation that would initiate adequate dialectical discourse towards establishing positions and reversing counterpositions.       



[1] The real challenge is to read for theoretic understanding. The only manner in which one can pass judgment on Lonergan’s expression is to understand it theoretically.

[2] Bruce Anderson, Pointing Discussions of Interpretation Toward Dialectics, Method, Vol. 18, # 1, page 49.

[3] Michael Vertin, Is There a Constitutional Right to Privacy, Lonergan Workshop Journal, volume 16, page 26. This statement (bold my own) alone is merely a pointer to Vertin’s horizon. Equating similar terms used by both Lonergan and Tribe as an example of cognitional agreement is an explicit pronouncement of Vertin’s common sense horizon. (Page 54, Anderson) Further and more relevant evidence lies in the common sense approach to interpretation and relating of the three judge’s stances. Anderson brings this out in various ways in his response.

[4] Obviously reading Lonergan’s position on objectivity does not make it one’s own.  Distinctions and refinements of experience and the acts of consciousness need be carried out and understood by the individual reader.

[5] There may also be an odd form of allegiance operative in Lonerganism that functions as a pseudo support system. Lonergan’s work has not found appreciation outside theological circles and some cohesiveness has been established by followers that functions more on the psychological level than the intellectual.

[6] This is a supposition on my part as I have not asked Dr. Anderson why he replied. A thorough reading of the three articles referred to should bring one to this judgment.


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