A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302

Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel


In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[1]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[2] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[3] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[4] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[5]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.
  2. [2] The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.
  3. [3] Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.
  4. [4] Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.
  5. [5] Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.

Our Senses and Art

Have you ever been on one of those 4D rides at an amusement park? Not only do you experience the film 3D (because you are wearing those stylish 3D glasses), but there is a supposed fourth dimension which includes water being sprayed on you or the feeling of bugs crawling up your leg simultaneous to the corresponding scenes in the film. While the experience is diverting, do the additional effects enhance or detract from our aesthetic experience? If the purpose is to draw us in to the imaginary world of the film by stimulating more of our senses, I’m afraid it has the opposite result. Just as we are about to enter the imaginary world of the film, the shock of touch calls us back to the real world. We may try to enter into the fantasy world of “Shrek”, for instance, but are jolted back by a spray of cold water on our legs! As a result, the experience becomes awkward and disjointed diminishing the aesthetic experience.[1] This may simply be a personal preference or it may actually relate to how our senses interact with art.

In Robert Wood’s “Introduction” to Placing Aesthetics, he observes that seeing and hearing are the primary senses used in fine arts. By listing off the primary forms of the fine arts: prose, poetry, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, we can agree with his observation that each of them are experienced through either sight or sound (or both). Wood references a few obscure arts that do have other senses such as the culinary arts or perfume making, but we do not usually associate those with fine arts. Wood questions the reason for this emphasis: “What is there about seeing and hearing that sets off their field of operation from that of the other senses?”[2] He suggests that the other senses (taste, smell and touch) are proximity senses; in other words, those senses give us information about an object which is close to us and as a result, produce an immediate sensual experience. The proximity senses relate directly to the body: for example, when we smell, the odor enters through the nose; when we taste, the food enters the mouth; when we touch, the object must come in contact with our body. With seeing and hearing, however, though sight is done with the eyes and hearing with the ears, the experience and reaction takes place more in our mind. We do not have a “somatic self-experience,” as Wood puts it, and thus, these senses can be considered away from the body or distant senses.[3] The distance created between the body and the aesthetic experience by these senses allows the participants to transcend to something above a bodily experience. Participants can engage and connect with the universal world through the ideas referenced in the art. Art, then, is primarily through the senses of sight and sound because it provides us with a deeper, more meaningful experience and pushes us to think upon ideas that are bigger than ourselves.

Think, for example, of reading a good novel. We use our sense of sight to read, but the words on the page are not the form of art in itself. The art is actually found in the imaginary world. The words from the novel paint the world in our minds and we transcend to this place as we read. The better the descriptions and the more relatable the characters, the more we are able to truly engross ourselves in this imaginary world. The sense of sight then uses a real object to call us to an imaginary world which includes universal ideas. As we go deeper into the imaginary world, we connect ourselves more to these universal ideas. If we attempted to use the same techniques found in the 4D theatre experience while reading a good novel, our experience would immediately change. What if we were able to touch the texture of the clothes of the characters or smell the food described in a dinner scene? I would argue that these physical elements would only distract and detract from the aesthetic experience. The novel carries the reader to an imaginary world and the proximate senses, most likely, will only bring him or her back to the real world.

Could incorporating all the senses ever be beneficial to our aesthetic experience? There may be times where, though it is an aesthetic experience, the purpose is not to carry us into the universal or imaginary realm but, rather, to call us to something in the present and real world.[4] In high mass, all of our senses are incorporated: we are listening to the music, touching and tasting the bread and the wine, smelling the incense, reading the Scriptures on the page and seeing the beauty of the art in the cathedral around us. Here it seems that our experience is enhanced because we are able to worship more fully – with all of our body and our mind completely engaged. The purpose of the service is not for us to transcend to an imaginary world, but to fully dedicate all of our being in the present world and in that present moment to God.

The emphasis, then, on the senses of sight and sound in the fine arts is not arbitrary, but goes hand in hand with the usual purposes of the fine arts: to turn us out of ourselves toward universal ideas and to connect us to an imaginary world. There are some aesthetic experiences which successfully use the proximity senses, such as a church service, but here the purpose of such an aesthetic experience differs from the norm.

  1. [1] Though it falls short as an aesthetic experience, I still enjoy the ride!
  2. [2] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 19.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Certainly, good art, which may carry us away to the imaginary world in the moment, will also encourage us to change our present reality. Its connection to the universal ideas can be a powerful motivator for reform.