In the 1970s and 80s, it was called “consciousness-raising.” The 1990s brought us the power of the “inner self,” and by the early 2000s, a common catchphrase was “conscious empowerment.” Yes, countless signposts for humanity’s roadmap to happier living mark our collective history. And philosophers have been debating the “how” of personal flourishing for millennia.

But whatever it’s called, the mantra of “know thyself” seems to be the underlying theme.

“Well, I do know myself,” you might say. But Lonergan might reply with a question: “How well?” In fact, as I’ve come to know some of his writings, I can say that he has perfected   the act of “the ask.” Conscious self-questioning is key to his philosophy, specifically on three counts:

  1. What am I doing when I am “knowing?”
  2. Why is doing that considered “knowing?”
  3. What exactly do I know when I do it?

In philo-speak, Lonergan’s account of personal knowing is framed by these three questions in terms of cognition, epistemology, and metaphysics, leading one not only to discover meaning in one’s outer world, but (perhaps more importantly) one’s inner world.

When we approach self-discovery with the tool of unrestricted questioning in this manner, we are led through a process of self-appropriation: from consciousness of self to knowledge of self.

Discovering meaning in this manner constitutes a shift in outlook. And it’s key to Lonergan’s approach to what makes us human—not only what we all share in terms of human inquiry and operations of consciousness, but also what’s common to the spirit of the human species, what constitutes human beings regardless of their physical characteristics (including gender and race), individual experience, or historical and cultural location.

He wrote in 1957:

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.

So what is “the ask” involved in the process of one’s understanding of understanding? Lonergan speaks of three types of questioning. First, there are questions we ask for the purposes of intelligence: what is that? How does it work? What’s it for? And we ask such questions of observable objects. The answers help us to unify ideas, relate things to each other, generalize larger concepts and systems, and construct processes.

Second, there are questions for reflection. Could it really be that way? I wonder if that event really means X or Y? This is pondering, thinking about, assessing cognitive knowledge.

And third, humans ask questions in order to consider the objective value of something, where we weigh in upon the values of intersubjective living like honesty, integrity, justice, and charity for the sake of others. Questioning value allows us to choose to freely move away from “harmful, dangerous, misleading satisfactions.” That means that the self can transcend itself and become a creator of value, not just a passive bystander of the good and bad values existing in our lives.

Self-appropriation à la Lonergan is an invitation not only to know thyself, but to know thyself authentically, paving the way toward moral and spiritual abundance.