At the Threshold of the Halfway House



Mark D. Morelli, AT THE THRESHOLD OF THE HALFWAY HOUSE: A STUDY OF BERNARD LONERGAN’S ENCOUNTER WITH JOHN ALEXANDER STEWART, 2nd Edition [Encanto Editions, 2021] paperback, 292 pp. ISBN 978-0-578-85542-4

$35.95 US

While preparing his autobiographical reflection of 1972 Lonergan recollected that he had been “greatly influenced,” when he as just 26 years old, by his reading of a book on Plato by an Oxford don. He recalled that the book had given him his first clue into the idea of insight into phantasm which became the centerpiece of his mature thought.

But, forty years later, he had forgotten both the name of the author and the title of the book. Lonergan recounts that he “went down to the library, patiently worked through the cards listing books on Plato and, finally, when I got to ‘S’ found my man.” The book was Plato’s Doctrine of Ideas, and the author was John Alexander Stewart who for thirty years held the prestigious White’s Chair of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. Lonergan returned to his room with the book in hand and read it a second time. He reported that he found it “fascinating reading;” it contained “much that later I was to work out for myself in a somewhat different context.”


In the early 1970s, when interviewed about the sources of his thought, Bernard Lonergan recalled a particular book on Plato that had affectedhim deeply as a young man. He had forgotten the author’s name, so “I went down to the library, patiently worked through the cards listing books on Plato and, finally, when I got to ‘S’ found my man. I got the book out of the stacks, took it to my room, and found it fascinating reading” (A Second Collection [264]). The book was John Alexander Stewart’s Plato’s Doctrineof Ideas (1909). It influenced Lonergan immensely. “From Stewart I learnt that Plato was a methodologist, that his ideas were what the scientist seeks to discover, that the scientific or philosophic process towards discovery was one of question and answer” (264). That Stewart’s work is still fascinating reading is corroborated by Morelli’s present study, as he narrates in intriguing detail just who John Alexander Stewart was and how he fit into the philosophical currents of late 19th- and early 20th-century Oxford. Stewart is a virtually forgotten figure in contemporary philosophy; it was Lonergan’s genius to find in this Oxford don’s writings an anticipation of his own mature philosophy. Indeed, it was the original genius of Plato who set these two late modern philosophers on the journey into their own minds to find there anticipations of “the Forms.” M. paints a broad picture of modern English philosophy, shedding light not only on Stewart’s journey but also on Lonergan’s. For Stewart the major conflict in Plato studies lay between the translators, the “textualists,” who were only interested in what Plato said, and the “interpreters” who, as Stewart put it, sought to identify in their own experience what Plato was talking about. They asked, “What human and psychological experience was Plato talking about?” The textualists tended to make Plato’s Ideas seem fantastic because they did not relate them to the facts of present human psychology, but granted access to them—as past philosophical event—solely though documentary evidence (if only marshaled correctly). Anyone familiar with Lonergan’s thought will recognize why these ideas rang such a bell. According to Stewart, the Forms are not separate “things” but rather “points of view” according to which the sensible world becomes intelligible. They are heuristic structures arrived at through insight that enable the scientist to get a bead on the data. For him the Ideas, so far as their methodological significance is concerned, are nothing more than concepts-in-use—the instruments by which, when employed, human understanding performs its work of interpreting the world (this sensible world, not another world beyond). In a word, Plato was a methodologist; he was interested in the heuristic structures along which human consciousness flows; and this was Lonergan’s overriding interest as well.

The book is a meticulously researched account of Stewart’s early life as the son of a minister in Edinburgh and of the philosophical influences that shaped his thought, including the influence of Mark Pattison, who had been an early devotee of Newman at Oxford. M.’s account is a dramatic narrative of the idealist currents that descended upon Oxford in the late 19th century, their rejection by various empiricist and “realist” movements, the dawning influence of pragmatism, and Stewart’s position in the
midst of it all. Anyone who wants to learn something of the history of philosophical currents in England would do well to read this book. I imagine M. deeply enjoying his research as it led him to Oxford, its philosophical battles, factions, and intrigues. And all this sets the stage for understanding Lonergan’s critical realism in the context of modern philosophy. M. has a very interesting and extended section on what Lonergan meant by his own early “nominalism” and how Stewart, along with Plato and Augustine, contributed to Lonergan’s major philosophical breakthrough: what he called his intellectual conversion.

Three observations, the first substantive: The book could have referenced John Henry Newman more liberally, especially the importance of Newman’s “assent” as the background for Lonergan’s notion of judgment as mediating reality. After all, Lonergan considered Newman “his fundamental mentor and guide.” Second, a quibble: this very fine book deserves an index. Finally, a small compliment among many: there is a great picture of an English house on the cover of the book, presumably Stewart’s in Oxford? In summary, if John Alexander Stewart’s name goes down in the history of philosophy, it will likely be due in no small part to his influence on the young Lonergan. M. has gifted us all by spelling out that influence.

Richard M. Liddy, University Professor of Catholic Thought and Culture, Seton Hall University.