Maria Montessori talks about her way of education as one that provides a child with keys to life. One type of key that I have found is that which allows the child to encounter and engage what constitutes any kind of developing or changing thing in this world. That kind of key can only be unpacked if one becomes attuned to the interior life both in one’s self and in the child.
Interestingly, the keys upon which I would like to shed some light spring from fundamental keys already planted at the core of our souls. A turn to interiority reveals this fact. We naturally thirst not only for food and drink, but also for understanding, truth, and goodness. These are the transcendentals that constitute what Plato and others called the light of Being. St. Augustine followed this same language about a light within the soul. Aristotle, Plato’s student, renamed this light in terms of what it was able to cause, namely the ability to think and abstract and define and know the world and use one’s will in light of one’s knowledge. He called it the agent intellect. St. Thomas does the same. Bernard Lonergan transposes this interior light into a combination of Thomistic language, Augustine’s self-knowledge, and modern interiority analysis. He calls this light the capacity for self-transcendence, a capacity which is constituted by three transcendental notions; the notion of intelligibility, the notion of being, and the notion of goodness. These fundamental notions are transcendental because they are the interior movers of our ability to rise beyond an old self to a new self, and to transcend into all that exists. The everyday language of one facet of these notions are questions. What and why questions express the notion of intelligibility. Intelligibility literally is the intrinsic notion or aim of a question for understanding. “Is it so?” or “Is it true?” are question that express the notion of being. We want to know whether something is correct or real. Questions for deliberation such as “Where should I go?” or “What should I do in life?” or “Should I get married?” are all questions that aim for a decision in the end. These express the first step of the notion of the good. However, the notion is a bit larger as well than just a question, but that would take me beyond where I want to go at the moment. If you would like to read more about these notions, see Lonergan’s book on insight, specifically his chapter on the notion of being, or his book titled “Method in Theology” and look at the index for his transcendental notions. In any case, these notions combined together constitute the human capacity for self-transcendence.
These fundamental notions do not need to be taught to a child. They exist. They are the created participation in the Divine Light. They are the Teacher who resides within each of our souls as a well-spring of conscious existence. In the Montessori world, in a concrete fashion, she saw the need to create an environment that liberated this inner reality of our existence for understanding, being (truth), and goodness. And wrapping these altogether is love. The essence of the human soul is for love, and that love gives birth to these other notions and then is complete through their completion (or virtue).
However, these transcendental notions do become specified in different ways. So, for example, the question for understanding which seeks patterns of any type can be directed to seek the nature of something, or its efficient causes, or its final cause. It can become directed toward the relationships of one thing with another through its environment, or even to the universe at large. And it can be examined in terms of its frequency, or how it developed. These are specifications of the notion of intelligibility and Lonergan unpacks these in a dynamic fashion in his book Insight.
Maria Montessori’s discoveries that led to the creation of children’s environments result in helping children to form these specifications of their transcendental notions. For example, starting in Children’s House, she has a set of beads grouped in various ways. There is a single bead, or a string of beads, or a area of beads set out like a square, or a volume of beads in a cube. The strings of beads are from two through 10 in length. Then the areas of beads are two through 10 on each side comprising from four to 100 beads. Then the volume is 2x2x2 through 10x10x10 beads comprising from 8 to 100 beads. Children in a concrete way come to see the patterns of lengths when they are grouped into areas and volumes. This allows them to see these patterns in their relationships. This provides a heuristic notion that seeks more precision in understanding any types of patterns or relationships. Such a specification of the notion of intelligibility Lonergan calls a “heuristic notion.” This heuristic notion seeks patterns of sets and sequences.
Once a child begins to discover “relationships in sequences” such as between the number of beads in lengths, areas, and volumes, then this become a kind of tool in the child’s interiority for exploring the world. Montessori’s discoveries are filled with these types of heuristic or transcendental keys which is what makes her way of teaching so profound for children. It liberates them. And this liberty is what gives them a profound joy and peace.