Notes on Newman’s Grammar of Assent

It is a bit of a mystery that people are able to truly believe anything, since logic itself gives only conditional conclusions (“if A, then B”), and often reason fails even to go this far, but only that, given a number of premises, a certain fact is probable. The point is not that we can be mistaken in our reasoning and imagine that we have proven more than we really have, but that we can believe something while recognizing that we lack absolute proof. Some philosophers call this an error, or even a sort of moral fault, but how is it even psychologically possible? And yet, as Cardinal Newman points out, we have many such beliefs. There are common truths, such as (to take his examples) that England is an island and that I will die someday, for which I can produce strong arguments but would be impatient with a demand for absolute proof though I nonetheless assert absolute certainty. There is (another of his examples) our certitude of the law of inertia from converging probabilities: we can never find a body with absolutely zero force on it, but this is to be expected, and the better we are able to isolate a body, the better the law is found to hold, and it explains so much about our world. Newman’s goal is less to justify this sort of certitude than to describe it.

Thus he sharply distinguishes inference, in which a conclusion is accepted conditional on premises, from assent, which is unconditional. It is his claim that we are able to leap from the former to the latter. Assent itself may be notional or real. The former is purely intellectual assent, while the latter engages our imagination and emotions. It would thus be a mistake to think that the two assents are distinguished by their type of object (e.g. general vs. particular truths); the same proposition may be held either notionally or really. Newman clearly thinks that real assent is usually deeper and more motivating. When we say that the truth of a matter “really sunk in” or “really hit home”, we are describing what Newman would call notional assent becoming real.

As a Catholic cleric, Newman is concerned that our assent to the existence of God can be a real one. This is not obviously true. Philosophical arguments to an uncaused Cause, for example, leave us with only an intellectual construct that can be given notional assent. Thus Newman’s emphasis on our experiencing God via personal conscience. We experience not only approval or disapproval of certain acts; we also experience a sense of duty, and not conflicting moral duties but a single absolute and sovereign moral law. We naturally extrapolate this to a divine Lawgiver, unitary, all-holy, all-knowing, angered by our sins. The point here is not to logically prove the existence of God from our experience of conscience, but to clothe the intellectual object of God with something concrete enough to give the imagination and passions a hold on it. Many doctrines of the faith can in themselves hardly be held other than notionally, but Newman believes that we can have a real assent to the deposit of faith as a whole via a trust in the revelation God has given to His Church. I note in passing how odd it is that Newman never appeals to the sacraments as a way of imbuing intellectual doctrines with phenomenal “reality”.

Logic is limited by language, but Newman does not accept that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. We are able to reason nonlinguistically and supralogically, what he calls the “illative sense”. This is how we organize our knowledge and formulate the propositions that are the basis of logical analysis. It is how those with aesthetic taste or social tact are able to intuit accurately although they could never give satisfactory arguments. It is how the scientist or historian can recognize multiple lines of converging evidence as warranting a conclusion. That last example might seem different from the others, since it is not the manner of reasoning but the degree of certainty that outpaces articulated logic.

One might suspect that Newman has stuck in this method of “converging probabilities”, taken from Bishop Butler, among the powers of the illative sense because, like Butler, he needs it for apologetic purposes. Butler and Newman would reply that this sort of reasoning is as indispensable in every other enquiry as it is in religion. One might nevertheless insist that the leap to certainty, from inferring, say, probability = 0.999 to declaring probability = 1, is nevertheless a fallacy, and what we deduce to be very likely we should simply consider as very likely. This is true logically, but I think Newman is correct psychologically, in that there are many beliefs I hold which I cannot absolutely prove, for which I can even imagine what would constitute disconfirming evidence, but which I treat as entirely certain.

Logic and language do have their advantages and the illative sense its limitations. The former are universal and communicable. The latter is necessarily private and diverse–you either see things the way I do, or you don’t. Thus, when at last Newman addresses the arguments for religion, he confesses a degree of subjectivity. What follows is not a proof; it is what is convincing to him.

Newman divides religion into natural and revealed. Natural religion he takes to be not that of the philosophers but that studied by the anthropologists. Following that tactic that Newman uses so well of granting his opponent’s claim only to turn it against him, he takes Lucretius as his main guide for the true nature of religion. Religion is founded on the sense of sin and guilt, on fear and propitiation. The sunny religion of the philosophers is a corruption rather than a development of the primordial religious sense, founded on our experience of consciousness, that man is estranged from the gods, that the fault lies with us rather than with them, that he is personally accountable for himself and yet is sufficiently connected to his fellow creatures that one can be offered in substitution for another. A part of natural religion is the idea that the gods or God could reveal themselves to us. A mark in favor of Christianity is that it uniquely poses itself as a new revelation for all mankind, and one that addresses the deepest concerns of natural religion.

For the most part, Newman’s argument for Christianity is historical. He does not bother arguing for the historical accuracy of any reported miracles but limits himself to the broad, undisputed historical record: the history of the Jews, their expectation of a Messiah, their subsequent catastrophic turn of fortune, the remarkable growth of the Church in the face of elite disdain and persecution, and the astounding heroism of the martyrs. This will probably seem odd to a contemporary reader. Nowadays, the apologist tends to see history as an obstacle to be overcome. (“Yes, in the past all Christians were scoundrels, but their faith is true nevertheless!”) However, for most of the history of Christendom, the historical arguments were considered the strongest ones. The early Church emphasized the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies as the decisive evidence for the Gospel. Thomas Aquinas and Dante defend belief in Christianity in almost identical terms, by pointing to the miraculous pre-Constantinian history of the Church. We should probably ask ourselves why we no longer find such arguments compelling. Given the generally more reliable intuition of past generations, perhaps we are the ones who aren’t seeing clearly.

9 thoughts on “Notes on Newman’s Grammar of Assent

  1. This is indeed a terrific book, one that is must reading if you have any interest (as I do in my work) in epistemology. Especially the early chapters are invaluable for the philosophy of science, as well.
    Good news is copies are easy to find.

  2. @B – As I recall Pascal, in his Pensees, had prophecies and miracles as the best evidence for Christ’s deity. I found that very striking, coming from Pascal – but hard to identify with.
    To judge a religion by its rapid success, growth and power also carries the opposite implication – that a religion which is feeble and shrinking can’t be true. And things change. On such a basis, nowadays, Islam would seem to be true, and Christianity not.
    But origin and the growth of Islam from within the Christian heartlands, to displace and eventually to equal/ surpass the number of Christians; is, at least, something that would challenge any simple idea of the success of Christianity being a measure of its truth.
    While I take your point that those in the past were better Men than us – and more logical thinkers for sure, they thought differently. Christianity needs to deal with Christians in a world where the evidence for fulfilment of many of the Old Testament prophecies seems weak or tendentious; and where the relevance of miracles 2000 years ago seems grossly inappropriate to my faith today.
    Christianity is indeed an historical faith, taking place in time; yet the main need is for it to be alive and present here and now. It seems inevitable that our faith be based *primarily* upon our present personal knowledge and current experience (as was Pascal’s own renewal of faith – with his visionary episode); rather than relying on any secondhand sources external sources such as translated and interpreted scriptures, bureaucratic church institutions, philosophy/ theology, historical and linguistic research.
    These are all nowadays thoroughly corrupted and contaminated, so as it be confused and distorted – at best. But, even if they were not, I find it wrong to make the ultimate decisions and choices concerning my eternal life on the basis of secondhand scholarly ‘evidence’, taken ‘on trust’.
    Pascal needed to know for himself (and did) – so do I (and also do).

    • In the old way of thinking about things, spectacular misfortunes can also be a sign of supernatural interest in a people. For example, one can imagine that someone who viewed history in this way would be impressed by the rapid downfall of the white race, from the dominant civilization on Earth to a despised minority in its former lands, when it abandoned Christianity.

      I admit that such arguments are usually not compelling to me, but the point is that they don’t always rely on Christianity being top dog at the moment.

      • I agree – and especially with your example; but the take-home point is that the data do not interpret themselves for us.
        The history of Christianity just is Not self-evidently one that proves its truth (I say again, Islam is the single strongest counter-argument – one grossly neglected by Christians).
        To find it so, we are compelled to take our interpretation at second hand – which means that the authority for interpretation must then be self-evident, which cannot be assumed because is the point at issue, and also that authority has lost its coherence (and, indeed, denies its own authority).
        This is probably the Eastern Orthodox ideal of tradition – but (as Fr Seraphim Rose recognized candidly) that was broken in 1917 (Russian Revolution); and when a tradition is broken it has gone – it no longer being primary tradition when thought-about and consciously-adopted.

  3. Pingback: Notes on Newman’s Grammar of Assent | Reaction Times

  4. I cannot see any practical consequence to extreme epistemic rigor. You speak of “leaping” to certainty from 99.99 percent probable truth. I think we all start rounding up to 100 well before that, and I think we are right to do so. No doubt this reflects my lack of epistemic rigor, but my lack of epistemic rigor is rooted in the exigent demands of life and a visceral dislike for shillyshallying.

    I suppose the result could be called hypocrisy, since I often act more certain than I am. This is certainly true of my religious behavior, and even my external professions of belief. But I prefer a veneer of certainty covering a skeptical core to the dramatized display of personal doubts that I called shillyshallying. I suppose most people have some uncertainty about exactly what is happening when they pray, but it is unseemly to let those doubts discolor the prayer. Pray like you mean it!

    Now I see that I must withdraw my opening line because I do see practical consequences to extreme epistemic rigor. It either prevents assent to propositions to which one must assent to be fully human (and not a Vulcan like Dr. Spock), or it encourage unmanly shillyshallying.

    This is something I learned as I tried to pass my faith to my children. I saw that dramatized display of my personal doubts was just intellectual vanity. I was actually anticipating the day when they rejected the faith and was planting the alibi that their Dad was not really a religious nut. Preach like you mean it or hold your tongue!

    I think the historical proof has gone out of fashion among Christians who are embarrassed by the Apocalypse. Embarrassed by it, or don’t understand it. The prediction was miraculous growth followed by miraculous decay. There is a demand that the Gospel be taught to the ends of the earth, but there is absolutely no promise that it will be received to the ends of the earth. Secular history ends with Christianity crucified! We may be the only religion in which catastrophic failure means everything is going according to plan.

    • Also, extreme epistemic rigor doesn’t seem to be quite the issue. When I ask myself why I am a Catholic, it’s not quite that I have some more certain background worldview using which I can estimate a probability of the truth of Christianity, and that I then find that probability to exceed some threshold.

      In fact, probabilities as such don’t really even enter into Newman’s apologetic. (I haven’t read Butler, but I doubt he actually estimates probabilities either.) I have probably misrepresented Newman somewhat by taking the mathematical meaning of “probability” as normative. “Probable argument” here is, I think, supposed to mean an argument that gives a reason for a conclusion but doesn’t conclusively establish it. “Converging probabilities” then means not a series converging on 1, but multiple arguments along different lines pointing toward the same conclusion.

  5. A common position is that because we are sometimes wrong, we should therefore never believe anything absolutely. Newman launches a sustained attack on this: belief is simply belief, and the fact that beliefs are sometimes wrong is no good argument against believing things, as beliefs are equally often mainly correct.

    This ties in pretty well to your comments on hope vs detachment Bonald. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love save us from the pagan philosophical virtues of skepticism, resignation, and detachment. Newman’s book is interesting as an extended defense of faith against skepticism.


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