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Newman's Distinction Between Inference and Assent

  • Eric Steinberg (a1)


The Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is now generally recognized as the culmination of John Henry Newman's longstanding preoccupation with what might be called the ‘Catholic problem of faith’. In numerous places Newman noted that prior to writing this work he had made sporadic and fruitless attempts to deal with the problem. In the widely cited insight of 1866 he received new ideas about the concepts involved in the problem and work on the Grammar ensued.



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page 351 note 1 See the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, edited by Dessain, Charles Stephen and Thomas, Gornall S. J. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), Volume XXV, pp. 2930.

page 351 note 2 In John Henry Newman: Autobiographical Writings, edited by Tristam, H. (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), pp. 269–70.

page 352 note 1 ‘On the Certainty of Faith’, in the Birmingham Oratory Archives, file B.9.11, p. I.

page 352 note 2 See Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Fraser, A. C. (New York: Dover Books, 1959), IV, 19, 1, Volume 2, pp. 428–9.

page 352 note 3 See Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Steinberg, Eric (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), Section X, pp. 73–4. Hume, however, seems to agree with Newman that conclusions that are not demonstrated may nevertheless be reasonably believed with the ‘last degree of assurance’.

page 352 note 4 ‘On the Certainty of Faith’, p. 7.

page 352 note 5 Ibid. pp. 11 and 13. ‘…in a case in which it is not an intellectual absurdity to suppose the contradictory of the conclusion, it would be a sheer absurdity to feel doubt or even fear about its truth’ (p. 14).

page 352 note 6 Ibid. pp. 28–32.

page 352 note 7 Ibid. p. 31.

page 352 note 8 Ibid. p. 28.

page 353 note 1 Ibid. p. 20.

page 353 note 2 Ibid. pp. 20 and 33.

page 353 note 3 In Doubt and Religious Commitment: The Role of the Will in Newman's Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), Jamie, M. Ferreira correctly notes that for Newman there need be no epistemic gap to be bridged between evidence and conclusion. But she fails to see (pp. 55–7) that this is not the only kind of gap concerning belief or assent for Newman. There is also a gap between the judgement of reason and the actual belief, itself. The latter gap requires bridging by the will.

page 353 note 4 ‘Papers of 1853 on the Certainty of Faith’, in The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty, edited by de Achaval, Hugo M.S. J., and Holmes, J. Derek (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 11.

page 353 note 5 Ibid. pp. 10–1. Cf a paper of May 11, 1853 in the Oratory file A.23.1.: ‘The usual course is first to infer and then to accept the inference, therefore, to reason and to believe are distinct’.

page 353 note 6 Achaval, and Holmes, , op. cit. pp. 5162.

page 353 note 7 Ibid. p. 53.

page 353 note 8 Ibid.

page 353 note 9 Ibid. pp. 63–80.

page 354 note 1 Newman, John Henry, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (New York, London and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947). References to this work are in parentheses.

page 354 note 2 For instance, Ibid. p. 47 and (the example noted by Price, H. H. in Belief (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969)), Pp. 137–8.

page 354 note 3 The distinction is noted in Price, , op. cit. pp. 141–5.

page 355 note 1 Achaval and Holmes, op. cit. pp. 64–5: ‘When the assent which I give to a truth…is simple and absolute, I shall call it an intuition…When it is complex, I call it a contuition, as being a sight of a thing through and by means of the things which lie about it.’

page 355 note 2 Pailin, David A., The Way to Faith: An Examination of Newman's ‘Grammar of Assent’ as a Response to the Search for Certainty in Faith (London: Epworth Press, 1969), p. 139.

page 355 note 3 Ibid. p. 176.

page 356 note 1 Cf. Achaval, and Holmes, , op. cit. p. 123: ‘A first and essential characteristic, then, of certitude is, that it cannot coexist with hesitation or doubt.’

page 356 note 2 ‘Doubt’ is used here (as throughout the work) to mean ‘a suspense of mind, in which sense of the word, to have “no doubt” about a thesis is equivalent…either to inferring it or else assenting to it’ (6–7).

page 357 note 1 Achaval, and Holmes, , op. cit. p. 11.

page 357 note 2 Ibid. p. 64.

page 357 note 3 Price, , op. cit. pp.

page 357 note 4 Ferreira, , op. cit. pp. 21–2.

page 358 note 1 Given the preceding analysis of ‘inference’ and ‘assent’ we have at least a partial explanation of why there is virtually no reference to the will in Newman's discussion of assent in the Grammar, although even after the publication of the work Newman continued to espouse a voluntarist theory of belief (see the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Volume 25, pp. 323–5). Formerly, Newman had appealed to the will to bridge the conceptual gap between reason and acceptance. But since inference is itself a kind of acceptance, there is no gap to be bridged in the major issue under scrutiny in the work, namely, how do we go from inference to assent?

page 358 note 2 It must be admitted that traces of the old view of ‘inference’ and ‘assent’ remain in the Grammar, particularly in (a) Newman's analysis of opinion and the claim that what seem to be less than certain acceptances of propositions are actually certain acceptances of the probability of propositions (132) and (b) the discussion of inferential acts as acts of justification or reasons for assent in Chapter Six of the work (125ff.).

page 358 note 3 ‘Assent’ in the Oratory file B.2.6.

page 358 note 4 October 29, 1866 paper, ‘Inference’ in the Oratory file B.2.6.

page 359 note 1 Achaval, and Holmes, , op. cit. pp. 123–4.

page 359 note 2 What is equally perplexing is why commentators accept the dependence without question or criticism. Pailin, , op. cit. p. 159, seems to move from ‘conditionality’ as he has interpreted it, that is PC, to the denial of certainty, without explanation. In Newman's Dialogues on Certitude (Rome: Catholic Books, 1978) James Lyons does similarly when he notes, ‘Again we must employ the word “conditional” in speaking about the manner in which an inference “arrives at a proposition”…special characteristic of assent is by distinct contrast that it is unconditional. Assent excludes the presence of any doubt’ (p. 28).“

page 360 note 1 It is not clear from the paper in which this argument occurs whether Newman also thinks that certainty can be gradually created. He says that certainty cannot be strengthened, which seems to be true of any state which does not admit of ‘more’, but this still leaves open the possibility that it can be gradually created. In the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, XIII, pp. 266–7 he implies that certainty cannot be gradually created.

page 360 note 2 For a discussion of ‘certainty’ as an absolute term along these lines see Unger, Peter, ‘A Defense of Skepticism’, The Philosophical Review, LXXX (1971), pp. 198218, reprinted in Essays on Knowledge and justification, edited by Pappas, George S. and Swain, Marshall (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 317–36 and Unger, Peter, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Chapter II.

page 363 note 1 Interestingly Newman claims that Descartes' ‘Cogito ergo sum’ is a case of reasoning in the Philosophical Notebook of John Henry Newman, edited by Sillem, Edward J. (Louvain: Nauwerlaerts, 1970), Volume II, p. 37.

page 363 note 2 Undoubtedly Newman would want to dispute the claim that in such cases assent is not present by arguing that one is actually assenting to ‘It is probable that P’, that is, that one is certain of another statement in which P is embedded. But even conceding that in this way every acceptance involves the certainty of some proposition, will not help Newman's general position. For then inferences, which after all are acceptances, will involve certainty and the basis for the distinction between inference and assent will be obliterated.

page 364 note 1 Is there a way for Newman to avoid this predicament? In the discussion of ‘natural inference’ in the Grammar (211, 255–6; cf. 230–1). There is the suggestion that the ‘reasoning’ of the illative sense may not constitute inference, since unlike the former the latter is dependent on propositions and does not deal with the concrete qua concrete. However, it should be noted that according to Newman (32) even real assents, which presumably do deal with the concrete qua concrete, involve propositions. In any case there would still be many things on Newman's view to which we can and properly do assent (179–80) which would no longer be in the purview of the reasoning illative sense according to PC and CC. Hence the problem noted in this paper would still exist with respect to this class of ostensible truths.

page 364 note 2 A similar ambiguity is pointed out by O'Donoghue, N. D. in ‘Newman and the Problem of Privileged Access to Truth’, Irish Theological Quarterly, XLII (1975), p. 245.


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