Thursday, March 5, 2015

John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent - otherwise thought is but an idle amusement

By chance I have been spending some time with some of England’s Catholic writers – Coventry Patmore, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, for a couple of months, John Henry Newman in his 1870 apologia An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.  It was tough climbing with Newman, so I took it slowly, a couple of months for a book that is not 400 pages, and early on I wondered if I should turn back:

Reverting to the two modes of holding propositions, conditional and unconditional, which was the subject of the former Section, that is, inferences and assents, I observe that inferences, which are conditional acts, are especially cognate to notional apprehension, and assents, which are unconditional, to real. (Ch. I, “Modes of Apprehending Propositions”)

This looks rather more like formal philosophy than I had been expecting or can handle, but fortunately after establishing some terminology Newman relaxes into something I could read if not necessarily understand.  A Grammar of Assent is a subtle and tolerant essay on the psychology of belief, more akin to William James than to theology.  Though Newman, in the end, wants to make the case for Christian belief (and that is how he spends the last fifth of the book), he first wants to know how we believe anything at all.  Or, to switch back to his term, how we assent to a belief.  Newman takes true belief as an act, something we do.

Such as I am, it is my all; this is my essential stand-point, and must be taken for granted; otherwise, thought is but an idle amusement, not worth the trouble.  There is no medium between using my faculties, as I have them, and flinging myself upon the external world according to the random impulse of the moment, as spray upon the surface of the waves, and simply forgetting that I am.  (IX.1)

The end of the argument, to summarize hundreds of pages, is that assent comes from a combination of our conscious, logical, and sensory capacities with our imagination.  Much of the argument is about the role of the imagination in leading to belief.  Newman’s argument is in many ways about literature, which is why I was led the book.  When we “believe” in a book, when we assent to its ethos and language and nonsense, we are deliberately imitating the process, perhaps unconscious, that created our more fundamental beliefs.  Our imaginative encounter with art in turn might change or more likely reinforces our beliefs.

If I understood Newman’s book better I think that is the argument I would pursue.  He gives a nice example (VIII.2.) comparing Pascal, Montaigne, and a scene from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South on the immortality of the soul (the “fluff filling my lungs” scene).  The logic of the deep thinkers has its role, but its Gaskell’s dying factory worker who wins converts.

Newman is one of the finest prose writers in English, and especially fine for a prose writer who does not have a strong voice like Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin.  A writer could actually learn how to write by studying Newman and not come out sounding like a barking lunatic.  I will just put one example here, amusing because it is about the internet.  I put the wisest bit in boldface:

In this day the subject-matter of thought and belief has so increased upon us, that a far higher mental formation is required than was necessary in times past, and higher than we have actually reached.  The whole world is brought to our doors every morning, and our judgment is required upon social concerns, books, persons, parties, creeds, national acts, political principles and measures.  We have to form our opinion, make our profession, take our side on a hundred matters on which we have but little right to speak at all… except in abstract truth, no judgment rises higher than probability.  (VII.3.)

What I omitted is just as accurate.


  1. The end of the argument, to summarize hundreds of pages, is that assent comes from a combination of our conscious, logical, and sensory capacities with our imagination.

    Modern neuroscience seems to validate him, judging from Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain. But then again neuroscience only discovers things most people have intuitively known for millennia.

  2. The perceptiveness of Newman's argument was a pleasant surprise, as was his generosity. He is arguing, primarily, with a more strictly rationalist tradition going back to John Locke, which leads him to some rich ideas. Even our beliefs most based on logic have little gaps we filled in imaginatively, or places where we started with emotion and found the logic later. So a pleasingly big argument. When Newman narrows it to the Christian case at the end, he immediately acknowledges that following the logic of his book few people will believe his argument.