Remarks on an "Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent"

<45007E> 91

J. N. Darby.

(Notes and Comments Vol. 5.)

{Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent, by John Henry Newman, D.D. of the Oratory. Second edition. London: Burns, Oates & Co., 17 and 18, Portman Street.}

It is striking, to begin with, that in his three acts of the mind, he only speaks of 'doubt,' 'inference,' and 'assent.' He makes 'assent' different from 'inference,' and there he is right. I have often said, an inference is only 'must,' or therefore never really 'is.' Belief of a fact never rests on an inference, but on intuition, sight, etc., or testimony. But a man's disbelieving is not believing the contradictory. Religion is revealed - rather God and His truth; I do not believe it - I do not think there is adequate evidence and do not believe it. But I do not believe there is none. If we put truth instead of revealed religion - and the truth is - this depends on a religion being in question as revealed. Now certain things being presented to me as revealed, my being unable to receive them is not my saying there is no revealed religion. And when truth is presented to me, it must be specific truth (and there can, if it embraces all our relationship to God, be but one) but if truth be presented to me, my disbelief of it, seeing it must be positive, is not saying 'there is none.' According to Dr. Newman there are three modes of holding and three ways of enunciating propositions - each corresponding to each - three mental acts. Taking free-trade as an example, he says: "These three mental acts are doubt, inference and assent. A question is the expression of a doubt; a conclusion is the expression of an act of inference; and an assertion is the expression of an act of assent. To doubt, for instance, is not to see one's way to hold that free-trade is or is not a benefit; to infer, is to hold on sufficient grounds that free-trade may, must, or should be a benefit; to assent to the proposition, is to hold that free-trade is a benefit." "And, in fact, these three modes of entertaining propositions - doubting them, inferring them, assenting to them, are so distinct in their action, that, when they are severally carried out into the intellectual habits of an individual, they become the principles and notes of three distinct states or characters of mind. For instance, in the case of revealed religion, according as one or other of these is paramount within him, a man is a sceptic as regards it; or a philosopher, thinking it more or less probable considered as a conclusion of reason; or he has an unhesitating faith in it, and is recognised as a believer. If he simply disbelieves, or dissents, he is assenting to the contradictory of the thesis, viz., that there is no revelation." This is quite false.

92 But his logic is wholly at fault too, the comprehension of the word wholly left out. In page 6, he says: "We cannot assent to a proposition, without some intelligent apprehension of it; whereas we need not understand it at all in order to infer it. We cannot give our assent to the proposition that 'x is z,' till we are told something about one or other of the terms; but we can infer, if 'x is Y, and Y is z, that x is z, whether we know the meaning of x and z' or no." Thus the "is" is absolute, i.e., x must be all Y, and Y must be all x to be always true. Thus, snow is white, white is a colour, therefore snow is a colour. This is nice logic!

What follows is sufficiently judged further on - the confusion of effect from the thing assented to, and strength in the assent. But further; he says: "The only question is, what measure of apprehension is sufficient. And the answer to this question is equally plain: - it is the predicate of the proposition which must be apprehended. In a proposition one term is predicated of another; the subject is referred to the predicate, and the predicate gives us information about the subject; - therefore to apprehend the proposition is to have that information, and to assent to it is to acquiesce in it as true. Therefore I apprehend a proposition, when I apprehend its predicate. The subject itself need not be apprehended per se in order to a genuine assent: for it is the very thing which the predicate has to elucidate, and therefore by its formal place in the proposition, so far as it is the subject, it is something unknown, something which the predicate makes known; but the predicate cannot make it known, unless it is known itself. Let the question be, "What is trade?" here is a distinct profession of ignorance about "trade"; and let the answer be, "trade is the interchange of goods"; trade then need not be known, as a condition of assent to the proposition, except so far as the account of it which is given in answer, "the interchange of goods," makes it known; and that must be apprehended in order to make it known. There is no reason why our knowledge of the subject, whatever it is, should go beyond what the predicate tells us about it," but a proposition may where it is a complex idea to explain a word, or to render a vague idea definite and clear. Thus, "trade is the interchange of commodities." A child has read a book, and finds "trade," and says, 'What is trade?' "It is the interchange of commodities," is explaining the word by the thing expressed. Or I may say, 'Money is a mere conventional representative,' and, whatever the means employed, bills or gold, trade is really the interchange of commodities - here it pretends to give the real character of the commerce I have seen going on in the world. Otherwise, a proposition relates to something known objectively, say, as Dr. Newman, Lucerne. He states I need not apprehend the subject, and anything more childishly fallacious I never read. I will give his own words. "If a child asks, 'What is Lucerne?' and is answered, 'Lucerne is Medicago sativa, of the class Diadelphia and order Decandria'; and henceforth says obediently, 'Lucerne is Medicago sativa,' etc., he makes no act of assent to the proposition which he enunciates, but speaks like a parrot. But if he is told, 'Lucerne is food for cattle,' and is shown cows grazing in a meadow, then, though he never saw lucerne, and knows nothing at all about it, besides what he has learned from the predicate, he is in a position to make as genuine an assent to the proposition 'Lucerne is food for cattle,' on the word of his informant, as if he knew ever so much more about lucerne. And as soon as he has got so far as this, - he may go further. He now knows enough about lucerne to enable him to apprehend propositions which have lucerne for their predicate, should they come before him for assent, as, 'That field is sown with lucerne,' or 'Clover is not lucerne.'"

93 In the first place Medicago sativa is merely a change of names, and gives nothing at all, unless a genus, if I know botany. The class and order make me know it is a plant, if I have read Linnaeus, but, the subject, lucerne, not being known by sense, the passage, if I knew Linnaeus by heart, tells me nothing save that the predicate supposes, does not state, that a plant with a Latin name exists, but no more. "But if he is told lucerne is food for cattle," he can assent to the proposition on the word of his informant, as if he knew ever so much more about lucerne." And now we see the utter folly of the man - he adds: "And is shown cows grazing in a meadow." How does he know that it is lucerne they are eating? He must know it is lucerne, to make the proposition anything at all to him. Suppose it is clover they are eating, he will call clover lucerne because cows eat it, or he knows somehow lucerne as an object of sense, which is just what Dr. Newman is proving he need not. The proposition must be, 'all that cows eat is lucerne.' Logically he has made the predicate of an universal affirmative universal, instead of particular. "Lucerne is food for cows" only means is one kind of food for cows. Hence, when he sees the cows eating lucerne, he only knows it is a kind of food for cows since they are eating it, but he does not know it is lucerne. If Dr. Newman merely means that seeing cows eating makes him know what the predicate "food for cows" means, it is ridiculous. If it is so, he has only learned that the name "lucerne" is attached to one thing cows eat, but he has no object at all before his mind to which the predicate attaches. If he must see cows eating to know what the predicate means, it is child's play, for then he must be told they are cows, and what eating is, or the predicate is nothing, and he understands that but nothing more of the subject, save the name. Say "Dollum is something cows eat." What do I know about dollum, save that cows eat something men call "dollum." But I should then say, "But what is dollum?" But this child's play is not what Dr. Newman means. For when it is said, "That field is sown with lucerne," it is only when he is told that field is sown with lucerne, if he has not seen lucerne, and known objectively, or now learns by seeing it, he knows no more. We know what lucerne is and hence associate the ideas. But supposing he was told lucerne meant "bread and butter," he would suppose the field, if he assented, sown with bread and butter, for cows might eat that. "Clover is not lucerne," he can know nothing about, unless he knows them both, for cows eat clover, too. It is talking of a known thing, and slily slipping in, "seeing cows grazing in a meadow," which deceives here.

94 Page 13, he says: "Yet there is a way, in which the child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition, in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot, indeed, in that case, assent to the proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth." "Thus the child's mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as 'The quality of mercy is not strained,' or 'Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,' she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know; and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition - not, that is, to the line itself, which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good." "It is, indeed, plain, that, though the child assents to his mother's veracity, without, perhaps, being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, in proportion as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings." Now if he heard his mother say, "Virtue turns vice," he would have no idea in his head, if he did not know what "virtue" is; he might think it meant bad habits, or human nature, or taste, or anything you please, and he would learn nothing of what was meant to be conveyed. If he was sure his mother told him, his only real thought would be, "My mother tells the truth," but that that was true he could not say, he does not believe it. He has no proposition in his mind. And when Dr. Newman speaks of one assent being stronger than another, as when his mother's truthfulness is before him, it is a totally different matter - feeling, caring for, not assenting - and, if the mother was all wrong, would lead astray, because feeling is no real ground of assent, and may influence the heart contrary to the truth. Dr. Newman's mother led him up, I suppose, in Protestantism as true, and, as he now believes, brought him up entirely in error. God may act on feeling, conscience for the truth, then influence and truth go together. But that can be said of none else.

95 Dr. Newman partly distinguishes afterwards between inference and assent, but he has no idea of believing what God has said, simply because He has said it. Quoting from Locke's "Degrees of Assent,"* he says, "Where any particular thing, consonant to the constant observation of ourselves, and others in the like case, comes attested by the concurrent reports of all that mention it, we receive it as easily, and build as firmly upon it, as if it were certain knowledge, and we reason and act thereupon, with as little doubt as if it were perfect demonstration … These probabilities rise so near to certainty, that they govern our thoughts as absolutely, and influence all our actions as fully, as the most evident demonstration … Our belief thus grounded, rises to assurance." When we talk of "belief rising to assurance," with Locke, it is all very well, because it is mere human reason, and, for practical purposes, we must act on what is adequately proved as true though only "exceeding high probability," we have, save what is seen, nothing more. But all this shuts out divine faith. There is no rising to anything, no exercise of the mind to prove, no degree of anything, no possibility of human deceit. If God has spoken, it is the truth. But the whole of his reasoning in the chapter on assent, considered as unconditional, though he separates inference and assent, yet he speaks only of "the facts of human nature as they are found in the concrete action of life," i.e., men are certain enough to act on it, is all true. But on page 169, he insists that assent is "unconditional, and' that in 'subject-matters which admit of nothing higher than probable reasoning."

{*Essay concerning Human Understanding, Book 4, chapter 16.}

96 Page 171. He says, "None of us can think or act without the acceptance of truths, not intuitive, not demonstrated, yet sovereign." But some believe that things exist besides ourselves, "that there is a Supreme Being." He insists our nature is so constituted - so do I. "Nor," he adds, "has any philosophical theory the power to force on us a rule which will not work for a day." Now we have here inference, and, besides that, convictions which flow from "the constitution of our nature," of which we have no doubt (till we reason, and which reason may cast into doubt, rightly or wrongly); I admit all this, but none of this is divine faith. That "England is an island" is no example, because visible. "An island" means what I see, or others do there. He insists (page 179) that all this "does not interfere with the pre-eminence of strength in divine faith, which has a supernatural origin, when compared with all belief which is merely human and natural." But still, it is only because it has its origin in grace and its motions. "The greater certainty is according to appreciation, not intuition, for natural truths are often more clearly perceived!" "The connection of knowledge with truth is more apparent than the connection of faith with the same!" And another author, he quotes, says: "The adhesion of the will is stronger." And again, "The difference of certainty from the difference of motives." This only regards an exterior difference, for every natural certainty, formally looked at, is equal. "There is a transcendant adhesion of mind, intellectual and moral."

97 Page 218. "A man is infallible, whose words are always true; a rule is infallible, if it is unerring in all its possible applications. An infallible authority is certain in every particular case that may arise; but a man who is certain in some one definite case, is not on that account infallible." "I may be certain that the Church is infallible, while I am myself a fallible mortal; otherwise, I cannot be certain that the Supreme Being is infallible until I am infallible myself. It is a strange objection, then, which is sometimes made to Catholics, that they cannot prove and assent to the Church's infallibility, unless they first believe in their own. Certitude, as I have said, is directed to one or other definite concrete proposition. I am certain of proposition one, two, three, four, five, one by one, each by itself. I may be certain of one of them, without being certain of the rest; that I am certain of the first makes it neither likely nor unlikely that I am certain of the rest; but were I infallible, then I should be certain, not only of one of them, but of all, and of many more besides, which have never come before me as yet. Therefore we may be certain of the infallibility of the Church, while we admit that in many things we are not, and cannot be, certain at all."

Infallibility, as I have remarked elsewhere, is wrongly used. Truth cannot be infallible, nor anything actually revealed. It is simply absolute truth. It is more appropriately applied to Scripture, so far as there is an immense mass of truth there which I have not discovered, and I am sure all is true there with divine authority, but this is only used in a secondary way, as Paul says, "The Scripture foreseeing … preached before." But God is infallible, i.e., cannot be mistaken or deceived. Infallibility is not simply always speaking the truth, but the impossibility of mistaking, or deceiving, or shortcoming. It involves not mistaking in anything, as well as not deceiving. Now this is part of my idea of God, the true God. If He is not infallible, He is not God, He that is true, to whom all things are open.

Dr. Newman is audacious enough to say, "If I must be infallible to know the Church is such, I must be infallible to know God is such." This is every way false, and savours of blasphemy, and proves only one thing, as is evident from all he says, that he has never known the testimony of God as truth. It would have been impossible for him to use this logic if he had. But that is all it proves. And it is wholly without foundation, for 'know' has a different meaning. When I say, 'I know God is infallible,' though I dislike the expression, 'I know' is merely the intuitive conviction of what God is, not knowledge from proof - it is part of the nature of God, necessary to His nature - a fallible God is not what 'God' means. But I do not know whether an assembly is infallible. It is not so by necessity of nature, so that it is not an assembly if it be not. Nay! no assembly of creatures is or can be. It is the property of a creature to be fallible in itself. God may keep me right through grace, I will suppose, but in the sense it is used of God, I deny that the Assembly of God is infallible. Dr. Newman's argument is bad, because I have the proof that God has promised to keep it from all mistakes. But what has to be kept is not, per se, infallible, and it has to be proved that what is not necessarily infallible is made so in its judgments by Another. Of that I have to judge, and I may make a mistake, and I cannot say absolutely it is infallible. I may be certain, but that proves nothing, because I may be wrong, and it is a thing to be proved. I have not to judge if God be infallible - He is not God at all if He be not. It is a necessary element of Godhead. I do not know God at all, if I think it has to be proved.

98 I see no sign of faith, or moral perception in Dr. Newman; and lowering God in order to exalt the Church, i.e., man, is a sign of deep moral alienation from God.