John Henry Newman.

An essay in aid of a grammar of assent online

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Of the Oratory,

Non in dialectics complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum.

St. Ambrose.

New York :

















J. H. N.

February 21, 1870.






Vlodes of holding and apprehending Propositions . . . i
§ I. Modes of holding Propositions . . , . i *

§2. Modes of apprehending Propositions .... 7

Assent considered as Apprehensive ii •

The Apprehension of Propositions . . . . . . 17 •


sectional and Real Assent 34

§ I. Notional Assents . - 40 »

^ 2. Real Assents 72

i^ 3. Notional and Real Assents contrasted .... 86


ipprehensive Assents in Religious Matters . . . .91.

^ I. Belief in One God 97

52. Belief in the Holy Trinity 117

^3. Belief in Dogmatic Theology 136

viii Contents.




Assent considered as Unconditional 148

, § I. Simple Assent 150

J ^ 2. Complex Assent 178


Certitude 200

§ I. Assent and Certitude contrasted 200

§2. Indefectibility of Certitude 211


Inference 248

§ I. Formal Inference . 248

§ 2. Informal Inference 276

§ 3. Natural Inference 317


The Illative Sense 330

^ I. The Sanction of the Illative Sense 333

§ 2. The Nature of the Illative Sense 340

§ 3. The Range of the Illative Sense 347


Inferential Assents in Religious Matters 373

§ I. Natural Religion 37S

§ 2. Revealed Religion 398



§ I. Modes of holding Propositions.

I. Propositions (consisting of a subject and predi-
cate united by the copula) may take a categorical,
conditional, or interrogative form.

(i) An interrogative, when they ask a Question,
(e. g. Does Free-trade benefit the poorer classses?)
and imply that possibly it does, and possibly it does

(2) A conditional, when they express a Conclusion
(e. g. Free-trade therefore benefits the poorer class-
es), and both imply, and imply their dependence on,
other propositions.

(3) A categorical, when they simply make an
Assertion (e. g. Free-trade does benefit), and imply
the absence of any condition or reservation of any
kind, looking neither before nor behind, as resting in
themselves and being intrinsically complete.

These three modes of shaping a proposition, dis-
tinct as they are from each other, follow each other
in natural sequence. A proposition, which starts

2 Modes of holding Propositions.

with being a Question, may become a Conclusion, and
then be changed into an Assertion ; but it has of course
ceased to be a question, so far forth as it has be-
come a conclusion, and has rid itself of its argumen-
tative form— that is, has ceased to be a conclusion,—
so far forth as it has become an assertion. A ques-
tion has not yet got so far as to be a conclusion,
though it is the necessary preliminary of a conclu-
sion ; and an assertion has got beyond being a mere
conclusion, though it is the natural issue of a con-
clusion. Their correlation is the measure of their
distinction one from another.

No one is likely to deny that a question is disthict
both from a conclusion and from an assertion ; and
an assertion will be found to be equally distinct from
a conclusion. For, if we rest our affirmation on ar-
guments, this shows that we are not asserting ; and,
when we assert, we do not argue. An assertion is
as distinct from a conclusion, as a word of command
is from a persuasion or recommendation. Com-
mand and assertion, as such, both of them, in their
different ways, dispense with, discard, ignore ante-
cedents of any kind, though antecedents may have
been a sine qua non condition of their being elicited.
They both carry with them the pretension of being
personal acts.

In insisting on the intrinsic distinctness of these
three modes of putting a proposition, I am not main-
taining that they may not co-exist as regards one
and the same subject. For what we have already
concluded, we may, if we will, make a question of;
and what we are asserting, we may, of course, con-
clude over again. We may assert to one man, and

Modes of holding Propositions. 3

conclude to another, and ask of a third ; still, when
we assert, we do not conclude, and, when we assert
or conclude, we do not question.

2. The internal act of holding propositions is for the
most part analogous to the external act of enunciating
them ; as there are three ways of enunciating, so are
there three ways of holding them, each corresponding
to each. These three mental acts are Doubt, Infer-W
ence, 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 actf
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.

Moreover, propositions, while they are the material
of these three enunciations, are the objects of the three
corresponding mental acts ; and as without a proposi-
tion there cannot be a question, conclusion, or asser-
tion, so without a proposition there is nothing to doubt
about, nothing to infer, nothing to assent to. Mental j
acts of whatever kind presuppose their objects.

And, since the three enunciations are distinct from
each other, therefore the three mental acts also,
Doubt, Inference, and Assent, are, with reference to one
and the same proposition, distinct from each other ;
else, why should their several enunciations be distinct?
And indeed it is very evident, that, so far forth as we
infer, v/e do not doubt, and that, when we assent, we
are not inferring, and, when we doubt, we cannot


4 Modes of holding Propositions.

And in fact, these three modes of entertaining pro-
positions,— 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 philoso-
pher, thinking it more or less probable considered as
a conclusion of reason ; or he has an unhesitating faith
in it, and is recognized as a believer. If he simply
disbelieves, or dissents, he is assenting to the contra-
dictory of the thesis, viz. that there is no Revelation.

Many minds of course there are, which are not
under the predominant influence of any one of the
three. Thus men are to be found of irrcflective,
impulsive, unsettled, or again of acute minds, who
do not know what they believe and what they do
not, and who may be by turns sceptics, inquirers, oi
believers ; who doubt, assent, infer, and doubt again,
according to the circumstances of the season. Nay
further, in all minds there is a certain co-existence of
these distinct acts ; that is, of two of them, for we can
at once infer and assent, though we cannot at once
either assent or infer and also doubt. Indeed, in a
multitude of cases we infer truths, or apparent truths,
before, and while, and after we assent to them.
/ Lastly, it cannot be denied that these three acts are
all natural to the mind; I mean, that, in exercising
them, we are not violating the laws of our nature, as
if they were in themselves an extravagance or weak-
ness, but are acting according to it, according to its

JlJodcs of holding Propositions. 5

legitimate constitution. Undoubtedly, it is possible,
it is common, in the particular case, to err in the exer-
cise of Doubt, of Inference, and of Assent ; that is, we
may be withholding a judgment about propositions
on which we have the means of coming to some con-
clusion ; or we may be assenting to propositions
which we ought to receive only on the credit of their
premisses, or again to keep ourselves in suspense
about ; but such errors of the individual belong to
the individual, not to his nature, and cannot avail
to forfeit for him his natural right, under proper
circumstances, to doubt, or to infer, or to assent.
We do but fulfil our nature in doubting, inferring,
and assenting ; and our duty is, not to abstain from
the exercise of an)^ function of our nature, but to do
what is in itself right rightly.

3. So far in general : — in this Essay I treat of pro-
positions only in their bearing upon concrete matter,
and I am mainly concerned with Assent] with Infer- ,
ence, in its relation to Assent, and only such inference
as is not demonstration ; with Doubt hardly at all. I
dismiss Doubt with one observation. I have here
spoken of it simply as a suspense of mind, in which
sense of the word, to have " no doubt" about a thesis
is equivalent to one or other of the two remaining
acts, either to inferring it or else assenting to it. How-
ever, the word is often taken to mean the deliberate
recognition of a thesis as being uncertain ; in this sense .
Doubt is nothing else than an assent, viz. an assent to
a proposition inconsistent with the thesis, as I have 1
already noticed in the case of Disbelief. I

Confining myself to the subject of Assent and In-


6 Modes of Jiolding Propositions.

ferencc, I observe two points of contrast between
them, considered as modes of holding propositions.

The first I have already noted. Assent is uncon-
ditional ; else, it is not really represented by assertion.
Inference is conditional, because a conclusion at least
implies the assumption of premisses, and still more,
because in concrete matter, on which I am engaged,
demonstration is impossible.

The second has regard to the apprehension neces-
sary for holding a proposition. We cannot assent to
a proposition, without some intelligent apprehension
of it ; whereas we need not understand it at all in or-
der 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.

These points of contrast and their results will come
before us in due course : here, for a time leaving the
consideration of the modes of holding propositions, I
proceed to inquire into what is to be understood by
apprehending them. •

Modes of app7xhcnding Propositions.


§ 2. Modes of apprehending Propositions.

By our apprehension of propositions I mean our im-
position of a sense on the terms of which they are com-
posed. Now what do the terms of a proposition, the
subject and predicate, stand for? Sometimes they
stand for certain ideas existing- in our own minds, and
not outside of them ; sometimes for things simply ex-
ternal to us, brought home to us through the experi-
ences and informations we have of them. All things
in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are
nothing else ; but the mind not only contemplates
those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by
an act of creation, to bring before it abstractions and/ 0^"^
generalizations, which have no -existence, no counter-\
part, out of it.

Now there are propositions, in which one or both
of the terms are common nouns, as standing for what
is abstract, general, and non-existing, such as '' Man is
an animal, some men are learned, an Apostle is a cre-
ation of Christianity, a line is length without breadth,
to err is human, to forgive divine." These I shall call
notional propositions, and the apprehension with
which we infer or assent to them, notional.

And there are other propositions, which arc com-
posed of singular nouns, and of which the terms stand

8 Modes of apprehending Propositions.

for things external to us, unit and individual, as " Phi-
lip was the father of Alexander," " the earth goes
round the sun," "the Apostles first preached to the
Jews;" and these I shall call real propositions, and
their apprehension real.

There are then two apprehensions or interpreta-
tions of propositions, notional and real.

Next I observe, that the same proposition may ad-
mit of both of these interpretations at once, having a
notional sense as used by one man, and a real as used
by another. Thus a schoolboy may perfectly appre-
hend, and construe with spirit, the poet's words,
" Dum Capitolium scandet cum tacita Virgine Ponti-
fex ;" he has seen steep hills, flights of steps, and
processions ; he knows what enforced silence is ;
also he knows all about the Pontifex Maximus, and
the Vestal Virgins; he has an abstract hold upon
every word of the description, yet without the words
therefore bringing before him at all the living image
which they would light up in the mind of a contem-
porary of the poet, who had seen the fact described,
or of a modern historian who had duly informed him-
self in the religious phenomena, and by meditation had
realized the Roman ceremonial, of the age of Augus-
tus. Again, " Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,"
is a mere commonplace, a terse expression of abstrac
tions in the mind of the poet himself, if Philippi is to
be the index of his patiiotism, whereas it would be the
record of experiences, a sovereign dogma, a grand as-
])irati()n, inflaming the imagination, piercing the heart,
of a Wallace or a Tell.

As the multitude of common nouns have originally
been singular, it is not surprising that many of them

Modes of apprehending Propositions. 9

should so remain still in the apprehension of particu-
lar individuals. In the proposition " Sugar is sweet,"
the predicate is a common noun as used by those who
have compared sugar in their thoughts with honey or
glycerine ; but it may be the only distinctively sweet
thing in the experience of a child, and may be used by
him as a noun singular. The first time that he tastes
sugar, if his nurse says, " Sugar is sweet " in a notion-
al sense, meaning by sugar, lump-sugar, powdered,
brown, and candied, and by sweet, a specific flavor or
scent which is found in many articles of food and
many flowers, he may answer in a real sense, and in
an individual proposition, '' Sugar is sweet," meaning
"this sugar is this sweet thing."

Thirdly, in the same mind and at the same time, the
same proposition may express both what is notional
and w^hat is real. When a lecturer in mechanics or
chemistry show^s to his class by experiment some phy-
sical fact, he and his hearers at once enunciate it as an
individual thing before their eyes, and also as gener-
alized by their minds into a law of nature. When
Virgil says, *' Varium et mutabile semper foemina," he
both sets before his readers what he means to be a
general truth, and at the same time applies it individ-
ually to the instance of Dido. He expresses at once
a notion and a fact.

Of these tw^o modes of apprehending propositions,
notional and real, real is the stronger ; I mean by
stronger the more vivid and forcible. It is so to be
accounted for the very reason that it is concerned with
W' hat is real or is taken for real ; for intellectual ideas
cannot compete in effectiveness with the experience
of concrete facts. Various proverbs and maxims

lo Modes of apprehending Propositions.

sanction mc in so speaking, such as, " Facts are stub-
born things," " Experientia docet," " Seeing is be-
lieving ;" and the popular contrast between theory
and practice, reason and sight, philosophy and faith.
Not that real apprehension, as such, impels to action,
any more than notional ; but it excites and stimulates
the affections and passions, by bringing facts home
to them as motive causes. Thus it indirectly brings
about what the apprehension of large principles, of
general laws, or of moral obligations, never could

Reverting to the two modes of holding proposi-
tions, conditional and unconditional, which was the
subject of the former Section, that is, inferences and
assents, I observe that inferences, which are condi-
tional acts, are especially cognate to notional appre-
hension, and assents, w^hich are unconditional, to real.
This distinction, too, will come before us in the course
of the following chapters.

And now I have stated the main subjects of which
I propose to treat ; viz. the distinctions in the use of
propositions, which I have been drawing, and the
questions which those distinctions involve.



I HAVE already said of an act of Assent, first, that it is
in itself the absolute acceptance of a proposition with-
out any condition ; and next that it presupposes, in
order to its being made, the condition, not only of
some previous inference in favor of the proposition,
but especially of some concomitant apprehension of
its terms. I proceed to the latter of these two sub-
jects ; that is, of Assent considered as apprehensive,
leaving the discussion of Assent as unconditional for
a later place in this Essay.

By apprehension of a proposition, I mean, as I have
already said, our interpretation of the terms of which
it is composed. When we infer, we consider a pro-
position in relation to other propositions ; when wc
assent to it, we consider it for its own sake and in its
intrinsic sense. That sense must be in some degree
known to us ; else, we do but assert the proposition,
we in no wise assent to it. Assent I have described
to be a mental assertion ; in its very nature then it is
of the mind, and not of the lips. We can assert with-
out assenting ; assent is more than assertion just by
this much, that it is accompanied by some apprchcn-

1 2 Assent considered as apprehensive.

sion of the mattef asserted. This is plain ; and the
only question is, what measure of apprehension is suf-

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 sub-
ject; — therefore to apprehend the proposition is to
have that information, and to assent to it is to acqui-
esce in it as true. Therefore I apprehend a proposi-
tion, when I apprehend its predicate. The subject it-
self need not be apprehended per se in order to a
genuine assent: for it is the very thing which the pre-
dicate 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 an 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. The very drift of the proposition is to
tell us something about the subject ; but there is no rea-
son why our knowledge of the subject, whatever it is,
should go beyond what the predicate tells us about it.
Further than this the subject need not be apprehend-
ed : as far as this it must; it will not be apprehended
thus far, unless we apprehend tlie predicate.

Assent considered as apprehensive. 1 3

If a child asks, " What is kicern?" and is answered,
Lucern is medicago sativa, of the class Diadclphia
and order Decandria ;" and henceforth says obediently,
" Lucern is medicago sativa," etc., he makes no act of
assent to the proposition v/hich he enunciates, but
speaks like a parrot. But, if he is told, " Lucern is
food for cattle," and is shown cows grazing in a
meadow, then though he never saw lucern, 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 ** Lucern is food
for cattle, ' on the word of his informant, as if he knew
ever so much more about lucern. And as soon as he
has got as far as this, he may go further. He now
knows enough about lucern, to enable him to appre-
hend propositions which have lucern for their predi-
cate, should they come before him for assent, as,
" That field is sowai with lucern," or '' Clover is not

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 can-
not indeed in that case assent to the proposition
itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do
more than assert that " Lucern is medicago sativa,"
but he can assent to the proposition, '' That lucern is
medicago sativa is true." For here is a predicate
which he sufficiently apprehends, what is inapprehen-
sible in the proposition being confined to the subject.
Thus the child's mother might teach him to repeat a
passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the mean-
ing of a particvilar line, such as " The quality of
mercy is not strained," or " Virtue itself turns vice,

14 Assent coJisidci'cd as apprehensive.

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 Avord, 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 be3'ond
him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good.

Of course I am speaking of assent itself, and its in-
trinsic conditions, not of the gfound or motive of it.
Whether there is an obligation upon the child to trust
his mother, or whether there are cases where such
trust is impossible, are irrelevant questions; and I
notice them in order to put them aside. I am exam-
ining the act of assent itself, not its preliminaries, and
I have specified three directions, which among others
the assent may take, viz. assent immediately to a pro-
position, assent to its truth, and assent both t6 its
truth and to the ground of its being true together, —
" Lucern is food for cattle," — " That lucern is medi-
cago sativa is true," — and " My mother's word, that
lucern is medicago sativa, and is food for cattle, is
the truth." Now in each of these there is one and
the same absolute adhesion of the mind to the pro-
position, on the part of the child ; he assents to the ap-
prehensible proposition, and to the truth of the inap-
prehensible, and to the veracity of his mother in her
assertion of the inapprehensible. I say the same
absolute adhesion, because, unless he did assent with-
out any reserve to the proposition that lucern was
food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical
name and description of it, he would not be giving an
unreserved assent to his mother's word: yet, though
these assents are all unreserved, still they certainly

Assent considered as app7xhensive. 15

differ in strength, and this is the next point to which
I wish to draw attention. It is indeed plain, that,
though the child assents to his mother's veracity,
without perhaps being conscious of his own act, never-
theless 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 au-
thority 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 summar}^ assent to her
general teachings.

Accordingly, he would not hesitate to say, did his
years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in
defence of his mother's veracity. On the other hand,
he would not make such a profession in the case of the

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanAn essay in aid of a grammar of assent → online text (page 1 of 33)